As you might expect, the perennial principle of “You are what you eat,” takes on even greater meaning for women during their menopausal years. As our bodies transition from one life phase to another, some nutritional tweaking is essential.
Why? The depletion of the two major hormones estrogen and progesterone set off some chain reactions during menopause causing our metabolisms to go rogue and our bodies to be robbed of essential elements that help keep us strong, both mentally and physically.
To better understand what is going on with us nutritionally, we spoke with an expert in the field, Dr. Kathleen T. Morgan, M.H., NDTR, Professor and Interim FCHS Chair Family & Community Health Sciences at Rutgers University.
Dr. Morgan assures us that with proper consideration and care, we can not only address our nutritional needs, we can create a better experience for ourselves as we go through this natural process. What we learned goes beyond what we should and should not be eating. We discovered a happier, healthier menopause is possible if we create a personal plan of sorts for the process. Morgan recommends each woman’s plan include the following:
Time for self-care
Time for self-examination
Enhanced communication & advocacy on our own behalf with our healthcare professionals
“Menopause is really a reality check that your body is changing,” says Morgan. “This is a time when you need more than anything to take care of yourself by making healthy lifestyle choices, eating well, being physically active.”
When it comes to what we eat, Morgan offers two simple words, “clean foods”.
“We know for a fact that foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean protein, such as fish, beans and lentils contain the nutrients you need to make up the majority of your meals and snacks.”
To assist in developing your personal plan, Morgan strongly suggests you keep a food journal.
“As women begin menopause and weight gain becomes an issue, this is a time to do a critical analysis of what you eat, how you eat and when you eat.”
This will help with the balancing act of sorts that we need to address when it comes to healthy eating in order to get the daily allowances of the nutrients that are most beneficial at this time and not exceed our recommended daily caloric intake, which Morgan notes decreases as we age. The calories you consume should be around 2,000 - 2,200 a day. This amount is based on how much you eat and how physically active you are. (Always check with your physician to determine a number that factors in all your current health conditions and goals.)
Weight gain is reportedly one of the most pressing concerns for women in menopause and that’s not just due to obvious physical reasons.
“When we look at weight gain—we don’t feel good when we gain weight—we feel uncomfortable, it can cause low self-esteem at a time when a woman needs more self-esteem,” says Morgan.
And so we arrive at our first mind/body connection in our nutrition discussion.
“If you’re gaining weight, you’re not going to be in a good mood,” explains Morgan. Another concern for women in menopause is mood swings due to hormonal shifts. Quickly we see how connected our physical self is with our mental self, hence the need for women to take the time to educate themselves in matters of midlife health and wellbeing. “I often tell women that if they are feeling down, put on a pair of walking shoes. Walking is beneficial to improving mood.”
“I tell this to my colleagues all the time. We really need to spend more time educating women in their 40s and 50s so that by the time they get to menopause, and head into their 60s, they can reap the benefits of better physical and mental health.”
Once you have done your “What I Eat” homework, navigating menopause and all that comes with it, may seem less daunting, says Morgan, because you are applying a level of control to what often seems an uncontrollable, unending life event.
With proper integration of the clean foods mentioned above into our daily meal plans it is possible to get enough of some of the daily nutrients we need, such as calcium, from our food.
If You Don’t Mind
There are times, however, where supplements may be necessary. Adding to our menopausal concerns are the effects it has on our brains, especially as it relates to issues such as brain fog, comprehension, memory and the possible onset of dementia.
Morgan states that lower levels of folate may be associated with a higher risk of probable dementia. The recommended daily amount of folate for adults is 400 micrograms (mcg). Foods high in folate are: leafy, green vegetables, such as broccoli and spinach, Brussels sprouts, peas, citrus, and other fruits, such as bananas and melons.
“To me the most critical supplements are calcium and vitamin D,” says Morgan. To get your daily required intake of calcium, Morgan recommends 1,200 mg during menopause, you will need to include a high-value, low-fat dairy item like non-fat yogurt, or an 8-ounce glass of milk with every meal, and perhaps some cheese or Brazil nuts as a snack.
Other healthy sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables such as kale and collards, and snacks such as almonds and walnuts.
Morgan adds it is essential that you take vitamin D, as well, daily. “Vitamin D is like the lock and key that allows calcium to be absorbed by the body.” Morgan says that she prefers for these two supplements to be taken separately. (Many brands of calcium supplements offer the vitamin D right in the supplement, but Morgan notes they are best taken separately. She also recommends calcium citrate over calcium carbonate because citrate is more readily absorbed and is less constipating.)
Keys to an Empowered Future
Taking care of our bones is one of the most important things women need to watch for as we age. Losing bone density can lead to a loss of mobility with the increased risk of fracture from brittle bones.
“These are the only bones we get and we don’t know when we’re physically inactive that our bones are starting to gradually lose density,” says Morgan, whose doctoral studies concentration was on osteoporosis. "Most women don’t have a clue their bones are weakening.”
So what can we do? At our age we can do a lot. Morgan says it has been established that women can lose up to 20 percent of their bone mass in the first five to seven years after menopause. If you are concerned you may fall into this category, now is the time to talk to your doctor.
“This is where you need to be in good communication with your physician about your risk factors for osteoporosis,” says Morgan. “Osteoporosis is a silent disease.”
While your physician is more likely to send you for DEXA scan testing, which determines bone density, if you are over age 62 because that is the age it is normally covered by insurance, you should advocate for this test on your behalf if you have added risk factors for osteoporosis like a family history or if you’re taking certain medications.
A diagnosis of osteoporosis means that you have reached a significantly low level of bone mass. While it is best to be proactive and follow the advice above, in circumstances where that is not possible, there are pharmaceutical remedies to stop further bone loss or even reverse bone loss. Each of these carries with it a list of side effects that many women are not comfortable with, such as heartburn and stomach upset, however.
As Morgan stressed, education for women prior to their menopausal years is key—education and action. Another proactive way to fend off bone loss is with regular exercise at a moderate level of intensity that incorporates aspects of strength-training. Morgan recommends a total of two hours and 30 minutes weekly, or 5 days a week for at least 30 minutes a day.
A fully rounded pro-menopause plan will not only include a “you are what you eat” approach to diet, but a “you are what you think” approach for your psyche. For that, Morgan recommends adding in holistic practice such as some form of meditation or yoga each day.
“I think that addressing emotional issues, through a practice like meditation—if you’re doing a guided meditation, is really helpful. It will make you start to re-think the type of life that you want for yourself.”
Another key—realizing that menopause is not a disease or an illness, and that you may have more control than you think.
“So I always think that when menopause has you down, remember, it’s a temporary state. I know it doesn’t feel that way with hot flashes and maybe some weight gain, but it is temporary,” assures Morgan. “The healthy diet and exercise habits that you put into place during menopause will really keep you feeling great long after the hot flashes stop.”
Look for more of Dr. Morgan’s healthy tips on our platforms!