Menopause is a natural stage in every woman’s life and diet is really important to help control and relieve its symptoms, such as weight gain.
A good diet also helps protect against long term health issues caused by a change in hormone levels. For example, the depletion of the hormone oestrogen leaves women susceptible to osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease.
Changes to lifestyle and diet can reduce these risks to long term health.
Menopause And Weight Gain
Many women experience weight gain at the time of the menopause. Hormonal changes mean you’re more likely to put weight on around your abdomen, however, hormonal changes do not cause excessive menopausal weight gain.
What causes weight gain during the menopause?
As a normal part of the menopause, the ovaries significantly reduce their natural production of oestrogen. Consequently, the body needs to produce it from somewhere and it does this via the adipose cells. Therefore, the female body may need to be fatter for this to happen.
“Generally, around 4-7lbs in weight gain can occur, with more in underweight women,” says Clinical nutritionist from www.natures-way.com, Suzie Sawyer. “However, very often weight gain is much more than this and is not necessary or healthy.”
Oestrogen is also produced from the adrenal glands, which control stress hormones. High-stress levels over a period of time can suppress cortisol production, meaning less oestrogen is produced, hence the woman can experience more weight gain.
“Ageing, as well as lifestyle and genetic factors, are also likely culprits,” says Sawyer. “For example, muscle mass typically diminishes with age while adipose tissue increases. Loss of muscle mass can reduce metabolic rate so it may not be so easy to maintain the same weight with the same level of dietary intake as previously.”
The Menopause And Healthy Eating
The menopause is a mix of metabolic, hormonal and cardiorespiratory changes which increases the risk of:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Metabolic diseases
To lower the risk of developing these diseases in later life, the advice is to eat a healthy and balanced diet which includes:
- Plenty of fruit and vegetables
- Starchy carbohydrates
- Reducing saturated fat, sugar and salt
This advice is given to all women of all ages, but when a female reaches menopausal age there are features of the diet which are particularly important. These factors can help to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular-related events, osteoporosis and help to relieve everyday symptoms.
What's A Good Diet For The Menopause?
A healthy diet for a menopausal woman means eating plenty of nourishing foods. Here are our 8 top tips for a healthy menopause diet:
1. Fruit and Vegetables
Include a rainbow of fruit and vegetables, particularly broccoli, sprouts and carrots. The more colour in your diet, the more vitamins and minerals you’ll benefit from.
2. Lean Proteins
Try to focus on lean proteins, such as fish, eggs and chicken, ideally free-range or organic. If you are vegan opt for pulses and complex carbs such as quinoa and sweet potatoes.
3. Consume More Phytoestrogen
It's also good to start to introduce soya, lentils, chickpeas, flaxseeds, oats and wholegrain rice into your diet - all of which contain phytoestrogens. These are plant-based foods which help to balance hormones and provide oestrogenic ‘activity’ where required. Try and include a portion of these foods every day.
“Certain plants, containing phytoestrogens, can help to support our bodies during this tricky period,” explains Angelique Panagos, a nutritional therapist and hormonal health expert. “These foods include flax and sesame seeds, white and black beans and pistachios, walnuts and peanuts.”
4. Check Your Iron Levels
Many menopausal women are also low in iron, so it’s important to be tested if you think you may be at risk.
“Good foods to add into your diet to boost iron levels include lean red meat, eggs, leafy greens, nuts and certain fortified foods,” says Panagos.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be beneficial for many women during the menopause, as they help to maintain a healthy heart and flexible joints, thereby reducing the need for NSAIDs. They’ll also help to maintain youthful-looking skin.
You can increase your dietary intake by eating oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and herring. Flaxseeds are also a great source of omega-3s.
6. Reduce Foods That Cause Inflammation
It’s also beneficial to eliminate certain inflammatory foods from the diet.
Foods which spike our blood sugar levels should be reduced, including pastries, cakes, white bread and white pasta. Try to steer clear of refined sugar wherever you can because this not only inflames the body but also spikes your blood sugars, leading to dreaded muffin tops around your waist over the long term.
7. Avoid Spicy Foods
Hot flushes and night sweats are common symptoms of the menopause, so eating foods that create heat in the body is only going to make matters worse. Try to avoid eating foods that are spicey such as curries and spicy stir-fries.
8. Eat More Legumes, Nuts And Seeds
Eating legumes such as beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, peanuts, and tamarind, along with seeds and nuts such as sunflower seeds and almonds may help prevent dry skin and balance hormone levels. That's because they contain vitamin E, zinc and calcium.
Losing Menopause Weight Gain
Here are our top 3 tips to help you manage your weight during the menopause:
1. Manage Blood Sugar Levels
One of the keys to healthy weight management through the menopause is to keep blood sugar levels balanced and not exacerbate hormonal fluctuations. This will also help with mood swings.
It also helps to retain lean muscle mass, this means having some protein at every meal. It’s a misnomer to think that starchy carbs such as rice, pasta and bread are sufficiently satisfying. It’s protein that provides feelings of satiety.
Include as much variety as possible such as chicken, turkey, eggs, soya beans, lentils, tofu and oily fish, for the omega-3 fats, are all great options.
“Other pointers to avoid weight gain include saying goodbye to alcohol, embracing exercise, and cutting back on overly processed and trans-fatty foods,” adds Panagos “When we are going through the menopause, it can be easy to pile on the pounds; follow these simple steps and you’ll soon regain a healthy weight for you.”
Keep Your Bones Healthy
Up to 20% of bone density can be lost in women in the five to seven years after the menopause. The reduction in bone density is caused by the decreasing levels of oestrogen which helps to protect bone strength.
It is important to remember that although your bone density reduces, the risk of developing osteoporosis remains low until you get older. However, by ensuring you eat the correct foods and get the right amount of necessary nutrients you can manage your bone strength and density.
Approximately 40% of the total mineral mass of our bones is calcium. As a result of the body’s natural ageing process, the amount of calcium in the bones declines, particularly in menopausal women. Therefore, getting the right amount of calcium in the diet is essential. It is reported that we should all try to achieve the maximum amount of bone mass by the age of 25 to help lower our risk of developing osteoporosis.
Sources of calcium include:
- Dairy products
- Green leafy vegetables
- Fish eaten with bones
- Sesame seeds
- Fortified foods
- Breakfast cereal
- Dairy alternatives
As well as low oestrogen levels, a reduction in vitamin D is a key factor in predicting bone loss in adults. However, vitamin D is unique in that it is produced in our skin when we are exposed to sunlight. There are few good food sources of vitamin D so it is relatively easy to become vitamin D deficient. Therefore, it is important to get sufficient exposure to sunlight during the months of April to September.
Some dietary sources include:
- Oily fish
- Red meat
- Fortified foods like bread, breakfast cereals and dairy products
Calcium and vitamin D work together because our body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Vitamin D increases the absorption of calcium from the intestine which is needed to keep our teeth and bones healthy. If your exposure to the sun is limited then you may wish to consider supplementing your vitamin D intake all year round to reduce your risk of deficiency and keep your bones healthy.
Reduce Your Risk Of Heart Disease
Postmenopausal women are at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease or experiencing cardiovascular events such as a heart attack or stroke. The reduction in oestrogen is responsible for the risks posed to the heart after the menopause. Oestrogen helps to protect the arteries by reducing the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries. These deposits are responsible for causing heart disease. A reduction in oestrogen also causes the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) to rise more rapidly. Therefore, it is essential to eat a healthy, balanced diet to reduce these risks and help protect your heart.
You can help to protect your heart by:
1. Reduce Your Saturated Fat Intake
You should replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat. For example, swap spreads like butter and coconut oil for olive, rapeseed and sunflower oils or spreads made from these oils.
2. Increase Your Intake Of Oily Fish
Incorporate more fish into your diet, at least twice per week. You should also aim to have one oily fish portion per week too such as sardines, salmon or mackerel.
3. Eat More Fibre And Whole Grains
Fibre and whole grains are essential for the diet because it helps to keep our digestive system healthy. Plus, beta-glucan which is found in foods such as oats and barley may help to reduce bad cholesterol, particularly if you eat at least 3g per day.
4. Reduce The Amount Of Salt In Your Diet
Reducing salt intake is good for your heart. Sodium is needed by the body to help keep our muscles and nerves functioning properly, but too much salt and our cardiovascular system can be affected. One of the major effects is it can cause high blood pressure. Always check nutritional food labels to see how much salt is ‘hidden’ in the food you eat.
Women going through the menopause should adopt a healthy, balanced diet to help with symptoms, including weight gain.
It's also important to start adopting a healthy diet to prevent health issues in later life due to the change in hormone levels, such as heart disease and osteoporosis.
This doesn't mean you can't have the odd treat here and there, it's about eating in moderation. Eating mostly healthy foods as well as your other favourite food and treats in moderation is good for your health and happiness. Making sure you find the foods you enjoy eating that are also healthy is a great step forwards, so try experimenting with different recipes.