Diet and Menopause: What You Need to Know
The season of menopause can be strikingly different for every woman. Yet, there is one common factor that may significantly influence the details of how we each experience our own midlife change: what we eat.
Why diet impacts your menopausal hormones
With so much evidence out there supporting the link between our dietary habits and our risk for developing certain diseases, it may come as no surprise that nutrition also appears to play a role in the balance (or imbalance) of our hormones during menopause. Furthermore, the foods we eat can determine how our hormone pattern manifests, physically and mentally, in our everyday lives - something many of us would probably love to have more input on! So, whether you’re just starting to experience symptoms of perimenopause or in full-blown night sweat mode, now is the time to be thinking about how your diet may be impacting your hormonal health. You may have more control than you think, for better or for worse.
Nutrition and age at menopause
Though it may seem that research into women’s health is abundant, this is, unfortunately, not the case. Furthermore, when it comes to understanding the relationship between diet and menopause, this is still somewhat new territory and has shown mixed results. Several studies have been done on how nutrition might impact the age at which women stop menstruating but have not been consistent enough to draw many hard conclusions. The timing of menopause is worth our attention because, although the average age of onset is 51 years, earlier onset has been associated with lower bone density and increased risk for osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and depression, while later onset is associated with increased risk for breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers. Earlier onset has also been associated with earlier cognitive decline.
Can diet delay menopause?
One recent study suggests that eating an overall healthy diet may delay the onset of menopause by a few years. This was especially seen among women who ate more vitamin B6 (found in chickpeas, potatoes, organ meats, and fatty fish) and zinc (found in whole grains, meats, beans, and nuts). Researchers think this could be partly due to a protective effect on our eggs from the antioxidants found in legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) and omega 3 fatty acids in certain fish. Refined carbohydrates (like packaged snack foods, white breads and pastas) seem to have the opposite effect, possibly because these types of foods increase our risk for insulin resistance and could negatively impact the balance and production of female hormones.
How diet impacts menopausal symptoms
Studies have also been conducted to understand how nutrition may impact specific menopausal symptoms and side effects. Unintended weight gain is commonly reported. Muscle mass typically diminishes with age as the body goes through a lot of metabolic changes during this time, leading to a slower rate at which we use calories and an increased rate of fat storage. A diet based on whole, nutrient-rich foods can help to prevent excess weight gain, which increases the risk for things like insulin resistance, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. A recent study on postmenopausal Chinese women found that those who consumed at least four servings of vegetables per day, especially dark green leafy vegetables, as well as corn and tubers, had lower LDL cholesterol and better lipid profiles. In fact, they were 33% less likely to have high LDL cholesterol, which is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Other frequently reported symptoms of menopause include sweating, hot flashes, sleep disturbances, anxiety, interrupted concentration, and fatigue. Another 2018 study looking at the correlation between dietary intake of antioxidant compounds and reported symptoms in 400 postmenopausal middle-aged women found an inverse relationship. Those who consumed more antioxidants, which are abundant in colorful plant foods (especially in berries, beans, dark leafy greens, and dark chocolate), reported fewer symptoms.
Here's how to balance your menopause through diet
Choosing nutritious foods can also help minimize inflammation throughout the body, which in turn, can support hormone balance during menopause. Highly processed foods (like packaged snacks and cookies), even though they taste delicious, can contribute to hormonal imbalance and increase risk for depression in postmenopausal women. Avoiding excessive sugar and refined carbohydrates, and regularly choosing healthy fats (like unsaturated fats from plant foods) appear to be some of the best habits to adopt.
Because hormonal changes during menopause increase a woman’s risk for developing osteoporosis and experiencing bone fractures, consuming an adequate amount of vitamin D and calcium as we age is important for supporting bone strength. Great sources of these nutrients include tofu, sardines, beans, fortified cereals and orange juice, plant-based milks, and green leafy vegetables like kale, collard greens, and spinach. A high intake of fruits and vegetables has been associated with preventing low bone mineral density.
Eating a diet rich in plant foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds, will also ensure a higher fiber intake. We know that fiber supports digestive health, but it also helps with fullness, reduces the hormone ghrelin (which makes us feel hungry), weight loss and healthy weight maintenance, and reduces risk for chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Fiber is an important nutrient at every age but can be especially beneficial during menopause and the aging process when we are at increased risk for weight gain and developing chronic disease.
Which foods trigger amplified menopause symptoms?
Some women report noticing a correlation between eating certain foods and experiencing certain menopausal symptoms, sometimes in a more amplified way (as if we need that). Caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and spicy foods may trigger hot flashes, night sweats, and insomnia for some women and may best be avoided, especially later in the day or right before bedtime. Choose decaf as much as possible and natural sugars, like fruit, for dessert if you tend to have a sweet tooth.
Foods that contain phytoestrogens, which may mimic estrogen in the body (but are not the same thing), can help manage some menopausal symptoms, as demonstrated in a study on perimenopausal women who did not have high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In fact, the high intake of whole soy foods like tofu, tempeh, miso and edamame in Asian countries is thought to be why menopausal women in these areas do not experience symptoms like women in the United States do. Soy foods can easily be incorporated into everyday meals, like stir-fry, homemade veggie burgers, sandwiches, and salads.
Menopause may, unfortunately, not be our hard-earned free pass to throw caution to the wind nutritionally and eat whatever we want all the time, but that’s not to say there’s never going to be room for comfort food again. It seems a diet rich in plants offers the most benefit for hormone balance, but also for overall health and risk for disease during menopause. Like anything else in life, finding your balance is key when it comes to the dietary habits that will best support your body through this female rite of passage. We may have more control than we think, using the power of our fork!
Whether you’re just starting to dip your toes into perimenopause, continuing to experience symptoms into postmenopause, or simply looking for some guidance on what to expect in the coming years of life, we’re here for you! For more information and support around your menopause journey, as well as ideas for symptom relief, join us over at Lisa Health.
Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and speaker who helps families transition to plant-based lifestyles. She can be found at laurenpanoff.com or on Instagram @chronicplanet.