“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 and I’m feeling amazing. I have so much more energy.” [Kirsten, USA]
The ‘no-grains, no-carbs’ 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.
Whole-grains are an integral part of the Mediterranean diet – a diet that is now known to help prevent heart disease in menopausal and post-menopausal women (Pant, Gribben et al, 2023).
Sitting at the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 lots of higher-intensity 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.
Understanding Whole Grains
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.
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.
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:y
“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.
Intact whole-grains are unrefined. This means that they remain unprocessed and close to how they are found in nature. Oats, barley and brown rice are the most common.
What I like about whole-grains apart from their fibre and heart-health benefits, is that for women in menopause, they are also full of natural minerals and nutrients that our brain, gut and heart needs.
Whole-grains you can try are:
- Whole oats
- Brown rice
- Bulgar (cracked wheat)
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. Please apply your special promo code MYMT2023 to access NZ$75 off today. My video below explains how they work.
It would be my privilege to support you over the next 12 weeks.
Dr Wendy Sweet (PhD)/ Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine
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
Pant A, Gribbin S, McIntyre D, Trivedi R, Marschner S, Laranjo L, Mamas MA, Flood V, Chow CK, Zaman S. Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease in women with a Mediterranean diet: systematic review and meta-analysis. Heart. 2023 Mar 14:heartjnl-2022-321930.
Silva TR, Oppermann K, Reis FM, Spritzer PM. Nutrition in Menopausal Women: A Narrative Review. Nutrients. 2021 Jun 23;13(7):2149. doi: 10.3390/nu13072149.
Stice, J., Lee, J. et al. (2009). Estrogen, aging and the cardiovascular system. Future Cardiol. 5(1): 93–103.