The Goodness of Grains for your Heart Health in Menopause and as you Age.
I never knew that oestrogen played an important role in the health of my heart. Did you? Which means that from our early-50’s on, as menopause progresses, our cardiac muscle changes in function as do our skeletal muscles too. And it doesn’t matter if you are an exerciser or not, your ageing heart and your muscles, need the nutrients that matter to them to help your health as you age.
So, will you have 2 servings of whole-grains today?
I think you should. Because they will steady your blood glucose, give you lasting energy, reduce your cholesterol, reduce your racing heart-rate and help to protect your ageing heart.
“After this past year of avoiding whole-grains completely based on the diet I was on, I now realise that this was the wrong thing to do now that I’m in my 50’s. I’ve lost 5 lbs & I’m feeling amazing. I have so much more energy.” [Kirsten, USA]
The ‘no-grains’ brigade got me for a while too. Caught up in the weight-loss and dieting confusion as my weight, bloating, hot flushes and joint pain became worse, I thought that having whole-grains in the form of starch was part of the problem – it seemed to be that everyone at the gym was promoting ‘no-grains’ – low carb, high fat and high protein diets were the next ‘thing’ when it came to the nutritional messages endorsed by fitness enthusiasts and popular diets.
I thought that everyone promoting these diets were right. But in an ageing body going through menopause, I realised that a diet designed for body-builders and younger athletes is not designed for women going through menopause. I felt exhausted. Now after years of following, the women’s healthy ageing and cardiac-health research, I’ve turned my back on the ‘no-grainers’. This is because of the ever-growing scientific evidence on the importance of whole-grains in a heart-healthy and diabetes-friendly diet. For women who continue to exercise, it’s never been more important to help your heart to restore the energy it needs.
I wish I had turned my back on all the low-carb, high-fat, high-protein hype earlier. It would have saved me a lot of racing heart-rate moments, improved my blood sugar stability, helped me lower my cholesterol and it certainly would have improved my energy levels in a body that wasn’t sleeping, but was still trying to exercise.
Sitting at the 2019 Australasian Lifestyle Medicine Conference, the evidence presented on whole-grains and cardiac health was over-whelming. For women going into, through or out of menopause, this is important evidence that we need to know.
When you come onto any of the 12 week MyMT™ programmes you will be able to access the MyMT™ Food Guide. I’ve developed this from women’s healthy ageing research and it contains food information evidenced against heart-health research too. Inside it, you will find my lovely Brown Rice Salad. It’s a winner for women on the programme who are regular exercisers. Brown rice has the bran layer intact which gives it a higher protein, mineral and vitamin content than white rice. As well, it has a higher content of fibre.
Post-menopause heart disease is the burden of many Western countries around the world. Women’s CVD risk significantly increases after they shift into menopause, which is not just related to ageing but also, at least in part, to the decline in ovarian hormone concentrations during the menopausal transition and beyond. (American Heart Foundation, 2017). Oestrogen plays a role in the contraction of the heart as well as the dilation of our coronary blood vessels. This means that the reduction in oestrogen as part of our normal menopause transition has a less than beneficial effect on the size and function of our heart. This includes increased thickness of the heart wall, vascular stiffening, slower recovery (especially after endurance exercise), and changes to the nerve signaling. [Strait, J. et al. (2012)].
New Zealand, Australia, America and the United Kingdom have the highest incidence of post-menopause heart disease. As modernisation hits China, post-menopause heart disease is growing in prevalence there too.
Cardiovascular disease is the highest health risk in women as they move through menopause and age – even higher than the cancers. It’s why, I am so passionate about women understanding that their menopause transition is a time of our lives, when we become vulnerable to changing health as we age. As the first generation of women to go into post-menopause, in the context of the influence from the fitness and sporting industries, this is a reminder, that you are the ‘guinea-pig’ generation for how your heart muscle copes with all that exercise you may be doing during menopause too. If you aren’t sleeping well, my approach is to go easier on the volume and intensity of exercise, until you turn around your sleep. It’s that important for your heart health!
My late mother was one of the thousands of women of her generation, who ended up on blood pressure pills and statins. Looking back I realise that what she needed was better advice on how to change her diet to a cardio-protective diet and to learn how to clean out her fatty liver.
When the liver is fatty, it doesn’t clear excess cholesterol or the excess oestrogenic compounds that our body is trying to clear in menopause. This is part of the reason for many women gaining weight during their mid-life transition. As well, the heart muscle can become stressed from not sleeping and coping with a changing hormonal environment (and for many of you, years of high-intensity sports and exercise), so it needs help to do the job it’s been doing for 50-odd years – beating away delivering blood, oxygen and nutrients to every cell in our body. We need to look after it.
That’s why to protect our heart, stabilise our blood sugar, reduce hot flushes (which become worse when blood pressure is high), we need the help of whole-grains. Cardiac health research suggests 2-3 serves a day. In the MyMT™ Food Guide, I get women focusing on brown rice and oats to start with, especially if they are exercising. Both of these whole-grains are gluten free and part of a heart-healthy diet.
“After this past year of avoiding whole-grains, I now realise that this was the wrong thing to do. I’ve lost 4 lbs & I’m feeling amazing.” [Kirsten, USA]
As I sat at the Australasian Lifestyle Medicine conference last year listening about the importance of grains for our heart health as we get older, I was heartened that my own lonely research about what nutrition to put into the MyMT™ programmes was exactly spot-on.
I take a modified Mediterranean approach to the nutritional planning in the MyMT™ programme. The ‘modified’ part is because not all Mediterranean foods suit menopausal women, especially those who aren’t sleeping and/or doing exercise. The combination of not sleeping and too much exercise can send many women into worsening inflammation leading to adrenal fatigue so these issues must be addressed as well.
The food plans and recipes in my programmes all include fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole-grains. The whole-grains I promote are gluten-free … brown rice and oats (organic) mainly. But there are others that women can have depending on their gut tolerance – Barley, Bulgar (cracked wheat), Quinoa, Millet, Buckwheat. And here’s the thing – the closer these grains are to their natural state, the better for your heart.
Not only are whole-grains considered a heart-healthy food, but the evidence on how they help to reduce Type 2 Diabetes by helping our body to maintain better glucose control, is increasing too.
Higher whole-grain and bran intakes are consistently associated with a 16-30% lower risk of cardiovascular and coronary heart disease in observational studies (Evidence Report, NZHF, 2018). When up to three serves per day are consumed, cardio-protection is greater. But there’s more to this story too – the quality of the carbohydrate is most important in women’s heart health and that’s where whole-grains come in. Oats and barley have a greater beneficial effect on total and LDL cholesterol (3-8% reduction), especially in people with raised lipid levels, due to their soluble fibre content.
The past 20 years has seen an increased rise in low carbohydrate, especially in and around the fitness and weight loss industries.
But what’s missing from the conversations is the differentiation between all the different types of carbohydrates. For example, choosing whole grain and high-fibre foods is very different from choosing processed, refined grains and products with added sugars. Examples of refined grains are white bread, pasta, crackers and many man-made cereals.
The confusing thing for many people however, is that all these types of foods are labelled as ‘carbohydrates’. But when it comes to our health, they differ enormously. In New Zealand for example, we get most of our whole grains from bread and breakfast cereals but these can have added sugar, salt and saturated fats. That’s why if we can choose organic, simple wholegrains that are as close to the original grain, the better for our health as we age.
Whole grains began to form a larger part of the human diet around 10,000 years ago, during the agricultural revolution. But refined grains have become more prominent in the past 100 years and have sky-rocketed over the past 30 years. As I often say in my live Masterclass on Menopause events (now ONLINE FOR YOU HERE) , women in their 50’s today are unique – we are the first generation to come through the modern sports and fitness industry but we are also the first generation to come into menopause in the context of the growth of the modern supermarket industry and food marketing too. Buying groceries and wondering what to cook for dinner got a whole lot more confusing over the years for all of us.
This food-confusion has led to changing inflammation which has been building up over our life-time, contributing to a host of symptoms as we transition into and through menopause, that aren’t seen in other cultures around the world.
What are Whole-Grains?
The latest definition of whole grain is from the European Union HEALTHGRAIN consortium. It allows for the processing of grains in a way that ensures the natural proportions of bran, germ and endosperm remain: “Whole grains shall consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked kernel after the removal of inedible parts such as the hull and husk. The principal anatomical components – the starchy endosperm, germ and bran – are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact kernel…”. It allows for 2% of the grain or 10% of the bran to be removed during processing. This reduces any mycotoxin or agro-chemical contaminants which concentrate in the very outer layer of the grain.
I’m not sure what whole-grains suit your gut health (don’t forget I have a stand-alone programme for you to help restore your grateful-gut and you can read about this HERE), but these are all whole-grains that you should try. If they are organic, then even better.
- Whole oats
- Brown rice
- Bulgar (cracked wheat)
Never before have we become so confused about our food. And yes, despite lecturing in sport and exercise nutrition, I had become that way too. That’s why in both of the MyMT™ programmes I have based all the nutrition advice ‘just’ for us in menopause. There are too many ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches out there and many are not evidenced for women as they transition menopause. The MyMT™ programmes are also heart-healthy. Our mother’s generation has seen so much heart disease and many of our generation are now looking after and caring for women who are on a range of pills for cardio-vascular disease. We can’t make the same mistake and have to rely on medicines to get through our post-menopause years.
My passion is for women to start putting their menopause transition into ‘wellness’, not ‘sickness’ and it’s why I follow the scientific evidence for women’s healthy ageing. My 12 week online programmes, teach you how to transition into your post-menopause years, understanding better how to look after yourself. These programmes continue with a NZ$50 savings for you as I know many of you are challenged financially with the changes to your life from the pandemic. Please use the promo code ATHOME20 to access your savings. Monthly payments are also available for the 3 months.
For those of you, who may be interested to hear from me, I also have a short video for you below, just checking in with you.
Dr Wendy Sweet, [PhD/ MyMT Founder & Coach]
Babiker, F., De Windt, L., et al. (2002). Estrogenic hormone action in the heart: regulatory network and function. Cardiovascular Research 53, 709-719.
European Union Healthgrain Forum. Online: https://healthgrain.org/whole-grain/
Gorton, D. (2018). Evidence Paper: Wholegrains and the Heart. Wellington: NZ Heart Foundation:
Jull, J., Stacy, D. et al. (2014). Lifestyle Interventions Targeting Body 1-eight Changes during the Menopause Transition: A Systematic Review. Journal of Obesity. Article ID 824310, 1-16.
Mann, J. & Truswell, S. (2007) 3rd Ed. Essentials of Human Nutrition. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK
Stice, J., Lee, J. et al. (2009). Estrogen, aging and the cardiovascular system. Future Cardiol. 5(1): 93–103.