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Soya, nuts and yoghurt: the diet tweaks that can ease the symptoms of menopause – The Guardian

5 minutes, 18 seconds Read

When life feels chaotic, food can be a comfort, a pleasure, an uplifting ritual. Fitting in time to cook, however, can often seem like another impossible thing on the list, especially when there are differing tastes to cater for, and the demands of work to contend with. But as women enter their fourth and fifth decades, considering what we eat is crucial, and making just a few tweaks may improve our health and wellbeing.

“The focus needs to be on eating well, eating a variety of foods, and foods that support bone and heart health,” says Dr Claire Phipps, GP and advanced menopause specialist. Think about a Mediterranean style of eating, with lots of oily fish, wholegrain, pulses, fruit and veg, good fats (avocado, olive oil, for example), nuts and seeds, protein and dairy (calcium is vital for supporting bone density). Good health at this stage of life really is best achieved through diet rather than supplements – “our body uses it much better”. That said, Phipps would recommend taking a vitamin D supplement, maybe magnesium, as “it can be helpful for insomnia”.

While we need good fats (think avocado, nuts, seeds) – as opposed to saturated and trans fats found in processed and fried foods – to make certain hormones, we also need them to nourish our gut microbiome. “That’s really important in menopause,” says Phipps. With all the challenges women are facing, “if the gut isn’t functioning as well, then it’s not going to make you feel any better”. Fermented foods, such as kimchi and sauerkraut, can help here because they contain probiotic live bacteria (as does live yoghurt). Chef Jane Baxter, co-author alongside Dr Federica Amati of Recipes for a Better Menopause, suggests doubling down by adding kefir and chopped sauerkraut to a breakfast pancake batter, or blending kefir with garlic, lemon zest and chopped herbs (tarragon, parsley, chives) to marinate meat (“It has an amazing effect on chicken”). Sauerkraut, meanwhile, works a dream with braised veg, or any egg and toast combo, while kimchi would be very at home in a seafood soup. “You can also use kombucha instead of tonic with gin,” laughs Baxter, “but I didn’t really say that.”

Eat to the beet: the super foods and villains to avoid

It’s worth harnessing herbs and spices, too. “They’re a really good way to increase diversity in our diet as well as enhance the microbiome,” says Joanna Lyall, nutritional therapist and founder of The Better Menopause. Add cinnamon to breakfasts and smoothies, as it can help to lower blood glucose levels, while turmeric is “a lovely anti-inflammatory spice”, and chilli “can be good for boosting metabolism”. Fresh ginger, Amati notes, “helps with symptoms of heartburn and nausea”, plus it will pep up salad dressings. Baxter suggests whisking it with chopped pickled ginger, honey, rice vinegar, mirin, soy sauce and garlic, to drizzle over cooked quinoa, puy lentils, buckwheat, veg (broccoli, french beans, squash), nuts and herbs. “Quinoa and lentils are a great way to boost protein,” says Lyall. Protein, when combined with exercise, is particularly important during menopause, as lean muscle mass reduces.

“In Japan, women report fewer hot flushes and night sweats, and there’s some evidence that foods rich in phytoestrogens [a plant compound which mimics some of the functions of oestrogen] can be really helpful,” says Phipps. Soya products, such as tofu, are a good source, so try switching up your morning eggs with a scramble of tofu and greens. Another good way to start the day is oats, which Lyall would soak overnight with chia seeds for additional protein and essential fats. Then, get creative with toppings: “Blueberries or chopped banana, perhaps some granola (homemade if you can), a handful of nuts and seeds, some peanut butter – it can still feel indulgent.”

When it comes to vegetables, Lyall looks to rainbow colours to get “that diversity of nutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals”. Soups and salads are a good place to mix things up – and get in an extra handful of spinach or kale. Come spring, we’re in the territory of asparagus, courgettes, broad beans, and peas (frozen are fine), so Baxter would be inclined to combine them in a minestrone alongside herbs (fresh basil and mint), but soups are also an opportunity to use lentils, which contain fibre, protein, and iron.

For salad days, pile roast carrots on to bean puree and finish with a carrot-top pesto (use good olive oil and get some nuts in there, too), alternatively Baxter “loves beetroot with oranges and caraway seeds”. This would also go nicely with oily fish (mackerel, perhaps) and some yoghurt. “From a heart health point of view, you need to be thinking about omega-3, so you want at least one serving of oily fish every week,” adds Nigel Denby, dietician and founder of Harley Street at Home, offering perimenopause and menopause support through workshops and clinics.

Certain foods, however, can exacerbate symptoms for some women. For example, the enzyme that processes alcohol reduces as we get older, so if you’re struggling with sleep, hot flushes and night sweats, Denby suggests laying off the booze. Caffeine, a stimulant, isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep either, so Denby recommends avoiding caffeinated drinks after 3pm. Sweeteners in fizzy drinks can “make your bladder more irritable and make you want to pass water more frequently,” adds Phipps, which is already a common symptom of menopause. Added sugars in confectionery can cause fluctuating blood sugars. “This won’t be helpful for anxiety, which is also experienced by a lot of women at this time,” notes Denby.

In addition, the reduction in oestrogen causes the metabolism to slow down, making weight gain more likely. “As a result, lots of women start doing crazy diets, fasting, and cutting out food groups, which is not beneficial,” says Phipps. It’s important to remember, food and cooking can be a form of self-care. “That’s a really big part of menopausal symptom relief,” adds Phipps. “We eat for joy as well as for nourishment.” Sure, we want to be cutting out ultra-processed foods as much as possible (but that’s true for any stage of life), but don’t restrict yourself. “If you want the chocolate or the cake, don’t guilt trip yourself,” says Phipps. “Just try and do 80% good, 20% bad.”

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