It’s not your age! What you need to know about midlife metabolism

Midlife and menopause often bring a wave of changes, including sleep struggles, increased anxiety, and muscle loss. Unsurprisingly, this time of life is also linked with weight gain as our metabolism starts to slow down.

While it can be tempting to turn to restrictive diets and calorie counting, this won’t set us up for long-term success.

But what if there was a better way to manage our weight and optimise our health in midlife? The answer might be easier than you think…

What is our metabolism?

Our body converts food into energy, but as we age, and our oestrogen levels fall, the distribution of our fat can change.

“There’s something called the basal metabolic rate, which is the rate at which that whole process takes place,” says menopause nutritionist, Jackie Lynch. “And, for the most part, a faster metabolic rate means that you’re in decent shape, whereas a slower metabolic rate can tend to mean that you’re holding on to fat and things just aren’t moving through as they should.”

Jackie explains that this is why some can eat absolutely anything and never gain a pound, while others can only so much as look at half a slice of bread and be in trouble.

“It’s highly individual,” Jackie tells us. “But that’s not to say there aren’t things we can do to make a difference. We are all biochemically individual, so there still will be your own body morphism and what you are and what you’re meant to be like, but it’s just about getting that balance right.”

How can we best support it?

It’s not quick, it’s not new and it’s not sexy – but the key to most things in life is balance and moderation. So, restricting certain food groups is unlikely to give the results we’re after.

Instead, Karen Newby, nutritionist and author of The Natural Menopause Method, suggests eating plenty of protein and fibre-rich foods along with beneficial fats and complex carbohydrates to support a steady flow of energy.

“When we eat refined carbohydrates, this gives us a burst of energy, but then leads to a dip and strong cravings to refuel due to low blood sugar,” she explains. “We feel HANGRY!”

According to Karen, enjoying nutrient-dense foods can help to support our metabolism. This means eating foods that contain plenty vitamins and minerals including magnesium, vitamin C and B vitamins to create the body’s energy currency.

“Magnesium is involved in six out of the eight processes of ATP production,” she adds. “We are often low in magnesium, which can lead to tiredness. Foods highest in magnesium include green leafy vegetables, avocado, chia and pumpkin seeds, cashews, pine nuts and black beans.

“We also don’t store vitamin C very well in the body, so we need a daily intake. And the more stressed we are, the more we need vitamin C!”

How does our metabolism change during midlife?

From our hair and skin, to gut health and mood, it all undergoes a transformation as we get older and go through menopause. But, Jackie is quick to remind us that menopause and ageing are two different things.

“Our metabolism slows down as we age, regardless of our sex,” she says. “But it just so happens that, as we’re starting to get a bit older, we’re also having menopause. So it’s very easy to blame the menopause for a lot of things, and it does and can cause havoc.”

Fluctuating hormones during menopause can cause a number of the challenging symptoms we often see at this time of life. And, to a certain extent, these changes can have some influence on our metabolism.

“Oestrogen helps support insulin sensitivity – it helps insulin move glucose from our blood into our cells,” says Karen. “It’s also involved with glycolysis, a process of metabolism that breaks down glucose for energy production. This is why we can often feel tired when we enter perimenopause.”

Plus, as Jackie explains, we shouldn’t underestimate the role our hormones have for our strength.

“I think the single biggest thing is the role that oestrogen plays in our muscles, because you can lose up to 40% of muscle mass by the time you’ve gone through the menopause,” she says.

The importance of protein

With all this in mind, it’s little surprise that we need to be eating more protein in midlife to support healthy muscles.

“Muscles require a lot of energy, so the more muscle we have, the more energy we use to maintain them (and less is laid down as fat),” explains Karen. “This is why more protein in our diets is so important at midlife, but instead we can veer towards eating more refined carbohydrates and saturated fats.”

“In general, women are absolutely rubbish at getting enough protein,” Jackie adds. “Often we might not have anything for breakfast if we’re doing intermittent fasting, or it might be a bowl of cereal, followed by a nice green salad for lunch, and then finally a bit of protein in the evening – but it’s not enough.

“There’s got to be a decent amount of protein with every meal. Our entire DNA is made of protein, but for metabolism in particular, protein is essential.”

Can exercise help?

It’s key that we support our lean muscle mass as we age, with weight training being one of the most effective ways to do this.

“[Lean muscle] becomes like a sponge for excess blood glucose and helps with insulin sensitivity and weight loss. It also helps to support our bones, too,” says Karen.

If you’re new to weight training, start small and slowly build up. Seeking a few classes at a gym or with a personal trainer can help to get you started. Plus, stress-relieving exercises (such as walking and yoga) can also help to support a healthy metabolism.

“Stress can have a massive impact on the thyroid, slowing our metabolic rate, which can lead to weight gain,” Karen says. “Plus, more protein with every meal and snack will help support the thyroid. Essential amino acid tyrosine combines with iodine to make the thyroid hormone.”

3 easy ways to support your metabolism

Hydrate before you caffeinate. Opt for a glass of water or a steaming mug of hot water and lemon upon waking. Drinking coffee first thing in the morning can raise our cortisol levels, pushing us into stress mode. Wait at least 30 minutes before having your first cup of Joe.

Start the day right. Enjoy a protein-rich breakfast or brunch (e.g. eggs any which way, or high-protein granola with full fat yoghurt and added berries, nuts and ground linseed) to help stabilise blood sugar and give a drip-feed of energy throughout the morning.

Avoid snacking. Leptin is the hormone that tells us when we’re full, while ghrelin is the hunger hormone. But, it’s often easy to ignore these cues, instead snacking when we’re bored, or feeling emotionally drained. Try, where possible, to only reach for the snacks when you feel hungry and, if you do, opt for something protein-rich rather than a tempting chocolate biscuit to help stay satiated for longer.

Words: Holly Treacy

Read more in Health