Menopause occurs around the age of 51, but can happen earlier, and is characterized by a significant reduction in estrogen production by the ovaries and a cessation of menstruation for a full year. It also contributes to physical and emotional changes which range from hot flashes and mood irregularity to sleeping issues and vaginal dryness, among other things.
While different people experience menopause differently, there are a number of dietary considerations that have the potential to improve symptoms and ensure that you are getting enough nutrition during this sometimes-challenging life stage.
Focus on calcium and vitamin D
After the age of 50, calcium and vitamin D become increasingly important for women’s health, especially for the role that both play in maintaining strong bones. Calcium requirements for a menopausal woman increases from 1,000 mg to 1,200 mg daily.
Some foods that provide calcium include leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy products and dairy-alternatives such as soy milk and tofu. The bones of canned fish, like salmon and sardines are also high in calcium, arguably making canned fish a sort of menopause “superfood.”
As for vitamin D, Health Canada formally recommends all people over the age of 50 take a daily supplement containing 400 international units (IU), and although it’s a much more elusive nutrient than calcium, it can be found in largest supply in fatty fish such as salmon, trout and sardines.
Step up your soy and plant-based foods
In addition to providing dietary calcium, soy-based foods such as soy beans, edamame, tofu, tempeh and soy-milk contain meaningful amounts of unique compounds known as isoflavones, which act as very weak mimics of the estrogen hormone — which drops during menopause. Because of this added benefit, there has been some interest in the strategic use of soy-based foods to help resolve some of the bothersome symptoms that come along with menopause.
A 2019 study out of the European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition also identified soy intake as a potential means for women with menopause to reduce negative symptoms. More recently, a study published this month in the Journal of The North American Menopause Society, Menopause, found that women who switched to a plant-based diet — including a daily intake of a half cup of soybeans — experienced a significant reduction in hot flashes and improvements in other menopausal symptoms.
Increased soy intake would also align with The Society Of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada which recommends increasing the intake of plant-based protein sources, such as soy, legumes, nuts, seeds, and a slight increase in protein intake to support maintaining muscle and bone mass with age.
Be selective with supplements
Supplements remain a constant area of fascination among my clients, as well as the general public. It’s worth noting one paper published in the Journal Of Women’s Health reviewed supplementation for menopause and concluded that: “Black cohosh appears to be the most effective herb for relief of menopausal symptoms, primarily hot flashes and possibly mood disorders.”
While some limited evidence exists that black cohosh supplementation can help with menopause symptoms, its use has also been reported to cause liver issues in some people — so those with a liver or autoimmune condition or taking medications related to the liver should be extra cautious.
Andy is a registered dietitian and author who has operated a private practice in Toronto since 2015. He spends his free time eating, writing and talking about kale @AndyTheRD. He can be reached at AndyTheRD.com