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Fitness at 40+
The Single Most Effective Way to Fight Belly Fat
Functional Nutritionist Jacqui Justice on menopause management and improving your overall health
Jacqui Justice, MS, CNS, didn’t get into nutrition with the intention of helping people lose weight. “I went into it to help people eat healthy and feel great and live longer. But many of my patients are midlife women who are struggling with issues like belly fat and hormonal fluctuations — and weight loss resistance ties into that.” Justice, based in Westchester, NY, holds a Master’s degree in clinical nutrition from New York Medical College and also completed advanced training in functional clinical nutrition with the Design Institute for Health.
“Functional nutrition is all about getting to the root cause of someone’s wellness issues, whether it’s a health issue or weight loss resistance, or hormonal imbalance,” says Justice. “One of my passions is to increase people’s awareness that what they are eating is affecting not only their weight, but also their moods, the way they age, and the state of their health.” Here, Covey talks to Justice about her holistic approach to menopause management, and how dietary changes can help you to minimize symptoms — while improving your overall wellness.
Q: You describe on your website how it was your own quest to feel better – after years of struggling with digestive issues, low energy, and a weakened immune system — that led you to a career in functional nutrition. How did you finally make that connection between what you ate and how you felt?
A: I had digestive issues, but also, no energy. I would eat something and immediately get bloated and not feel good. I was constantly getting sinus infections, so constantly on antibiotics, and that was a real problem. When you take antibiotics, you get rid of the bad bacteria, but you also get rid of the good bacteria — and now we know so much more than we did then about the gut microbiome and how it’s related to the immune system, and everything, really.
Before the days of Google, when you had health issues, you would read every book you could about what sounded like what you had. So I had been reading a lot. I realized I needed to find someone who practiced holistic wellness, because I’d gone to all the regular doctors — gastroenterologists, internists, etc. — and I wasn’t getting anywhere. Testing was done and nothing was “wrong” with me. I finally found a naturopath who gave me all the right testing — regular blood chemistry looking for medical issues that could relate to my symptoms, as well as food sensitivity testing. Based on the results of both of those, I started a protocol that made me feel 100 percent better. It involved a major dietary change, but within a month I felt like a different person — it was completely life changing. My practice is based on what I did to feel better.
Q: Your patients are predominantly women in their 40s and 50s, and menopause management is a big part of your practice. Yet women don’t typically think about going to a nutritionist with their menopause-related complaints. What is menopause management from a nutritionist’s point of view?
A: Basically, from a dietary standpoint, you want to get people off their highly inflammatory, hormonally-unfriendly foods. We are talking about refined and processed foods, and foods that have a lot of antibiotics and hormones in them, like conventional meat, dairy, and poultry. We also want to eliminate genetically modified foods like corn and canola oil, as GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are a huge hormone disrupter and cause of inflammation. GMOs usually contain Roundup, because that’s what they are grown with as a pesticide. If we are eating foods grown with pesticides, we are eating the pesticides. And then there are the environmental hormone disrupters: Part of my protocol is having people avoid drinking out of plastic water bottles that are not BPA (bisphenol A) free. BPA, which can leach into the water, is a “xenoestrogen,” that is, a compound that acts like estrogen in the body. Not only does it cause inflammation, it throws off your hormone balance.
Q: What are the biggest nutrition-related challenges for midlife women?
A: Belly fat, sweet cravings, and weight loss resistance. Hormonal fluctuations result for a lot of women in cravings, especially sweet cravings. Indulging these cravings is going to cause weight gain and exacerbate hot flashes. Too much sugar also affects sleep, hitting on all the major menopausal symptoms. Eating sugar causes your blood sugar to spike and your pancreas to secrete insulin, which is the fat storage hormone. The more sugar you eat, the more insulin, the more fat storage — and the more additional sweet cravings.
Belly fat — that’s the one that frustrates women the most. During menopause, not only do fluctuating hormones lead to slower metabolism, but fat is rerouted to be stored in the belly. This is due to a decline in estrogen and progesterone, but also to an increase in leptin (the appetite hormone), cortisol (the stress hormone), and insulin. Weight gain leads to inflammation, which throws off your hunger-regulating hormones, leading to overeating and more weight gain and creating a vicious cycle of weight loss resistance.
Q: How do you help your clients to deal with these challenges?
A: I start by working on women’s guts: Most menopausal issues are intricately connected to what is going on in the gut. I make sure they are taking a probiotic (the right kind and the right dosage), and not eating foods that aggravate the gut. This means looking at what foods work well with their gut lining — what causes inflammation and what doesn’t. Then we go on to natural liver detox — both the gut and the liver have a lot to do with health and weight loss resistance in midlife women.
When women first come to me, I start them on my kick-start cleanse: Basically, that is simple food detox — getting them off all the inflammatory foods in the first week. Sugar is the number one inflammatory food. GMOs are also really inflammatory and health-depleting. Other inflammatory foods include foods that have a lot of artificial ingredients (like chemicals, artificial colors and flavors), hydrogenated oils (like canola), refined carbs, wheat, and alcohol. This food detox is also an elimination diet: It’s going to eliminate the causes of the most common food sensitivities, like gluten, dairy, sugar, corn, soy, and peanuts. In the first week — and I’ve been doing this a long time — women will say, a) I’m sleeping better, b) I have a lot more energy, c) I feel a lot less bloated, and they definitely report having a better mood. See how powerful food is? That is all from food. And so many people do not make that connection. That’s why I make everyone write down every single thing they are eating and how they feel. Because that is the best way to figure out what is working for you and what is not.
So the first couple of weeks is all about getting inflammation out and healing the gut. Meanwhile, I send them for blood work and eventually create a customized plan based on their blood chemistry and food sensitivity test results. The second part of the program is the liver detox. The gut and the liver are important to natural hormone balancing. And though you decrease the bloated component of belly fat within the first 10 days or so, you still have that deep visceral belly fat to contend with — and that’s the dangerous part. It’s not the giggly-wiggly, pinch-an-inch, unsightly, subcutaneous stuff, but the visceral fat surrounding our organs that contributes to health problems like heart disease and diabetes. So getting rid of the menopausal belly is not just about getting into your skinny jeans: It’s a real health risk. And to target your deep visceral belly fat, you have to get your liver up and running, because your liver is the major detoxifying organ in your body and the biggest fat burning organ.
I use a natural detox shake, a vegan formulation that has an array of liver-nourishing nutrients and specific herbs and amino acids that help with liver detox. If your liver is sluggish, you won’t have the fat burning capabilities and you will have a build up of toxins. Toxins can really slow down your thyroid function and they also get stored in fat, so your body won’t let you burn fat if you are overly toxic because it’s dangerous. Your liver is also responsible for getting rid of excess hormones, like estrogen, but if it’s sluggish, it’s going to keep recirculating these hormones instead of getting rid of them.
Q: But isn’t declining estrogen part of what’s causing many of the problems associated with menopause?
A: It’s all about the ratio of estrogen to other hormones, like progesterone —someone may be low in estrogen because they are in perimenopause, but relative to their level of progesterone they are considered estrogen dominant. Estrogen dominance makes you feel bloated and a little cranky — think about PMS. Perimenopause symptoms are sometimes like PMS on steroids.
Q: What role do hormones play in weight loss resistance? And we’re not just talking estrogen and progesterone here, right?
A: The hormones that really play a part in weight loss resistance and belly fat are insulin and cortisol. Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone have a secondary role. Regarding insulin: You can gain weight eating a 100-calorie bag of cookies and lose weight eating 200 to 300 calories of grilled salmon. It’s not the number of calories in the food, it’s your hormonal response to that food that makes a difference. Your hormonal response to the cookies will be a blood sugar spike, insulin secretion, and belly fat storage. Your hormonal response to the grilled wild salmon is going to be secretion of glucagon — that’s the fat-mobilizing hormone.
The stress hormone cortisol also tells the body to store fat in the belly. (Belly fat, we’ve discovered, has many more cortisol receptors than adipose tissue in other areas.) Someone can improve their gut health and detox their liver, but if they are not doing anything to improve their stress, they’re not going to get results. The adrenals, cute little glands on the top of your kidneys, have the big job of balancing out our blood sugar and also pumping out our stress hormones — but they can become exhausted by all different kinds of stressors. I put women on an adrenal nourishing diet — one with good quality proteins (wild organic fish, grass-fed beef, and pasture raised poultry), healthy fats (from organic eggs, avocado, coconut oil, nuts and seeds), lots of greens and moderate amounts of starchy veggies (like squash, sweet potatoes, and artichokes) — to help balance their hormones.
Q: What about thyroid hormones? Do they play a role in weight loss resistance?
A: Yes. Thyroid hormones are really the superstars of the blood chemistry panel. Nine out of ten women tell me ‘I’m tired, I can’t lose weight, I’m constipated, my hair is falling out, I went to my doctor and the doctor said my thyroid is fine.’ They have so many symptoms, but they are told they are normal, the reason being that thyroid blood work is not anywhere near as complete as it should be. They just test a few markers, which don’t tell the whole story. Or they look at archaic ranges, so almost everyone looks normal. But symptoms speak louder than test results: If someone has almost every symptom of something, and you don’t feel their blood work supports that, it’s time to delve a little deeper, and do a little bit more in depth testing. You have no idea how many people I’ve found over the years who have “subclinical” hypothyroidism, which slows the metabolism. To find out you have that is life changing — in a good way — because you can now take steps to treat it and in some cases even reverse it.
Q: Nutritionally speaking, what is the most important step midlife women can take to manage their perimenopausal symptoms and improve their wellness?
A: Cut down on sugar — and realize all the sources of sugar in the diet, because sugar has a trickle down effect on everything. If you cut down on sugar, it means you are also cutting down on junk food and alcohol. Belly fat? That’s a sugar belly, if you ask me. Decreased sugar means decreased calories, decreased fat, decreased hot flashes, and improved sleep. That one little step will make you feel so much better.