Managing Menopause Symptoms Through Diet
It's a simple matter of knowing which foods to add to your meals, and which to avoid.
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD
- Eat More Tofu and Soy
- Eat More Fruits and Vegetables
- Eat Beans More Often
- Eat More of the Right Fats
- Choose Your Beverages Wisely
- Be a Grazer Not a Gorger
- Eat Calcium-Rich Food Every Day
- Avoid High-Fat, High-Sugar Foods
- Add Flaxseed to Your Diet
- Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
Every woman experiences different menopause symptoms. Most women have some hot flashes, some feel irritable, a smaller number of women battle headaches, nausea or night sweats.
Whatever your menopause symptoms, the following food strategies just might help make your years around menopause a little more comfortable. I've adapted them from my book Tell Me What to Eat As I Approach Menopause. They'll help you manage your menopause symptoms, while also protecting your heart and your bones.
Remember, what works for one woman may not work for another, and what works for you now may not work as well a year from now. Also, most of the following suggestions have not had the benefit of well-designed clinical trials, so it is difficult to predict how well they will work for you.
Still, the truth is that many of the diet suggestions are things we should be doing anyway -- many years before menopause. If menopause is what finally motivates someone to make important changes in her diet and lifestyle, terrific!
Food Step 1: Eat More Tofu and Soy
Soy may give relief from hot flashes, although that benefit is still being debated by researchers. However, we do know that soy may help protect our heart and arteries by lowering bad cholesterol. Many studies have suggested that this occurs because we substitute soy for meats and animal fat in our diet. So give it a try!
Eat or drink two servings of soy a day. Soy foods will take 4 to 6 weeks to show an effect. Here are some easy ways to add soy to your diet:
Choose tofu dishes instead of meat at your local Chinese restaurant. Make instant miso soup for a quick pick-me-up snack. Make fruit smoothies with soy protein powder. Drink chocolate or plain soy milk. Buy baked tofu in the supermarket and experiment at home. Add it to salads or stir-fry dishes, even try it on crackers. Buy canned soy beans and add them to soups, chili and casseroles. Next: Foods with boron and phytoestrogens to ease menopause symptoms.
Food Step 2: Eat More Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables offer many health benefits -- fiber, vitamins, minerals and naturally low -fat. But there are also many menopausal reasons to eat these foods. Plants have chemicals that help protect our bodies' health and well-being. Phytoestrogens are particular plant chemicals that are very similar in structure to estrogen, and may act as weak estrogen in our bodies. Simply put, phytoestrogens may trick your body into thinking it has more estrogen than it really does -- potentially diminishing some of the discomforts caused by lower estrogen levels during menopause.
Quick GuideMenopause & Perimenopause: Symptoms, Signs
(One caveat: Researchers still don't know whether higher amounts of plant estrogens in the body increase the growth or risk of estrogen-sensitive cancers. Until more is known, if you have or recently have had estrogen-dependent cancer, it's probably best that you not consume phytoestrogen-rich food on a daily basis.)
The mineral boron is another beneficial element of fruits and vegetables. Boron seems to increase the body's ability to hold onto estrogen. It also helps keep our bones strong by decreasing the amount of calcium we excrete each day.
Here are top sources of boron that also contain phytoestrogens:
- Plums and prunes
- Red raspberries
- Bell peppers
- Broccoli stems
- Sweet potatoes
Food Step 3: Eat Beans More Often
Beans are a nutritionally efficient food because they offer so many health benefits in one little package. They may slow the absorption of glucose in the bloodstream, thus curbing your appetite longer. They're full of fiber. They contain phytoestrogens. They're good sources of many vitamins and minerals, including calcium, folic acid and vitamin B-6. And they are a low-fat source of protein.
Despite those benefits, most Americans eat beans only in the occasional chili or at a Mexican restaurant. Here are some ways to add beans to your diet and love them:
Sprinkle beans in your green salads and pasta salads. Add beans to soups, stews or chili that you make. Buy canned bean soups and vegetarian chili for a quick dish at home. Order bean soups or cassoulets in restaurants. Make a quick 3-bean salad by tossing a light dressing with three different types of canned beans. Make a delicious bean dip for parties. Next: The value of omega-3 fatty acids in relieving menopause symptoms.
Food Step 4: Eat More of the Right Fats
Yes, it is important to avoid eating a diet that is high in fat, especially saturated fat. High-fat foods are usually high in calories and low in nutrients, exactly the opposite of what a woman in or past menopause needs. But it's even more important to get the right fats in your diet -- fats that may protect against heart disease and cancer.
Research indicates the right fats are omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, olive oil and canola oil.
The wrong fats are saturated fats and trans fatty acids found in foods like packaged cookies, chips, and crackers.
Here are ways to build good fats into your meals, without sacrificing flavor:
Switch to olive oil and canola oil. Eat more fish. Eat less animal fat by choosing leaner meats and lower-fat dairy products. Limit foods that contain hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. Buy packaged products less often because most still used hydrogenated omega-6 oils. Avoid stick margarine. Look for tub margarine that lists liquid canola oil or olive oil as the first ingredient.
Food Step 5: Choose Your Beverages Wisely
What you choose to quench your thirst can either rob your body of important nutrients or add them. Most people believe we should drink eight glasses of water a day, but few of us do. Water helps keeps our kidneys flushed.
On the other hand caffeine is a diuretic, which means it forces our kidneys to get rid of more water than they should. This can encourage dehydration. Caffeine, alcohol, and carbonated beverages such as soft drinks also don't do your bones any favors. Some lower the amount of calcium your body takes in from food, and others increase the amount of calcium your body loses through the kidneys.
Try drinking a glass of juice each day instead. Most citrus fruits, in general, contain more than a hundred phytochemicals. What happens to these when an orange or grapefruit is "juiced?" Many of them remain, especially if you buy juice with pulp.
Here are a few fun juices to stock in your fridge:
Orange juice. Calcium-fortified orange or orange-tangerine juice gives you a nice dose of calcium along with vitamin C and folic acid. Carrot juice. It takes getting used to, but carrot juice can be refreshing, not to mention very nutritious. Carrots give us at least three important phytochemicals: phenolic acids, terpenes and carotenoids (including beta carotene). Purple grape juice. There are some powerful antioxidants to be found in these purple gems. In fact, the same beneficial antioxidants that are in red wine are also found in nonalcoholic grape juice. Next: Calcium and small portions hit the mark with menopause symptoms.
Food Step 6: Be a Grazer Not a Gorger
Many women eat their largest meal of the day at the end of the day -- dinner. And many women eat light during the day when our body needs fuel the most -- breakfast and lunch. When you do this, your body is more likely to store much of those calories as body fat because your body is metabolizing all those dinner calories at a time you are burning the fewest calories - when you're asleep.
There are many reasons to become a grazer: Studies have shown that people who eat small, frequent meals throughout the day tend to consume fewer calories and fat grams at the end of the day. Here's another potential weight-loss payoff: You burn more calories metabolizing food when you spread it throughout the day. Grazing also prevents tiredness brought on by drops in blood glucose, and it's easier on your stomach.
Eating big dinners is a tough habit to break, especially if your family is accustomed to such meals. Here are some changes you can incorporate a little at a time. Soon you'll enjoy a light and comfortable dinner.
Serve lower fat dinners and desserts as often as possible. Serve small or moderate portions at dinner and dessert. Select meals that lend themselves to lightness, such as all-in-one dishes, hearty soups, and dinner salads. Discourage late-night snacking and big desserts. Many people eat at night because they're bored. Instead of eating, take a relaxing bath, read a good book, listen to music, or catch up with friends on the phone.
Quick GuideMenopause & Perimenopause: Symptoms, Signs
Food Step 7: Eat Calcium-Rich Food Every Day
Calcium is essential to a woman's health as she ages. Most women should get at least 1,000 to 1,500 mg of calcium from food. But what if you don't like milk? Here are some alternative suggestions that may appeal to you:
Make your oatmeal or hot cereal with water instead of milk. Order a decaf latte with low-fat or non-fat milk. Drink a cup of chocolate soy milk each day. Take a vitamin mineral supplement that contains 100% of the daily value for vitamin D and 25% of the daily value for calcium. Eat broccoli, a leafy green vegetable, or beans. Try some great-tasting low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, or cheese. Just one cup of yogurt would add 345 mgs of calcium to your daily total. Enjoy creamed soups using low-fat milk instead of cream. Buy orange juice fortified with calcium. Next: The benefits of flaxseed and a low-sugar diet in easing menopause symptoms.
Food Step 8: Avoid High-Fat, High-Sugar Foods
At this time in your life, preventing weight gain is important. Now, more than ever, women need to minimize extra calories, especially from high-fat, high-sugar foods that don't offer a bounty of nutrients. We addressed fats in Food Step 4. There are equally valuable reasons to know your sugar.
Too much sugar in your diet can cause your blood sugar to spike, which stimulates the pancreas to release more of the hormone insulin. Excess insulin accelerates the conversion of calories into fats in the blood. And it stimulates the enzyme that increases the uptake of fat from the bloodstream into fat in the body's cells.
The easiest way to avoid high-sugar foods is to understand what they are:
Americans consume 21% of our refined sugar from soft drinks. 18% comes from sweets, including syrups, jellies, jam, ices, Popsicles and table sugar. 13% comes from bakery desserts, including cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, and sweet crackers. 10% comes from ice cream, puddings, yogurts and other milk products. 6% comes from breads and grains. 5% come from breakfast cereals.
Food Step 9: Add Flaxseed to Your Diet
Flaxseed is just now being studied in humans, mostly for its cholesterol-lowering benefits and tumor-reducing properties with some types of cancers. We'll know much more about its true health benefits in the coming years.
Yet flaxseed has actually been around and used as food and medicine for hundreds of years. We know that flaxseed is an extraordinary source of the phytoestrogen lignans, containing 75 to 800 times as much as other plant sources. Lignans are thought to lower cancer risk by blocking some effects of the estrogen your body naturally produces.
It's also packed with the plant form of omega-3 fatty acids, called alpha-linolenic acid. The omega-3s in flaxseed may help prevent blood clots that might lead to heart attacks, according to Stephen Cunnane, PhD, a University of Toronto nutrition researcher.
But some people are highly allergic to flaxseed, so follow these tips to add it gradually to your diet:
Start with 1/4 teaspoon of ground flaxseed a day, and increase the amount gradually if you don't have a reaction. Work up to 1 teaspoon a few times a week as a moderate approach. Women at high risk of breast cancer are taking up to 2 tablespoons a day in clinical trials, but you may want to wait until more is known about the optimum daily dose before consuming that amount. Remember, flaxseed oil won't work, because oil does not contain phytoestrogens, the plant form of estrogen. Also, you must grind the flaxseeds; if you don't, the whole seeds will just pass through your digestive system. Next: Manage your weight through exercise.
Food Step 10: Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
Exercise isn't a food, but it is tied into your diet. There are so many benefits of exercise during menopause that it deserves to be included in these 10 important steps.
Exercising during menopause will help decrease blood cholesterol levels, decrease bone loss, improve your ability to deal with stress, improve circulation, improve heart function and improve your body's ability to use oxygen and nutrients.
And, of course, exercise is an ideal way to manage weight. Many women gain considerable weight in their 40s. This could result from the age-related drop in our metabolic rate. Or it could be caused by a reduction in physical activity as we age. Either way, exercise is your best defense.
Make exercise a priority and a habit. Here are three regimens to follow, depending on your level of fitness and your doctor's advice.
To Start: Frequency: 2 to 3 times a week. Intensity: 40% maximum heart rate. Duration: 15 to 30 minutes.
To Become Physically Fit: Frequency: 4 times a week. Intensity: 70-90% maximum heart rate. Duration: 15 to 30 minutes.
To Lose Weight: Frequency: 5 times a week. Intensity: 45-60% maximum heart rate. Duration: 45 to 60 minutes.
Originally published Sept. 20, 2002.
Edited by Charlotte E. Grayson MD, September, 2002. Adapted, with permission of the publisher, from TELL ME WHAT TO EAT AS I APPROACH MENOPAUSE
© 2002 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.
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