We all know that “you are what you eat” and the importance of a healthy balanced diet. But there is so much conflicting advice around about what is good for you that this simple adage is actually very confusing, especially when it comes to what to eat in the menopause.
Over the last year, I’ve been told to eat black cohosh, oily fish, saturated fat – the list is endless. It seems someone somewhere has an opinion about any food group going.
And while “just have some chocolate” pops up regularly on advice forums, I’m a bit dubious about the long-term benefits myself.
After witnessing a threads-long argument on Facebook about the health benefits – or not – of soya, I decided to ask an expert.
Emily Fawell is a registered nutritional therapist specialising in women’s health. She’s been practising for ten years, after becoming interested in the power of nutrition to help her debilitating endometriosis symptoms.
Now peri menopausal for about three years, Emily’s been managing symptoms through her diet and lifestyle, as well as helping a large number of clients to manage their symptoms at her clinic 4Well People in Ealing, West London.
Like many of us who have investigated the menopause further, her experiences have sparked off a real passion in her for spreading the word about the changes that happen and how to cope.
In February, she hosted a full-day workshop called Managing the Menopause Naturally, bringing together a wide range of speakers and exhibitors to share their expertise and solutions.
There’s another workshop planned for 19 October – World Menopause Day – and I have it in my diary already.
Here, Emily tells us about the importance of eating well, weight gain and the truth about soya…
Why is nutrition important for women during the menopause?
It’s important for women to eat well at every stage of their lives. However, because uncontrolled menopausal symptoms can be so disruptive to how we function and feel, then it’s doubly important.
While the primary cause of many symptoms is the change in hormones, some symptoms could be exacerbated by nutrient deficiencies. Fatigue could be due to a lack of iron or magnesium, anxiety could be more acute because of a lack of magnesium. Hormone balance can be improved through diet and we need good liver function and good gut function for balanced hormones, too.
Good sex-hormone balance also relies on our other hormones, particularly stress hormones being in balance, which could be a challenge at a stage in our lives when there are many demands on us.
And how can we eat better?
Our Menopause Diet involves looking beyond hormone balance. When I work with clients, I look at the body as a whole and ensure that different systems are functioning optimally so the body can be in balance. This means looking at nutrients that support adrenal health, sex hormone metabolism, liver health, gut health, brain function, bone health and cardiovascular function and ensuring that the diet encompasses all of these.
Lifestyle change is often necessary, too – stress management, good sleep, exercise, reducing exposure to toxins and xenoestrogens.
Is there one thing menopausal women are lacking in their diet?
Every one woman is different and our diets can vary enormously, as can our nutrient requirements. I use dietary and symptom analysis to determine what each woman needs more of and create a plan accordingly. I can also use functional tests to determine specific nutrient deficiencies.
Generally speaking, though, most women need more good fats and more vegetables in their diet and many are not aware of the benefits of eating more phytoestrogens
Is there a common nutrient menopausal women need in their diet?
Again this will vary for each of us. If a woman is experiencing heavier periods and more frequent bleeding in the perimenopause, her iron levels could be low. If she is experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety and having trouble sleeping then she could be lacking in magnesium.
What is the most common misconception about nutrition and the menopause?
That there is a magic bullet and one nutrient could be the answer! [Hmmm, think I’m a little guilty of this one – 50Sense!]
Can supplements help?
Yes, supplements can help. But the trick is to find the right ones for each woman as we are all biochemically different.
Supplements can be great for alleviating hot flushes. But I often find I have to try two to three different supplements with one woman until we find the one that works for her.
There are so many to choose from that it can seem overwhelming to someone who is going through this alone. And what works for someone else might not work for you.
Can what you eat make symptoms worse?
Definitely! A poor diet will exacerbate hormone imbalance and can impact gut and liver health. It might also be lacking in the nutrients you desperately need to manage your symptoms. A high sugar diet with fast-releasing carbohydrates and lots of alcohol will not help if you are suffering with hot flashes, night sweats and low mood.
What is the truth about soya and the menopause?
There is a lot of research to support the use of soya for menopausal symptoms as it contains good levels of specific phytoestrogens. I would always advise eating it in as natural a form as possible and to check the food labels to ensure that it is not genetically modified. Edamame – soya beans – are a great place to start.
If you could only give one piece of advice about diet and the menopause, what would it be?
Introduce a tablespoon of ground flaxseed a day into your diet. Flaxseed is high in lignans, which support hormone balance. It is also high in good fats and fibre, which will support good gut health. And it’s great for keeping you regular which is important for hormone balance and lowering toxicity levels.
Lastly, the big one – we all know about middle-age spread. Is it inevitable that women will put on weight during their menopause years?
No. It is true that a change in hormone levels can make it harder for some women to avoid weight gain. But there are many things we can change in our diets and lifestyle to combat this, so it doesn’t have to be inevitable.
Visit 4Well People to find out more about Emily and her services.
What do you eat to help you with the menopause? Leave me a comment below.
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Main image: Pixnio