Most women agree, menopause is no picnic. Just as shifting hormones can lead to acne and mood swings during puberty, they can also wreak havoc on body and mind when estrogen levels decline.
What Happens During Menopause
During menopause, women tend to gain fat while simultaneously losing muscle mass. But it’s not the fat you can pinch that’s the problem. Instead, it’s the visceral fat that surrounds your organs.
“An increase in visceral fat makes you more susceptible to heart disease, hypertension and insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes,” says Halle Saperstein, a clinical dietitian at Henry Ford Health. The good news: Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains can not only prevent weight gain, it may also help alleviate menopausal symptoms.
What Foods to Eat
“When estrogen levels begin falling, we have to be more mindful of what we eat and how much we eat,” Saperstein says. “We also have to make sure we’re getting a wide variety of nutrients to protect our bones and vital organs.”
Some great staples to have on hand:
- Fruits and vegetables: Many fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, which help prevent cell damage. Favorites include dark green leafy vegetables, including spinach, kale and broccoli, as well as bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and carrots. Brightly hued fruits, such as mango, cherries and berries, are also loaded with powerful antioxidants.
- Fatty fish: Several studies link the heart-healthy fats in fish, called omega-3 fatty acids, to improved mood and brain function. Omega-3 fatty acids can also help keep blood pressure levels in check. Healthy blood pressure can help control hot flashes. Fatty fish like salmon is also one of the few food sources of vitamin D, a key nutrient for both mood and bone health.
- Protein: To help your body hang on to muscle, eat plenty of high-protein foods, such as fish, poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Cooling foods: If you’re suffering from hot flashes, so-called “cooling foods,” including apples, bananas, spinach, broccoli, eggs and green tea may help you cool down, according to Chinese medicine. A bonus: all of these foods are rich in nutrients and disease-fighting chemicals.
- Water: It’s really important to stay hydrated during menopause. Not only will it help keep your weight in check, it will also help your body flush out toxins and absorb nutrients.
What Foods to Avoid
While it’s important to focus on getting necessary nutrients during menopause, limiting foods that can exacerbate symptoms is also key. Here are a few culprits to watch out for:
- Spicy foods: Not surprisingly, spicy foods can make hot flashes worse. If you tend to feel hot or if you have high blood pressure, consider avoiding spicy foods like hot peppers, jalapenos and cayenne.
- Alcohol: Having a glass of wine a few times a week probably won’t affect your symptoms. But if you drink more than one drink a day (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of spirits all count as one drink), your health and well-being could suffer. Alcohol interferes with sleep and may exacerbate hot flashes and anxiety or depression. If reduced inhibitions lead you to the kitchen, it could cause you to gain weight, too.
- Fatty foods: Except for fatty fish and nuts, try to keep your intake of fat-laden foods to a minimum. Steer clear of fast foods, fried foods and processed cookies, cakes and snacks.
Staying Healthy As You Age
The dietary repertoire during menopause is really no different than at any other time of the life cycle. The best approach to follow is either a DASH or a Mediterranean-style diet boasting plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Not sure your diet is up to snuff? Talk with your doctor about whether you should take a supplement. Many women aren’t getting the vitamin D and calcium they need during their menopausal years. But be wary of any supplements, pills or potions that promise to balance hormones, relieve hot flashes or boost metabolism, and talk to your doctor instead. There are a variety of remedies for menopausal symptoms, including hormone replacement therapy.
“Exercise is important, too, since we lose muscle mass as we age,” Saperstein says. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 days per week — more if you’re trying to lose weight — and be sure to include strength training at least two times per week to help preserve bone. “It’s important to incorporate yoga and stretching, too, not only to improve flexibility, but to help manage stress levels,” Saperstein says.
To find a doctor, midwife or registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Halle Saperstein, RD, is a clinical dietitian at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital and enjoys teaching the importance and benefits of a healthy diet.