I can now say with conviction that I firmly believe a Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) diet can help with the menopause.
I’ve found that eating LCHF has really helped with my peri-menopause. A Low Carb High Fat lifestyle (along with replacing the hormones I have lost) has given me back my life.
During the year I turned 50 my doctor’s surgery invited me for a check-up because they never saw me; I wasn’t on any long term medication and rarely had any cause to make an appointment. I went along and came out feeling a bit smug – everything was fine! Well, being a lapsed Catholic I should have known I was heading for a fall!
Later that year the peri-menopause well and truly kicked in and it sent me reeling. I was hit by sudden bouts of physical and mental exhaustion, where I had to lie down, not move, or talk, or think. I became forgetful, about things I was just about to do and about what happened yesterday.
Even worse, I lost the ability to plan ahead, I couldn’t work out the everyday logistics I had spent my life implementing. Simple things became impossible: meal planning was difficult because I couldn’t remember any of the meals I’d ever cooked, my internal ‘mum’s cookbook’ had been wiped clean. Even worse, I’d forgotten my family’s likes and dislikes and had to keep asking who like what! Food shopping overwhelmed me, all those shelves were piled high with decisions I’d forgotten how to make. Planning to see friends was just too stressful because I didn’t know whether I would be able to still be me by the time the day came.
It sounds ridiculous now but this was really how it was.
As these symptoms worsened I struggled to take part in work meetings or discussions of any kind: I’d be looking at and listening to the person talking but as soon as they stopped talking I couldn’t tell you what they’d said. I couldn’t respond or contribute because I had no context, nothing in my head to offer. I felt stupid.
I didn’t know whether I was developing dementia or just simply losing it completely. What I was sure about was that I had lost myself: the person I had been had quietly slipped away. I had been a quietly confident mother, an avid reader, creative writer, academic student, nurturer and carer I was now hollow and lonely in my own company because I no longer knew who I was.
I was depressed and exhausted. So I did what any sensible hormonally challenged woman does and attempted to eat/treat my way through both with carbs, sugar and alcohol which lead to the inevitable weight gain and blood sugar peaks and troughs making my mood even more erratic and unstable. I gained so much weight: I was tired so I ate carbs because I thought that would give me energy. I ate large bowls of pasta for lunch but by teatime I felt I was starving again and craved more pasta. The glass of wine with dinner would turn into two or three and would therefore require crisps to go with it and consequently I would wake up in the morning hung-over and needing carbs to settle my stomach and off I would go again on the blood sugar rollercoaster.
This was during the time that Jon had begun walking. While I slept through the best part of the day, the spring and summer early mornings, Jon was up and out walking, getting his seven miles in before breakfast. It used to be me asking Jon to come for a walk with the dog, now the tables had turned. He would tentatively ask me if I wanted to go with him, “come on, it’ll do you good”, but I wasn’t interested in facing the day let alone walking all that way. I spent the whole summer sleeping as much as I could, not even the garden was enticing enough to make me want to get up. However, Jon persisted and finally I started to walk, not as far as him, but I put one foot in front of the other and somehow it made me feel better.
The next thing was food. Although I had seen the weight fall off Jon I was still sceptical about his change of eating habits.
It went against everything I thought I knew about healthy eating. I thought all that red meat would raise his cholesterol, although I didn’t really know what that meant, I thought the animal fat would clog his arteries and I couldn’t understand why eating all that fat was not making him well, fat!
It was obvious, when I raised these concerns with Jon, that I didn’t know WHY I thought I was right and he was wrong. I was just repeating the line I’d been fed all my adult life; ‘it’s about calories in and calories out, low fat is good for your heart’ (with no mention of the added sugar that makes low fat products palatable).
Then I started to read the books that had informed Jon’s change of lifestyle by Gary Taubes and Professor Tim Noakes. I read them slowly, because every time I returned to them I had to re read what I’d read the day before, but I discovered that the things I thought I knew as ‘facts’ were at best distortions of the truth that we’d be told essentially to make us buy cheap products that were easy to produce. The demonization of animal fat as a fundamental source of human nutrition had been based on research in the seventies that was funded by the powerful sugar producers of the USA.
So I had run out of excuses. I had to commit to the Low Carb High Fat lifestyle one hundred percent, just as Jon had.
By this time Jon had taken over the shopping and a lot of the cooking because I had just stopped doing it and Jon’s approach to shopping was if it doesn’t fit a Low Carb High Fat diet, it didn’t make it into the trolley.
This was a blessing really and meant that I had to find ways of making quick, easy meals out of the fresh vegetables and high fat ingredients in the house. This desperation for an almost instant and satisfying meal that didn’t involve pasta is where my Leek Carbonara came from. It started off with sliced leeks instead of spaghetti and an egg and Parmesan cheese sauce, with apologies to my Italio-phile daughter! But recently I have dropped the eggs (by lunch time I’ve already eaten two eggs anyway) and just melt a big dollop of Mascarpone and cheddar cheese into my bacon and leeks. It is delicious and feels just as comforting as a big bowl of pasta! This is the great thing about the LCHF lifestyle; everything tastes better with proper full fat ingredients. The reason why we have been craving creamy sauces and find it hard to resist another slither of Brie is because our bodies and our brains need it.
It took about two weeks of full commitment to LCHF for me to begin to feel better. During that time if I really needed to eat between meals, instead of the sneaky crackers I’d been having before, I would boil some eggs and make a lovely creamy egg mayonnaise, or tuna mayonnaise or eat some salami and olives. However, the snacking soon stopped because once the blood sugar roller coaster had finally come to a halt and my hunger was satiated with fats I just found I didn’t want to eat. I was happy to wait for my proper meal times. As the months went on I found that I wanted less to eat at each mealtime. If I had eaten a satisfying salad with enough fats at lunchtime I really only wanted a small evening meal. If I was hungry before bed I’d have some full fat yogurt, sometimes with a few raspberries but more often than not with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
The acid reflux that had been getting gradually worse before LCHF, despite taking omeprazole, reduced then disappeared completely and neither have I had a flare up of varicose veins since I started to eat this way. Despite having surgery in my thirties to remove what the surgeon said was a ‘mass of spaghetti’ in my legs (think I might have been mansplained) I still had intermittent bouts of inflammation of the veins in my legs. When it happened I put it down to it being too hot, walking too far, just one of those things. However, looking back I really believe it was caused by too much sugar in my body. The starch in the spaghetti turned into excess blood glucose, which in turn inflamed the ‘mass of spaghetti’ veins in my legs.
This summer has been scorching and I have spent more time on my feet than I have for years and have had no problem. The last time they really flared up was on a trip to Italy, pre LCHF. Yes, it was hot and we did walk miles but primarily from the moment those EasyJet wheels touched the tarmac I consumed sugar; the cute little sugar filled pastries with cappuccino for breakfast, Aperol and Prosecco with lunch, Martinis and deep-fried pizza (well we were in Napoli, it’s what they do there, be rude not to!). When you consider that an adult can only process 30 grams of sugar a day you can see that I was seriously overloading my system. Still, I remember sitting on the roof terrace of our Airbnb with my ‘Italian’ daughter with a view of the bay of Naples, with my foot raised on a stool, happily sipping my Aprerol spritz!
I started taking HRT on the good advice of my sister who is a GP. My feeling is that today women in their fifties have to be evermore resourceful and if there is a way to safely reclaim at least some of that oestrogen (hello old friend) that makes us able to function and feel the way we always have then I think we should take it. That has been my decision. And I needed to have been taking HRT for around three months before I had the energy and the mental and emotional impetus to change my lifestyle and look after my health for the long term.
In under six months I lost one and a half stone. When you consider that most women gain weight during the menopause, in my experience up to a startling pound a month, actually losing weight and keeping it off during the peri-menopause feels like a minor miracle! As the weight fell away, while I ate well and never went hungry, the menopausal symptoms that are not often talked about, like poor memory, anxiety, heart palpitations, sudden exhaustion and a low, low mood started to ease. I feel happier in my own skin and head! I have more energy and I now feel more like myself. I have been able to stay on the lowest dose of HRT and feel I’m improving everyday. Even better, the healthy fats and calcium in the full fat dairy in my diet is supporting my bones and protecting me from osteoporosis.
I think by the end of the year I might have lost up to another half a stone but for me it is not about a number. I am happy in the here and now. My LCHF lifestyle gives me energy, makes me feel good about everything I eat and has given me back my interest in life. And the best thing is that I know it’s sustainable. I have no desire to eat any other way. Why would I when I feel this good?