Why You Need the Menopause Diet Plan
Before menopause I could eat anything I wanted without gaining weight, but after menopause I put on 15 pounds even though I hadn’t changed my eating or exercise habits. —Sue, age 59
“What should I eat for menopause?”
That’s a question we’ve heard many times over the years, mostly as part of a conversation that typically begins with weight concerns. Between the two of us, we have many decades of experience helping people navigate weight issues, but to be honest, prior to experiencing menopause ourselves, we couldn’t fully relate to the specific challenges this stage of life presents.
Though we understood that women’s bodies change with declining estrogen levels and aging, we may have been somewhat skeptical when listening to women describe how their usual eating and exercise routines were no longer working. Now that we’re both past menopause, however, these women’s stories resonate with us—and how! Just like the women who have gone before us, we’ve gained some belly fat, fended off hot flashes, and dreamed about getting a good night’s sleep again. Our own adjustments to menopause led to our search for the best diet and lifestyle habits for midlife, and beyond. That’s how we came up with the Menopause Diet Plan (MDP).
We’re firm believers that it’s possible to stay fit and healthy despite your changing hormones by prioritizing time for self-care, which includes enjoying nutritious food. While the MDP is about much more than what the scale reads, we’re glad women ask about weight because it opens up the menopause conversation. When our mothers went through “the change,” menopause was rarely a topic talked about much, even among women who were in the same boat. Thank goodness this is not your mother’s menopause! We know a great deal more about women’s health now, and the MDP takes full advantage of the scientific research on how nutrition and exercise influence physical health and emotional well-being.
Making Sense of Menopause Nutrition
There’s a lot of information out there about what to eat. However, very little of it is unique to the menopause transition, which often starts in the mid-40s and lasts into the 60s. In addition, food choices aren’t the whole story when it comes to menopause. There are several other issues to consider, and they are woven into the MDP, which is designed to prevent or manage health conditions that become more common during midlife, promote a better mood, limit hot flashes, and much more.
The foundation of the MDP includes five core principles:
Eat according to your body clock. Does this sound familiar? You skimp on food during the day and eat most of your calories at dinner and afterwards, and you can’t figure out why you’re gaining weight and your energy is low. We are ruled by natural body rhythms that affect our health, and when you eat matters. Consistent food intake regulates your energy levels, heads off crabbiness, and helps prevent you from going overboard because you let yourself get too hungry.
Meal timing is one of the most important principles of the MDP. As you will see in the chapters ahead, managing meal timing is gaining ground for its role in weight control, regulating blood glucose levels, getting better sleep, and possibly lowering cancer risk.
Focus on plant foods. Plant-rich eating plans typically supply a balance of healthy fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that help reduce blood pressure and LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”), lower the risk of diabetes, and promote a healthy weight. Following a plant-based diet may be particularly beneficial for women before, during, and after menopause, in many ways.
Two of the most popular plant-based approaches to eating are the Mediterranean-style diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. Both plans regularly top international lists of the world’s healthiest diets for their recommendations to eat more fruits and vegetables than the average American consumes, opt for whole grains most of the time, and include plant proteins like nuts, seeds, and legumes more often. Both styles of eating strongly encourage limiting added sugars and refined carbohydrates, but neither forbids them.
When followed closely, the DASH diet is widely regarded as an effective way to treat or prevent high blood pressure. It’s based on prescribed amounts of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meat, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and low-fat dairy foods, and it’s particularly low in saturated fat and high in fiber. DASH is also rich in potassium, magnesium, and calcium to help with blood pressure control, and lower in sodium than the typical American diet. Lower sodium versions of DASH—1,500 milligrams daily—produce even greater reductions in blood pressure, but may be difficult to follow in the long run.
The DASH diet is a lifelong approach to better health, and while it’s not a weight-loss “diet,” you might shed some extra pounds because of better food choices. For many people, the DASH diet is a big change to how they eat, because DASH suggests a specific number of servings of certain foods every day. See the Resources section in this book for more on the DASH eating plan.
The Mediterranean-style eating plan promotes seafood over poultry, and suggests less beef, pork, and lamb. It also allows low to moderate amounts of wine with meals. (However, if you don’t drink, there’s no need to start doing so in the name of better health.) Following a Mediterranean-style pattern reduces the chances for being overweight, and women may experience fewer symptoms associated with menopause, thereby improving their quality of life. It also happens that this plant-based approach is good for your gut, and can lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and may help improve mood in menopausal women.
In constructing the MDP, we blended recommendations from the Mediterranean and DASH diets that encourage ample amounts of whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds to help you feel satisfied so that you don’t reach for that extra serving or two of snack chips, candy, and cookies.
Our approach is likely higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates than the Mediterranean and DASH plans; and like these plans, the MDP encourages you to eat more plant proteins and seafood, as well as nuts, nut butters, seeds, avocados, olive oil, and other sources of fat that are healthy and satisfying. Collectively, our recommendations emphasize the most “anti-inflammatory” aspects of the Mediterranean, DASH, and other plant-based diets. That’s because most health issues that surface during the menopause transition and afterwards, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and cognitive problems, involve inflammation. And, like all plant-based plans, the MDP promotes digestive health by helping to prevent constipation and nourishes the gut in a way that influences overall health.
What is a plant-based eating plan?
Though evidence suggests that plant-based patterns benefit overall health the most, “plant-based” doesn’t mean animal-free. However, you may need to eat smaller portions of animal foods while increasing your intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
So, what exactly does “plant-based” mean? At first pass, it may sound like vegetarianism, and it can be. But there are many forms of plant-based eating:
• A vegan diet includes only foods from plant sources, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, soy, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
• Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat plant foods, eggs, and dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, but no animal flesh or seafood.
• Flexitarians consider themselves vegetarians for the most part but also eat seafood, poultry, and perhaps, some red meat, or not!
Despite the differences, all vegetarian-type eating plans focus on getting most of their nutrients from plants. Plant-based eating does not ban certain foods, as is the case with many overly restrictive fad diets, but rather encourages some foods over others. You don’t need to be a vegetarian for better health, but you may need to significantly up your fruit, vegetable, and whole grains to achieve the goals outlined in the Menopause Diet Plan.
Curb carbohydrates and cue the protein. Research suggests that many menopausal women do not consume the protein they need. Based on scientific evidence, the MDP includes more protein than is typically suggested for women over 50. While it’s important to include enough protein, timing matters, too. Eating protein regularly throughout the day helps to keep you feeling fuller for longer while nourishing your muscles and bones.
When you add protein to your eating plan, you may need to shed some carbohydrate and dietary fat for balance. We have nothing against foods rich in carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. However, you may be eating more carbohydrates than your body can handle at midlife, and that can make weight control more difficult.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to weight management in the menopausal years, a recent large observational study from the Women’s Health Initiative found that some eating patterns are better than others.