Diet and lifestyle changes to ease menopausal symptoms and reduce the risk of associated long term health conditions.
Women in the UK usually start the menopause in their 40’s or 50’s, with the average age being 51 years. It’s a natural hormonal process when a woman’s oestrogen levels fall, causing periods to become less regular and eventually stop altogether.
The fall in oestrogen levels can cause a variety of symptoms that can be different for everyone. These include: hot flushes and night sweats, which are the most common, however symptoms such as weight gain, mood swings, vaginal dryness, loss of libido and headaches can also occur.
Not only this, post-menopausal women are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, which is the thinning of your bones increasing the risk of fractures.
Simple changes to your diet and lifestyle can help prevent or lessen the symptoms and protect you against long term health conditions.
Milk and dairy foods
Calcium is important for bone health and reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Milk, cheese and yoghurts are good sources of calcium, however opt for lower fat varieties where possible. If you are allergic/intolerant to dairy foods or following a plant-based diet, ensure you opt for fortified dairy alternatives. Peak bone mass (PBM) is the greatest amount of bone an individual can obtain and is achieved in your late 20’s. It is therefore important to ensure you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D when you’re younger too as, the higher your peak bone mass, the lower the risk of osteoporosis in later life. The recommended intake of calcium is 700 mg per day for adults, and other dietary sources include: bread (flour is fortified with calcium in the UK), breakfast cereals, green leafy vegetables (except spinach), sesame seeds and figs.
We should be aiming for two portions of fish per week, with one of these being oily. Oily fish includes salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines & kippers. They are not only a great source of omega-3, an essential fatty acid that has been linked to heart health, but also one of the few dietary sources of vitamin D. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, important for bone health, helping the body absorb calcium from foods. Our body makes most of our vitamin D from skin exposure to sunlight, however, between September and April we might not be getting enough. A 10 microgram daily supplement is recommended during these months, however, those with limited exposure to the sun should supplement all year round. Other dietary sources include: eggs, red meat and foods fortified with vitamin D (fat spreads, breakfast cereals and dairy products).
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables contain fibre which has so many benefits for your gut health but research has shown that high fibre diets also reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease. We should be aiming for 30g of fibre in our diets a day so try and have at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables each day. An 80g portion of pulses such as lentils and beans can also contribute to one of your 5 a day, and provide a great source of fibre and plant based protein. Fruit and vegetables are also great sources of vitamins and minerals to help with the physical changes that the menopause might bring. It really is important to eat a rainbow as each fruit and vegetable has beneficial properties.
Wholegrain breakfast cereals, bread, pasta, rice and oats are a great source of fibre and also high in protein and other vitamins and minerals such as b vitamins and iron. All meals should be based around a starchy carb, however it is really important to opt for the whole grain varieties where possible to increase your fibre intake, as an added bonus there are proven to reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers too!
There has been a lot of interest (debate) around phytoestrogen and the role they play in the body, particular in women. They have a very similar structure to oestrogen so have been said to help relieve symptoms during the menopause and falling oestrogen levels. The two main types are isoflavones, found in dietary sources such as soybeans, legumes, tofu, soya drink and lignans, found in dietary sources such as flaxseed, fruit, vegetables and cereals. However, research isn’t very strong and it’s still not confirmed whether isoflavone supplements are safe or effective. Include these foods in your diet, however as always, everything in moderation.
Saturated fat, salt and sugar
Foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar should be limited in your diet. They are often energy dense with little nutrient value and can contribute to weight gain; increasing your risk of developing certain diseases. You need fat in your diet, but replacing saturated fats for unsaturated fats such as oily fish, avocado, nuts and olive and rapeseed oils can have health benefits. Too much salt can also raise your blood pressure, so try and aim for less than 6g a day by checking product labels and refrain from adding extra salt at the dinner table. Free sugars in particular should be limited, these are the sugars that are added to your foods (even honey is classed as a free sugar) but also includes smoothies and juices if you have them in excess.
Liver and Liver Products
You should reduce your consumption of liver and liver products such as pate as they contain a lot of vitamin A (retinol), which should be avoided in large amounts if you are at risk of osteoporosis. This is because vitamin A may have a negative effect on bone health so you should also avoid taking supplements containing more than 1.5mg of vitamin A and also watch out for fish liver oil supplements!
Smoking & Alcohol
Smoking and drinking alcohol can not only exacerbate some menopausal symptoms such as: hot flushes, night sweats and headaches, but also has a negative effect on long term health; increasing the risk of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. Adults should drink no more than 14 units a week, which equates to (on average) 14 single measures of spirits, seven pints of lager or four and two-thirds 250ml glasses of wine. You should refrain from binging and have alcohol free days throughout the week. With regards to smoking – giving up is one of the best things you can do for your overall health.
It is recommended that adults partake in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity which can include brisk walking, riding a bike, hiking and even pushing a lawnmower; 75 minutes of vigorous activity such as jogging, fast swimming and sports such as netball; or a mixture of both! You should also include at least two strengthening activities throughout the week which can include yoga, lifting weights – even carrying shopping bags and gardening counts! Being physically active during this time can help manage symptoms, improve your mood and maintain a healthy weight. The risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis is also reduced.
Speak with your GP to explore other medication or cognitive therapies that can treat symptoms.
Louise Payne BSc MSc RNutr
@LMPnutrition (general Instagram)
@hernutritionist.uk (new more specialised Instagram)