The menopause is a normal biological process and a natural part of ageing.
But for many women, it can come with life-changing symptoms including insomnia, hot flushes, and debilitating depression and anxiety.
And for every woman – even those lucky enough to have minimal symptoms – declining oestrogen levels increase the risk of long-term health conditions such as heart disease and osteoporosis.
Though symptoms can be challenging, menopause is a great opportunity to take stock of your overall health.
It can be a time of discovery, to try new things and introduce habits that will help you enjoy a healthy and happy second half of life.
During menopause, eating well can help to manage symptoms, protect bones and maintain a healthy weight.
If you get your eating habits in order during this time, you set yourself in good stead for strong bones, healthy heart, bouncy skin and plenty of energy, well into later life.
Here are my tried and tested tips for eating well during menopause and beyond.
It’s best to cut back on sugar as much as possible as it can trigger a sharp rise in blood glucose levels, followed by an inevitable crash.
As well as wreaking havoc with mood and energy levels, these highs and lows can encourage the body to convert excess calories into fat that is stored around the abdomen, increasing the risk of developing type two diabetes and heart disease.
To curb sugar cravings, swap refined carbs such as white bread and pasta for wholegrain alternatives.
If you’re desperate for a sweet treat in the afternoon, snack on antioxidant-rich dark chocolate and plain almonds.
As oestrogen levels decline during menopause, the body starts to store more fat, while at the same time losing bone density, muscle mass and strength.
One of the best ways to combat this is by increasing the amount of protein in your diet.
Protein is filling, so will keep you feeling fuller much longer, helping ward off weight gain.
It can also help your body hold on to muscle.
So aim to include a portion of high-quality protein with every meal.
This could be fish, poultry, eggs and red meat, as well as vegetable proteins such as chickpeas, lentils and tofu.
FILL UP ON FIBRE
In addition to eating plenty of protein, fibre can also help suppress cravings and prevent weight gain.
There is also strong evidence to suggest eating a fibre-rich diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type two diabetes and bowel cancer.
The Government recommends 25g a day for women – find it in green veggies, wholegrains, lentils and beans.
When it comes to strengthening bones, there are two main nutrients to be aware of – calcium and vitamin D.
Dairy, egg yolks, kale, spinach and cabbage are all excellent sources of calcium.
But there’s no point loading up on calcium if you’re not getting enough vitamin D, as this vital vitamin is essential for calcium absorption.
Some food sources of vitamin D include oily fish, red meat, eggs, mushrooms and fortified breakfast cereals.
However, the body’s primary source of vitamin D is the sun’s UV rays and, for this reason, it’s recommended you take a supplement from September to March, when it’s dark and grey outside.
A diet rich in healthy fats helps the body produce hormones, which is essential in mid-life. So much so that a low fat diet should be avoided during menopause.
As well as helping with hormone production, omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory benefits in the body. And a particular strain, known as DHA, may even help ward off cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s in later life.
Research also suggests omega-3 may help reduce the occurrence and severity of hot flushes and night sweats.
You can find healthy fats in avocado, oily fish such as sardines, salmon and mackerel, olive oil, nuts and seeds.
B-complex vitamins have also been shown to boost brain health.
They’re are involved with mood regulation in the brain and are essential for the production of serotonin – the happy hormone that may well be in short supply after sweaty, sleepless nights.
Good sources of B-complex vitamins include meat, fish, dairy products, fortified cereals and nutritional yeast.
GOOD GUT HEALTH
Research suggests gut health is hugely influential when it comes to our mood. In fact, up to 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut.
So it’s important to look after the friendly bacteria that live there by eating a diet rich in probiotic and prebiotic foods.
Probiotic foods contain “live” friendly bacteria that help populate the gut and improve its diversity, keeping it healthy.
Find them in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir and yogurt.
Prebiotic food feeds the bugs in your gut and helps them thrive. Good sources are fibre-rich foods including wholegrains, legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Phytoestrogens and isoflavones are compounds that are found in plants and plant-based foods such as soya, flaxseeds, lentils and oats. There is some evidence they can improve menopausal symptoms by mimicking oestrogen.
However, they don’t work for everyone, as only some women are able to digest the phytoestrogen in what they eat – and you have to eat a large amount to notice any benefits.
When it comes to balancing hormones, HRT clearly remains the most effective option.
It helps the body deal with stress, promotes good sleep and strengthens bones. Yet many people have a magnesium deficiency, and this is especially common in people who eat a lot of meat, dairy and processed foods.
Regular coffee and alcohol consumption can also inhibit the body’s ability to absorb the mineral from food.
Good sources of magnesium include leafy greens, nuts and wholegrains.
Though we should be able to get enough from our diet, many women, especially those who sleep badly, find taking a supplement can improve wellbeing during menopause.
Choose one that contains magnesium citrate, which is more easily absorbed by the body.
The Truth About Menopause from Liz Earle Wellbeing Magazine by Liz Earle MBE, £4.99, can be downloaded here
Liz’s marvellous menopause cake
Deliciously good for you, this is packed with ingredients that are high in phytoestrogens, the oestrogen-like compounds found in soya, linseeds and some dried fruits.
100g wholemeal or spelt flour
100g medium rolled oats
100g soya flour
200g pitted dates, chopped
100g apricots, chopped
50g sunflower seeds
50g flaked almonds
2 tbsp honey
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp cinnamon
5 pieces stem ginger in syrup, chopped
750ml soya milk
1 Whizz linseeds in a food processor to crack open, then place all dry ingredients in a large bowl along with the chopped stem ginger.
2 Stir in 550ml soya milk, and the honey, and mix until combined.
Leave to soak for half an hour, then add remaining soya milk to loosen the mixture to a dropping consistency from the spoon, if needed.
3 Preheat oven to 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5.
Line a small loaf or round cake tin with baking parchment and spoon the mixture into the tin.
4 Bake for about an hour or until a sharp knife comes out of the centre cleanly, showing the cake is cooked.
Tip out onto a wire rack, and leave to cool completely before slicing with a very sharp knife.