Are you tired of hearing the word protein like it's a magic solution for everything? And why is it mentioned along with perimenopause, menopause, and midlife?
Since I'm really a nutritionist scientist at heart, I had to research the topic of protein and menopause myself. And I found a growing number of studies showing the role and importance of protein for women over 40 years of age.
Let's take a look at some populational statistics first:
Intake of protein by women
According to the largest nutrition survey among the American population, the NHANES, more than 55% of women around age 50 are eating less than the recommended value. It's important to mention that the current recommendation is significantly LOWER than what the recent body of literature and nutrition experts are recommending.
While the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein in the U.S. is 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, more recent recommendations from Europe and many other parts of the world advise women over the age of 50 to consume between 1-1.5g of protein per kg (or 0.45–0.68 grams per pound) of body weight per day.
For instance, a 145 pound, 50-year-old woman with a light to moderate activity level would need between 66 to 99 grams of protein per day.
You might have noticed that activity level is part of this calculation - the more active, the more protein a person needs.
Just pause right now and track your protein intake of yesterday, just out of curiosity. You can use a food tracker like My Fitness Pal or do it by hand, or you can ask google (using the microphone option) for the grams of protein per food. It won't be super precise, but it's just to have an idea of where you stand.
Here's a table with common sources of protein and their amounts:
Example of daily intake:
MEAL PROTEIN (g)
Breakfast: avocado toast + coffee with ½ c milk 10g
Snacks: 1 banana, handful of nuts 3g
Lunch: Salad w/ ¼ cup nuts and 1 tbsp goat cheese 6g
Dinner: 3 oz chicken breast, brown rice and veggies 27g
If your results are lower than 60g, we need to talk.
The importance of protein
All cells in the body are made mainly from protein. It is essential for muscle growth and repair. It's also responsible for maintaining cell integrity, it provides a structure for hormones (like insulin), neurotransmitters (like serotonin), as well as skin, hair, nails. Protein is present in thousands of chemical reactions as enzymes, in antibodies that fight infection, and in hemoglobin that carries oxygen in our blood. This is why protein deficiency is often correlated with anemia in women.
For women over 40, protein becomes essential to help with muscle repair after a strength training exercise and to maintain or increase muscle mass.
Am I going to become too "bulky" if I do strength training exercises and eat protein?
This is a common question I get asked.
The fact is that after 30 years of age, women tend to lose between 3-8% of muscle mass per decade (ex: 150 lb woman would lose 3-12 lb) the chances of bulking up are very slim.
For women over 40, the loss of muscle mass is often accompanied by increased body fat (around 5-15 lbs) per decade.
Not a situation we want to be in.
The good news is that gaining more muscles means increased metabolism, which helps to decrease body fat.
And protein helps to repair muscles and increase overall muscle mass.
Are you convinced yet?
Protein also helps with satiety. In fact, studies have shown that people who consume less protein during the day have increased cravings and eat more at night than people who distribute protein throughout the day.
Protein benefits bone density as well. In more recent studies, it has been observed that women with low protein intake have more chances to develop osteoporosis and risk of fractures.
Who doesn't want to keep healthy muscles, healthy nails, skin, hair, immune system, bones, mood enhancers (serotonin), blood sugar regulator (insulin), and lose body fat?
We all do!
How to incorporate protein in our daily life
It is best to distribute protein throughout the day so that it can be absorbed better, like most nutrients. Studies have found that our bodies may have an upper limit of protein that can be absorbed, around 20-30g per window of 3-4 hours. So, eating a 12oz steak at once and thinking you'll be covered for the day... is not that effective. Seriously, which woman would want to do that anyway?
Here's a visual and easy way to incorporate enough protein in your meals:
For breakfast: 2 eggs (whole or whites) with sprouted wheat toast, Greek yogurt with fruit and granola, oatmeal w/ a scoop of protein powder, smoothie w/ protein powder are some examples.
Snacks: tuna or cheese with whole-grain crackers, hummus and veggies, banana or apple and peanut butter, cottage cheese and fruit, smoothie with protein powder.
Lunch and Dinner: Add 4-6oz of tuna, chicken, ground turkey/beef to your salad, vegetable soup, sandwich, or wrap. Add 1 cup of lentils, beans, or tofu. For dinner, increase to 4-5oz. Eat cold-water fish at least 2x/week.
Choose from a combination of animal and plant proteins to get other essential nutrients like omega-3s, antioxidants, and fiber.
And remember to plan for the following week's grocery shopping so you'll have everything you need!