As you approach menopause, you may have concerns about managing symptoms such as hot flashes, disturbed sleep patterns, and vaginal dryness. But if you’re like many women, you may be unaware of your changing nutritional needs at this time. During menopause and beyond, your diet plays an important role in your health and well-being. What should you eat and why?

]]>Menopause]]> is a natural part of a woman’s life cycle. It is characterized by the cessation of monthly menstrual periods and the end of the ability to bear children. Most women reach menopause in their mid-40s to mid-50s, but some experience menopause earlier as the result of genetics, certain health conditions, surgical removal of the ovaries, or other factors. At menopause, your body produces much lower amounts of the hormone estrogen. This change has a strong impact on your health and nutritional needs.

Nutritional Concerns of Menopausal Women

As you approach menopause, you should be aware of the following health and nutritional concerns.

Increased Need for Calcium

As people age, they naturally lose some bone mass. However, during menopause, dropping estrogen levels cause women to lose bone faster, sometimes leading to ]]>osteoporosis]]>—a disease that causes brittle bones. In addition to regular weight-bearing exercise, an adequate intake of calcium can help lower your risk of osteoporosis. Experts recommend 1200 mg of calcium per day for women age 50 and older.

To increase your intake of this essential mineral, eat more of these ]]>calcium-rich foods]]>:

  • Milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Sardines and other canned fish with bones
  • Calcium-fortified foods and juices

You may also wish to talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about calcium supplementation.

You'll also need ]]>vitamin D]]> (400 IU to 800 IU), which helps your body to absorb calcium. Your body makes some vitamin D when you're exposed to sunlight. This vitamin is also in certain foods such as fortified milk, liver, and tuna.

Weight Management

During and after menopause, some women gain weight, even if they have never had a weight problem before. This may be due to a decrease in metabolic rate (the speed at which your body burns energy), which can occur as hormone levels change. A decreased activity level may also be partly responsible. As you get older, you may be more sedentary and use less energy.

At menopause, you may need to adjust your food choices, reduce your caloric intake, and increase your activity level to avoid weight gain. To help lose weight or ]]>maintain a healthful weight]]>, eat a well-balanced diet that is high in fiber, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and low in saturated fat. Overweight postmenopausal women can successfully reduce body weight with regular exercise, such as walking 30 minutes a day.

Reducing Your Risk for Cardiovascular Disease

As estrogen levels drop, a woman’s risk of heart disease increases. A number of lifestyle factors can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. These include getting regular exercise, quitting smoking, maintaining a healthful weight, and managing stress.

In addition, you may help decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease by eating a healthful, well-balanced diet that is high in fiber, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and low in saturated and trans fat, and cholesterol.

Management of Menopausal Symptoms

During menopause, many women experience uncomfortable physical and psychological symptoms. It’s possible that dietary changes may help to reduce these symptoms. If you are experiencing anxiety and insomnia, try cutting back on caffeine and alcohol. A high intake of phytoestrogens (hormones in plant foods), called ]]>isoflavones]]>, as well as the herb ]]>black cohosh]]>, and ]]>vitamin E]]> may help reduce hot flashes, night seats, mood swings, and vaginal dryness associated with menopause.

Isoflavones are found in the following foods:

  • Roasted soybeans
  • Tempeh
  • Soy flour
  • Processed soy products, such as soy protein and soy milk

However, the studies into isoflavones are conflicting.

Changing Needs for Dietary Iron

While women are menstruating, they need more dietary iron than men as a result of increased blood loss. Sometimes fluctuating hormone levels and other factors may cause heavy bleeding in women as they approach menopause, thus further increasing iron needs. However, once women reach menopause and stop menstruating, the risk for iron deficiency decreases. When this happens, you may no longer need iron supplements, since too much iron can be harmful. Your healthcare provider can make the best recommendations about iron supplementation based on an individual assessment.

Take heart and take control. Menopause is not a disease, and there are many changes you can make in your life to stay healthy and reduce your discomfort. Your kitchen is a good place to start.