Gina McGenity is a third year student at Liverpool Hope University, completing a BA (Hons) degree in Nutrition, Health and Wellbeing. In her final year, her studies are devoted to 'The Big M’… the menopause. Here she explains why she chose to focus on menopause and the impact that nutrition can have on unwanted symptoms, as well as offering insights and advice on managing diet for hormonal balance.
Choosing to study the impact of nutrition on menopause
I have decided to cover nutrition during menopause as my dissertation topic, having developed a keen interest in this key stage of life. Although every woman will experience the menopause, relatively little is known about a life phase that can be both lengthy and problematic. Accordingly, research shows that up to 92% of women in the UK ‘feel unprepared for’ the menopausal stage of life.
As a student researcher, I intend to plug some of these gaps in research and preparedness, focussing particularly on the ways in which nutrition may ease and even enhance the menopausal experience.
Small nutritional changes that help with menopause symptoms
Although there is no one ‘perfect’ diet for the menopause, a series of small yet significant nutritional steps may be followed in order to target and ease some of its specific symptoms and effects:
Understanding the role of salt, and reducing intake
During menopause, women face a greater risk of developing high blood pressure – hypertension – due to the associated reduction in oestrogen. Prior to menopause, oestrogen helps to reduce blood pressure by widening blood vessels and ensuring that blood can flow more easily, yet this effect reduces as oestrogen levels deplete. Accordingly, the well-known hypertensive properties of salt present even more risk to menopausal women. Therefore, menopausal women may find it beneficial to follow a low-salt diet during menopause, in order to avert some of the risks of hypertension. A diet considered suitably low in salt could be one which avoids processed- and fast-foods, and avoids excess savoury snacks.
Increasing calcium intake
Similar to the way in which oestrogen reduction affects the blood vessels, the decline of oestrogen during menopause can also affect the quality and structure of our bones. As such, women during and post-menopause can face increase risks at to the thinness and fragility of their bones, which can lead to osteoporosis. A simple way to help counteract this effect is for menopausal women to increase their dairy intake, as dairy products contain calcium, which is essential for health bone structure. However, increased dairy intake is also associated with the consumption of excess fat, so it is good to know that an increase in calcium can also be achieved by eating more leafy green vegetables.
Not all fats are bad
The menopausal phase can be associated with a new-found development of abdominal fat, colloquially known as ‘menopause pot belly’, due to hormonal changes dictating the way in which we develop and store fat reserves. However, these changes do not mean that menopausal women should eliminate or even reduce their fat intake. Rather, the British Dietetic Association recommend that menopausal women simply make small changes in this respect, switching from saturated to unsaturated fats where possible. Also referred to as ‘good fats’, unsaturated fats can be sourced from olive and rapeseed oil; nuts; avocados; and oily fish.
** However, it should be noted that a body of research now suggests that, whilst many gain weight during the menopausal years, the hormonal changes associated with menopause are not the cause of the weight gain or increase in abdominal fat. The study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology on 2019 looked at data from one million women. The findings can be summarised as: "Fat mass continues to increase in middle -age women but menopause isn’t to blame."
Protein, protein, protein…
Whilst protein intake is important during any stage of the life cycle, it is particularly beneficial for menopausal women. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that pre-menopausal diets that are rich in protein can actually delay the onset of menopause, therefore delaying some of its associated risks, including osteoporosis. However, as with intake of calcium and ‘good’ fats, it is best to source good-quality sources of protein, in order to appreciate its optimum effects. Therefore, it is suggested that a source of lean protein – which can include seafood, legumes, and meat/poultry – be incorporated into every meal during the menopausal stage.
Getting creative with hydration
Good nutrition is associated not only with the foods we eat, but also with the fluids we consume. Indeed, staying well-hydrated can help to stave off a number of symptoms associated with menopause, including hot flushes; fatigue; and skin complaints. One particular source of hydration – honeybush tea – is associated with symptom-easing properties. This is because phytoestrogens, essentially a form of plant oestrogen, found in honeybush tea can counteract some effects of menopause, such as hot flushes; vaginal atrophy; and cognitive concerns. Even better, honeybush tea is also caffeine-free, ensuring a comfortable and good night’s sleep.