Menopause is when a woman's periods stop for good. It is a time of profound hormonal shifts in her body. There is a drastic drop in the hormone oestrogen [and also progesterone] with a relative increase in male hormones.
Oestrogen plays an important role in the proper functioning of the urinary system, maintenance of bone mineral density and lipid profile. It also maintains skin texture and hydration, cognitive function, memory and sexual function.
In the 8 – 10 years preceding menopause [a period also known as the perimenopause], the body experiences a steady decline in oestrogen levels. Therefore, it is not only after she enters menopause that a woman should wake up to these issues, but as soon as she turns 35.
Because that's when her body begins to age rapidly and subtle changes related to oestrogen deficiency take place, often without obvious symptoms.
The challenges of menopause need to be tackled with a healthy lifestyle comprising a balanced diet, suitable exercise regimen and adequate relaxation. And of course, regular check-ups for health hiccups.
General diet guidelines
A menopause diet is not some wonder diet but a simple balanced diet, as for anyone else, with a few adjustments, keeping in mind the unique hormonal and metabolic features of this period of life.
A diet low in saturated fats and refined sugars, and rich in proteins [to prevent muscle loss], antioxidants, vitamins, fibre and micronutrients, is essential. Consume high amounts of calcium and vitamin D for bone health, and of course, drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated. It also flushes out toxins. Watch your sodium intake as it may put you at a risk of developing hypertension.
For minimising hot flushes
Phytoestrogens are plant compounds with mild oestrogenic actions. Isoflavones are a group of phytoestrogens and women whose diets are rich in isoflavones, such as women from Japan, experience fewer hot flushes during menopause and generally have better health.
Also, in countries where soy foods are consumed daily, women are much less likely to report menopausal symptoms. Phytoestrogens are found in abundance in foods such as legumes, beans, whole grains, nuts, flaxseeds, fish and apples. Avoid caffeinated drinks like tea, coffee and colas and minimise your intake of alcohol, spicy foods and refined sugars.
For healthy bones
In women, 75 per cent of bone mineral loss occurs between the age of 50 and 65. Calcium is the chief mineral found in bones. Vitamin D helps in the absorption of calcium from the diet as well as its utilisation by bones.
A woman's requirement of calcium goes up by 50 per cent after menopause, and she must increase her calcium intake after the age of 35, to avoid a 'negative calcium balance'. In addition, ensure adequate exposure to sunlight to help convert vitamin D to its active form.
Rich sources of calcium include:
- Dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese
- Nuts, beans and pulses
- Green leafy vegetables, cabbage, broccoli, lotus stem, lady's fingers
- Dry fruits like apricots, dates and figs
- Fish, meat and eggs
- Fruits like oranges, currants, black berries, apricots, plums and raisins
- Tofu and other calcium-fortified foods.
For healthy skin
At menopause, a woman's skin starts to produce slightly less collagen and elastic fibres, which leads to accelerated wrinkling and sagging. A diet consisting of liberal quantities of seeds, nuts and grains, vegetables and fruits [antioxidants], supplemented by dairy foods, vegetable oils, honey and yeast helps maintain healthy skin. Drink lots of water daily to maintain moisture content, and keep up that glow.
For good memory
Remember, the best food for the brain is activity. Because, when it comes to the brain, if you don't use it, you will lose it. It is important to remain physically and mentally active to prevent complications like Alzheimer's disease and memory loss. In addition, stress management, relaxation and adequate sleep are essential to mental wellbeing.
Foods that enhance memory include vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach and turnip greens, oranges, fish and asparagus.
For a healthy heart
Limit consumption of saturated fats [ghee, butter, cheese, animal fats, cream and coconut and palm oil] as they increase cholesterol in the blood, which hardens arteries and predisposes you to heart disease.
Monounsaturated fats [MUFA] and polyunsaturated fats reduce the total cholesterol and LDL [the bad cholesterol] while increasing HDL cholesterol [the good cholesterol]. Nuts, avocados and olive oil are good sources of MUFA. Seafood like salmon as well as corn, safflower and sunflower oils are high in polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 fatty acids belong to this group.
For a healthy heart, avoid eating:
- Fried foods
- White bread, white rice
- Processed foods
- Excess salt
- Red meats.
For preventing cancers
Tomatoes, guava, and watermelons contain lycopenes. Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower contain isothiocyanates, which prevent cancer. Pulses, nuts, garlic, whole grains and beans are other anti-cancer foods.
For weight management
Managing weight is one of the biggest challenges for a menopausal woman. Thanks to an altered ratio of female to male hormones, she starts putting on weight in the waist region, and acquires the 'apple' shape of her male counterparts as opposed to the 'pear' shape of premenopausal women. Slowing metabolism further compounds the weight problem.
- Eat small meals at frequent intervals
- Don't skip breakfast
- Eat fruits rather than drinking juices
- Eat healthy snacks like salads, sprouts or nuts in between meals
- Follow an exercise regimen [for at least two hours a week]
- Avoid eating fried and junk food, eat more wholesome home food.
To prevent bloating
Water retention can lead to a 'bloated feeling' with swelling of feet and under your eyes.
- Avoid eating salty foods [pickles, butter, processed foods, ketchup, chutneys, cheese, among others]
- Restrict intake of sugar
- Add potassium-rich foods like fruits [melons, bananas, oranges] and dried fruits [apricots and figs] to your diet to balance sodium and water retention
- Don't miss out on your exercise regimen.
For managing urinary leaks
- Limit your fluid intake towards the end of the day to avoid waking up at night for urination
- Consume small amount of fluids throughout the day
- Avoid drinking alcohol, caffeinated beverages and artificially sweetened drinks.
Every woman faces different issues depending on her constitutional make-up and there can be no universal diet for everyone. Also, there is no need to stick to a 'fixed diet plan'. Unrealistic goals lead to unreasonable expectations, disappointment and unnecessary stress.
Following a healthy diet and a sensible, 'easy to live up to' exercise plan is a simple yet affective approach to menopause management.
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