by Alanna Bray-Lougheed, B.Sc. Applied Human Nutrition and Dietetics, and Tenille Sonnichsen, RD
*The information in this article may be useful for women who are or will be going through menopause, or for anyone who knows someone who is or will soon be going through menopause.
Have you been experiencing bothersome symptoms commonly associated with aging and menopause? Perhaps you have noticed hot flashes at random times of the day, or itchy dry skin? Maybe you’ve noticed it is a little harder to keep unwanted weight off, or normal activities are becoming more strenuous. There is no need to worry!
Our bodies and minds naturally change throughout our lifecycle. Women experience various physiological changes as we navigate through adolescence, reproduction, menopause and beyond. It is important to remember that all changes are normal and with proper lifestyle and dietary routines, undesirable symptoms may be minimized.
The Basics of Menopause
Menopause occurs 12 months after a woman’s last menstrual cycle and happens, on average, around 51 years of age. The period of time leading up to menopause is called perimenopause and includes a decline in the hormone estrogen.
Did you know that declining estrogen levels can contribute to a variety of symptoms, including:
loss of fertility
higher blood pressure
change in cholesterol levels
weakening of the bones due to loss of calcium
irritability and changes in emotions
These symptoms can last anywhere from a couple months to a few years and can vary between women. Going through menopause can offer women an opportunity for a new outlook on their health and diet. It’s a good time to review habits and lay a healthy foundation to help prevent disease and disability in the years to come.
There are a variety of lifestyle and dietary changes that can help with the management of symptoms during perimenopause and menopause.
Although not directly caused by menopause, weight gain is part of the aging process. Muscle mass decreases as we age, which results in the body burning fewer calories. Changing routines, such as children moving out or retiring from a job may contribute to fewer calories burned or an increase in calorie intake.
Perhaps you are eating out more than usual, have different meal-time habits such as watching television while eating, or are snacking more between meals or in the evening?
These changes in routine can lead to weight gain, which may increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Nutrition strategies to manage unwanted weight gain:
Control portions by following the plate method: ½ vegetables, ¼ lean protein, and ¼ whole grains (as pictured above)
Try to eat fruits and vegetables at every meal (can be fresh, frozen, or canned) and limit processed foods which may be high in sodium, added sugars, or unhealthy fats
Drink mostly calorie-free beverages, such as water, or plain tea or coffee
Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity per day; you can start with 3x10 minutes or 2x15 minutes of walking to break up your day
Set an alarm to remind yourself to get up and take a small walk or try a standing desk for work
As estrogen levels fall through perimenopause and postmenopause, calcium levels drop as well, which can lead to osteoporosis. Ensuring adequate intake of calcium, vitamin D, protein, and exercise are very important to minimize the amount of bone lost. To help prevent bone loss and osteoporosis:
1. Aim for 2-3 servings of calcium-rich choices per day:
1 cup of skim or 1% milk, or calcium-fortified milk alternative
Matchbox size of low-fat cheese
¾ cup of yogurt
canned fish with bones
2. An even distribution of protein throughout mealtimes will help with maintaining muscle mass and bone strength (aim for 20-30g at each meal)
3. Include Vitamin D, which can help increase bone strength and reduce the risk of fracture
fortified dairy and plant-based beverages (e.g. soy milk, some almond milk)
fortified breakfast cereals
4. Add weight bearing activity 2-3x per week, such as walking, jogging, dancing, or climbing stairs
Menopause can increase the risk of developing heart disease in some women. Dietary changes can help lower certain risk factors:
Replace saturated fats (e.g. butter) with unsaturated fats (e.g. olive oil) when cooking, and choose low-fat dairy products
Try eating vegetarian meals based on pulses, legumes, nuts, and vegetables 1-2x per week
Reduce intake of cakes, cookies, soft drinks
Reduce salt intake by limiting prepared foods, sauces, and salty snacks. Use herbs when cooking from home to flavour food
Include 2 servings of fatty fish per week to increase heart healthy omega-3 fats. Fresh or frozen salmon, canned tuna, salmon and sardines are all great options
Switch refined carbohydrates to whole-grains (e.g. wild or brown rice, barley, quinoa, whole wheat bread, bran cereal) to increase fibre in your diet
Women in the middle of life may face challenges including hormone changes, loss of bone density and muscle mass, and an increased risk of heart disease. These changes are normal, and with the help of a dietitian, you can create a plan that works for you to manage the change in your life!
Want to learn more about how nutrition can help you manage some of the symptoms of menopause? Get on the fast track to achieving your goals with the perspective and accountability of a Registered Dietitian today.
Yours in health,