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Protein the key to avoiding midlife weight gain

Minor adjustments to the balance of macronutrients in a woman’s daily diet during the transition to menopause could lessen or even prevent midlife weight gain and lean tissue loss, according to researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.

While it’s well known that women are more susceptible to weight gain and obesity as they approach menopause, little is known about the mechanisms driving this.

In a new concept paper, researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre propose that such problems develop when no changes to food intake or levels of activity are made to counteract the natural biological changes that occur at menopause.

The researchers suggest that the body’s appetite for protein increases during perimenopause (due to hormonally induced tissue protein breakdown) but if protein requirements aren’t met, women overconsume other forms of energy.

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This is due to the ‘Protein Leverage Effect’, previously discovered by Charles Perkins Centre professors David Raubenheimer and Stephen Simpson and applied here to the menopause transition for the first time. This essentially means that without increasing the proportion of protein in the diet, the body’s drive to reach its target protein intake will make us continue to eat unnecessary calories until we do so.

To make matters worse, levels of energy expenditure tend to fall during menopause, so the researchers hypothesise that women need to eat both less energy (in the form of carbohydrates and fats) and more protein to compensate for the biological changes at menopause.

“The evidence suggests that staying on the typical highly processed Western diet during the transition to menopause at around age 40 to 50 will result in excess energy intake, leading to weight gain and increased risk of obesity and cardiometabolic diseases,” said Professor Stephen Simpson, lead author and academic director of the Charles Perkins Centre.

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“However, the good news is that it appears very small changes to the diet in terms of prioritising protein, reducing fats and carbohydrates and being physically active could make a big difference in the long term,” said Professor David Raubenheimer, co-author and head of the Nutrition Theme at the Charles Perkins Centre.

Professor Kirsten Black, co-author and academic gynaecologist from Central Clinical School in the university’s faculty of medicine and health, noted the problem of weight gain in perimenopause was now more widely recognised in the community.

“Women are interested to learn more about the macronutrient compositions of foods and the impact they can have on their health. Our discussions with consumers have also identified a gap in knowledge around what constitutes high or low protein foods, which needs targeted education,” said Prof. Black, who is also head of the menopause clinic at Concord Hospital.

Senior author and endocrinologist Professor Emeritus Arthur Conigrave said the research had reached an interesting point whereby a substantial prospective study of around 1000 women aged 40 to 45 was needed to formally test the hypothesis.

“If proven correct, this would allow us to develop new preventative strategies for the significant proportion of women who report weight gain, and associated health problems, during the transition to menopause despite no changes to their food intake or levels of physical activity,” said Prof. Emeritus Conigrave from the Charles Perkins Centre and faculty of science.

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So, if the hypothesis is proven correct, what would the ideal diet look like during the transition to menopause?

The researchers suggest that increasing the proportion of protein in the diet by around 3 per cent of daily energy intake and lowering total energy intake by 5 to 10 per cent a day may be the key.

“For many, cutting out a bag of crisps, a glass of sugar-sweetened beverage, or equivalent and ensuring that high-quality animal or plant protein is in the daily diet will do the trick,” said Prof. Simpson.

The paper, published in BJOG(the journal of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists), synthesises the latest scientific evidence on hormonal, physiological and physical activity changes during the menopause transition, with the concept of ‘The Protein Leverage Effect’.

Has weight gain in midlife been a problem for you? Will you try the protein approach if it has? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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