If you’re just stepping into menopause and have started with a little mid-life spread, it seems safe to assume that a low-fat diet would be the ideal way to manage weight and improve your hormone health.
But if you think a low-fat diet will be the solution to all of your health concerns, you may be surprised to hear that a low-fat diet during perimenopause will NOT be the best option for long-term health.
In this article, I will discuss the vital role of good fats during menopause and how to include them in your diet for healthy weight management and hormone health.
When did Fat get such a bad rap?
When we look at the diet trends of the 1980s, the low-fat diet became a part of popular culture with the advent of the Pritikin diet. This high-fibre and low-fat diet fad was a run-on from the low-fat trend started by the Heart Foundation in the 1960s.
Considered a sensible way to prevent coronary heart disease, the Heart Foundation considers a low-fat diet, rich in whole grains, the benchmark for optimal cardiovascular health.
This belief that fat consumption contributes to cardiovascular complaints continues to be part of the Australian diet culture. You will still see several low-fat products available in supermarkets, including yoghurt, milk, and all manner of foods marketed to those wanting to lose weight or lessen their cardiovascular risk.
Those mindful of their long-term health will be aware of the increased risk of cardiovascular disease for post-menopausal women. As oestrogen levels decline after menopause, the risk of cardiovascular events increases. So it seems prudent to consider a low-fat diet beneficial for cardiovascular health post-menopause, right?
So at this stage, you might argue that a low-fat diet would benefit perimenopause for both weight loss and cardiovascular health, and you might be right, but let’s look at the role fats play in hormone health first.
Fats and hormone health
When we think about hormones, most of us think about sex hormones – progesterone and oestrogen, but there are many other hormones circulating through our bodies – ones that help with our sleep and wake cycles, ones to help with blood sugar regulation and ones that make you feel happy, just to name a few.
But there’s one thing that all these hormones have in common: they are derived from fats. Each hormone is slightly different in its manufacture. Still, steroid hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone are derived from cholesterol, which is a fat, but a fat with a bad reputation. Cholesterol is the precursor for many hormones, and having cholesterol that is too low can be just as unhealthy as cholesterol that is too high.
If we are deficient in fat, or our body fat is too low, we can have difficulty manufacturing hormones, including oestrogen and progesterone.
While oestrogen and progesterone are on the decline during perimenopause, we want to ensure we have enough nutrients to help our body manufacture optimal amounts of oestrogen and progesterone, which means maintaining a balanced diet, including fats.
All of the other stuff that fats are required for…
So, while we’re on a roll with discussing the benefits of fats for hormone health, let’s have a quick look at all the other things fats are required for …
Fats and cellular function
Each one of the cells in your body has a fatty membrane or a lipid bilayer. This membrane is the doorway for nutrients into the cell and toxins out of the cell; malfunctioning this membrane can lead to the cell not functioning properly or cell death. And considering we have approximately 30 trillion cells in our body, that’s a lot of membranes requiring fats for their functioning.
Fats the nervous system
Along with the fatty membrane of each cell in your body, the nervous system has a coating called myelin that is made up of proteins and, you guessed it – fats. This coating on the outside of nerve fibres, or myelin sheath, provides insulation for nerve conduction.
Damage to the myelin can cause problems with nervous system signalling and speed of conduction, which is not something you want to experience if you’re in the middle of a menopause meltdown.
Fats and satiety + blood sugar regulation
If you compare the feeling you get after eating an apple with a creamy dessert, you’re probably aware that fatty foods will fill you up much quicker than carbohydrate foods. Fats take longer to break down in the digestive tract and therefore provide prolonged satiety, or a state of fullness for longer.
Not only do fats keep you feeling full for longer, but they also keep your blood sugar levels more stable, as they do not produce a spike in insulin like carbohydrate foods. This dual benefit with fats makes them not only helpful in curbing appetite but also for the management of symptoms associated with blood sugar regulation or diabetes.
Fats and joint health
If your joints creak and click when you get out of bed, you’ve probably heard that a fish oil supplement can help reduce inflammation and lubricate the joints. Omega 3 is the component within fish oil that is touted as being anti-inflammatory, but fish oil isn’t the only oil that can help with joint health.
Alongside the anti-inflammatory benefits of omega 3-rich fats from high-fat foods like fish, nuts and seeds, fats also provide lubrication or oleation of the joints. Like the lipid bilayer of the cells or the myelin sheath of the nervous system, many tissues of the muscular-skeletal system have a membrane coating or synovial sheath that provides lubrication for movement within the joint.
Fats and vitamin absorption
Just when you thought that fats couldn’t possibly do more in the body, then, there is vitamin absorption. More specifically, I’m talking about fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Fats in the diet provide the vehicle for fat-soluble vitamins to stow away and be absorbed through the small intestine wall. Just as the name suggests, fat-soluble vitamins require fats for absorption.
These fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E & K) are required for everything from mucous membrane function to bone resorption. Deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins can lead to bone and connective tissue disorders and immune dysfunction, so they are pretty important to overall health.
Are all fats bad, or are some good too?
Of course, there are good and bad fats, and most of the ‘baddies’ you would already know about. Transfats from deep-fried foods, pastries and burger buns contain fats that will increase your bad cholesterol and negatively impact your overall well-being.
The ideal balance of nutrients in the diet during perimenopause should include whole and unprocessed fats. So, including good fats from nuts and seeds, avocados, fish, and olive oil will help to ensure that you have adequate amounts of fats to help with hormone function, cellular function, blood sugar regulation and help you to feel satisfied with meals.
The low down on low-fat foods
The biggest problem with low-fat foods is that they are often marketed as an alternative to already highly processed foods and at those who feel the social influence to lose weight. This marketing ploy tricks us into thinking that we are choosing a food that is ‘healthier’ than the unhealthy food option when they are more highly processed and manufactured to sell more and more foods to those hungry for nutrients.
This vicious cycle of buying and consuming low-fat foods creates a snacking habit, where the consumer becomes more hungry because they are not consuming an adequate balance of nutrients. They become dependent on these low-fat packaged foods and go through phases of binge eating high-fat foods in rebellion against the pressures to stay slender and as a side effect of never feeling satisfied with low-fat foods.
Although this may sound like an extreme portrayal of low-fat culture and perhaps not something you can directly identify with, it is good to understand that low-fat manufactured foods are not nutritionally balanced.
I would caution any packaged foods labelled as ‘low-fat’ as these will often contain higher amounts of sugars. I suggest, within reason, that you avoid processed foods as much as possible; eating foods in their natural and unmanufactured form will ensure that you get a full range of nutrients without compromising on flavour or fat.
In conclusion, low-fat foods and menopause
Including small amounts of good quality fats with your meals is essential to whole health and well-being for the woman transitioning through menopause. I’m not suggesting a high-fat or low-fat diet, just keeping things in balance and working with Mother Nature, including a range of natural and unprocessed foods and enjoying foods that are nutritious and delicious.
And I hope this article gives you some insight into low-fat foods and perimenopause. I would love to hear from you if you have any suggestions or comments.
The information provided in this article is for information purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. We recommend you consult with a GP or other healthcare professional before taking action based on this article. While the author uses their best endeavours to provide accurate and true content, the author makes no guarantees or promises regarding the information’s accuracy, reliability or completeness. If you rely on any information in this article, you do so at your own risk.