Will you have 2-3 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.
The ‘no-grains’ brigade got me for a while too. Caught up in the weight-loss 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 and high protein diets were the next ‘thing’ when it came to disciplined body-work sculpting the body-beautiful. I thought that they were right. But in an ageing body going through menopause, I realised that a diet designed for body-builders and athletes is not designed for women going through menopause. Nowadays, after following the women’s health research, I’ve turned my back on the ‘no-grainers’ – whom I might also call the ‘no-brainers’, because they are not following the women’s healthy heart research and the ever-growing scientific evidence on the importance of whole-grains in a heart-healthy and diabetes-friendly diet.
I wish I had turned my back on all the low-carb, 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 when my Dr wanted to put me on statins, and it certainly would have improved my energy levels in a body that wasn’t sleeping.
Sitting at the 2019 Australasian Lifestyle Medicine conference in Auckland, New Zealand at the weekend, the evidence presented on whole-grains was over-whelming. For women going into, through or out of menopause this is important evidence that we need to know, so when I looked for all the social media ‘influencers’ and others involved in all the high-fat, high protein nutrition hype in the fitness and dieting industries, I couldn’t see them there. Funny that.
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 aging but also, at least in part, to the decline in ovarian hormone concentrations during the menopausal transition and beyond. (American Heart Foundation, 2017).
New Zealand, Australia, America and the United Kingdom have the highest incidence of post-menopause heart disease. As modernisation hits China, it is growing in prevalence there too.
When I put together the MyMT™ programme, it was after years of reading the women’s health and ageing research whilst studying for my PhD. The research stats on women’s heart health in post-menopause was not happy reading. Cardiovascular disease is the highest health risk in women as they move through menopause and age – even higher than the cancers. My late mother was one of those women. Since her late 50’s she had been placed on anti-hypertensives 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 and when the heart muscle is stressed from not sleeping and coping with a changing hormonal environment (and for many of you, years of high-intensity sports and exercise), it needs help to do the job it’s been doing for 50-odd years – beating away delivering blood 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 whole-grains. 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. When Kirsten from America messaged me this week, I was so pleased for her:
“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 in Auckland, New Zealand last weekend, I was heartened (excuse the pun 😊) that my own lonely research about what nutrition to put into the MyMT™ programme 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 plans include fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole-grains. The whole-grains I promote are gluten-free … brown rice and oats (organic). But there are others that women 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 diets, 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.
Low-carb diets have risen in popularity, but when it comes to women’s heart health, hot flush management and the extra energy we need for exercise, including whole-grains is part of the answer.
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. I often say in my live Masterclass on Menopause seminars, [Dunedin, London, Edinburgh & Melbourne coming up – see the video below], that 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. As I explain in my seminars, this food-confusion has led to changing inflammation which contributes 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.
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.
I’m not sure what whole-grains suit your gut health, 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 programme is 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. That’s why my passion is to put menopause into ‘wellness’, not ‘sickness’ and in my 12 week online programmes I teach you how. When you are ready, I hope you can join me.
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.
Stice, J., Lee, J. et al. (2009). Estrogen, aging and the cardiovascular system. Future Cardiol. 5(1): 93–103.