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Five Things Vegan Women Need to Know About Protein During Menopause




protein needs for vegan women in menopause

The topic of protein is a controversial one. I look at nutrition from a holistic rather than reductionist point of view.  The effects of all nutrients, such as carbohydrate, fats, minerals, and vitamins are integrated together.   To use Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s analogy, protein is just one instrument in the orchestra.  All of the other instruments are important, and interwoven together in the orchestra.  But if one instrument is out of tune, then the music won’t sound good.


In North America, excess protein is more of an issue than protein deficiency.  Too much protein can lead to obesity, heart disease, stroke, cancer, kidney damage, and many other illnesses.  But getting sufficient protein is still necessary.


Protein is essential for the health of our muscles, bones, and hair.  It aids in repairing and recovering from physical activity.   Aside from the structure of the body, protein plays many critical roles in maintaining our health. 


Proteins control fluid balance, act as chemical messengers, move fats and oxygen to the tissues, and support the immune system in the form of antibodies.  Protein is a component of every cell in our bodies, and we can't function without it.

Plant protein also provides so many other benefits to our health, because the foods in which we find it also contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.  Plant protein not only supports overall health but also aids in digestion.  The protein in 1 cup of beans, for example, comes along with 15g of fiber, which is good for your gut.  Animal proteins contain zero fiber and can come with high amounts of unhealthy saturated fats.  Most animal protein is also rife with hormones and antibiotics as well.  

Most of us have learned that almost all foods contain some protein and that combining various vegan foods can provide all the necessary amino acids. However, I am going to share the top five things vegan women need to know about protein and might not be aware of. 


1. Our Protein Needs Increase with Age

As we get older, our protein requirements actually increase. This may come as a surprise since we often become less active, and many people would assume dietary needs decrease with age. The reality is that our bodies process and absorb protein less efficiently as we age which means we need a higher intake to maintain muscle mass and overall health.  Changing hormones affect our digestion and our gut.  The production of stomach acid and enzymes declines.  To combat this, avoid consuming too many beverages with meals, as they dilute your stomach contents and make digestion more difficult.


2.  Many Women Are Not Getting Enough Protein

I see a common pattern of women not consuming sufficient protein.  This may come as a surprise, because we know that a vegan diet does have all of the nutrients we need other than B12 and D, which we need to supplement, but those aren’t really found in huge amounts in omnivorous diets either.  (And by the way, this is not only an issue with vegans, but in general.  Many women consume only one serving a day.) 


As vegans, we may have gotten in the habit of ordering side dishes when a main dish wasn’t available, like a side of rice with salad.  Or leaving ingredients off: for example, a veggie pizza with no cheese and extra tomato sauce.  There is very little protein in this.  


Another example is including protein but not enough variety from different sources, such as veggies dipped in hummus for lunch folloed by eating salad with chickpeas for dinner.


protein for vegan women in menopause

We need variety in our plant protein.  Protein is made up of amino acids.  While our bodies can synthesize some amino acids, others must be obtained from our diet.   Grains, nuts, and seeds are deficient in the amino acid lysine but high in methionine and cysteine.  Legumes are high in lysine but low in methionine and cysteine.  If you consume a grain and a legume, such as lentils and rice, it increases the protein value by one third. 


In the 1970s, it was thought that vegetarian proteins needed to be combined at every meal.  But we now know that you can have them on the same day and be fine.

Some plant proteins are high in all amino acids.  These include soy, hemp seed, quinoa, and spirulina.  These are all very high quality protein sources.  With soy, I recommend choosing the least processed sources – such as edamame, tempeh, and tofu – and be careful to choose organic as it is a highly genetically modified crop and can be heavily sprayed with pesticides.


3. Protein Has a Huge Role in Bone Health

While calcium often takes the spotlight when it comes to bone health, protein is also important. Approximately one-third of our bone mass is composed of protein. This means that adequate protein intake is crucial for maintaining strong and healthy bones. For vegan women, incorporating protein-rich plant foods can help support bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.


There can be some confusion about this one because overconsumption of animal protein can increase the amount of water lost in urine and lead to kidney problems and dehydration.  This is not as much of a concern for vegans. Plant protein sources are typically balanced with carbohydrates and fats and are rich in fiber, unlike animal protein.  They are also much more alkaline than animal proteins, which are acidic.  Acidic foods require the body to pull calcium from the bones to neutralize it so it can be excreted in the urine.  Oxidative stress is an issue with bone mineral loss, and fruits and vegetables can help with that as well. 


Free guide for vegan women in menopause


4. Protein Helps Mood

Protein is essential for the production of neurotransmitters. which regulate mood and brain function. For example, serotonin is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan.  Low tryptophan intake and low serotonin can lead to depression and anxiety.  Vegan sources of tryptohan include nutritional yeast, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and soy.  The amino acid tyrosine is a precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine.  We need dopamine for motivation and focus, as well as mood.  Melatonin, in addition to helping with sleep, is also needed for mood. We can get this from nuts – pistachios in particular – as well as walnuts and almonds.  The amino acids taurine and tyrosine are also helpful in depression.


Without enough protein, your body may struggle to produce these important chemicals, potentially leading to mood issues, anxiety, depression, brain fog, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. Ensuring sufficient protein intake is necessary for mental well-being and cognitive function.


5. Protein Reduces Cravings

Protein plays a significant role in regulating appetite and promoting a feeling of fullness. It takes longer to digest than carbohydrates.  This can help you feel satisfied longer after eating. This can be particularly beneficial in midlife when hormonal fluctuations might increase cravings for comfort foods. A diet rich in protein can help manage these cravings and maintain a healthy weight. Serotonin, which I mentioned in the last point, controls appetite and cravings.  Protein also helps stabilize blood sugar.  The amino acid L-glutamine decreases sugar cravings.  When we can get away from that roller coaster of sugar spikes and crashes, we experience fewer cravings.


How much protein should you consume?

Recommendations vary from 10% to 35% of your calories from protein.  A rule of thumb is to eat one or two palm-sized amounts per meal or half of a palm-sized amount with every snack.  This could look like a serving of tofu or tempeh the size of your palm, or a serving of hummus half the size of your palm.


It’s not necessary to start consuming a bunch of protein shakes – extra protein above your requirement doesn’t have additional benefits.  However, if you find it difficult to eat enough protein servings in a day, you could try adding some protein powder to your smoothie.  I would only recommend using ones with a single ingredient however, such as pumpkin seed or hemp. Rather than powders, I prefer adding a few tablespoons of hemp hearts to soups or salads.


How to know if you are not getting enough protein

Some signs that you are not getting sufficient protein could include fatigue, still feeling hungry after meals, thinning hair, brittle nails, low mood, and frequent illness.


How to tell if you are getting too much protein

If you are vegan, this is unlikely because our plant-based proteins also contain carbohydrates.  But in the short term, you might feel indigestion or nausea because your stomach enzymes can’t keep up with all of the protein.  Other symptoms of too much protein include dehydration, constipation, and gout.


Conclusion

As you can see, protein is vital for so much more than muscles (although maintaining your muscle mass during and post menopause is important too).  Understanding the nuances of protein intake, especially as we age, can significantly impact our health. By ensuring we get enough protein from a variety of plant-based sources, we can support our bones, manage our appetite, produce essential neurotransmitters, and enjoy numerous other benefits that come with a well-balanced vegan diet.


Further Menopause Help

In my free guide, Five Action Steps to Elevate Your Vegan Menopause Experience, I share five simple steps you can implement immediately, to feel more calm, more positive, and less affected by menopausal symptoms.


If you're struggling with menopause symptoms, a Menopause Wellness Check will help! You will get a custom video with feedback and tips based on the information you provide.


DISCLAIMER: This website's information is general in nature and for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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