Menopause is a natural and necessary part of life. But the hormonal changes don’t just cause mood swings and hot flashes. They’re also associated with a disruption in insulin levels, weight gain, and energy — to name a few.
Following a ketogenic diet, which requires that you cut back on carbohydrates significantly while focusing on fat and protein, may be the best dietary approach for menopause.
Menopause typically begins between ages 45 and 55 and is marked by the cessation of a woman’s menstrual cycle. This transition period can last anywhere from seven to 14 years, and often comes with symptoms like hot flashes and mood changes. Many women also experience metabolic shifts that can lead to weight gain, and in some cases, insulin resistance.
Menopause is a natural physiological process that all women go through. However, for some women, this transition can be challenging.
With fluctuations in both estrogen and progesterone (the hormones responsible for regulating your period), your body may start to behave unpredictably, and it can cause a lot of physical and emotional stress.
Typically, menopause comes on slowly. In fact, the slow and natural decline of estrogen and progesterone begins in your 30’s.
- Irregular periods
- Vaginal dryness
- Brain fog
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Sleep problems
- Mood changes
- Thinning hair
- Slowed metabolism
Luckily, this natural process doesn’t need to be quite as painful as it seems. Managing your diet can significantly impact how your body transitions through menopause[*].
Two symptoms of menopause that are directly associated with diet and lifestyle are weight gain and insulin resistance.
Weight Gain and Menopause
For most women, one of the side effects of menopause includes weight gain, especially around the middle. There are several factors that can contribute to weight gain, with hormonal irregularities being chief among them[*].
Estrogen levels, in particular, can lead to changes in weight distribution. During perimenopause (before menopause), estrogen tends to fluctuate up and down. This can cause drastic changes in the way you hold on to weight. Low estrogen levels are associated with weight gain due to the role that estrogen plays in insulin regulation, appetite, and metabolism[*].
It should come as no surprise, then, that as you enter menopause and your estrogen levels decline that weight gain is a primary side effect.
Women going through menopause also experience a decline in their muscle mass. Since muscle is the most metabolically active tissue in your body, this decline results in another contributing factor to weight gain[*].
Insulin Resistance and Menopause
Another common condition that can result from the transition taking place during menopause is insulin resistance.
In insulin resistance, your cells are no longer sensitive to the effects of the hormone insulin. Insulin is crucial for regulating your blood sugar, and without sensitivity to this hormone, your blood sugar can become too high and lead to a host of other metabolic issues.
Estrogen plays a role in insulin regulation. Therefore, when estrogen levels begin to decline, insulin may be directly impacted. Although it is certainly not the case for everyone, for some women, this decline in estrogen leads to insulin resistance and potentially diabetes[*].
Research shows that a low-carb diet is a superior choice for managing weight during menopause when compared to the Mediterranean diet, a low-fat diet, and a diet consistent with the USDA guidelines[*].
There are several factors that may contribute to the fat loss benefits of low-carb dieting during menopause.
One is the impact that low-carb, ketogenic diets have on muscle mass. Following any weight loss protocol will likely result in some level of muscle loss. This is due to the fact that as you burn fat, some muscle naturally goes along for the ride[*].
Many women going through menopause try tactics like calorie restriction or low-fat diets in an effort to shed excess weight. The downside to these diet plans is that they often result in a significant amount of muscle loss — which further taxes your metabolism.
While there is no argument that physical activity is necessary for maintaining muscle and healthy body composition, there is some evidence that suggests that low-carb dieting may have more of a muscle-sparing effect than any other weight loss diet[*].
Another factor is the effect that low-carb dieting has on insulin control. Research shows that consuming a diet low in carbohydrates not only results in a decreased energy intake, but it also impacts insulin sensitivity, with the result being better blood glucose control[*].
One study even found that three low-carb meals within 24-hours resulted in a 30% decrease in insulin resistance in postmenopausal women. What’s more, when participants were given high-carb meals for five days, the subjects developed increased fasting insulin secretion and insulin resistance[*].
Many women experience food cravings as they go through menopause. It may be for sweet, high-carb foods like brownies or cakes, or salty, fatty foods like bacon and potato chips. Either way, these food cravings can contribute to issues like weight gain and fatigue, and compound the already uncomfortable symptoms of menopause.
One of the first benefits that people report following a ketogenic diet is the effect it has on cravings. That mid-afternoon hanger seems to disappear altogether when following a keto diet, and sugar cravings are a thing of the past.
This is likely due to the blood-sugar regulating effect of keto. When your body is relying on glucose for fuel, you don’t get the daily ups and downs in energy that lead to food cravings.
One study showed that following a ketogenic diet resulted in a significant reduction in cravings with an increased sensation of satiety, along with better sleep and an improved sense of well-being. Considering that emotional stress is one of the primary drivers for overeating, this means that keto could help combat your cravings on multiple levels[*].
Lethargy and fatigue are two common complaints for women going through menopause. Of course, it makes sense — your entire hormonal makeup is shifting, and your body is transiting into a new stage of life, that’s sure to zap your energy.
This, along with the changes in glucose homeostasis that come with declining estrogen levels, would set anyone up for fatigue.
However, when you follow a ketogenic diet, you’re no longer at the whims of glucose when it comes to energy. The primary difference between glucose as fuel and ketones as fuel is that glucose requires insulin to manage it and keep your blood sugar levels stable.
Ketones, on the other hand, are in plentiful supply. Unlike the fluctuations that you feel with blood glucose, ketone production is a steady process. The result? Your energy is sustained throughout the day — that means the wall you usually hit around 3 pm is a thing of the past[*].
One of the roles that estrogen plays in your body is in mood regulation. That’s why you may experience ups and downs in your mood throughout your menstrual cycle. For some women, the onset of menopause is accompanied by depression due to estrogens role in neurotransmitter regulation[*].
Research shows that the ketogenic diet can impact mood through multiple pathways, including neurotransmitter regulation, mitochondrial function, and the regulation of oxidative stress, and inflammation.
Preclinical studies even report an antidepressant effect of the ketogenic diet due to its mood-stabilizing effect[*].
Following a ketogenic diet means that foods like bread and rice take a back-burner, while high-quality meat and fats become central to your diet. Cutting back on carbs and introducing more fat into your diet, in general, is an excellent way to manage menopause.
However, there are also some low-carbohydrate foods that are specifically beneficial for women going through menopause due to their healthy fat and nutrient content. Focus on foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and fiber; some examples include:
- Flax seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel)
- Full-fat dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Grass-fed beef
Women’s health can feel like a moving target at times. With the ever-fluctuating levels of sex hormones and hormonal imbalances that may occur throughout the lifecycle, it’s no wonder that so many women feel fatigued, drained, and overweight.
And this becomes twice as evident when you start experiencing menopausal symptoms.
Luckily, mother nature always has a remedy when things feel out of whack. The health benefits of following a high-fat diet and being in a state of ketosis may be exactly what you need to feel like yourself again during this crucial time of transition.