Menopause has fully arrived when a woman does not menstruate for 12 consecutive months. The average age among Canadian women is 52, though menopause can occur in the forties. That’s young when you consider that the average life expectancy of women is now more than 82 years!
It has long been medicalized, but menopause is not a disease. Whether it sets in naturally or is caused by a health problem, whether or not it is accompanied by physical and emotional changes, whether it happens with or without taking hormones, this is a terrific opportunity for every woman to focus on herself and rethink her lifestyle. A proper diet is just one important ally to alleviate some of the discomfort and re-energize.
1. Limit weight
In the years leading up to the onset of menopause, the metabolism slows down and stores excess calories as fat instead of burning them off. Result: women gain on average 5 to 9 lbs. (2.2 to 4 kg), according to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. The female body also changes how fat is distributed: in addition to hips and thighs, weight gain tends to accumulate around the waist and stomach, as is the case among men. This is normal!
• Satiating food that is high in protein and/or fibre and has a relatively low caloric intake. It is filling, limits snacking between meals and contains lots of good nutrients: fruit and vegetables in abundance, whole grain cereal products, low-fait dairy products, soy and legumes, eggs, fish, lean poultry and meat.
• Regular physical activity is a must. It also helps you sleep better and reduces the risk of chronic disease. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes a day that you can achieve by walking, jogging, dancing, practicing a team or solo sport, but also by gardening, climbing stairs or vigorously tackling some household chores. The website http://www.yourhealthyweight.ca/ offers practical advice on how to get there.
• Skipping meals in hopes of losing weight… You open the door to snacking and to pounds that will pile on.
• Junk food chock-full of fat, sugar and calories: donuts, cookies, chips, fries, store-bought cupcakes, ice cream, soft drinks and fruit drinks, croissants and pastries. Your body doesn’t need this stuff, your waistline even less so! Save these treats for special occasions.
2. When the thermostat is out of whack
Hot flashes are the most common symptom of menopause in North America; 70 to 80% of postmenopausal women suffer from them, compared to 10 to 20% of Japanese women. These flashes become a real problem when they affect the quality of sleep and daily activities. While some women turn to hormone therapy, others take stock of what they put on their plate.
• Small meals to aid digestion and prevent hot flashes caused by a drop in blood sugar levels when meals are spaced too far apart.
• Water and cold liquids, such as vegetable juice, homemade iced tea, milk shakes, to refresh and stay hydrated.
• Food rich in phytoestrogens. These plant hormones, similar to female hormones, can reduce the effects of hot flashes, make them more bearable, but not make them disappear completely. The effects vary greatly from one woman to the next, according to her absorption ability and the intensity of the symptoms. It is still worth a try!
Even if hot flashes persist, soy has the advantage of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and breast cancer. At-risk women or breast cancer survivors can also consume it moderately, while avoiding isoflavone supplements and other type of phytoestrogens. To keep the odds on your side, you should consume soy regularly in all its forms. An easy example: grab two tbsp. of roasted soy beans as a daily snack. Don’t forget about tofu, canned or fresh soy beans (called edamame), enriched soy beverages, lentils, chickpeas
• Hearty, heavy meals. They take long to digest, especially at night.
• Hot drinks, of course! Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, soup…
• Hot peppers and spicy dishes that increase sweating.
• Alcohol. Due to its dilating action on blood vessels and the sudden disruption of estrogen levels in blood, alcohol increases the frequency of hot flashes as long as it remains in the blood, even hours after being consumed. Each case being unique, observe the effects and adjust alcohol consumption to your personal tolerance.
3. Outsmarting osteoporosis
One in four women will develop osteoporosis after the onset of menopause. Most of our bone density is acquired early in life, during childhood and adolescence. Having a higher bone density reduces your risk of developing osteoporosis. Over forty, some habits can even slow down the effects of this insidious disease that can have such an impact on your health and quality of life.
• Calcium-rich food at each meal so your calcium intake reaches 1000 to 1200 mg per day: milk, cheese, yogurt, all milk-based dishes or desserts (pancakes, tapioca, milk shakes, soups, white sauces), buttermilk, calcium-enriched beverages (soy, fruit juice or milk), canned sardines and salmon with bones, tofu made with calcium sulfate, green leafy vegetables, white beans, blackstrap molasses, almonds.
• Vitamin D supplement, as this vitamin improves the absorption of calcium. Experts suggest you take 1000 IU per day to help reduce the incidence of fractures in old age. Food sources containing vitamin D are limited, so a daily supplement is required, preferably in liquid form, such as one drop of Ddrops per day.
• Physical activities that put pressure on the hips promote calcium deposition into bones: tennis, tai-chi, cross-country skiing, running, dancing or hiking, there’s something for everyone! Furthermore, strength and endurance exercises improve muscle mass and balance, two advantages against the risk of falls and fractures.
• Too much caffeine, more than four cups of coffee a day increases calcium loss in the urine. Remember that caffeine is also found in chocolate, tea, colas, some medication and energy drinks.
• Alcohol and tobacco make bones more fragile by reducing their density. Avoid smoking and keep your alcohol intake to a minimum.
4. Feed your mood
Symptoms of depression, such as lack of energy, anxiety and mood swings, are often observed during menopause.
• At least two or three servings of fatty fish a week to meet your omega-3 needs: for example, canned tuna in olive oil added to a salad, a 150-gram trout or salmon fillet that counts as two portions!
• Omega-3 supplements of marine origin. A recent study led by Drs. Michel Lucas, Sylvie Dodin and their colleagues at Laval University was the first to demonstrate that these supplements (a tablet containing 350 mg of EPA and 50 mg of DHA taken three times a day) helped women experiencing symptoms of depression. Results were comparable to the effect of an antidepressant, without the side effects! However, women diagnosed with a severe depression who were taking the supplements did not see any improvement in their condition.
A little snack?
These delicious duos are made up of key foods to counter-attack menopause.
1. A small handful (2 tbsp.) of roasted soy beans and vegetable juice. Keep a stash on hand at the office, in the car or in a sports bag, as these snacks do not need to be refrigerated.
2. A pear and two old-type cheddar cheese fingers. The perfect pair when the next meal is still a long way off…
3. Edamame beans and non-alcoholic beer. Very trendy, you can often find already shelled edamame beans (or fresh soy beans) in the organic frozen section. Munch on them like peanuts during happy hour!
4. A glass of calcium-enriched milk or soy beverage with one or two large dates. Dates are perfect to satisfy your sweet tooth (except for women affected by bloating). Try Medjool dates, a soft, meaty variety often sold in bulk at the supermarket.
Thanks to Louise Desaulniers, consultant dietician, for sharing her excellent advice with us!