Hitting menopause is a game-changer for our bodies and trying to tackle it with the diet tricks of old simply won’t work. Whether you’re navigating it in your 40s or 50s, a new nutritional approach is needed to combat declining oestrogen levels and to help with the avalanche of symptoms, from insomnia and hot flushes to brain fog and weight gain.
“While it may be tempting to go on a restricted diet that may have worked for you in your 20s and 30s, this is no longer the right approach because you don’t have oestrogen and have a different body,” says menopause dietitian Nigel Denby. “You now need all the food groups to get the protection back that oestrogen once gave you and this is the beauty of the menopause – it triggers important lifestyle changes and allows you to break free from faddy diets.” Here’s how to eat your way through the menopause:
Balance your blood sugar
Carbs are no longer the baddies. In fact, during the menopause, they are very much our friends. “Balancing blood sugar levels is key to tackling brain fog, mood swings and tiredness, and my favourite carbohydrate balancing approach for menopause is the Mediterranean diet, which is a nutritious plan for life rather than a restrictive diet,” says menopause nutritionist Charlotte Hunter. “It combines plant-based foods such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruit, and healthy oils with eggs and fish and moderate amounts of lean meat.”
Too much of the sweet stuff in refined cakes, biscuits and chocolate can play havoc with blood sugar levels and lead to cravings, which contribute to brain fog, irritability, insomnia, low mood and excess belly fat, so it’s best to steer clear.
Tryptophan, found in poultry, fish and milk, is important for our serotonin (happy hormone) and melatonin (sleep hormone) production and can help with sleep, mood, cognition and memory – vital during these menopause years when our faculties seem to falter. Nuts, seeds, eggs, and spinach – “always serve wilted to maximise absorption of nutrients from it,” adds Hunter – are also high in tryptophan.
“Eggs are a great choice for breakfast – with avocado and smoked salmon, you’ll have no room for the bread!” says Hunter. “Quinoa is a carb with higher protein content, so is great in salads or as a side instead of rice. My magic formula is protein + veg + oil with carbs + fruit on the side. Ideally, three meals a day and an afternoon snack if you really need one, which can be snack bars made from nuts and dried fruit or add a handful of nuts with a few squares of dark chocolate. The protein and fibre in nuts and seeds slow down the absorption of sugar into your blood and you’ll also get more antioxidants the darker the chocolate you choose.”
Protect your heart
Traditionally, women have had a much lower risk of contracting heart disease because oestrogen helps keep the arteries flexible and supple, but as oestrogen levels fall, the risk of heart disease rises to the same level as men.
“Taking HRT will give some of this protection back but otherwise, there has to be a focus on eating heart-healthy foods,” says Denby.
This involves increasing our intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, by eating one to two servings of oily fish – salmon, trout, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, pilchards – a week.
“It’s only about the size of a pack of cards a week and you don’t have to cook the fish from scratch,” adds Denby. “A smoked salmon sandwich or a portion of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs will suffice.”
Keeping cholesterol down by eating more soluble fibre will help too. “Soluble fibre sucks up unwanted cholesterol and takes it out of the body,” says Denby. “It can be found in porridge oats, peas, beans and lentils.”
Top up your calcium
Oestrogen protects our bones from a rapid turnover of density and without it, our bone density decreases, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and making us vulnerable to fractures and breaks. So we need to increase our intake of calcium during menopause to maintain our bone health.
“Menopausal women need 800mg of calcium a day, which is a minimum of three servings a day of dairy-rich foods,” says Denby. “A serving can be 200ml of milk with cereal, a 25g piece of cheese or a 125g pot of yoghurt. If you choose non-dairy alternatives, make sure they’re calcium-enriched like soya milk – oat milk or rice milk are just white water.”
Vitamin D – which our skin makes in response to sunlight – helps our bones absorb calcium but, in this country, it is severely lacking, especially in the winter months.
“Spreads that aren’t butter – Olivio or Flora, for example – are fortified with it but it’s going to be a struggle getting it from dietary sources alone so I’d recommend a 10mcg supplement a day,” says Denby.
Vaginal dryness and atrophy are little-talked-about symptoms of menopause that can have a devastating effect on post-50 sex life. “Mucilaginous foods help soothe inflammation and protect mucous membranes and have been shown to help with vaginal dryness and atrophy,” says nutritional therapist Melissa Cohen. High mucilaginous foods include okra, flaxseeds, aloe vera and the herb (not the sweet) marshmallow.
“The best way to extract mucilage from okra is by soaking it in a large bowl of water overnight then squeezing the mucilage from the okra into a glass and drinking it – it tastes like coconut water,” adds Cohen. “Marshmallow herbs can be drunk in a mug of tea and two tablespoons of flaxseeds – a mild plant form of oestrogen – can be added to smoothies, granola and salads. Aloe vera juice – around 25ml – can be bought and drunk straight from the bottle or diluted in water.”
Calm hot flushes and night sweats
According to Hunter, if you’re struggling with hot flushes and night sweats, now’s the time to decrease or even ditch caffeine and alcohol altogether. “Stimulants like caffeine and alcohol can contribute to poor blood sugar control and increase levels of cortisol, our stress hormone, which can upset the delicate hormonal balance during menopause,” she says. “Choose herbal teas like nettle, a natural anti-inflammatory, or camomile, a calming herb to promote restful sleep, and if you need something to get you going first thing, choose green tea, which is lower in caffeine and higher in antioxidants.”
Eat little and often
The lack of oestrogen changes the way our body lays down fat and it reduces our metabolic rate and shifts fat for storage around the middle. “Seventy-five per cent of women will gain up to 10kg during the perimenopause/menopause stage as you start laying fat down like a man – giving you a more straight up and down shape than hourglass – because of the greater amount of visceral fat which wraps around your internal organs,” says Denby.
Eating on the run or without thinking will now have devastating consequences for your waistline, so eating should be more mindful.
“It’s time to look at portion size and try to reduce your daily intake by 500 calories if possible,” says Denby. ‘Look at your plate and make sure half is filled with veg and salad, one quarter protein and one quarter carbohydrates. The aim is to feel satisfied rather than stuffed after a meal and to keep your blood sugar steady throughout the day with three meals and planned snacks in between. You want to come to a meal hungry, but not ravenous.”
Making these dietary changes shouldn’t feel too onerous, especially when you think of the long-term results.
“In the past women wouldn’t live long past the menopause but now there could be another 40 years ahead,” says Denby. “That’s why these are lifelong lifestyle changes rather than a quick fix. It’s about preserving your mental and physical health for much longer.”
See the first part of our menopause series: How to exercise your way to a better menopause