A menopause diet is an eating plan recommended to meet the nutritional needs of women undergoing menopause, which is the permanent end of menstruation and fertility. The menopause diet is intended to help alleviate symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, weight gain, and increased risk of osteoporosis and heart disease. There is no single menopause diet, and dietary recommendations for aiding menopause vary widely.
The menopause diet is not a formal diet but rather a set of guidelines designed to reduce health risks associated with menopause and aging. Menopause is a normal hormonal change in a woman's body that marks the end of menstruation and fertility. A woman reaches menopause when she has not had a period for 12 consecutive months. The changes leading up to menopause can start when a woman is in her 30s or 40s, as her body begins to produce less of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. Periods become irregular, and a woman may experience hot flashes and have trouble sleeping. This time of transition is known as perimenopause. About 65%–75% of women experience hot flashes, and these symptoms usually occur toward the end of perimenopause, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Postmenopause, hormones remain at low levels. Some women may continue to experience symptoms such as hot flashes, but these usually diminish. The decrease in estrogen places women at risk for conditions including osteoporosis, caused by a loss of bone mass (thickness) and strength. Bone density generally begins to decrease in women during their forties, but this decline accelerates after menopause. Women with this condition are at higher risk of bone fractures. The aging process also brings a change in metabolism that causes people to burn fewer calories, which can lead to weight gain. Postmenopausal weight gain is very common.
Certain foods may exacerbate symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, also known as vascular motor events (VMEs). According to the Mayo Clinic, common food triggers for VMEs include hot beverages, spicy food, and alcohol. Caffeine may worsen sleeping problems, so women experiencing trouble sleeping should limit caffeine intake.
An effective menopause diet is based on foods that provide benefits for overall health and for the specific needs of a woman going through menopause. There are no consistent dietary guidelines for menopausal women, and expert recommendations often contradict each other. A number of dietary supplements are recommended to treat the symptoms of menopause, but there is little scientific evidence that these are effective.
Many health organizations, such as the Mayo Clinic and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommend that women adopt a low-fat, high-fiber diet that is rich in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, possibly with reduced calories if weight loss is needed. Calcium-rich foods should be included because they are vital for bone health. The Mayo Clinic also recommends regular exercise for 30 minutes or more on most days of the week. Moderate physical activity like walking helps maintain a healthy weight and supports bone strength. In addition, exercise relieves stress, which may help improve mood swings and sleep patterns. Other stress reduction techniques include meditation and yoga.
Calcium and vitamin D are crucial to bone health. Vitamin B12 is also important, as it helps in the production of red blood cells and supports brain and nervous system function. It is preferred that people obtain required nutrients from food, rather than supplements, whenever possible. According to the Office on Women's Health, recommended dietary allowances for women of menopause age include:
Iron intake is also important. Eating at least three servings of iron-rich foods a day will help ensure that an adequate amount of iron is present in the daily diet. Iron is found in lean red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, leafy green vegetables, nuts, and enriched-grain products. Absorption of iron from nonmeat sources is enhanced by the presence of vitamin C at the same meal. Sources include citrus fruit and juice, peppers, tomatoes, berries, and kiwi fruit.
Fiber is an important part of any diet and is thought to help lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure and inflammation, and control blood sugar. Sources of dietary fiber include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Soluble fiber, which is found in foods including legumes and oat bran, helps to slow digestion so that a person feels full for longer. This sense of fullness, known as satiety, helps with weight loss. Soluble fiber may help decrease cholesterol levels, which lowers the risk for heart disease. Insoluble fiber, known as roughage, helps to prevent constipation and is found in vegetables and whole grains.
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) that are vital to human health and are thought to help prevent heart disease and stroke. Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and shellfish, are high in omega-3s. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that people eat fish at least twice a week to support heart health. Some fish are known to contain mercury, which may affect older adults more severely than younger adults; however, the AHA states that the benefits of fish consumption “far outweigh” the potential risks when the amount of fish eaten is within the recommendations established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
A 2009 study published in the journal Menopause found that taking omega-3 supplements reduced the number of hot flashes in some menopausal women; however, further research is needed. Omega-3 fatty acids are widely considered an essential component of a healthy diet, so many experts recommend supplementation for all people, not just menopausal women.
PHYTOESTROGENS. Phytoestrogens are estrogens that occur naturally in certain foods. There are two types of phytoestrogens: lignans (compounds found in plants that mimic the effect of estrogen) and isoflavones (found in soybeans, chickpeas, and other legumes). Phytoestrogens are often promoted in supplements as treatments for menopause-related symptoms such as hot flashes; however, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), there is not enough evidence to support these claims. Women with certain conditions, including those at higher risk for breast, uterine, or ovarian cancer; endometriosis; or uterine fibroids should exercise caution in taking phytoestrogens, as should women taking drugs that increase estrogen.
Some women take herbal remedies to relieve the symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and night sweats. These products are considered dietary supplements and are not regulated by the FDA. Manufacturers of dietary supplements do not have to prove that their products are safe or effective as long as they do not claim to prevent, treat, or cure any disease. The NCCAM tracks and funds research on alternative remedies, including some of those used to treat menopause. Some herbal remedies for menopause studied by the NCCAM include:
Exercise is thought to be beneficial to women during menopause to help relieve stress and promote health. Yoga is thought help reduce the number of hot flashes in perimenopausal women. Federal physical guidelines recommend doing:
A menopause diet is a healthy eating plan that provides the nutrients needed as a woman ages and goes through menopause. As metabolism slows, smart dietary choices provide the nutrition and calories necessary to maintain a healthy weight and prevent conditions such as osteoporosis. Physical activity may also help relieve some of the symptoms of menopause.
Women should consult with their doctors before beginning any new diet or exercise plan. They should also discuss use of dietary supplements with their doctors. Both dietary and herbal supplements may interact with prescription medications.
There are generally no risks with following a nutritionally balanced diet and medically approved exercise plan. There are risks, however, related to taking dietary supplements, including DHEA, dong quai, and red clover. Women interested in herbal treatments for menopause should speak with their doctors.
There is some thought that consuming flaxseed might help alleviate symptoms of menopause, including night sweats and hot flashes, due to its phytoestrogen content—flaxseed is the richest source of dietary lignans. A study published in 2015 found that flaxseed decreased menopausal symptoms and improved quality of life.
A low-fat diet may help to reduce or eliminate hot flashes, according to a study of 17,473 postmenopausal women between the ages of 50 and 79. The study, described in the July 9, 2012, online issue of Menopause, focused on women in the United States who participated in the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) Dietary Modification trial and were not undergoing hormone therapy. The WHI was launched in 1991 by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health to address health issues related to menopause.
The study was part of a larger WHI research initiative on the effect of a low-fat diet on heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, and fractures in postmenopausal women. The full WHI study involved about 49,000 women, with 40% of participants following a low-fat eating plan. Research on hot flashes and night sweats associated with menopause concentrated on the 17,473 postmenopausal women for one year. Their diet was characterized as reduced fat (20% of calories from fat) with increased intake of fruits and vegetables (five servings per day) and whole grains (six servings per day).
Women who lost more than 10 pounds (4.54 kilograms) by the end of the year were more likely to eliminate hot flashes than women who maintained their weight, according to the analysis. Researchers concluded that weight loss through healthy diet modifications (as opposed to fad diets) was associated with the reduction of symptoms.
There is, however, no universal agreement that a low-fat diet is in fact the best diet for menopausal women. A number of experts suggest that a low-fat diet, which is by necessity high in carbohydrates, is itself a significant cause of weight gain and possibly other hormone-related menopausal symptoms. Advocates of a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet claim that the consumption of carbohydrates causes spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels, resulting in uncontrollable appetite, insulin resistance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Investigative journalist Nina Teicholz has called into question the foundation of recommendations for a low-fat diet and suggested that a healthy diet might in fact include a significant amount of fat, including saturated fat. Many menopausal women who have tried low-carbohydrate diets have found that they are an effective way of managing menopausal symptoms and keeping off unwanted weight.
See also Caffeine ; Calcium ; DHEA ; Dietary supplements ; Flaxseed ; High-fiber diet ; Iron ; Low-fat diet ; Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids ; Vitamin B12 ; Vitamin D .
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North American Menopause Society, 5900 Landerbrook Dr., Ste. 390, Mayfield Heights, OH, 44124, 1 (440) 442-7550, Fax: (440) 442-2660, email@example.com, http://www.menopause.org .
Monique Laberge, PhD
Revised by Amy Hackney Blackwell, PhD