Nutrition during Menopause
As a woman or anyone with a uterus who may experience ovulation and periods (that time of the month when vaginal bleeding occurs), there will come a time when they begin to experience something called menopause. This experience is when the female sex hormones (oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone) within the body start to change as people age and the experience of ovulation and a period starts to decline until it eventually stops altogether.
So, when exactly does menopause start?
For most people, there isn’t an exact time in someone’s life when they can expect menopause to occur; it is something that happens slowly over time and is broken into different timelines. For the purposes of this blog, we will refer to them as perimenopause, menopause and post-menopause. ‘Perimenopause’ is the start of this process and is where ovulation starts to gradually lengthen which means that the time in between periods is extended and these periods become lighter. This is likely to start around 45 years of age and can be experienced by symptoms including hot flashes, mood swings, brain fog and fatigue, just to name a few.
Menopause refers to the date on which you have not had a period for 12 months in a row. The average age of menopause for women in the UK is around 51, however, there is a lot of variation from person to person and may happen sooner or later than this in your individual circumstance. When we refer to post-menopause, this is the time after the point that you have distinguished menopause and will be maintained until the end of someone who has an uterus’ life.
How does menopause affect those with a uterus?
As the transition to menopause commences for those with a uterus, the hormone estrogen begins to reduce and therefore disrupts the regular cycle of estrogen and progesterone in the body. These cycles during the fertile period of a woman’s life facilitate the opportunity for a pregnancy to occur. The experience of perimenopause is individual. This is because some people may experience little to no symptoms and others may need to receive medication to support the transition. There are, however, some very common symptoms that people may experience during this time including:
- Irregular periods
- Hot flashes
- Difficulty sleeping
- Weight gain
- Mood changes
There are also some changes that can occur to our bone density due to the decrease of estrogen and progesterone during this time. This is why resistance training and maintaining exercise as we move through this transition is extremely important to minimising the negative adaptations that may occur. It also allows us to support our metabolism which will in turn allow us to minimise, where possible, excessive body fat changes that many women stress about during this time.
So why are we more susceptible to weight gain during this time?
Estrogen, one of the key female hormones that support the menstrual cycle for those with a uterus, is an important hormone that controls insulin sensitivity and manages metabolism for healthy individuals. As estrogen starts to decline, so does the body’s response to regulating its sensitivity to insulin, which is most specifically during the digestion of carbohydrates.
It isn’t all bad, however! There are ways we can set ourselves up for success in the lead-up to this experience with some changes to our diet and lifestyle. It is important however to note that everyone’s experience is different and some interventions from medical professionals may be required if your symptoms are extreme and/or debilitating to your life.
So what should I eat to support myself as I am starting this transition?
Similar to any dietary advice that we provide, a healthy and balanced diet is key. This includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, lean proteins and minimising an abundance of highly processed foods. There are however some foods that may provide a benefit during this time, especially to help with some of the symptoms that were discussed early. These include:
Soy (from the soyabean)
Soy is a nutrient-dense source of protein and contains many essential amino acids which are important for anyone aging, especially females. This is again due to the reduction of estrogen which can have a negative impact on our bone density. Soy contains a high level of isoflavones, a plant type of estrogen (known as phytoestrogen) which has a similar function to human estrogen with much weaker effects.
The reason why having some sources of soy in your diet as you are entering perimenopause is because these isoflavones can bind with your current production of estrogen and help to mitigate the negative symptoms that the decline in estrogen is creating. Examples of soy that you can implement into your diet include unfermented soybeans (boiled or roasted), tofu, tempeh, soy sauce and edamame beans.
Healthy fats high in omega-3 fatty acids
Whilst the scientific literature is still inconclusive in terms of the evidence relating to whether symptoms can be reduced through an increase in specifically omega-3 fatty acids, increasing the intake of fats as part of a calorie balanced diet will support an individual’s response to insulin from carbohydrates. This has been seen to provide some improvements to symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats.
Omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, anchovies and mackerel; nuts and seeds such as flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and hemp seeds; oils such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil and cod liver oil; and some fortified foods such as eggs, yoghurt, milk and soy products.
Fruits and vegetables
Whilst for many this is a no-brainer, ensuring that your diet is full of fruits and vegetables, no matter the age is important for improving your quality and length of life. This is no different for those moving into perimenopause and then post-menopause! This is due to the vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants that these plants provide.
Focusing on a variety of fruits that are lower in fructose including oranges, watermelon and berries, due to their higher levels of antioxidants, and vegetables that are a variety of colours and include cruciferous options such as broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy and cabbage will provide a great basis for improving digestion and metabolising any build-up of estrogen that might be occurring within the body. This build-up of estrogen can lead to inflammation and water retention and implementing a high-fibre diet can help to minimise these symptoms over time.
So what should we avoid?
Firstly, it is again important to recognise that the experience of menopause will be different for everyone and a well-balanced diet is important to establish throughout the majority of your life. However, as we move closer toward menopause and beyond, due to the evolution and change in our metabolism, our response to some foods can change and it is important to monitor this as you experience these changes.
As with any well-balanced diet, avoiding highly processed foods is recommended due to the overconsumption they usually create. However, in the case of menopausal women, avoiding these foods can help to ensure that blood sugar is well-balanced and their sensitivity to insulin is better managed. Not focusing on these things can exacerbate symptoms in the long term. These highly processed foods are extremely palatable and include (but are not limited to) sweet treats such as lollies, pastries, cakes, biscuits and high-sugar cereals; and savoury snacks such as crisps, sausage rolls, pies and takeaway foods such as pizza, fries and burgers.
Another recommendation to avoid is alcohol, and whilst this is a recommendation for anyone trying to optimise their diet, specifically for women transitioning through menopause, focusing on reducing your alcoholic intake can have a highly profound impact. This is because of how our body will try to digest and eradicate alcohol above anything else when it is consumed. So if you are wanting your body to work efficiently in minimising menopausal symptoms through the dietary interventions you are implementing, adding alcohol to the mix is only going to slow this process down.
So what about ‘Superfoods?’
Firstly, it is important to recognise that ‘superfoods’ don’t actually exist. This is a marketing term that has been established to sell foods that you should be incorporating into your diet already. Many of the foods that have been listed above in the ‘recommended’ section are our superfoods! These are nutrient-dense and support a healthy diet including nuts, seeds, vegetables that represent the rainbow and fruits that are high in antioxidants.
So to conclude, it is important to remember that a diet that is based around a ‘whole foods approach’ is the key to your long-term success as you transition through this period of life. A wholefoods-based diet is rich in lean proteins, healthy fats, has an abundance of fruits and vegetables and includes a great portion of whole grains. This kind of diet is going to set you up for a successful and natural transition into menopause and manage your body fat levels during the process.
So when you are creating a meal, whether it be breakfast, lunch or dinner, think about a plate that includes a balance of all macronutrients, with a focus on including some of the recommended sources above. This will provide you with the best opportunity to not dread the process, mitigate the symptoms that can become debilitating and allow you to enjoy this natural transition of life.
Written By Paige: Female fitness expert at MotivatePT – Reps Level 3 Qualified / Pre & Post Natal