We all know that what we eat affects our general health and wellbeing and as we age we need to eat a healthier diet with less sugar and unsaturated fat. But for women going through menopause (peri and post) there are so much more to be aware of.
What we eat, how we eat, when we eat and why, are all important.
While modern science attributes menopausal symptoms to the inevitable drop in estrogen hormone levels, the Indian health system of Ayurveda attributes these changes to women moving into the Age of Vata, or Wisdom.
Modern medicine encourages women to combat menopause symptoms (and the associated health risks to your heart and bones) by losing weight, exercising more, eating a healthy calorie controlled diet rich in calcium, protein - and taking HRT hormone replacement therapy if you are at risk of osteoporosis. Modern nutritionists also advocate eating plant sources of phytoestrogens (*see more below) to replace lost estrogen.
Ayurveda encourages you to accept that you are moving into a different stage of your life rather than clinging on to a past identity of your self. It offers foods to increase our 'Rasayana' or life juice/vitality, it provides guidelines on foods to avoid or consume more of as we become more Vata (linked to the Air/Wind element) which is characterised by dry skin, thirst, feeling unsteady 'blown about by the wind' and afraid or unrooted.
It encourages us to see Menopause as an opportunity for us to become knowledgeable about our own bodies and the changes we experience - so that we come through this stage feeling healthier, happier - wiser. (I will write more about Vata in another article).
Nurture & Nourish
My Menopause Yoga combines both of these healthcare systems and encourages women to approach every aspect of their lives from the intention of Nurturing & Nourishing yourself.
This is not the age in which to reproach ourselves for not meeting an unrealistic physical ideal - this is a time to feel comfortable in our own skins, to practice self love and care.
Here's a summary:
Weight gain and middle age spread
The drop in levels of the female hormone oestrogen causes a shift in where the body deposits fat. It usually moves from your hips to your middle, creating 'middle age spread' as your waist expands. Going up a dress size isn't a problem in itself - but weight around our waist is associated with casdiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, depression.
It stands to reason that we need to change what we eat to either prevent extreme weight gain, or to lose extra pounds.
During this stage of our lives, we lose muscle which turns to fat. Fat burns less calories than muscle so we gain more weight. So we need to build more muscle through exercise and manage our food intake.
However, crash diets will not work at this age, and can exacerbate your menopausal symptoms. Here's why:
During perimenopause, your hormone levels peak and trough through the day causing mood swings, energy highs and lows, irritability, anxiety, hot flushes etc., These peaks and troughs are exacerbated by food and drinks containing caffeine and sugar that give you short term highs and lows. If you skip meals you are likely to become more irritable, have less energy and reach for a sugar or caffeine snack.
When to eat
In menopause we need to stabilise our blood sugar level by eating small amounts regularly rather than skipping meals.
Eat three times a day and have healthy snacks with you to prevent sugar lows.
Always eat breakfast to get your metabolism working in the morning. But avoid eating late in the evening because the body will be in rest mode and will store unneeded calories fat.
Some women find that eating their last meal at 6pm helps them to lose weight naturally. Just don't make this last meal an enormous feast!
Start a journal and note down when you eat, what you eat - and why? Emotional eating is a habit that many of us fall into unconsciously.
What to eat
What we eat during menopause is guided by several factors.
Do you want to lose weight; stabilise your mood swings, replace lost oestrogen hormones; protect your bones against osteoporosis; manage digestion problems or prevent hot flushes?
It has only recently been medically recognised that perimenopause affects your digestion. Anecdotally women during their late 40s and 50s would complain of bowel problems, constipation and problems digesting certain foods. Doctors would look for allergies or signs of cancer. We now know that changes in our hormone levels affect the whole body including the stomach and intestine.
According to Ayurveda, the heat generated in the body through hot flushes makes us thirstier, more dehydrated and less able to digest dry foods. It is recommended to:
- Drink more water
- Eat foods containing fluid such as salad and fruits
- eat foods that are already cooked or in liquid form such as soups, smoothies, stews or casserole etc,,
-Soak oats, dried fruits and pulses so that they don't leach water and are easier to digest.
- Eat ground flaxseeds to help with digestion and elimination. Get your bowels moving.
(See separate article on Ayurveda that breaks down food types to your body type).
Caffeine, alcohol, sugar and hot spices can stimulate the vasometer response in our veins which makes them dilate. This is believed to be one of the causes of hot flushes.
In Ayurveda, spices cause more Pitta / fire in the belly which can aggravate digestion problems (more on Ayurveda later) and make us more fiery tempered.
Eat more slow burning carbohydrates such as wholemeal and oats (soaked), cut out white processed carbs (white flour, cakes, biscuits, processed bread). Replace with vegetables and pulses containing carbohydrates.
Stave off hunger and calm mood swings by eating more protein. Women going through menopause need more protein. If you are vegan or vegetarian try to find a variety of sources of protein.
Eat more calcium rich foods to help prevent osteoporosis. The drop in estrogen causes a drop in bone density which can lead to osteoporosis and bone fractures. There is no cure for osteoporosis. We can only prevent it by eating a calcium rich diet throughout our lives and especially in our your to early adulthood. The BMS says that Calcium supplement tablets are not effective.
Calcium is found not in dairy products but also in green leafy vegetables and the vegan/ vegetarian products soya/ tofu. Fish, it is a fantastic source of protein and calcium if you eat it with the bones (tinned sardines and salmon).
There is a belief that you can replace the lost hormone oestrogen by eating more foods that contain Phystoestrogens. These are chemicals in plants that have a weak estrogen-like affect on the body. Scientifically speaking they stimulate the estrogen receptors in the body. You would need to eat a lot of them to replace the levels of estrogen you lose during menopause. They are 1:1000 as strong as the body's estrogen so you'd need to eat a lot of them.
However, if your menopausal symptoms are not extreme, it can help to eat these foods:
soya, tofu, pulses, chickpeas, beansprouts, flaxseeds/ linseeds, rye, millet, green leaf vegetables, nuts, fish with bones.
How to eat
There are studies showing that the drop in oestrogen can lead us to eat more simply because we don't know we are full. Be aware of this of this and:
1. Write down what you eat, when and how much. Did you feel full or not. Choose your favourite bowl or plate and use this everyday so that you can see how much you are eating, without having to measure all of the content.
2. Eat mindfully. Chew slowly, notice the taste and texture of the food. Close your eyes and relish the experience of eating more. Make every meal and pleasure not simply a refuelling stop.
3. Eat with others so you can enjoy a social experience.
4. Avoid texting, watching TV, social media or any electronic screen while eating. If you pay attention to what you eat and enjoy it, your body and mind will have time to register that you have eaten and will retrain itself to feel full with less.
How much to eat
The average woman in menopause only needs 1,200 calories a day, unless you are an athlete. If your doctor has placed you on a specific calorie controlled diet, please follow their medical expert advice.
My message to you is that this is a time to Nurture and Nourish yourself. Enjoy your food and take pleasure in all aspects of our lives. Just don't over do it.
One way you can measure your food is with a plate or your favourite bowl.
Try to fill your plate or bowl with 1/3 protein, 1/3 slow burning carb, 1/3 vegetables or salad.
Make fruit (fresh or hot stewed) your desert.
If you are trying to lose weight, you will need to include aerobic exercise at least 30-40 minutes a day.
This is just a summary - I'll post more blogs with more details on nutrition, including the Menopause Cake and Ayurveda foods for different body types.
British Menopause Society
British Nutrition Society CHECK
Menopause The Answers - Dr Rosemary Leonard
Ayurveda for Women - Dr Robert E Svoboda
The Menopause Diet - Theresa Cheung