It all breaks down to the fact that "we are what we eat." Simply following a well-balanced diet can go a long way to help reduce symptoms caused by menopause. Below are a list of recommended foods to include and reduce in your diet to not only improve your symptoms, but ensure that you continue to feel great in the years to come.
What is Balance?
The key to truly managing your menopausal symptoms is to achieve a well-balanced diet. Focusing on nutrition and making sure to include all the food groups, will provide your body with the vitamins, minerals and nutrients it needs to keep your hormones in balance. Each day it is imperative that you include servings of whole grains, proteins and/or protein alternatives, low and non-fat dairy products, healthy fats, and most importantly, lots of fruits and vegetables.
The most common mistake women make when it comes to their diet is going long periods of time without eating. Are you eating within a 1/2 hour of waking? If not, this is a great place to start. Breakfast means "breaking a fast." When we don't eat breakfast first thing in the morning, we prolong the fasting period, typically leading to low blood sugars, overeating, and body fat storage. Coupling this with skipping meals during your day is a sure way to cause an imbalance in your hormone levels and the higher likelihood of overeating the next time you sit down for a meal. In order to keep yourself satisfied and healthy, eat at least 3 meals a day, with some nutritious snacks in between, to keep you energized. This will mean you should be eating something every 3 hours or so. Don't become obsessed with calories, but instead, focus on portion sizes. This will keep your weight at a healthy level. And don't forget to include the occasional treat. Sweets can be part of a healthy diet too!
Foods to Manage Menopausal Symptoms
Hot flashes, mood swings, weight gain. Do these sound familiar? These are typical symptoms of going through menopause, which I don't have to tell you are not fun! On a positive note, you may be happy to hear that many of these symptoms can be managed by eating (or avoiding) specific foods.
Managing Hot Flashes
Hot flashes and night sweats can be a very real and frustrating symptom for women experiencing menopause. Waking up at night sweaty makes it almost impossible to get a good nights sleep. Some women experience hot flashes at work as well, making it extremely challenging to focus and work productively. Want to ease or eliminate these uncomfortable sweats?
Try reducing your intake of coffee, caffeinated tea, alcohol, colas, and spicy foods. Many women find these to be triggers for hot flashes. Refined sugars also tend to increase the number of hot flashes women suffer, so try to avoid corn syrup and other sugars found in highly-processed foods.
Experiencing hot flashes frequently? Increase the amount of water you drink to at least 8 - 8 ounce glasses a day. Also, try to include foods that contain phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are plant estrogens that can bind to estrogen receptors in your body, relieving you of many of your symptoms. Foods that are rich in phytoestrogens include beans, legumes, seaweed, yams, apples, potatoes, and carrots. Foods rich in soy such as edamame, tofu, soybeans, soy yogurt, etc. are also a very high source of phytoestrogens.
Curtail your sleeping habits. Try going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Strive to get between 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Avoid eating too close to bed time - no closer than 2 hours beforehand as the digestion process can prevent a sound night of sleep. Avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine or smoking tobacco 3-4 hours before bed time as the stimulants can lead to disruptive sleep. Avoid watching t.v. or working on the computer in bed - the stimulation right before bedtime can prevent a restful night of sleep.
Due to a fluctuation of hormones in your body, mood swings are a common occurence in menopausal women. It is not uncommon for you to feel joyful and happy one moment, but suddenly find yourself feeling depressed and lonely the next. Don't fret. A tweak in your diet can boost your mood and help you to feel on top of the world yet again.
Research has shown that a lowered level of serotonin, a chemical in the brain, is often associated
with depression. Eating foods rich in carbohydrates can help to raise your levels of serotonin, thereby alleviating that depression. This is why so many individuals turn to sugary and carbohydrate-laden foods when they're feeling down. It's a physical body response - not just in your head! To healthfully raise your levels of serotonin, reach for whole grains such as a sandwich on whole grain bread, whole grain cereal such as oatmeal or Kashi Go Lean, quinoa, brown rice or even some whole grain crackers with all-natural peanut butter or cheese. Again, remember your portions.
Taking time for you is also in order. Take time to practice mindfulness whether it's taking time to eat a yummy meal - savoring the flavors, taking in the smells, chewing your foods and enjoying conversation; going for a walk - taking in your environment, the sounds, the smells, the crisp air on your face; or practicing meditation - deep breathing exercises, listening to relaxation cd's or downloads, progressive relaxation or yoga. Mindfulness can be extremely helpful in body balance, leading to the better management of stress, mood swings and the day-to-day trials and tribulations.
I can't tell you how often I hear women tell me how after a certain age they cannot seem to get their excess weight off. Unfortunately, weight gain and menopause often can go hand in hand if a woman is not following a balanced diet. This is due to a decrease in estrogen levels, which leads to a distribution of fat around the stomach and a decrease of fat around the hips and breasts. This will, over time, lead to a decrease in muscle mass, a slowing of your metabolism (because muscle dictates your metabolism), and the result is unwanted weight gain.
How can you combat this? Focus on eating healthy fats, reducing your intake of saturated fats, and eliminating any trans-fats from your diet. Healthy fats include olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil, avocado, unsalted nuts and seeds, unsweetened coconut, ground chia and flax seed, all-natural nut butters, and fatty fish. Saute vegetables in olive or canola oil, use olive oil and vinegar-based salad dressings (or make your own with olive oil, vinegar and spices), add nuts and seeds to your salads or have an ounce as a snack with a piece of fruit, or put chia and flax seed in a pepper grinder and sprinkle over salads, mix into oatmeal or any foods served at the dinner table. Avoid frying your foods. Try broiling or grilling them instead. Increasing the amount of water you drink will also help you lose any water weight that you could be retaining, as well as helping your metabolism kick in. It is recommended that you include anywhere from 2-4 healthy fat servings per day for the greatest benefit.
Foods to Prevent Chronic Disease
A number of chronic diseases are associated with menopause that can also be prevented or treated through your diet. Lowered estrogen levels put menopausal women at a higher risk for heart disease and stroke. Menopausal women also tend to lose bone mass at a higher rate than
other women, increasing their risk for osteoporosis. Here are some ways that your diet can help protect you from these diseases.
Preventing Heart Disease
Heart disease, including high cholesterol, clogged arteries, heart attacks, and stroke, are more likely to hit a woman after menopause. It is important to engage in preventative measures in order to
decrease your risk of heart disease. Changing you diet and becoming more physically active are simple ways to decrease your risk.
Try to increase the amounts of fruits and vegetables that you eat - in particular mushrooms, onions, berries, beans, dark green leafy vegetables and seeds. This will help cleanse your arteries as well as provide beneficial vitamins and nutrients to your system. Include oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, a feature in your diet at least twice per week. These fish contain Omega-3 essential fatty acids, which help the body to circulate oxygen and blood efficiently. Reduce the amounts of saturated fats in your diet, which can clog your arteries and increase you cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are primarily from animal-based sources such as meats, full-fat dairy products, processed foods and baked goods. Limit your intake of meats, striving to include lean meats and poultry only. Choose low and non-fat dairy products and only have baked good on occasion - making sure to read the labels and to avoid any including trans-fats (partially hydrogenated oils). Try to avoid processed flours and focus on whole grain breads and cereals, grains and brown or basmati rice instead.
More than 50% of women will be affected by osteoporosis in their lifetimes. After menopause, as
estrogen productions decreases, more and more bone mass is lost in the body. This causes bones to become brittle and can even cause them to fracture or break. It is important to include sources of calcium in your diet and to include weight bearing exercises to guard against osteoporosis.
Menopausal women should be getting between 1200 and 1500 mg of calcium every day. Adding low or non-fat yogurt, milk, or soy milk is a good way of meeting this target. Other foods that are rich in calcium include cheese, sardines and salmon (with bones), prunes, figs, and leafy green vegetables. Avoid taking in too much caffeine, as caffeine causes the body to not absorb calcium properly. Strive to include some form of exercise each day. It could be going for a walk, bike ride, run, doing an exercise class, or any other physical activity you enjoy. Incorporating strength training into your schedule 2-3 times per week will also greatly reduce your risk of osteoporosis and prevent the reduction in bone mass. Exercise has also been shown to positively impact your mood, and further promote the balancing of your hormones.
Following these nutrition, physical activity and mindfulness tips will enable you to better manage your menopausal symptoms and get you back to leading a happy and healthy life.
Alissa C. Robertson, MS, RD
- Super Nutrition for Menopause by Ann Louise Gittleman
- The Ultimate Nutrition Guide for Menopause: Natural Strategies to Stay Healthy, Control Weight, and Feel Great by Leslie Beck
- LiveStrong.com: Menopause & Nutrition