Diet and nutrition during menopause

“Anyone else turned 40 and instantly began to pile on weight?”

What you eat during menopause can have a significant impact on your health, energy, and symptoms. A food first approach means trying to get as much nutrition from your diet before topping up with extra supplements.

The impact of eating high and low glycaemic index (GI) foods during menopause

The glycaemic index (GI) is a number rating system for foods that contain carbohydrates. Your body converts carbohydrates into sugars, the GI reveals how quickly sugar is converted from certain foods and released into your bloodstream.

Low GI: 55 or less
Medium GI
: 56–59
High GI
: 70 and above

Examples of high GI foods:

  • White bread
  • White pasta
  • White rice
  • Potatoes
  • Sugary foods and soda

Some of these foods may seem scrumptious, but they’re highly processed. This means they’re quickly broken down by your body, resulting in a faster sugar release and a rapid increase in blood sugar.

Foods with a high GI are linked to an increased risk of developing Type II diabetes and heart disease. Eating too much of these foods can also make you feel tired and lethargic. Yikes.

High GI foods should be replaced with low GI foods when possible. They’re whole, unprocessed, and slowly digested—so they don't lead to a quick blood sugar spike, meaning you have more sustained energy.

Examples of low GI foods:

  • Most vegetables
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Rolled or steel-cut oats
  • Plain yoghurt
  • Nuts
  • Most fruit

Eating low GI foods will help you reduce weight gain during menopause, as well as increase overall energy levels. Sounds ideal.

The role of phytoestrogens during menopause

Phytoestrogens are plant substances that have a similar structure to oestrogen that your body makes. Eating food rich with phytoestrogens can mimic some of the same effects as oestrogen produced by your body. You can also access phytoestrogens through supplements.

This can be particularly helpful during menopause, as your body experiences a decline in oestrogen during perimenopause. Many women report improved symptoms associated with low estrogen when they increase the amount of phytoestrogens in their diet—though results vary between each person and more scientific research is still needed.

Types of phytoestrogens

There are many different types of phytoestrogens. Isoflavones and lignans are the most important for menopause symptoms. Isoflavones are found in soybeans, soy milk, chickpeas, beans, and peas. Lignans are found in other legumes, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, rye, broccoli, and kale.

Women who have high levels of isoflavones in their diets—typically women in Japan and vegetarians—generally have lower rates of menopause symptoms, heart conditions, and certain cancers. There’s even evidence that higher consumption of isoflavones improves bone health, keeping that skeleton strong.

In 2015 the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published menopause treatment guidelines that include intake of phytoestrogens. Herbs such as red clover and black cohosh also contain phytoestrogens and may relieve some menopause symptoms. It’s best to check with your doctor or pharmacist before starting any supplements, as they may not be suitable for everyone, especially if you already take medication or have a history of cancer.

Why do some people notice phytoestrogen effects and others don’t?

Every person has an individual profile of gut bacteria. Research has shown that about 30–50% of people have the enzymes to convert food sources of phytoestrogens into active substances that relieve symptoms, which means only half of women may benefit from the positive effects. Quite a toss-up. Interestingly, vegetarians and people in Eastern cultures typically have higher levels of these gut converting bacteria—between 60–80% of these populations.

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