What is it?

Proteins are made up of 20 different amino acids, 9 of which are termed essential: we can’t synthesise them ourselves, we need to obtain them from food. We don’t store protein in the body so having a steady supply throughout the day is key. ‘Complete proteins’ contain all 9 essential amino acids and include meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs and some plant proteins such as buckwheat, soy and quinoa. Whilst ‘incomplete’ proteins don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids, they can be combined to ensure you get your full quota across the day, for example combining grains such as brown rice or oats with beans, pulses, nuts or seeds.

How much protein do we need?

The average recommended intake for a woman is around 1g per kilo of body weight per day. For a woman weighing 65 kilos that would equate to just over 20g of protein per meal. As an example, 20g of protein would be the equivalent of one of the following: a salmon fillet (105g), 3 eggs, a chicken breast (87g), feta cheese (121g) or lentils (235 g). Menopausal women have an even greater need for protein, (1.2-1.5g per kilo of bodyweight per day) to maintain musculoskeletal health. Weighing and calculating our daily protein intake is a pretty joyless exercise so instead aim to have an awareness of protein at mealtimes, make protein the focus of your meal and have a palm-sized amount of protein with every meal. If you’re having a snack during the day, make sure it includes protein too – for example dark chocolate with small handful of nuts, an apple with some nut butter. It’s worth noting the level of protein required increases for those having regular very high levels of exercise and in cases of insulin resistance.

A few key benefits of good protein intake in midlife:

Maintaining muscle mass
Women start to lose muscle mass after the age of 30 and the decline of hormones during our forties and fifties impacts this further. In addition, it becomes more difficult to build muscle as we age.1 Muscle mass is needed for strength and bone density – important for day-to-day living and to help prevent osteoporosis – and to support our metabolic rate for healthy weight management – the more muscle we have, the more energy we burn. Sufficient protein intake combined with resistance training in midlife can help delay skeletal muscle aging and improve muscle mass.

Healthy weight management
Weight increase, particularly around the middle, can be common at this time in life due to a slowing of our metabolic rate, and reduction in insulin sensitivity.2 Whilst our blood glucose levels will naturally rise and fall after each meal or snack, protein along with healthy fats and fibre can help to slow down the release of glucose into the blood system, minimising the spikes and crashes of dysregulated blood glucose, keeping you feeling full for longer and reducing cravings. Long term, regular high blood glucose spikes (for example after eating sugary, carb-based foods) can lead to increased fat storage and reduced insulin sensitivity leaving blood glucose high and creating inflammation in the body which can contribute to serious health conditions such as prediabetes. Other areas such as stress and sleep can also impact our blood glucose levels and weight management but getting the protein building blocks established is a great place to start.

Calm the nervous system
Fluctuating hormone levels combined with impaired sleep and the high stress of plate spinning often experienced in our forties and fifties can destabilise the nervous system leading to feelings of anxiety and low mood.3 A good starting point to support your stress resiliance and calm your nervous system is to balance your blood glucose levels, and protein plays a key role in this (see above). In addition, the amino acids in protein are needed for the production of mood-regulating neurotransmitters: chemical messengers such as serotonin and dopamine. Including protein sources containing the raw materials for making neurotransmitters such as turkey, beef, chicken, dairy, eggs, fish, beans, soy, cashews, pumpkin and sesame seeds as part of a balanced diet can help support your nervous system. Particularly alongside lifestyle practices such as yoga, walking in nature, breathing techniques, seeing friends, meditation and rest. Working with a practitioner and looking at your mood symptoms in the context of your overall health and lifestyle can help get to the root cause.

3 easy protein tips to implement straight away:

-Include protein with every meal and snack

-Estimate a palm-sized amount of protein with every meal

-Start the day with a savoury protein-rich breakfast.

1. Silva, T. & Spritzer, P. (2017). Skeletal muscle mass is associated with higher dietary protein intake and lower body fat in postmenopausal women: a cross-sectional study. Menopause, 24(5), 502-509. PubMed PMID 27922938
2. Yan, H., Yang, W., Zhou, F. et al. (2019). Estrogen improves insulin sensitivity and suppresses gluconeogenesis via the transcription factor Foxol. Diabetes, 68(2), 291-304. doi: 10.2337/db18-0638
3. Gordon, J., Grindler, S., Meltzer-Brody, S. et al. (2015). Ovarian fluctuation, neurosteroids and HPA axis dysregulation in perimenopausal depression: a novel heuristic model. Am J Psychiatry, 172(3), 227-36. Pubmed PMID 25585035

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