Eating better can make for an easier menopause. Here’s a guide choosing the best foods to manage your menopause symptoms...
It makes sense to eat well – and healthily - at any stage of our lives and that’s just as true of menopause, as any other stage, from childhood to old age. But can you eat to beat menopause symptoms?
It’s not a new idea; if you know someone who was going through menopause in the 1990s, they may have been cooking regular batches of Linda Kearns’s menopause cake! And natural menopause pioneer, Maryon Stewart, has been promoting the benefits of a menopause-friendly eating plan for years. But the concept of eating to beat or ease specific conditions and symptoms has really taken off in recent years, not least with a new generation of doctors taking up the cause.
Many of them agree that, despite its importance in supporting good health and wellbeing, nutrition didn’t get much of a look-in at medical school - and now they want to redress that.
Can food and diet help menopause symptoms?
We’ve been taking a look at what doctors, nutritionists and menopause specialists have to say about matching foods to symptoms and we‘ve put together some suggestions that might help you. As with all things menopause-related, each woman is unique, physiologically and genetically, and what works for one woman may not work for another. But, if you are struggling with one or more menopausal symptoms, why not see if particular foods can ease your symptoms – or make them worse? It’s a simple, cost-effective step to take and could make your passage through menopause that much easier.
We do know that what we eat affects our hormones and, because our hormones undergo substantial and continuing changes during menopause, it would seem sensible to adjust what we eat accordingly. But, as you will see, foods that may make some symptoms easier could make other symptoms worse. We recommend keeping a food and symptom diary so that you can track what works for you and what doesn’t. BUPA has a free online version that you can download here. If you often wake up feeling bloated, for example, you can check what you ate and drank the day before and see if there’s a common factor.
Best foods for beating menopausal hot flushes
Certain food and drinks act as stimulants that can trigger hot flushes – including alcohol, chocolate, (caffeinated) coffee and spicy foods. If you eat or drink any of these regularly, try reducing them or, better still, going without them and see if you notice any improvement.
If you can’t do without your coffee fix, switch to a good brand of decaffeinated and if you enjoy a glass of wine or lager, there are some excellent low or zero-alcohol varieties now available. You can join in any socialising and won’t need to feel like a party pooper.
Best foods for beating menopausal dry skin
If your skin is becoming drier, you may have spent a fortune on ‘age-defying’ or ‘anti-ageing’ creams, lotions and potions. And you may – or may not – have noticed some improvement. But why not consider what you put into your body, as well as what you put on your face? It may be more effective and could save you money!
If you want to improve your skin texture, try eating more legumes, such as beans, lentils and peas, and add some nuts, such as almonds or brazils, and seeds including pumpkin, sunflower and flax (linseed) to porridge, granola, or plain yogurt for a tasty, healthy start to the day. Nuts and seeds are an ideal snack too and can give you a quick pick-me-up if you feel your energy levels dropping.
Best foods for menopausal low moods, anxiety and irritability
Make sure that you are getting enough protein, ideally protein that is rich in tryptophan. This is an amino acid that helps to produce serotonin – the happy hormone - and you’ll find it in cottage cheese, eggs, full-fat milk, nuts, poultry (especially turkey), seeds, soy products (including miso, tempeh and tofu), and spinach.
Best food for tiredness and aching joints during menopause
Any food or drink that acts as a stimulant (see examples above) is likely to keep you awake at night, and when you’re sleep deprived, you’ll automatically feel tired during the day. When it comes to food, the best way to help boost energy levels is to eat a healthy, balanced diet that meets all your nutritional needs. Make sure you keep your protein levels topped up, have plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, and avoid sugary, starchy foods (simple carbohydrates) such as white bread and pasta, biscuits and cakes - and say no to fizzy drinks. If you need a snack, reach for fresh fruit, and a few nuts or seeds.
Pain can also make you tired so, if your joints are aching, aim to eat foods that are less likely to cause inflammation. Milk, cheese and yogurt are nutritious and protein rich but one of the proteins they contain can cause inflammation and irritate joint tissue, which leads to pain. If you suffer from joint pain, doctors and nutritionists also recommend reducing the amount of red meat you eat. There are plenty of alternatives, many of which are rich in magnesium – good for aching muscles – avocados, garlic, green veg (broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage), legumes such as black beans and edamame (and see above), nuts (almonds, cashews and peanuts) and nut butters, oily fish, quinoa, spinach, tofu, and whole grains.
Best foods to reduce bloating during menopause
If bloating in your abdomen or around your middle is a problem, it’s helpful, although not always possible, to identify the cause. For most women going through menopause, it’s likely to be caused either by gas or water retention. Gas retention is caused by swallowing too much air and trapped air, and affects your stomach and abdomen. If water retention is the problem, you’ll notice swelling around your middle and in other parts of your body too – your hands, feet and legs.
You can usually tackle gas retention by eating more slowly, eating smaller meals, and avoiding fizzy drinks of any kind. Fizzy drinks are also best avoided if you have water retention.
When it comes to bloating, it’s more a question of which foods to avoid rather than which foods to eat. As you’ll see, some of the foods that can make bloating worse can make other symptoms easier, so it’s a question of getting the balance right for you. If bloating is a particular problem, try to avoid beans and dark lentils; barley; cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage; onions; rye and wheat.
Foods that you could substitute for the above, as they less likely to cause bloating, include lighter coloured lentils; quinoa and other whole grains; vegetables such as courgettes; cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, sweet potatoes and yams, and wheat alternatives – look for flours made from quinoa, buckwheat, almonds or coconut.
Best foods to eat for vaginal dryness during menopause
Vaginal dryness is one of the most misunderstood – and most distressing symptoms associated with menopause. It’s also one of the most commonly misdiagnosed. So, if you are suffering from vaginal dryness and also have pain, bleeding or changes in your skin texture and colour, it’s vital to see your GP, who can refer you to an appropriate specialist for tests. It could be a condition such as vaginal atrophy or lichen sclerosus and it’s important to get a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment. (See our recent interview with the author of Me and My Menopausal Vagina, Jane Lewis.)
But, assuming that there are no other underlying conditions, you may find that you can ease vaginal dryness, even a little, by opting for foods that are rich in essential fatty acids, such as avocadoes, free-range eggs (make sure that they are organic ie hormone free), organic butter, olive oil, and oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, and oysters.
You could also think about including some fermented foods, like kimchi, kombucha, pickled vegetables, such as sauerkraut, and sourdough bread in your diet. These are great for your gut flora – we all need a healthy gut microbiome – contain natural probiotics, and help to reduce inflammation.
Can phyto-oestrogens help during menopause?
There is some evidence that foods rich in phyto-oestrogens (plant oestrogens) can ease menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes. They act like the oestrogen we produce naturally but which starts to drop during menopause, so may be helpful in supporting hormonal balance. Phyto-oestrogen rich foods include celery, green beans, linseeds, pumpkin and sesame seeds, soya flour and milk and other soy-based foods including miso, tempeh and tofu.
There has been a continuing debate in the scientific and medical community around the topic of phyto-oestrogens (soy products, in particular) and their role in aggravating or preventing oestrogen-triggered breast cancer. The pendulum now seems to be swinging towards the view that soy products can act as a preventative but, if you are interested in this approach, do check with a medically qualified and experienced nutritionist to ensure that you have up to date and correct information and can make a properly informed choice.
Myths about managing weight during menopause
Myths and misconceptions… we need to tackle them!
If you want to lose weight, just cut the calories … well, up to a point, but cut them too drastically, on an extremely low-calorie diet (LCD) and you could lose muscle mass. You need strong healthy muscles to help protect joints and bones, especially as you get older. And there’s plenty of evidence to show that weight has a horrible habit of coming straight back, as soon as you stop following an LCD.
If you want to lose menopausal weight, just go on a diet… sorry, diet alone won’t do it. If you need to lose weight or manage your weight more effectively, you need to combine eating less and eating better with a healthy lifestyle, which includes exercise, not smoking, keeping your alcohol intake to a minimum, and finding ways to reduce stress.
Eating for a better menopause – who to follow on social media
Here are two of our favourites: Sam and Sabrina both offer good, reliable, and helpful information about eating well for a better menopause.
- Sam Rice, co-author with Mimi Spencer of The Midlife Kitchen. You’ll find Sam on Instagram and on her blog.
- Sabrina Zaif, AKA The Menopause Chef – read our interview with Sabrina here and follow her on Instagram.
Visit the Live Better With Menopause Community Forum or Live Better With Menopause: Coping with Side Effects group on Facebook for information, advice, and tips, and to share your own questions and suggestions.