Nobody said women had it easy. They spend decades suffering through menstrual cramps, PMS and those annoying breakouts and then before they know it, menopause sneaks up on them and deals out hot flashes, mood swings and the dreaded middle-aged spread.
Rick Gallop, author of The G.I. Diet – Menopause Clinic, offers his advice for middle-aged women who are desperate to regain control over their bodies and minds. Here, Gallop reveals what foods he thinks menopausal women should be eating – and avoiding – and gives some tips on tackling hot flashes and mood swings.
Q: Are there certain foods that increase menopause symptoms that women should avoid?
A: They should avoid anything that’s going to boost or upset blood sugar levels. We normally call these high glycemic foods and they digest very quickly and tend to spike blood sugar levels. Usually anything that is highly processed, most cold breakfast cereals are good examples, or most of the grain-based snack foods, those tend to spike blood sugar levels, which merely exacerbates some of the mood swings, the sleeplessness and the hot flashes that women typically get as symptoms of menopause.
Q: Are there specific foods that women can eat to help level off those spikes in hormones?
A: Low-glycemic index foods. To explain, the glycemic index measures the speed at which food digests into sugar to go into your bloodstream so the ones that are high G.I. are the ones that spike the blood sugars because it digests very quickly into your bloodstream. The ones that more slowly digest and will steadily deliver sugar into your bloodstream are the low G.I. foods. Typical of the low G.I. foods are most fruits and vegetables, whole grains, pasta, low-fat dairy products. These are more satiating carbohydrates that will help you lose weight and at the same time help stabilize your blood sugar.
Q: What causes the dreaded middle-aged spread and how can women overcome this?
A: The estrogen hormone is the villain here. At one stage in a woman’s development, estrogen is the hero. In adolescence, it gives women their female shape, called the pear-shaped body as opposed to the male apple shaped body. Unfortunately, when they hit menopause, the estrogen levels reduce dramatically and you start losing that female shape and adopting more of the male shape, or the beer belly. The abdominal fat definitely doesn’t look very nice and it’s also dangerous for your health and leads to all sorts of health complications. It also drives your sugar levels haywire so you want to try to address that too.
The first thing of course menopausal women need to do is to change what they eat. In my book, I keep it easy to follow and women don’t have to count G.I. ratings or calories. I’ve color coded all foods that you can possibly think of as three traffic light colors. Ones that are coded red light, you don’t go there if you want to lose weight during menopause, yellow light are foods that you can use more occasionally and of course green light foods are the ones that we’re recommending. These are the foods that are going to help you lose weight and also help to stabilize your blood sugars.
Q: What would be some surprising red light foods that women might not realize are bad for them while going through menopause?
A: Watermelons are something that surprises people. It’s illustrated by the fact that you could probably eat a couple of watermelons and still not feel satiated. It’s high in sugar and it digests very quickly that’s why you can eat a lot of it. So I think that’s probably a good example of a food that people assume is good for them for losing weight, but it isn’t.
Everyone also assumes rice cakes are good for weight loss. They’re not. You can eat a couple of packages of rice cakes if you can stand to and not feel at all satiated. They are a very good example of a food that just goes straight through you and doesn’t provide any food value or any appetite satisfaction.
Q: I was also surprised to see melons, dried fruit and parsnips on your list of things to avoid. Why is that?
A: There’s a few root vegetables that are red light. That’s probably the only real exception in the vegetable world. Ninety percent of vegetables are green light but there are the odd root vegetables that are not. It’s the type of starch that they contain that is different and it breaks down differently. Tropical fruits also tend to be at the higher end of the G.I. range. However, most of the snacks in the red light section are all pretty obvious; bagels, cookies, candies, crackers and donuts. We have recipes in the book for healthy snacks because we do recommend eating three meals and three snacks a day.
Q: If you could just pick one green light food that all menopausal women should be eating on a daily basis, what would it be?
A: Don’t drink the juice, always eat the fruit. That’s very important from a calorie standpoint and also a low G.I. standpoint for you to get more nutrients. Low-fat dairy products are excellent for losing weight and for your health, particularly the fat-free and sugar-free yogurt. They really are terrific snacks and have one of the lowest G.I. ratings of all the foods and are very low calorie. It’s an excellent food from a nutritional standpoint as well as helping you lose weight.
Q: What do you suggest to combat hot flashes?
A: Assuming the fact that your estrogen levels are going to drop, one thing you can do about it is to stop those sugar levels going haywire, which is the major reason you get all these hot flashes. Eat those low G.I. foods and they will help stabilize your blood sugar quite dramatically. I ran an E clinic for 40 women over a 13 week period. Of those 40 women, 38 reported significant reduction in their menopausal symptoms as well as losing weight and only two indicated very little change or no change. It does really work and it works very quickly. You don’t have to wait months and months for it to kick in. From week one onwards you would start to see some of the benefits.
Q: I’ve heard that if you get bad PMS symptoms it may be an indication of how you will feel during menopause. Are they connected?
A: Absolutely! As far as PMS is concerned, I’ve had thousands of letters from women saying: “Thank God I’m on this diet” because it really has helped them immeasurably with PMS. I’ve also had lots of boyfriends and husbands saying: “Thank God for this diet, she’s now liveable once a month!”
It’s all hormonal and it all has an impact upon blood sugar swings. When blood sugar levels go down, you get more moody and depressed and it also increases appetite. That’s when you want something to eat to make yourself feel better. This is when we get into a lot of trouble with women in particular with something that’s called grazing. What happens is they use food for comfort, to make themselves feel better, but it’s a vicious circle they get into because they have their sugar treat, which makes them feel great for a few minutes and then they get a sugar crash and then they’ll be hungry again and depressed and so then they go and get another sugar treat. The same thing goes on and on and they get depressed with themselves and end up putting on weight.
That’s something to be very conscious of is your blood sugar levels. Get that under control and that’s half the secret to losing weight permanently. If you want to permanently lose weight, you’ve got to permanently change what you eat. This is not so much a diet but really a new way of eating. It sounds so obvious when I say it but 90% of diets fail for one really good reason. People can’t stay on them. Before you start any diet make sure this is something you can stay with. If you can’t do that, then why start because you’re only going to lead yourself to disappointment.
Q: Are there specific exercises best suited to this time in a woman’s life?
A: The advice I give to people is that losing weight is 90% diet and 10% exercise. To lose weight through exercise it takes a huge amount of effort. You have to walk 64 kilometers briskly to lose 1 pound of fat. You’ve got to really exercise very hard to have any impact, but if you can get some of those pounds off by changing your diet, not only will you be able to exercise more but exercise then becomes essential for maintaining that new weight. I think exercise is essential for health, but don’t focus on that when you’re trying to lose weight. For that relatively short period of time, three or six months when you’re trying to get the pounds off, it’s diet that will do it.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake you see menopausal women making?
A: I think it’s obviously not watching their diet. It’s something that they don’t immediately think about. I think most women were surprised in my E clinic that I ran about the impact what they ate had on their mood. They all know what they eat has a big impact on their weight, but they really hadn’t made the link as to how it affected how they felt. How you feel is very important too!
More sample recipes, G.I. Diet readers’ experiences and other Q&As, visit: www.gidiet.com