Vigilant woman uses proper nutrition to move gracefully through middle years


September 08, 1992|By Colleen Pierre, R.D. | Colleen Pierre, R.D.,Contributing Writer

Over the last few years I've counseled a lot of mid-life women about nutrition, fitness and weight control.

These are women who need "transition nutrition" as they move into what Gail Sheehy refers to as the "gateway to their second adulthood."

In her book "The Silent Passage," Ms. Sheehy notes that menopause is striking earlier as more women lead highly stressful lives.

Symptoms such as forgetfulness, inability to focus, and anxiety attacks often occur even before hot flashes or irregular menstrual periods provide more traditional signals that change is in effect.

Blood tests indicate that estrogen production actually begins to decline at age 35. So menopause is a longer and more gradual process than we ever imagined.

The good news is that most women still have half of their adult life left to live after menopause. Many are charged with "post-menopausal zest," a memorable term coined by anthropologist Margaret Mead to describe the amazing energy and creativity enjoyed by mature women.

And the nutritional implications of having another full, active adulthood left extend far beyond the "bone up on calcium" messages so prevalent in the press.

The entire process from 35 to 60 is a very bad time to get into restrictive dieting. This is hard to resist, since most women begin notice their bodies shifting toward being pear-shaped and fight hard to retain their youthful slimness.

Since estrogen is stored in the body's fat cells, some researchers have noted that very thin women tend to have more severe menopausal symptoms than women a little less-committed to remaining a size 6 forever.

That doesn't mean we should all just go to pot.

A "vigilant" diet is called for to smooth the transition and provide a foundation for lasting good health.

Stress, smoking, alcohol, coffee and carbonated beverages have all been implicated in reducing bone density.

In addition, risks for heart disease and cancer rise right along with risks for osteoporosis.

So what's a vigilant woman to do?

* Try to hold calories steady. Don't try to lose weight unless it is medically imperative. Losing weight is an additional stressor. But be careful not to put on unnecessary pounds.

* Exercise regularly. It strengthens bones and maintains muscle mass and basal metabolic rate so you can enjoy more food that doesn't turn to fat.

* Reduce the total fat in your diet to 20 percent to 30 percent of total calories. That's an average of 40 to 60 grams of fat a day. Reducing total fat reduces your cancer risks and makes it easier to control your weight.

* Reduce your saturated fat intake to no more than 10 percent ototal calories, or about 15 to 20 grams per day, and reduce cholesterol to less than 300 mg per day to reduce your risk of heart disease. Women's rates of heart disease rise rapidly after menopause when they do not choose hormone replacement therapy.

* Increase high-fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grain breads and cereals to reduce cancer risks and to help you feel full and better manage your weight.

* Increase citrus fruits and deep orange and dark green vegetables to increase vitamin C and beta carotene to help reduce cancer risks.

* Get yourself a copy of "The Silent Passage." The book is short, information-dense and eye-opening.

If you're a woman between 35 and 60, or a man, woman or adult child dealing with such a woman, you really need to read this book.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore.

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