6 ways to eat better for menopause

Registered nutritionist, Emma Bardwell, explains how you can eat better for menopause.

Nutrition is incredibly individual, so what works for one person won’t automatically suit someone else. Culture, heritage, background and financial constraints are all factors to be considered. For this reason, try to tune into your body and your needs.

You don’t need to follow any one particular food philosophy and there’s absolutely no need for labels. Pick and choose what works for you: we are all unique – from our genes to our jobs, to our activity levels, to our tastebuds. There are, however, a few basics that all menopausal women could benefit from. 

If you’re going through menopause, take a look below and see what tweaks you can make to your diet and lifestyle.

1. Eat like a Mediterranean 

While there’s no such thing as a perimenopause diet, the traditional Mediterranean way of eating is a good benchmark to guide you on your eating journey.

The Mediterranean Diet has potent anti-inflammatory properties, contains little to no processed foods, is low in sugar and is high in fibre. These factors make sense at any time of life but are particularly helpful during menopause when the body is under so much stress. Where there’s stress, inflammation usually follows and it is widely accepted that inflammation is the precursor to many of the chronic diseases and autoimmune conditions that women are susceptible to, including arthritis, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and hypothyroidism. 

So what does the Mediterranean diet look like?

There’s a strong focus on vegetables, fruit, legumes (lentils, chickpeas, peas and beans), grains, olive oil, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, alongside some fish and seafood, moderate dairy, and a limited amount of meat.

Bear in mind the diet is a guide rather than written in stone and can be adjusted according to your taste, budget and preferences, which is just one of the reasons I recommend it so often.

The biggest reason though is that numerous studies link the Mediterranean diet with a lower risk of heart disease, strokes, depression, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, dementia and some cancers.

The Lyon Diet Heart Study found that a group of participants who followed the Mediterranean diet were 45 per cent less likely to die over the four-year duration of the programme compared to their counterparts who were following a low-fat diet. And the good news is, it’s never too late to start.

In a study of over 10,000 women, those who embarked on a Mediterranean way of eating during midlife were more likely to live past 70 than those who followed a Western-style diet. 

2. Get more plants on your plate 

It’s widely accepted that a plant-focused diet (it doesn’t have to be solely vegan) is beneficial for all aspects of health and aligns with the Mediterranean way of eating as described above.

Not only do plant-based foods contain fibre, but they’re also a brilliant source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. As a bonus, they’re filling, accessible and can be relatively inexpensive.

A healthy eating plan that includes plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables can help lower your risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers – all of which we become more susceptible to as the protective effects of our hormones decline.

But one of the biggest reasons I urge people to eat more plant-based foods is that they provide essential food, called prebiotics, that help your gut microbes thrive. Good gut health is vital during menopause, affecting everything from your hormones to your mood to your immunity.

A good way to ensure you’re getting as much diversity as possible is to ‘eat the rainbow’ and keep your meals colourful, fresh and varied. According to research from Imperial College London, eating eight portions (a portion = approximately three heaped tablespoons) of vegetables and two of fruit a day could prevent almost eight million premature deaths a year, but don’t get too hung up on the numbers; think of this as a guide rather than the law and even if you only manage ten portions once or twice a week, that’s still worth shouting about. If you’re nowhere near, don’t fret. Take a look at your current diet and track how many fruit and vegetables you eat daily, then try to increase by a portion or two every week. 

3. Power up on protein 

I can’t stress enough the importance of protein – even if you do nothing else, make this the star of the show when it comes to planning your meals. It provides the literal building blocks for every cell in your body – from hormones, bones and DNA to skin, nails and hair. Without it, we can’t function. We need it for energy production, sleep, mood and libido; it’s also great for curbing cravings, filling you up and keeping on top of hunger.

Sometime around our mid-30s, we start to experience muscle loss (known as sarcopenia), which becomes more pronounced around perimenopause thanks to the loss of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone and continues to decline in our 50s, 60s and beyond.

Muscle mass is something we want to hang on to at all costs: for strength, yes, but also because muscle ramps up your metabolism and helps with weight management. One study found women consuming high amounts of protein per day (around 90g) had a 30 per cent lower risk of muscle loss. If weighing food isn’t your thing, think of a portion of protein the size of your palm at every meal: a chicken breast, half a cup of lentils, three eggs or half a block of tofu. 

4. Fight the fatigue

If your energy is tanking, I strongly advise you to get your ferritin (stored iron), folate (B9), vitamin D, and B12 levels checked, especially if you’re suffering from heavy periods (or have done in the past) or eat a vegetarian or vegan diet.

And while you’re at it, think about a thyroid check as low thyroid can cause extreme tiredness, constipation, hair loss and many of the other symptoms that we commonly associate with perimenopause.

For a convenient and quick way of testing all of the above, with no waiting around for appointments, try the Medichecks Advanced Thyroid Function Test. If you prefer, a nurse can come to your home or workplace and do the test there or you can visit a clinic.

Iron is needed to transport oxygen around your body. If your level is low, it can affect your energy, sleep, and fitness performance.

Long-term iron insufficiency might mean you develop iron-deficiency anaemia, symptoms of which include: 

  • Tiredness 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Heart palpitations 
  • Pins and needles 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Headaches and dizziness 
  • Sore mouth and tongue 
  • Hair loss/thinning 

The daily recommended intake of dietary iron for women under 50 years old is 15mg. Iron-rich foods include liver, lean red meat, chicken, fish and eggs.

You can also get iron from plant-based sources, but it’s harder to absorb. Try lentils and beans, tofu, dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, seaweed, watercress, collard greens), parsley, fortified cereals (check labels), and dried fruits like figs and apricots. 

5. Factor in phytoestrogens

Phytoestrogens – particularly in the early stages of perimenopause – might help with symptoms like hot flushes and night sweats. The two most studied phytoestrogens are isoflavones (found mostly in soya) and lignans (mostly found in flaxseeds and legumes), which both have a very mild oestrogenic effect in the body.

We still need more research to work out exactly how they work, but they seem to have the dual ability to block some oestrogen receptors and turn on others. What we do know is that in a 2015 meta-analysis of over 6,000 women, isoflavones were shown to moderately reduce the frequency of hot flushes in some women, but the results were far from conclusive. 

The good news is it’s very easy and safe to include phytoestrogens in your diet as they’re found in so many foods. Try adding at least two portions a day from the list below. Bear in mind it can take two to three months for the benefits of phytoestrogens to be felt and they seem to work better for some women than others, possibly due to differences in gut bacteria.

 Easy ways to eat more phytoestrogens: 

  • Add 1–2 tablespoons of Linwoods Menoligna to porridge, soups and smoothies. 
  • Snack on edamame beans. Look for them in the frozen aisle of your supermarket. Steam for 5 minutes and then sprinkle over toppings, such as sea salt, sesame seeds, soy sauce, garlic granules or chilli flakes. 
  • Make your hummus. All you need is chickpeas, olive oil, tahini, garlic, lemon juice and a good blender. 
  • Swap your normal yoghurt for soya yoghurt. As far as plant-based protein sources go, it’s the most similar profile we have to cow’s dairy. 
  • Try scrambling tofu instead of eggs. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it! It’s versatile, filling and super-easy. 
  • Add 2 tablespoons of silken tofu to smoothies: it’s creamy, tasteless and full of protein. 

6. Make friends with fibre 

Many of the most common complaints I get in in-clinic – bloating, constipation, weight gain, and even symptoms like tender breasts caused by high oestrogen when levels are fluctuating – can be helped by increasing dietary fibre.

The benefits of all types of fibre-filled foods (most commonly found in vegetables, fruit, beans, peas and chickpeas) are well documented – from lowering cholesterol and avoiding constipation to slowing the release of glucose into our blood and helping us feel full. Yet we’re still not getting enough.

The current recommendation is a fibre intake of 30g a day; most of us get only just over half that. Soluble fibre in the form of oats and fruit, such as figs and pears, helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels and feeds our good gut bacteria. Insoluble fibre from things like wholegrains (brown rice, spelt, oats, quinoa, freekeh), nuts and seeds are useful for bulking up poo and making it easier to push out.  

Easy ways to increase fibre in your meals:

  • Keep the skin on fruit and vegetables, where possible. Tip: roasting a whole butternut squash softens the skin, tastes great and saves a massive amount of time and effort. 
  • Add a total of 2 tablespoons of Linwoods Milled Organic Flaxseed to your meals and snacks throughout the day, for example, to smoothies, porridge, salads and yoghurt.
  • Add lentils, beans, peas, and chickpeas to soups, stews, curries, lasagnes, and cottage pies.
  • Choose wholemeal pasta and wholegrain bread. 
  • Add nuts and seeds to your breakfast. They taste great with yoghurt, porridge, chia pudding, and even eggs. 
  • Replace crisps with popcorn for a high-fibre snack. 
  • High-fibre fruits include pears, figs, kiwi fruit, raspberries, blackberries and apples. 

So there you have it, six things you can do today to help ease you through the menopause transition. Which ones will you try?


About the author

Emma Bardwell is a registered nutritionist, author and writer. Her evidence-based, no-nonsense approach has made her one of the go-to names in women’s health and nutrition. She combines leading-edge research with a 360-degree focus on diet and lifestyle to help optimise well-being. She regularly contributes to publications such as Red Magazine, Vogue, The Telegraph and Sheerluxe, and is co-author of the best-selling book, The Perimenopause Solution.

Find out more about Emma Bardwell


References

  • Kris-Etherton, P et al. (2001) ‘Lyon Diet Heart Study’
  • Samieri, C et al. (2013) ‘The Association Between Dietary Patterns at Midlife and Ageing’
  • Aune, D et al. (2017) ‘Fruit and vegetable Intake and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Total Cancer and Al;-Cause Mortality’ 
  • Jacka, F et al. (2017) ’Smiles Trial’
  • Chen, M et al. (2015) ‘Efficacy of phytoestrogens for menopausal symptoms: a meta-analysis and systematic review’

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