Why Diet is Important Throughout Perimenopause and Menopause
People like to throw around the word, "diet" a lot, and while what we eat is an important topic to discuss, it's key that we don't forget the other half of the conversation. It’s not just about choosing between a low-fat diet and a keto diet; it’s about both diet and nutrition. The two go hand in hand, and separating them from each other doesn’t help anyone.
Diet and nutrition help your body maintain all of its many processes. Without enough nutrients, your bodily systems can’t regulate themselves as effectively. This can lead to the development of medical conditions that can compound in severity as you age and your hormones shift.
That being said, with so many fad diets populating the Internet like daisies after a rainstorm, how can you know what healthy foods are and are not? Should your lifestyle change incorporate a low-fat diet, a low-carb diet, a DASH diet, a Mediterranean diet (all olive oil, herbs, and lentils), a vegetarian diet, or a ketogenic diet (all lean protein and no carbohydrates)? Is spicy food good for you or not? Should you prioritize weight loss, and what's a healthy weight, anyway? How does caffeine actually impact hot flashes, insomnia, vaginal dryness, and irritability many women experience during menopause? What are the side effects of estrogen hormone therapy if a diet and lifestyle changes don't help with perimenopause symptoms? These are just some of the questions menopausal women and perimenopausal women across the United States ask themselves when considering meal plans during the fog of hot flashes that make up the menopausal transition.
Most importantly, what can eating healthy foods do for you before, during, and after menopause?
A healthy diet provides nutrients.
Your body gains nutrients it needs to function from food, whether your breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks are comprised of tomatoes and pasta made of whole grains or sweets and desserts. Without enough nutrients, the body starts to suffer, and your health (and quality of life) starts to decline. The body needs different quantities of vitamins, minerals, lean protein, carbohydrates and more at different stages of life. During childhood and puberty, our bodies need more calories in order to maintain a healthy body fat percentage, healthy muscle mass, and maintain a steady metabolism. As we age into adulthood, we need fewer calories, until midlife comes with menopause symptoms galore.
For perimenopausal women and menopausal women especially, the hormone changes that occur during menopause cause the body to change its nutritional needs. Women need more vitamins and minerals, like Vitamin D and calcium, as they get older to support things like bone health, immune health, and neurological health. These include things like B-vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin C, vitamin A, and much more. By adjusting dietary guidelines to better reflect your body’s nutritional needs before menopause, during menopause, and post-menopause, you can better preserve the health of your body’s vital systems. This can help lower the risk of developing health problems like osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and more. Plus, it can help alleviate the symptoms of menopause, like hot flashes, insomnia, nausea, irritability, and night sweats, that hormone fluctuations in midlife bring on in abundance.
Eating healthy regulates all bodily systems.
Have you ever wondered why your body needs nutrients? The nutritional value your body gains from food sources, like fresh fruit and whole grains, and supplements, like Vitamin D supplements, help maintain metabolic processes that go on at all times. Converting stored dietary fats into energy requires nutrients, as does building muscle mass.
Let’s take maintaining heart health as an example. Women of postmenopausal age have, on average, a higher risk factor for heart disease, like high blood pressure, than men of similar ages. One of the biggest dangers to women is coronary artery calcification (CAC). Coronary artery calcification is a cardiovascular disease in which calcium buildups along the arterial wall and restricts blood flow to and from the heart, resulting in heart strain and potentially leading to a heart attack or stroke.
There is a necessary vitamin that can only be obtained from food to help combat CAC, vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 is a type of nutrient that helps reduce calcium deposits that get stuck to the arterial walls. It helps decrease calcium deposits that build up in blood vessels and directs them to the bones to be used in creating new bone tissues. You can get vitamin K2 from a variety of green leafy vegetables, like kale and spinach, making them a cornerstone of a healthy diet that combats cardiovascular disease.
A healthy diet may aid fertility.
For pre-menopausal and perimenopausal women who are considering pregnancy, diet can have some impact on fertility. Diets that are high in healthy fats, whole grains, fresh vegetables (think kale salad and broccoli or carrots), and fish (or Omega-3 fatty acids) have been associated with improved fertility rates in women and men. On the other hand, some foods like caffeine, alcohol, saturated fats or oils, and sweets have been associated with lower fertility rates.
Now, it’s important to note that these are medical associations, not conclusive results, and the largest determining factor of fertility is found in an individual’s genetics. However, there are other health concerns that can affect fertility and pregnancy. Women with iron deficiencies, like certain types of anemia, have a higher risk factor for infertility, as well as adverse events during pregnancy. One way to help reduce this is by eating iron-rich foods like red meat, liver, seafood, and certain leafy greens, such as kale and spinach. Body fat also impacts fertility, and sticking to dietary guidelines can help with maintaining a healthy amount of body fat, especially during midlife, as many women face menopause weight gain. Always speak to a healthcare provider or a dietitian about implementing a new diet or if you have concerns about obesity or menopause weight gain. Also consult a healthcare provider before adding dietary supplements and herbal products to your diet.
Maintaining a healthy diet before pregnancy is just as important as maintaining a healthy diet during pregnancy. If you want to help improve your chances of becoming pregnant, make sure to take care of your body first with a baseline balanced diet that draws on multiple food groups.
Eating healthy foods can alleviate menstrual symptoms.
There are many symptoms that can occur before, during, and after a menstrual period. Cramps, fatigue, bloating, headaches, nausea, mood swings, and more can all occur at different severities for different women. However, there are some things that women can do to help reduce the severity of the symptoms by implementing a diet plan.
One of the key things to incorporate into your diet during your period is to drink enough water. Dehydration is one of the most common things to experience on a daily basis, especially during your menstrual period, although this is true throughout your menstrual cycle. In fact, many period headaches can be worsened by dehydration. Drinking water can help lower the intensity of headaches and reduce bloating caused by water retention.
Another way to help alleviate menstrual period symptoms through diet is to eat foods that are rich in iron and B-vitamins, like red meat. During your menstrual period, especially during one with a heavy flow, your iron levels can become low, making you feel extremely fatigued. To help improve energy and increase iron levels, eating foods that are rich in iron and B-vitamins can help. These include foods like leafy greens, seafood, eggs, legumes (like beans and lentils), and seeds.
A healthy diet can help support menopausal symptom relief.
Diet can also help support health during menopause and symptom relief, as can regular physical activity. One of the things that occurs during the menopausal transition is that the body develops a stronger dependency on nutrients to regulate itself. Changes to the sex hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, impact other areas of the body in multiple ways. Women undergoing menopause can experience bone loss, decreased muscle mass, fatigue, mood swings, hot flashes, joint pain, and many other symptoms of menopause as their progesterone and estrogen levels fluctuate.
The imbalances caused by the changes to sex hormones make it more difficult for the body to gain its nutritional needs. Healthy eating means adjusting your diet to better reflect its shifting needs, and it's the first step in preserving and protecting women's health during perimenopause or the menopausal transition. Increasing the amount of B-vitamins you get through your diet is the best way to help protect neurological health, support brain fog relief, and help improve your body’s ability to stabilize your mood swings. Higher calcium intake will lessen bone loss, which may limit fractures in postmenopausal women.
Eating foods high in lean protein can also help support muscle health and lower the risk of serious muscle mass loss. Poultry, seafood, and high-quality red meats can help support your body’s lean protein needs and help you improve building muscle mass through regular physical activity. If you maintain a vegetarian diet, make sure to eat plenty of eggs, fish, leafy greens (spinach and kale again), legumes, and whole grains to make up for the iron you would be getting from meats. Bear in mind that some foods that are common in a vegetarian diet, like soy or tofu, include a certain amount of estrogen which may impact hormone levels. Consuming foods rich in calcium and vitamin D can also help lower the risk of significant bone loss, which can lead to osteoporosis, especially for postmenopausal women.
Implementing a "menopause diet" and changing lifestyle factors by incorporating physical activity into your daily life during the menopausal transition can help support symptom relief and maintain overall health for menopausal women and postmenopausal women alike. If you're concerned about this, it's not a bad idea to speak with a dietitian who can plan a "menopause diet" for you and keep an eye on how the nutritional content impacts hot flashes, nausea, and other menopause symptoms.