How can we cut through the midlife food fads and find out what works, asks Emma Bardwell
A slew of nutritional “experts” – most of them unqualified – has appeared online in the past few months. Often their cleanses, reset programmes, fat-burning supplements and skinny teas have no substance to them, but they can feel like a magic bullet to vulnerable women floored by perimenopause symptoms. Nutrition trends come and go (celery juice springs to mind) and most are pretty harmless, but they waste time, money and effort that, quite frankly, could be better spent elsewhere. The stuff that is proved to work – balanced eating, movement, resting enough, looking after our mental health – can take a long time to deliver results. Quick fixes are rare. And given that the online industry just isn’t properly regulated, information – and claims – can be sketchy.
I have set up a platform to help midlife women cut through the noise and misinformation. It’s not an easy task. And while it’s impossible to debunk every nutrition myth out there, here are five for starters.
1 Eat less, move more
Even though there’s truth in this adage, the stark reality is that weight loss is always hard, but even more so when you hit midlife. Why? Primarily because fat cells produce small amounts of oestrogen that your body is hardwired to hold onto at all costs. Plus, we become slightly more insulin-resistant as we age, making us more prone to gaining pounds.
Then there’s long-term, low-grade cortisol (perimenopause can be pretty taxing), which encourages fat around your middle; poor sleep, which leaves you hungrier the next day and less inclined to exercise; and wine, which numbs the pain but often means you make poor food choices.
So, what’s the answer? It’s different for everyone. I’m deeply anti one-size-fits-all, but I do believe we thrive better when we balance our blood-sugar levels, hit bespoke protein targets and follow an 80:20 principle that leans on eating well the majority of the time, but allows for room to stray along the way.
2 Sugar is addictive
I can see where this myth stems from: sugar can certainly feel as though it’s addictive. But it’s not a drug. And while it’s true that sugar and cocaine light up the same pleasure centres in your brain, research suggests that exercise, listening to music and looking at pictures of cute puppies can do that, too. Of course, no one eats spoonfuls of pure sugar, but when it’s paired with fat, in the form of a doughnut, say, it tastes pretty irresistible. That, paired with the constant marketing and ready availability of hyper-palatable foods, can easily lead us to over-eat. We’re only human.
One of the best ways to swerve the over-consumption of high-sugar foods is to stop restricting your diet quite so severely. If you don’t eat enough, your body’s survival instinct kicks in, which can lead to cravings for an instant fix. This can make you feel out of control around certain foods – usually sweet ones – and lead to obsessive thoughts and bingeing.
We need to be careful with sweeping statements that demonise certain food groups. They often lead to overly restrictive food rules and disordered eating, which turns to guilt and shame when those rules can’t be met. I’m not disputing that, as a population, we are consuming too much sugar, but a little here and there is not going to kill you.
3 Skinny = healthy
The gospel of thinness just won’t go away. But despite what social media would have you believe, being thin doesn’t equate with being healthy. Depriving yourself of food isn’t just miserable, it affects energy levels, brain fog and your ability and enthusiasm for fitness. I know masses of women who are too tired and hungry to work out, which impacts bone health, metabolism and mood.
Perimenopause is a time for nourishment: your hormones, hair, brain, bones and skin all need a steady influx of nutrients to function optimally. My mantra has always been: focus on putting in rather than taking away from your diet.
Interestingly, there’s a theory that we each have a unique “set point” when it comes to weight: a baseline where your body is most comfortable and which it will always try and get back to if you veer away. Is the constant struggle with your biology really worth the effort? Maybe for you it is, but at some point I think we need to reframe our thoughts around body shape and focus on the inner machine rather than the outer shell.
Befriending your body is tough, especially if you’ve thought negatively about it for most of your life (which, let’s face it, a lot of us have), but it can be spectacularly liberating. I don’t have the answer, I’m afraid – it’s something I’m working on myself – but I do know that inherently we need to be a lot kinder to ourselves.
4 Intermittent fasting is a magic bullet for fat loss
Although lots of women find they lose fat through intermittent fasting, it’s down to the reduction in calories rather than the fact that fasting has some mystical fat-melting power. Basically, if you eat more than you burn – even if you squeeze it into a six-hour window – you will not lose fat.
Where fasting does come in handy is that it curbs late-night snacking, which can be helpful for some people. It can also reduce high levels of triglycerides, can potentially help with gut health and can encourage your body to become more insulin- sensitive (a good thing).
There are some interesting ideas around fasting and longer lifespans but so far the research has only been done on animals. If you’re keen to give it a go, start with 12 hours (including the time you’re asleep) and see how you feel. Do be aware, though, that fasting isn’t advisable for anyone with a history of disordered eating or if you suffer from hypoglycaemia.
5 You need a juice cleanse to detox
Despite the hype, there’s no proof that juice cleanses make you healthier. Most of the claims – energy upsurges, the elimination of toxins and a “boost” in immunity – are unsupported. Cleanses are low in calories, protein and fibre, all of which are essential at any time of life but especially during perimenopause.
A juice programme can also make you feel very tired and on edge – the last thing you want when your hormones are in freefall. You’d be far better off eating the fruit and veg whole, ensuring you’re well hydrated and giving your body a break from alcohol and processed food. By all means enjoy a juice now and then, but bear in mind they can be high in sugar, so err more on the side of veg than fruit.
Trust me, there are a lot more myths being peddled out there. Stay on the lookout for them and remember that a verified “tick” is not an indicator of a person’s medical or nutritional expertise. Misinformation spreads fast. If you find yourself falling for something that doesn’t ring true, ask questions, remain curious and, above all, stay safe.
Emma Bardwell is a registered women’s health nutritionist with a special interest in menopause. Follow her @emma.bardwell for fad-free information and trusted advice. To join the waiting list for her new online courses, email email@example.com