- By Linda Melone
From weight gain to hot flashes and night sweats, menopause can make life miserable for some women.
The good news is you can control and reduce these common complaints by choosing certain foods — and cutting back on others.
“Think of food as medicine,” says Dr. Nina Ali, gynecologist and menopause specialist, “because the food and ingredients you take in are what your body uses for functioning and your health.”
These eight dietary tips may make you feel better:
Pass on packaged foods. Good quality nutrition is most important. “You want to eat whole foods and avoid processed foods,” says Ali. Packaged foods and fast foods typically contain high levels of sodium, sugar and fat, which can contribute to weight gain and sugar-induced mood swings.
(MORE: 6 Hidden Sugar Mines in Your Diet)
Go low-fat. Studies find that women who eat low-fat diets experience fewer menopausal symptoms, says Ali. “The Mediterranean diet is a good one to follow in general,” she notes.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed a 20 percent decrease in hot flashes and night sweats in women who followed a Mediterranean diet. High in olive oil, unprocessed grains and cereals, legumes, fruit and vegetables, the diet is also low in meat and meat products and high in fish and dairy. Ali also recommends the Paleo Diet as a close second choice.
Choose healthy fats. You needn't avoid fats completely. Swap out unhealthy and saturated versions for healthier versions, says Ali.
“Omega-3 fatty acids found in foods such as flaxseed can help skin and hair and also ease vaginal dryness,” she notes. Many studies link omega-3s with better moods and lower depression. Drizzle a tablespoon of flaxseed oil or an ounce of chopped walnuts into your morning oatmeal or strive for two servings of omega-3 rich fish (salmon, mackerel) in your diet weekly.
(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: The 5 Foods Women Need to Eat)
Increase fruits and veggies and cut down on refined carbs. Fruits and vegetables should also make up a good part of your diet, since they fill you up before they fill you out, says Joan Salge Blake, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Unfortunately most of us don’t eat nearly the recommended amount of 2 cups of vegetables and 2 1/2 cups of fruits a day.”
Instead, Blake says, many women eat far too many grain-based carbs. “It’s easy to eat 2, 3 and 4 cups of rice and pasta. At 200 calories a cup, this quickly adds up,” she adds.
An easy way to balance out grains and vegetables: eat pasta or rice in a 1:1 ratio with vegetables, suggests Blake. Eat a cup of vegetables for each cup of pasta, for example. It’s not only lower in calories but the fiber in the vegetables make this approach more filling, she says. “You need to do these things to outsmart your stomach,” says Blake.
Be pro-protein. A lack of protein in your diet may keep you hungry; protein keeps hunger under control and helps you stay full at every meal. “Getting 25 to 30 grams of protein with each meal also helps synthesize and maintain muscle,” says Blake. Thirty grams is about an ounce, or half a small chicken breast.
Since muscle burns calories at rest, maintaining muscle keeps your metabolism stoked. Blake recommends a portion of dairy with every meal, plus an ounce or two of protein to easily meet protein requirements. Vegetarians can increase protein by adding beans and lentils to meals. Both offer high fiber and blood sugar stabilizing, satiety effect.
Go easy on alcohol. Over-imbibing on wine and other alcohol can trigger weight gain as well as hot flashes. Past the age of 40, your liver slows down and can't process alcohol as well, says Dr. Sara Gottfried, author of The Hormone Cure.
“Alcohol slows metabolism more than 70 percent, robs you of sleep and raises cortisol, a stress hormone,” she says. "Cortisol ruins your sleep and contributes to hot flashes and night sweats. So you get fat, sweaty and cranky.”
In addition, drinking alcohol can quickly make you forget your dietary good intentions. “You get relaxed and pull out the snacks, so alcohol can be a trigger to nosh. A handful of crackers with a glass of wine easily add up to 100 and more calories,” says Blake.
Eat chocolate. Now for the good news: Cutting back on alcohol doesn’t mean cutting out all treats. An ounce of chocolate — about six Chocolate Kisses — makes a tasty and healthy mood fix. “Extra dark chocolate is rich in magnesium and resets your cortisol,” says Gottfried. “It also gets rid of bad estrogens linked to breast cancer.”
Avoid hot flash-inducing foods. Everyone’s different, so foods that may trigger hot flashes in some women don’t trigger them in others, says Ali. In general, problematic foods include coffee and caffeine-containing drinks, alcohol and spicy foods. Switch to herbal teas and go easy on the spice and wine to stay cool and keep excess weight at bay.