If there is one thing that we as women know for sure, it’s that we will all enter into menopause at some point in our lives.
Although we all have this in common, no two women will experience perimenopause or menopause the same way.
It can be a time of a lot of uncertainty and adjustment and while nothing can prevent us from going through this transition, there are things that we can do to improve our quality of life and health throughout this period.
As a Registered Dietitian, I see so many women who enter this life stage with anxiety, worry and dread.
Weight seems to hang around in places that it never used to and it is becoming increasingly difficult to lose, certain foods don’t agree with them anymore and they feel like they can’t “get away with” some of the things they had so easily before.
Does this sound familiar?
Not only can these changes impact our quality of life, putting on some extra weight around the middle actually puts women at higher risk for developing serious diseases like heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
What’s going on in our bodies as we enter our 40’s?
You are probably very familiar with the term menopause, but what about perimenopause?
Unlike menopause, perimenopause isn’t often talked about.
Perimenopause simply means “around menopause” and can last for years! It can start as early as our mid 30’s but most commonly starts for women in their early 40’s.
During this time hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, begin to decline.
You can officially say that you’ve transitioned out of perimenopause and into menopause one year after your last period.
Both perimenopause and menopause are a time of significant hormonal fluctuations and like mentioned above, we can thank these whacky hormones for some of the common symptoms that accompany perimenopause and menopause including (but not limited to) …
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Mood swings
- Irregular periods
- Poor sleep quality
- Decreased bone density
- Hot flashes
- Weight gain (particularly around the middle).
So, is there anything you can do about it?
Like I said before, we can’t prevent or stop ourselves from entering into perimenopause and menopause but, there are lifestyle factors that we can practice daily to help minimize some of those uncomfortable symptoms that accompany those hormonal changes.
1 Eat more plants!
I can’t emphasize enough how important nutrition is in our overall health and well-being at any stage of life, and I’m not just saying that because I am a dietitian!
We have ample evidence to show that the foods we eat play a huge role in helping to manage and diminish some of those pesky symptoms and serious health risks associated with hormonal changes as we age.
Eating more whole, plant-based foods and fewer ultra-processed foods will forever be my number one piece of advice.
This means finding ways to eat more whole veggies, fruits, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, seeds, minimally processed soy foods like edamame, non-GMO tofu or tempeh, and an abundance of herbs and spices.
Research has shown us that women who eat a whole food, plant predominant diet are less likely to experience excess weight gain and are at a lower risk of developing diseases like heart disease, diabetes and hormonal cancers like breast and ovarian.
For many women, the first response to some extra weight gain is to overly restrict their calories or follow the latest fad diet. Unfortunately, when we do this we not only run the risk of depriving our body of the nourishment it needs, we can strain our relationship with food and our body and further put our health at risk.
My philosophy, eat to nourish.
A good place to start is to focus on what you can start to add to your plate rather than take away. Aim to fill up your plate with nutrient rich plant foods. And don’t worry, that doesn’t mean living off of salads. Can you add some extra veg to your pasta sauce, on top of your pizza, into your omelette or smoothie? Your options are endless.
In addition to increasing your veggie intake, try to incorporate more plant-based sources of protein into your diet. Add lentils into your pasta sauce instead of ground beef, make a three-bean chili, try tofu or tempeh in your next stir fry instead of chicken or dip those veggies in hummus or bean dip instead of ranch.
Not only are these foods a great source of fiber, helping to manage blood sugars, appetite and digestion, they are jam packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals that help to combat inflammation and protect our cells from damage.
Soy much to clarify …
There is a lot of confusion around soy and whether it increases a woman’s risk of hormonal cancers, like breast and ovarian cancer, or not.
Let me help to straighten it out!
Yes, soy foods contain estrogen like substances known as phytoestrogens. However, unlike naturally occurring estrogen that is produced by our ovaries and fat tissue phytoestrogens seem to have a protective effect on a woman’s health.
Not only that, but women who eat more whole food, plant based diets naturally higher in fiber and phytoestrogens seem to have fewer menopausal symptoms, like hot flashes.
Some other foods that have been found to be helpful for women entering into their 40’s and 50’s are …
- Cruciferous veggies like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy or Brussels sprouts. These foods contain both phytoestrogens and a compound called indol-3-carbinol that can help metabolize and block estrogens negative effects in the body. Raw is best, but you can add mustard seed powder to cooked cruciferous veggies to promote the beneficial effects of these compounds.
- Ground flaxseed. Ground flaxseed also contains phytoestrogens known as lignans. Not only is ground flaxseed an excellent source of fiber and plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, these lignans can help the body get rid of harmful estrogens that lead to an increased risk of menopausal symptoms and hormonal cancers.
Bottom line: Soy products seem to be protective. Including up to 3 servings of soy foods per day is considered to be safe. 1 serving = 1 cup soy milk, 1/2 cup tofu or tempeh.
2. Move your body
Exercise doesn’t have to mean slaving away at the gym for hours a day. Find a routine that you can practice consistently and that you enjoy. Maybe its walking your dog for 30-45 minutes a day, going on a hike, trying a new workout class with a friend, going swimming, parking farther away from your destination, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, going to yoga … Your options are limitless. It is also recommended that women incorporate strength training exercises into their routine 2-3 days per week to help protect bone health.
3. Find ways to manage your stress
We’ve known for a long time that chronic stress can wreak havoc on our body, even if we aren’t aware of it. Chronic stress at any life stage can contribute to increased risk of chronic disease down the road. Find ways of managing and reducing your stress that work for you and really prioritize these practices. Exercise, talking to a close friend or therapist, avoiding alcohol or caffeine, meditation or deep breathing, taking a bath, reading a good book – these are all examples of practices that can be used to reduce the stress response in the body.
4. Prioritize your zzz’s
Many of us take sleep for granted, but it is SO important. Sleep is our body’s time to recuperate and heal. Getting enough zzz’s also plays a role in our appetite control and hormone regulation.
Having a regular sleep routine that you can practice 7 days a week is a good place to start. Decreasing your screen time before bed, meditating, decreasing your caffeine intake (even if early in the day), staying active and exercising regularly, limiting alcohol intake before bed, reading a book and not eating a large meal right before you go to lay down, are all good places to start.
5. Nourish your relationships (including the one with yourself)
For some women, aging can be a significant source of stress and anxiety. Implementing daily practices, whether it be 5 minutes of meditation, taking a bath, jumping around to a feel good tune, escaping your family with a 15 minute solo car ride … whatever it is you need to ground and calm yourself, do it!
Forming connections with others is vital to supporting our mental and emotional well-being. Those who have meaningful relationships and a sense of belonging tend to live longer than those who don’t for a variety of reasons. They usually experience less stress, are more socially involved and active day to day.
The take home message …
Aging is a privilege. Learning and understanding that our body changes as we age and these changes are completely natural is important.
Eat and move in a way that feels good and be grateful for all that your body does for you.
I hope this article has shown you that you do have the power to protect your health.
What steps can you take starting today?