The benefits of a healthy diet in menopause in supporting symptoms (part 1)
Although this stage in life is often approached with considerable trepidation, menopause can be a positive time for women to shift their focus from external challenges - the family, building a career - to self-care, in an attempt to deal with the physical and emotional changes that this transitional period brings.
In this 3-part series, we’ll reflect on what’s happening in our bodies during menopause, how we can best support the changes through good nutrition and a positive lifestyle, and practices and supplements that may ease the inevitable journey. This first article deals with beneficial foods and the importance of avoiding toxins.
Biologically, menopause occurs as a result of decreasing levels of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone in the body as the ovaries gradually stop functioning. Menopause usually occurs between the age of 45 and 55, with the average age in the UK being 51. While the absence of menstrual periods for 12 months is a sure sign that menopause has occurred, many women experience symptoms of the perimenopause in the years leading to this important life stage, ranging from emotional changes such as mood swings, low self esteem and anxiety, to physical changes such as hot flushes, night sweats and weight gain.
Focusing on the basics, such as a nutritious diet (which may help in getting a good night’s sleep), incorporating regular physical activity and making time for relaxation and pleasurable activities form the foundation of looking after ourselves during this phase, and will not only ease physical symptoms, but will also bring greater peace of mind, as well as additional health benefits. Sporadically dipping into self-care, or focusing on only 1 or 2 areas, will not have nearly as much impact as spending some time and energy initially to ensure that these health practices become incorporated into our daily routines.
Fortunately, during this period, children are leaving the home or have become more independent, making it possible for women to dedicate time to their well-being. If you feel that you don’t know where to start or are having trouble getting your emotional or physical health to a place you’d like it to be, consider working with a nutritionist or other healthcare professional - your wellness is worth the investment.
Eating for a healthy menopause
Rather than thinking of a healthy diet as one where you deprive yourself of all food pleasures, think of it instead as supplying all the nutrients you need to support each cell and organ in your body to function optimally during this demanding time. Approaching nutrition from a place of self-love will help you find the inner motivation and willpower to make healthy choices. Once you’re providing your body with everything it needs nutritionally, there will be still be a place for the occasional treat, although you may be surprised to find that your taste buds have changed and you prefer more wholesome foods or you stop craving unhealthy snacks as your body intuitively knows that they’re not serving your wellbeing.
Incorporate these foods into your regular diet (organic and local are always favourable if budget and availability allow)
Good sources of protein:
During menopause we naturally lose muscle mass, which decreases metabolism and energy requirements, making weight gain more likely. Ensuring enough dietary protein will help counteract this muscle loss. An omega-3-rich diet has been shown to improve menopausal symptoms, so opt for omega-3-rich oily fish that have fewer contaminants, such as sardines, mackerel and wild (not farmed) salmon. Meat eaters should focus on unprocessed poultry and meat.
Budget-friendly tip: a tin of sardines in spring water (not oil) costs next to nothing yet supplies a hearty dose of omega-3, protein and calcium.
Those eating dairy would benefit from options such as unsweetened, live yoghurt and cheese in moderation. Eggs are also excellent sources of protein. While shifting from consuming more animal- to plant-based protein is good for the environment, it’s also valuable for women experiencing menopausal symptoms, as plant sources have more beneficial phytoestrogens than meat. It’s important for vegans to concentrate on getting protein with each meal from sources such as beans, lentils, nuts & seeds, soy products (such as tofu, tempeh and soya milk) and wholegrains (such as quinoa).
During this period, we naturally become more insulin-resistant, meaning that we are not able to cope as well with refined carbohydrates that spike blood sugar, lead to weight gain and increase the risk of diabetes. Fluctuating blood glucose levels also contribute to mood swings and night sweats. Incorporate more slow-release carbohydrates by replacing processed cereals with oats, lunchtime sandwiches with wholegrain and bean salads and evening pasta with sweet potatoes. Why not experiment with wholegrains you haven’t tried before, such as buckwheat, quinoa and millet?
Embrace leftovers and cooking ahead: Cooking, cooling and reheating certain carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice and pasta has been shown to increase their resistant starch content. This means you’ll absorb less, more slowly, while also feeding your beneficial gut bacteria.
The myth of dietary fat being the prime cause of weight gain has long been debunked, and it’s more important than ever to supply our bodies with healthy fat during menopause, to support the production of hormones, for mental wellbeing, and to keep our skin and hair healthy. Ditch seed-derived vegetable oils, which are high in inflammatory omega-6s, and focus instead on olive oil (added after cooking), avocado and coconut oil, and whole foods such as walnuts and olives.
Bone mineral density is lost at the highest rate in the post-menopausal period. While it’s common knowledge that we should consume enough calcium (from sources such as dairy, soy products, fish with edible bones, green leafy veg, wholegrains and legumes) to prevent osteoporosis, it’s also vital to get enough magnesium and vitamins D and K2. While sunlight is the main trigger for vitamin D production in the body, we get small amounts from fish, seafood and egg yolks. Fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut provide vitamin K2 while supporting gut bacteria which produce this nutrient; animal sources are liver, cheese and egg yolks. Delicious sources of magnesium include cocoa (such as in dark chocolate), avocados, nuts & legumes, and this mineral can also alleviate palpitations that occur during menopause.
These ‘plant oestrogens’ have a similar chemical structure to the body’s own oestrogen and are able to bind to the same receptors, meaning that they can ease symptoms such as hot flushes, which are caused by low oestrogen. While many fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds contain phytoestrogens, particularly rich sources are soy products (such as soya milk, tofu, tempeh and miso), pumpkin seeds and flaxseeds.
Tiny but mighty: Ground flaxseeds can ease menopausal symptoms due to oestrogen-like activity and amongst many other benefits they also lower cholesterol. These nutrient-dense seeds are cost-effective if you buy and grind your own, but to prevent oxidation of the valuable omega-3 fats, prepare in small quantities and store in the fridge or freezer.
Green tea is useful for body and mind during menopause. In addition to potent antioxidants, it contains the amino acid L-theanine, which increases focus and energy while decreasing anxiety and improving sleep. As it has less caffeine than black tea or coffee, green tea helps you feel pleasantly alert but not ‘on edge’.
While many of us appreciate the benefits of consuming organic food over pesticide and hormone-containing alternatives, fewer pay attention to toxins in household cleaning and beauty products. Many of the items we use daily contain substances that cause hormonal imbalance, making menopause an especially important time to avoid them. At this stage in life, the liver is also becoming less effective at dealing with toxins, so that they have a greater negative effect on our bodies.
Cosmetics and cleaning products are laden with chemicals like parabens, phthalates and synthetic fragrances which may have side-effects ranging from increasing cancer risk to disrupting the hormonal system. Those with oestrogen-like activity can actually cause weight gain by increasing the number and changing the functioning of fat cells. What’s more, these gene expression changes are thought to be carried over from one generation to the next. Perfume contains as many as 3000 different chemicals, many more than the 250 in cigarette smoke.
Some plastic packaging, storage containers, water bottles and cling film contain bisphenol A (BPA), which binds to oestrogen receptors in the body and can cause connective tissue cells to turn into fat cells. When heating and storing food, do so in glass, ceramic or stainless steel containers and avoid using cling film; when using plastic for storage and drinking bottles is unavoidable, choose BPA-free products. Some non-stick cookware and scotch-guarding on household products has also raised concerns regarding their impact on health and persistence in the environment.
Food additives such as preservatives, colourants and flavourings are often added to foods to prolong their shelf life, and make them look and taste better than they actually are! They, too, can have a worrying influence on the hormonal system and cancer risk. Avoid these as much as possible, using fresh or frozen whole foods and adding flavour with herbs and spices.
Toxin tip: Replace harmful cosmetics and cleaning products with alternatives that are safer for you and the environment. The Environmental Working Group has a wealth of information and a cosmetics database on their website www.ewg.org
- good quality protein in at least 2 meals – don’t forget plant-based protein
- slow-release carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes and whole grains
- healthy fats such as olive, avocado, coconut oil and walnuts
- 5-9 portions of brightly-coloured, fresh or frozen vegetables and fruit
- nuts, seeds, tofu and/or beans
Keep to a minimum:
- refined carbohydrates
- processed food
Don’t let harmful chemicals cause further hormonal turmoil by choosing safe:
- cleaning products
- food storage containers
- food preparation solutions
Abshirini, M. et al. Dietary total antioxidant capacity is inversely associated with depression, anxiety and some oxidative stress biomarkers in postmenopausal women: a cross-sectional study. Ann Gen Psychiatry. 2019 Mar 19;18:3. doi: 10.1186/s12991-019-0225-7
Abshirini M et al. Dietary total antioxidant capacity is inversely related to menopausal symptoms: a cross-sectional study among Iranian postmenopausal women. Nutrition. 2018 Nov;55-56:161-167. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2018.04.014
Baillie-Hamilton,P. Chemical Toxins: A hypothesis to Explain the Global Obesity Epidemic. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.Apr 2002. http://doi.org/10.1089/107555302317371479
Heindel,J. Endocrine Disruptors and the Obesity Epidemic. Toxicological Sciences, Volume 76, Issue 2, December 2003, Pages 247–249, https://doi.org/10.1093/toxsci/kfg255
Masuno, H. et al. Bisphenol A in combination with insulin can accelerate the conversion of 3T3-L1 fibroblasts to adipocytes. J. Lipid Res.2002. 43: 676–684.
Rotolo, O. et al. Women in LOVe: Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian Diet Rich in Omega-3 Improves Vasomotor Symptoms in Postmenopausal Women. An Exploratory Randomized Controlled TrialEndocr Metab Immune Disord Drug Targets. 2019 May 27. doi: 10.2174/1871530319666190528101532
Singleton,D. and Khan,S. Xenoestrogen Exposure and Mechanisms of Endocrine disruption. Frontiers in Bioscience 8, s110-118, January 1, 2003
Incorporating these beneficial foods and avoiding toxins can go a long way in supporting a healthy transition into menopause. If you require more support, feel free to contact our approachable team of nutrition professionals who will be more than happy to support you further or point you in the right direction.