When you are finally getting to do one of the world’s greatest walks in the wettest region of New Zealand, you just know that you are going to have to hike in the rain. And yes, for an entire day we did.
Hut life is interesting. It’s a chance to meet fellow ‘trackies’ and of course, when it comes to me, I was able to observe and quietly listen to the numerous ‘mid-lifers’ – many of whom were women in their 50s and 60s – talk about their ailments … as you do, when you’ve just hiked for 6-7 hours each day. I can honestly say that the main topic was knees.
At my request, the main carbohydrate each evening was brown rice (although they had cous cous one night too). Being in charge of food, they also bought a bag of fresh spinach leaves with them and I took a lemon, avocado and dried organic apple rings. Such a difference in food choices from years ago when we used to do a lot of tramping.
As we hiked up over MacKinnon Pass (1154 metres) I passed a two mid-life males. Yes! I was as surprised as I’m sure you are too. “It’s the ageing knees” one of them said. “You need olive oil then” I mentioned casually as they stood aside to let me pass. “It helps to lubricate the knees.” One of them tracked me down in the hut that evening. He asked me about the olive oil, so I told him about how it is an essential part of the Mediterranean Diet and the mainstay of the functional ability of older people living long, active lives in the Blue Zones regions. He had no idea.
Taking olive oil with me was an essential part of my hiking kit – I knew from my women’s health and ageing studies that with the decline in oestrogen on the oestrogen receptors in my joints causes inflammation. Compounds in olive oil (read my next article to learn about this) replace the role of oestrogen, so without this powerful anti-inflammatory food, I wouldn’t have been able to manage lugging a heavy pack along the beautiful Milford Track – all 54km (33.4 miles) of it.
Scientists have learnt a lot more about how particular foods and eating patterns may have the potential to reduce chronic inflammation in the body. For women in their menopause transition this is an important role that they need their foods to achieve. Over the past week, I have had an email from a lady in Canada who has been on the Keto diet – over 60% of her daily intake was from protein and fats found in animal fats – all inflammatory foods. Whilst she lost a few pounds, she complained about her sore joints, poor sleep, low energy, endless night sweats and aching muscles. As I said to her, “You are looking through the wrong lens – your body is inflamed and you aren’t eating foods that reduce inflammation. The Keto/high Protein diet hasn’t been validated for women’s health during menopause.”
It’s easy to develop food confusion. I felt like that too. But understanding that the life I wanted to lead as I aged, involved being physically active and being able to ski and hike again, was an important path to follow. This lead me towards understanding the available research about inflammation and the food-inflammation connection. Women around the world who have struggled with being and staying active as they age, are pleased that I put time and effort into understanding this connection too.
Research into the effects of diet on inflammation and health has taken a variety of forms. Some studies test whether specific compounds in foods decrease an inflammatory-marker called C-reactive Protein (CrP) or other biomarkers of inflammation in cell cultures. Other studies are observational studies in which people record their daily diet at regular intervals over time. Researchers then compare inflammatory marker levels, chronic disease rates or death rates among groups with different dietary patterns.
Much of this evidence finds that food is tied to inflammation in two ways.
- Your diet affects the species of digestive bacteria that grow in your gut (the microbiome) and the chemicals they produce during digestion. Depending on the species, these chemicals either promote or reverse inflammation. I talk about this in my Gut Health module which is in both 12 week programmes, or can be purchased separately HERE.
- Your diet also affects inflammation through its relationship with weight gain and obesity. An anti-inflammatory diet, which is rich in plant whole-foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains and low in processed foods, is one that promotes overall health and a healthy weight.
In contrast, foods which promote inflammation (pro-inflammatory diet) include foods that have low nutrient content, as well as refined foods such as high sugar, high fat and high salt foods. These types of foods trigger chronic inflammation and also promote weight gain, which can also induce inflammation. So, it’s not just what you eat that can influence inflammation, it’s what you don’t eat as well.
If you consume a diet that is high in processed food, fats and sugars then you will be missing out on the power of phytochemicals – the minerals and vitamins in foods. I talk a lot about these in my programmes, especially the specific nutrients that are evidenced for women as they move through menopause – B vitamins, Vitamin C, magnesium, selenium, calcium, folate and of course, potassium for our ageing heart muscle which has to get us through our day – whether you are hiking for miles or you are active and busy.
The family of phytonutrients is a large one and each family member works in different ways. Their most common weapons are phytochemicals, which act as potent anti-oxidants to reduce inflammation. The major phytochemicals that are evidenced for our health as we age, include:
- Carotenoids, e.g. betacarotene in carrots and lycopene in tomatoes
- Flavonoids, e.g. apples, berries, citrus fruits, broccoli
- Lignans e.g. flaxseed
- Phytosterols – Phytosterols displace cholesterol in the intestine reducing the pool of absorbable cholesterol.
- Resveratrol – e.g. the red colour in red wine.
Some phyto-chemicals are responsible for the flavour of foods such as the taste of brussels sprouts, or how hot food is, such as chilli and other spices, or found in the aroma of plant foods – for example, the fragrance of rosemary. For this reason, the best strategy is to eat a variety of whole foods, especially plants, to take full advantage of these powerful effects.
The MyMT™ Food Guide does just that. Included in all my programmes, the information in this guides women on my programmes through the specific nutrition we need during our menopause and post-menopause transition. It is not the Keto diet. It is based on the Mediterranean Diet and I’ve specifically researched nutrients that help to reduce inflammation and that give us energy to feel like our old selves again. When you can, I hope you can join me, or at least view my online 2 hr Masterclass on Menopause (and yes, you can ‘pause’ me any time you like).
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Harvard Medical School (2020). Foods that fight inflammation. Harvard Health Publ.
Hunter P. (2012). The inflammation theory of disease. The growing realization that chronic inflammation is crucial in many diseases opens new avenues for treatment. EMBO reports, 13(11), 968–970. https://doi.org/10.1038/embor.2012.142