As many members will know first-hand, menopause is a very significant stage of a woman's life, bringing multiple challenges. One well-documented challenge is weight gain, which many women report experiencing. On top of this, the menopause can also increase a woman’s risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. These known changes lead many women to ask whether they should be following a specific diet to meet their dietary needs during and after the menopause. I'll delve into that question further here.
The general advice for women going through menopause is to follow the guidelines for a healthy balanced diet. There's no need to cut out food groups or significantly reduce any particular nutrients. Some people believe cutting back on carbs is necessary – but there isn't any evidence to support this. It's more about making sure you choose the right types of carbs – wholemeal, high-fibre varieties. So, foods like Weetabix, oats, Shredded Wheat, wholemeal bread, wholegrain rice, wholewheat pasta and quinoa.
However...there are specific considerations
On top of following the general healthy eating guidelines, peri and post-menopausal women do have a couple of specific dietary needs to consider which I've explained below.
- Calcium – due to the reduction in oestrogen levels during the menopause, our bones can start to lose calcium at a faster rate at this time. It is therefore extra important that we meet our body's calcium needs each day. In the UK it's recommended we have 700mg calcium per day – which we can get from 3 portions of dairy foods (200ml milk, 125g yogurt, 30g cheddar cheese for example). Post-menopausal women however are recommended to aim for 1,200mg calcium per day. The best sources of calcium are dairy foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese. If you don't eat dairy foods there are many calcium fortified dairy-free alternatives available now – just make sure they are fortified with calcium. Calcium is also best absorbed in small amounts at a time, so it's best to stagger your calcium intake throughout the day.
- Vitamin D – this is also important for bone health as it plays an essential role in the absorption of calcium. We make most of this from exposure to sunlight, so during the summer months aim to have short periods outside in direct sunlight to help build up your vitamin D stores. Certain factors affect how well our skin can make vitamin D – for example darker skin tones will need more sun exposure to make the same amount as people with lighter skin tones. Speak to your doctor if you have any questions around your personal needs or any concerns about your vitamin D levels. During winter months, it's recommended that everyone takes a 10mcg vitamin D supplement each day – and actually, post-menopausal women are recommended to consider taking a supplement all year round. Not many foods are good sources of vitamin D, but there are a few which are good dietary sources and should be included as part of a balanced diet. These include oily fish, eggs, certain fortified breakfast cereals, certain mushrooms if it's stated they contain vitamin D on the packaging, and some margarines.
- Soya products – soya and soya products such as soya milk, yogurts and tofu can be useful foods to include in your diet. These are rich in natural plant oestrogens which can help balance out the hormonal changes that are happening. Often these products are enriched with calcium which is important.
Keeping a healthy heart
As our risk of cardiovascular disease can increase during the menopause, it's a very important time to focus on the most heart healthy diet. Here are our heart friendly diet tips:
- Limit saturated fat in products like fatty meats, butter, cakes and fried foods, and increase your intake of unsaturated fats - so eat more oily fish, avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds.
- Keep salt intake low to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Avoid adding to foods and limit your intake of stocks, soy sauce, processed meats and salty snacks.
- Eat plenty of fibre – aim for at least 30g per day. Best choices are fresh or dried fruits, vegetables, wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta, wholegrain rice, potatoes with the skin on, pulses and flaxseed.
Things to limit
Although it's not specifically stated that menopausal women should completely cut anything out of their diet – it is a time when special consideration should be given to caffeine and alcohol consumption levels. A little is fine, but too much of these can exacerbate symptoms such as hot flushes and anxiety symptoms.
Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.