Written by Lisa Schofield
Many of us may think of weightlifting for muscle growth when we hear the word protein, but this macronutrient is so much more than that. It is an essential component for women to maintain good health during menopause and beyond.
Why Protein is Important During Menopause
Protein is a critical building block for our bodies to use to make new cells and repair damaged ones. Protein is also a component of many hormones, including those that control and support the thyroid gland and our digestive systems. Some hormones, including FSH (follicle stimulating hormones – which are important for ovary function) and insulin, are protein or peptide hormones. Our red blood cells contain protein, known as hemoglobin, which is necessary to provide oxygen to our cells and help remove carbon dioxide waste from our bodies. Our bones rely on this nutrient as well. Protein keeps the bones in our bodies sturdy by maintaining a process known as bone remodeling, where bone replaces itself by breaking down old tissue and creating new tissue.
In addition to calcium and vitamins D and K2, dietary proteins are important for supporting our bone health and may help reduce risk of developing osteoporosis, which becomes more likely as women experience menopause. Several studies have demonstrated improvements in bone density and overall bone health in postmenopausal women who consumed the appropriate amounts of protein, however, this isn’t indicated as a prevention or treatment method for osteoporosis.1
Bone health isn’t the only reason for women to prioritize protein in their diet. Eating enough protein is important during menopause because the aging process tends to reduce the quantity and quality of our muscle mass – meaning it’s not uncommon for women to start losing strength and muscle tone over the years. Additionally, around the age of 40, our metabolism tends to decline, increasing the likelihood of weight gain. This can lead to a higher fat to muscle ratio, which gets more difficult to reverse as we age. A diet including adequate amounts of protein combined with regular exercise, including strength training, works to regenerate muscle mass. The more muscle women have, the faster their metabolism is. So, eating adequate protein can help keep our metabolism running smoothly and thus help keep weight gain at bay.
Experts have found that after age 40, muscle mass can decline up to 8% every 10 years. So, by age 60, postmenopausal women may lose up to 16% of her muscle mass. After the age of 60, the rate of muscle mass loss accelerates to between 10 to 15% every 10 years.2 A loss of muscle mass is common during aging, and often leads to a condition called sarcopenia, which is accompanied by very weak muscles, frailty and a loss of mobility. Multiple clinical studies have shown that eating the right amounts of protein can help stave off unwanted muscle loss and weakness.3
How Much Protein Should a Menopausal Woman Eat?
According to Harvard Health, a 50-year-old, 140-pound woman who doesn’t exercise should ensure she eats approximately 53 grams of protein per day.4 But if you’re looking for a more tangible way to figure out the right amount of protein for your own diet, consider checking out this simple online protein calculator.
It’s not unusual for women entering menopause to try reducing how many calories she consumes daily to combat weight gain. But cutting out protein as a part of that strategy can actually increase the risk of losing muscle, which will inevitably impair balance and mobility. In fact, researchers observing the diet habits of overweight and obese postmenopausal women found that a combination of higher protein intake and overall reduction in calories helped women to maintain a desirable amount of muscle mass relative to pounds lost.5
Postmenopausal women who consume more protein also tend to see improvements in cardiovascular health compared to healthy women who consume less.6 The type of protein is critical, too – as eating fish and nuts is associated with reduced risk of heart disease; and while red meats contain adequate amounts of protein, they are known to raise unhealthy cholesterol levels. Women who are not getting enough protein should consider evolving their diets to include more, especially during and after menopause.7
Nutritionists have come to an agreement noting two factors about the importance of protein in aging adults: consuming between 25 to 30 grams of protein at each major meal will provide a woman with enough protein to protect her muscles by stimulating muscle protein production, and that exercising before or after eating will enhance the protein’s ability to build muscle.8 This means that by ensuring you have enough protein in your normal diet and by staying physically active, you’ll be able to support the preservation of your muscle strength and tone as you age.
How to Introduce More Protein to Your Diet
If you are menopausal and also vegetarian or vegan, it may be more difficult to get enough protein in your diet, unless you lean heavily on protein supplements (such as powders) Another conundrum exists for menopausal women, specifically those who are flexitarian (individuals who are mostly vegetarian but occasionally consume animal products). For this group, protein-rich red meats may spike their bad cholesterol levels. So getting enough protein, while still being mindful of the source, is key.
Women who eat a flexitarian diet, however, can enjoy protein benefits from lean sources such as chicken breast, turkey bacon, egg whites and fish. Vegans and vegetarians can get their protein from numerous plant sources – including a wide range of beans, nuts, and peas. Many of these vegetarian forms of protein are now also available in supplemental powders and made into other forms, including chips and pastas.
What About Soy Protein?
For years, soy products have been a favorite of women in perimenopause and menopause, since they may help to curb some of the common symptoms associated with hormonal fluctuations experienced during this time. Soymilk and soy foods like tofu are often consumed for their phytoestrogens, which studies have shown may help reduce menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes.9
Because soy is classified as a phytoestrogen and can influence hormone levels in the body, it may not be for everyone. If you’re considering increasing your phytoestrogen or soy intake, consult your healthcare provider first, just as a precaution.
Protein can be a perfect nutritional partner for supporting a healthy menopausal transition, and it’s essential in keeping you active and healthy before and after your menopausal years. Finding ways to work lean proteins into your diet and staying active will go a long way in ensuring you stay strong and live long.
- Bowen J, Brinkworth G & James-Martin G, 2019,CSIRO PROTEIN PLUS, nutrition and exercise plan, Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd.
- Nasseb MA, et al. "Protein and exercise in the prevention of sarcopenia and aging" Nutr Res. 2018 Apr;40:1-20
- Mojtahedi MC, et al. “The effects of a higher protein intake during energy restriction on changes in body composition and physical function in older women” The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, 2011 Nov 66A: 1218=1225
- 4 Shepherd JA, Shepherd J, “Should postmenopausal women eat more protein? Or do the elite just exercise and eat better?” Menopause 2017 May; 24(5): 480-481
- Haghighat N, et al. "Effects of 6 Months of Soy-Enriched High Protein Compared to Eucaloric Low Protein Snack Replacement on Appetite, Dietary Intake, and Body Composition in Normal-Weight Obese Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial" Nutrients 2021, 13(7), 2266
- Bosaeus I, “Nutrition and physical activity for the prevention and treatment of age-related sarcopenia” Proc Nutr Soc 2016 May;75(2):174-80.