If you’re trying to ease the symptoms of menopause, you’ve probably considered making changes to your diet. Daily nutrition impacts every part of your body (just like menopause), and can be an easy place to begin making changes.
On the other hand, misinformation about these issues is common, and it can be difficult to know what’s real. In this piece, we’ll explore what researchers do (and don’t) understand about the diet-menopause connection in four major areas.
As estrogen levels fall during menopause, there are major changes to your bones – both on the visible and the microscopic level. Your bone density decreases and you lose bone mass. This, in turn, can increase the risk of breaks and fractures.
“On a daily basis, most American women do not get enough calcium,” says Dr. Leah Millheiser, Clinical Professor of OB/GYN and Chief Medical Officer of Evernow. “When that happens, their bodies take calcium away from their bones, which puts them at risk for osteoporosis. The optimal way to get calcium is through the food that you eat but supplements are also acceptable.”
The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) recommends at least 1200 mg of calcium daily, and no more than 2500 mg. It’s also recommended that you consume 400-600 IU of vitamin D every day to assist with calcium absorption. Calcium is found naturally in dark leafy greens, broccoli, soybeans, sesame seeds, figs, and many other foods. You can compute your daily calcium intake with this calculator.
Some studies have also found that the Mediterranean diet – which emphasizes healthy fats, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, and vegetables – is associated with higher bone density during menopause. Fortunately, you don’t have to fully commit to the diet to reap those benefits. Research has shown that there’s a spectrum: The closer to a Mediterranean diet women are, the better their bone health. If you’re interested, talk to your doctor or nutritionist about simple, low-stress ways to incorporate more Mediterranean foods into your daily meals.
The flushing, sweating, and night sweats caused by hot flashes (aka vasomotor symptoms, or VMS) are without a doubt one of the most uncomfortable consequences of menopause. This has created a large market for herbs, remedies, and nutraceuticals that claim (sometimes on very shaky grounds) to help ease hot flashes.
If you’re interested in one of these unconventional treatments, talk to your doctor first and proceed with caution. Very little is known about their safety and efficacy and they may interact with other medications in unexpected ways. Some, like soy isoflavones, have been the subject of significant research with conflicting results, and still have not achieved mainstream medical acceptance.
Fortunately, there are positive dietary changes you can make to reduce your VMS. The first is to avoid foods and drinks that seem to be hot flash triggers for you personally. This can include spicy foods, alcohol, hot soup, and hot beverages. While there is limited data to support this practice, many doctors and patients find that it’s a successful strategy for reducing the frequency of VMS.
Studies have also shown that a high-fiber diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help reduce VMS. While some of those benefits are attributable to weight loss, the diet itself also seems to improve VMS.
Dietary adjustments that help stave off hot flashes will also protect you from night sweats – the uncomfortable nighttime awakenings caused by VMS. This will go a long way toward improving your sleep quality and duration.
If you’re still struggling with insomnia, however, consider reducing your alcohol consumption. Extensive research has shown that alcohol disrupts your normal sleeping patterns. This seems to be especially true when alcohol is consumed shortly before bed.
You may also want to reduce or eliminate caffeine in your diet from sources like coffee, tea, and soda. Research suggests that people who consume more caffeine tend to sleep less and that it can still disrupt your sleep six hours after you consume it. Many sleep specialists recommend that you consume no caffeine after 3pm.
Body changes during the menopause transition are very common. Women may notice an increase in abdominal weight gain. In most cases, this is actually a redistribution of fat in their body (think pear-shaped to apple-shaped). Data does not show a direct relationship between menopause itself and weight gain. True weight gain during this time is more likely related to aging and lifestyle.
For many people, one of the most visible menopause symptoms is a change in body fat. When estrogen levels fall, the body tends to redistribute fat from lower regions (e.g. thighs and hips) to the midsection. And instead of subcutaneous fat (the jiggly tissue just beneath the skin), there’s more visceral fat (which is internal and surrounds the organs).
“Body changes during the menopause transition are very common,” says Dr. Millheiser. “Women may notice an increase in abdominal weight gain. In most cases, this is actually a redistribution of fat in their body (think pear-shaped to apple-shaped). Data does not show a direct relationship between menopause itself and weight gain. True weight gain during this time is more likely related to aging and lifestyle, in general."
To maintain a healthy weight during menopause, there’s no single “best” diet – but research has shown some consistent trends. Diets that are high in healthy fat, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (such as the Mediterranean diet and the vegan diet), can help treat menopausal weight gain and the metabolic issues (e.g. insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and heart disease) that accompany it. Studies have also shown that low-fat diets may promote weight gain during menopause, while low-carb diets can prevent it.
Thoughtful adjustments to your diet can ease menopause symptoms significantly and improve your quality of life. But before you make any changes, do your research and make sure there’s real science to support you. And of course, always work closely with your primary care doctor.
Reviewed by Chief Medical Officer Leah Millheiser, MD, April 2022