Hot flashes, irritability, weight gain, and mood swings—put together, they make menopause a dreaded phase of a woman’s life. You’ve likely heard a lot of negatives about “the change.” Counter those messages with this primer on the things that can help you get through this transition more easily, primarily by following a menopause diet and making lifestyle changes.
What is menopause?
Menopause is a normal part of a woman’s aging process. Menopausal transition, or perimenopause, usually begins four years before last menses. Perimenopause is characterized by irregular menstrual periods, mood changes, and hot flashes. Menopause is when a woman does not have a menstrual period for 12 months. The median age of menopause is 51.4 years. PerimenopauseI menopause is due to a complete, or near complete, depletion of ovarian follicles followed by a state of low estrogen and high follicle-stimulating hormone levels.
These hormonal changes trigger the following subtle and not-so-subtle symptoms of menopause according to the National Institute on Aging:
- Mood swings and irritability
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Vaginal dryness
- Decreased sex drive
- Urinary incontinence
- Sleep problems
- Memory problems
- Heart palpitations
- Weight gain
- Poor bone health or density
- Decreased muscle mass
Fortunately, not every woman will have every symptom. Making dietary changes, decreasing stress, exercising, and getting enough sleep can help to alleviate these issues.
What is the best diet for menopause?
The Mediterranean diet, popular in Greece and Italy, is a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, fish, and olive oil. The Mediterranean diet includes rare red meat consumption, which helps to reduce saturated fat. The plant proteins (such as walnuts) increase antioxidants.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reports that the Mediterranean diet is excellent for heart health, blood pressure, brain health, and weight loss. And, it just so happens it may decrease menopausal symptoms, too.
“The traditional Mediterranean diet is void of processed foods like refined carbohydrates and integrates healthy fats,” says Trista Best, RD, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements. “Both of these characteristics are excellent for women going through menopause because it is naturally anti-inflammatory and loaded with beneficial nutrients.”
13 foods to eat during menopause
A menopause diet plan involves a few key steps:
- Eat a well-rounded diet rich calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. Increase your consumption of fruits, greens, colorful vegetables, and dairy products—such as yogurt, cheese, and milk. “The decline in estrogen as women go through menopause obviously increases their risk for certain things like osteoporosis, so getting foods rich in calcium is very important,” says Soma Mandal, MD, women’s health specialist and author of Dear Menopause, I Do Not Fear You.
- Consume omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows that omega-3s can decrease the frequency of hot flashes and the intensity of night sweats. “There are times when you can supplement omega-3s, but I really encourage my patients to get their omega-3s first through food, which includes fish such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna and vegetarian sources like flax seeds and chia seeds,” says Dr. Mandal.
- Add foods containing plant estrogens, or phytoestrogens. Broccoli, cauliflower, dark berries, chickpeas, and soybeans can help mimic estrogen and reduce some menopausal symptoms, says Dr. Mandal.
The following foods can help strengthen bones and relieve menopause symptoms:
- Dark green leafy vegetables, especially spinach and kale
- Fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna
- Flax and chia seeds
- Broccoli and cauliflower
- Blueberries and other dark berries
- Dark fruits like plums
- Black tea
- Chickpeas and other legumes
- Soybeans or foods like tofu, tempeh, and soy milk
If you find you can’t take in enough of these nutrients through a healthy diet alone, “a calcium and magnesium supplement may be beneficial during this time as well,” says Best.
4 types of foods that can make menopause worse
“Diet can impact a woman’s menopause symptoms in both a positive and negative way,” says Best. Eliminating, or cutting back on, the following things can help improve how you feel.
- Processed foods: “The rule of thumb I tell patients is to eat as close to the natural state as possible,” says Dr. Mandal. “If it comes in a bag or plastic wrapper, try to avoid those kinds of foods because most likely those are very processed foods.”
- Refined carbohydrates: For instance, white rice, pasta, and potatoes, are linked to spikes in blood sugar and an increase in insulin resistance—and hot flashes. Instead, opt for whole grains such as brown rice. Cut back on sugary foods like cookies, cakes, and candy.
- Alcohol: It can exacerbate menopausal symptoms. “If you’re drinking more than one alcoholic beverage a day—more than five ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer—that can not only make hot flashes worse but make you prone to the mood swings and irritability that can happen with menopause,” says Dr. Mandal.
- Spicy foods: They aren’t necessarily bad for you, but they can bring on hot flashes for some, so women may try cutting back on spicy foods if they notice worsening symptoms after eating them.
Dealing with weight gain during menopause
When estrogen levels decline in midlife, many women may have weight gain, despite no change in their day-to-day habits. During menopause “you have to be that much more careful of what you’re eating and drinking,” says Dr. Mandal.
Some tips for managing body weight during menopause include:
- Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. Use portion control when adding the starches and proteins that complete your meal.
- Move your body daily whether you consider it exercise or just a walk. The more active you can stay, the better for weight control. Any physical activity counts, even housework and gardening.
- Reduce stress. The more stressed you are, the more difficult it will be to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. The stress hormone cortisol is highest when you’re under duress, and it’s linked to heart disease, diabetes, and worsening menopause symptoms—including weight gain.
- Prioritize sleep. If you’re not sleeping well, which in itself is a symptom of menopause, it can impact hormone levels even further, explains Dr. Mandal. And it can make it much more difficult to lose weight. When you’re sleep deprived, your body craves simple carbs to replenish low energy.
“If you’re not taking care of yourself, if you’re not eating properly, sleeping properly, you’re stressed out, then your cortisol levels will be higher, and your menopausal symptoms, including weight gain, may be worse,” says Dr. Mandal. Prioritizing a healthy lifestyle can help to eliminate some of the negative parts of your menopause experience.