Nutrition, a huge topic to try and cover but what a fabulous one…and incredibly interesting…
It’s always a good idea to invest a little time into thinking about what you’re eating as, with any lifestyle choice when it comes to the menopause, it plays a huge role in not only how you experience menopausal symptoms but then how you and your body manage to cope with those symptoms.
The majority of us now know that having a well balanced, nutritious diet contributes to our overall health and wellbeing plus, also importantly, helps with the prevention of various chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, neurogenerative disorders (Alzheimer’s/Parkinson’s), cancers, diabetes and obesity.
I know…it kind of makes it rather important doesn’t it…with prevention always being better than firefighting any health condition.
Think of getting healthy from the inside out…look at how many nutrients you are packing into your body by having a healthy, balanced diet, but don’t become obsessive about it…keep it simple…and most definitely have the odd treat now and again! One of the key words is variety…getting a variety of food into our meals so we make sure we provide our bodies with enough essential basic nutrients to keep our bodies healthy and when menopausal to help cope with those hormone imbalances.
I decided to write this post because there are so many buzz words aren’t there these days when it comes to nutrition…words we’re all meant to know and understand …ones like phytoestrogens, antioxidants, polyphenols…and then you get people talking about free radicals, oxidative stress, scavanging and the importance of gut microbiota …before you know it, it starts to feel like you need to go and take a tutorial before you even go shopping! So, although many nutritionists out there will be tearing their hair out that I’ve only mentioned a few things I’m just really trying to simplify matters a little…simplify you say looking at the length of this post…apologies, I got quite carried away but do read on, you might need a break now and then to go and make a smoothie or a cuppa, but all relevant stuff!
Or as one woman recently said to me…can you just tell me which foods I need to be eating Ruth and why…here goes!
This is a bit different from my usual posts, it’s much longer for a start and might not be up your street so if you’re after something a bit less detailed have a look at a previous post…Nutrition and the Menopause…oh yes it makes a difference.
Let’s start off with the term Superfoods…this is basically a marketing term referring to foods which are highly nutritious, plus, they usually contain one or two of those other buzz words!
Do remember that no single food…not even a superfood can offer all the nutrition and energy which we require on a daily basis.
So, some examples of superfoods and a few of the essentials they supply…
Berries: Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, cranberries…high in antioxidants, vitamin C and fibre.
Fish: Salmon, tuna steaks, mackerel, sardines…high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids…they’re the healthy ones which help to prevent heart disease!
Leafy green vegetables: Spinach, kale…there are lots more…plenty of fibre, vitamin A, C and calcium.
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds…great source of protein, monounsaturated fats…healthy ones…mind you don’t forget they are calorific so make sure you don’t eat that family pack of nuts in one go, just have the odd handful!
Olive Oil: think Mediterranean, where would we be without olive oil or olives…I know you either love them or hate them…but there are so many different brands and sources you can usually find one type you like…fabulous snack…great source of vitamin E, polphenols…I’m coming to those don’t worry…and monounsaturated fats.
Whole grains: we’re talking oats, bulgar, quinoa, brown rice…fibre, several of the B vitamins.
Yoghurts: Look out for plain, natural yoghurt…if you want it flavoured then add berries and other natural flavourings rather than buying the flavoured ones which have added sugar. Look out for ones which say live active cultures, this means its providing the good bacteria which helps to balance that gut.
Vegetables: red peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radishes, turnips, spinach…any green leafy vegetables are fabulous…vitamins, fibre.
Legumes: funny name isn’t it…think beans…kidney, soya, chickpeas…lentils, peanuts…fabulous source of plant-based protein, magnesium, potassium, fibre, folate (B Vit).
Tomatoes: high in vitamin C and a mineral called lycopene which is extremely useful in helping to prevent certain cancers and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease…its one of those antioxidants! They also contain beta-carotene another antioxidant which is known to help maintain healthy skin and tissues, vitamin E, fibre and potassium. Cooking with olive oil further improves their nutritious value…recap above!
This list is obviously not exhaustive…I mean you’ve got beetroot, eggs, avocados, sweet potatoes, garlic, ginger, avocados, kefir, green tea…but let’s move on…
Phytoestrogens…sometimes known as plant oestrogens
There are lots of different points to make about these so rather than rambling on I thought I’d just pop them down in a few bullet points…there’s been huge interest and much research done over the years with these…the clue being in their name…phytoestrogens!
- Phytoestrogens occur naturally in plants.
- Their chemical structure resembles that of oestrogen but is not identical.
- They can occupy oestrogen receptors in the body without actually activating them…remember we have oestrogen receptors throughout our bodies…another way of explaining it is that they bind themselves to the oestrogen receptors so they can act like hormone regulators.
- They behave slightly differently to our own oestrogen.
- Important groups are isoflavones and lignan’s…I know getting too scientific now!
- Their effectiveness varies between individuals as you need the right gut bacteria to be able to process…metabolise…absorb these isoflavones properly. Only about a third of us have the right gut bacteria so…important to think about that gut health…chatting about that later!
- As well as their potential oestrogen advantages they have excellent nutritional benefits being rich in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
- The phytoestrogen effect on the risk of breast cancer remains unknown, more research is required. It is not recommended that women at high risk of breast cancer, or who have had breast cancer take soy supplements.
- Unlike pharmaceutical oestrogens, the phytoestrogens in food don’t appear to increase the risk of endometrial cancer, again more research required.
- Risks of using phytoestrogen supplements long term is unknown.
- Lots of interest and research continues on this topic as certain populations which consume high levels of these isoflavones…particularly those within the Asian continent…have lower reported rates of menopausal symptoms, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and certain cancers….interesting eh! But as always with the science world there needs to be more research. Either way, incorporating a few well selected food sources into your diet is going to have a beneficial effect…just don’t think you have to completely transform your diet…tweaks and nudges…tweaks and nudges…
- Interesting fact…the average daily diet in Asia contains : 25-50mg compared to the average Western diet : 1mg
To summarise their beneficial effects :
- Contribute to the relief of menopausal symptoms.
- Help to prevent and reduce risk of osteoporosis, certain cancers and heart disease.
- Help to control blood sugar levels.
- Help to reduce inflammation and may help to lower cholesterol levels in some people.
- Foods rich in phytoestrogens are also more than likely to be highly nutritious providing the essentials in life…protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
- Cereals/whole grains: oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice, couscous, bulgar.
- Soy products : soy drinks, tofu and beans…soya sauce does not contain any! Avoid highly processed soy foods and supplements as they work differently to those found in natural sources.
- Seeds: flax, sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, linseed.
- Nuts: almonds, pistachios.
- Legumes: Beans, chick peas, lentils, red kidney beans, peas, mung beans.
- Vegetables: red onions, green beans, celery, sweet peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, sage, garlic.
- Red clover
Just in case you’ve heard these words and wondered what they mean…the different types of phytoestrogens are…
Isoflavones : soya, legumes
Coumestans : clover, sprouts
Lignans : linseed, grains, vegetables
Do high levels of phytoestrogens effect males, as in their fertility levels…there is no strong evidence in humans, with several controlled studies which concluded that they don’t change testosterone levels in men.
A quick note on supplements…
There are multiple brands out there professing all sorts of things, popping a pill can seem like a quick way to get your nutritional requirements but…food sources should always be your first thought and always remember when it comes to supplements, carefully read packaging to check contents and remember we all absorb these things in very different ways and to differing degrees so their effectiveness can be debatable. However…quick quote from one of the leading supplement companies…’Phytoestrogens can be taken as a supplement, but you should not combine these with certain other supplements or HRT as they may interact. Many women opt to take a natural approach to menopause, supported through taking a phytoestrogenic supplement or holistic complimentary therapies. One recognised supplement company that has had over 15 years of scientific based research on helping women manage menopause is Promensil, who provide a range of supplements based on standardised Red Clover isoflavones, a phytoestrogen.’
Interesting article on phytoestrogens and breast cancer : Jean Hailes: https://tinyurl.com/yckms4nj
Why are they good to have in your diet…they protect your body from free radicals…what are these…harmful molecules, waste substances which are produced by cells as your body processes food and reacts to different environments.
Free radicals and antioxidants are both essential molecules that naturally occur in our bodies but, in some people for one reason or another these can become imbalanced, which then causes something called oxidative stress…this in turn increases the risk of heart disease, cancers, arthritis, diabetes, and neurogenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Oxidative stress also contributes to ageing.
How do antioxidants help protect from free radicals…to put it as simply as possible, they act as scavengers by gobbling them up!
Another way of looking at it is that by eating a diet rich in antioxidants it helps to neutralise the free radicals and reduce the risk of developing these diseases…no brainer then really to get some in your diet!
The bonus, is that any food classed as an antioxidant is usually high in fibre, low in saturated fats and contain lots of vitamins and minerals…marvellous!
The best sources of antioxidants are plant based foods especially, fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and even cocoa…all these have antioxidant properties, each one having a different function, a different role to play…which is why it’s so important to have that varied diet.
Sources of antioxidants: any colourful natural food source is almost guaranteed to be healthy…if you have a plate full of beige food the likelihood is that there aren’t many antioxidants in there! Here are a few to aim for…
Berries : blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries
Greens : peas, spinach, kale, broccoli
Legumes so things like…beans, lentils, soy
Peppers, dark chocolate…cocoa…yep the odd small amount, beetroot, eggs, liver, tomatoes, watermelons, carrots, oranges, sweet potatoes, apples, goji berries and olives
It’s always good to spice up your food now and then aswell with the likes of turmeric, cumin, ginger, cloves and cinnamon which all have antioxidant properties and when you think about snacking in-between meals have to hand things like nuts and dried fruit…ah come on you can start turning those taste buds a bit…plus they tend to fill you up more!
Cooking tips…when it comes to trying to retain those antioxidants ideally eat foods raw where possible or lightly steam…overcooking and boiling are not a good idea!
Getting more technical…when you’re thinking about antioxidants you’re talking…vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene, lycopene (remember I mentioned that earlier with tomatoes), selenium and manganese.
So if you’re looking at food sources from this angle think about…
Vitamin A: dairy produce, eggs, sweet potatoes and liver
Vitamin C: most fruits and vegetables, especially peppers, berries, oranges and broccoli
Vitamin E: nuts and seeds, sunflower and olive oils, and any of the green, leafy vegetables like spinach
Beta-carotene: brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, peas, spinach, pomegranates, sweet potatoes, apricots and mangoes
Lycopene: pink/red fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and watermelon
Selenium: whole grain cereals, nuts, eggs, fish, cottage cheese, lentils and bananas
Manganese: whole grains, leafy vegetables, nuts, pineapple
The benefits of antioxidants in a nutshell…they help to…
- Reduce the risk of heart disease
- Reduce the risk of inflammatory conditions
- Help to prevent certain cancers
- Develop a healthy digestive tract
- and they help with immune disorders
I mentioned at the start that environmental factors play a role when it comes to the production of those free radicals. What I meant by that are things like…
- Exposure to chemicals e.g. certain drugs, chemotherapy, pesticides
- Industrial solvents
- Excessive exercise
- Tissue damage due to inflammation or injury
- A diet rich in sugar, fat and alcohol also contributes to free radical production.
Healthy lifestyle choices also help to prevent and reduce oxidative stress…I know here I go again…these include…taking regular exercise (note the word regular not excessive!), good sleep patterns, keeping an eye on your caffeine and alcohol levels and keeping well hydrated.
The term Polyphenols refers to foods which are those nutrient dense, plant compounds.
If a food is polyphenolic rich it means its nutrient rich, anti inflammatory, and they are microbe friendly…meaning they’re good for your gut health.
Polphenols are abundantly found in plant based foods and play a vital role in health helping to regulate metabolism, helping to prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and the neurogenerative disorders like Alzheimers and Parkinsons. So really a no brainer to make sure you include them in your diet
Like any foods with high nutritional value you want where possible to retain that polyphenol content even after cooking so if possible when cooking try and stick to steaming and stir fry, or try and eat them raw…crudites…salads…smoothies.
Tea, dark chocolate and red wine are the better known sources but they are present in abundance in many fruit and vegetables. Think of all the berries, grapefruit, pomegranate. asparagus, carrots, spinach, broccoli, shallots, tofu, soy, nuts, seeds, grains and herbs, especially rosemary, thyme and basil. Spices, think of ginger and cinnamon. Then there’s Green tea, olives and olive oil.
Collagen…I just wanted to mention this because…
Collagen is one of the most important and abundant proteins that your body makes naturally. There are lots of different types of collagen which make up about a third of all the protein in your body.
Why is it so important…it provides structure in alot of areas and works like glue in other areas, holding things together. It’s one of the building blocks when it comes to bones, tendons, ligaments and skin, it helps to make cartilage and also helps to create muscles and blood vessels.
Why is it important in relation to the menopause…well when we get older your body makes less collagen, in addition to that it is thought that oestrogen plays a role in the production of collagen. So, when those levels of oestrogen start to decline during the menopause, as women, we experience a double whammy!
What are the effects of declining levels of collagen…visible signs like wrinkles developing, hair loss and then things like joint aches, stiff tendons and ligaments can be common too.
Certain lifestyle choices lower your collagen levels, things like smoking, too much direct sun, having a poor diet, in particular too much sugar.
But fear not, there are ways of increasing natural production by having a really nutritious, protein rich diet. Think of foods like chicken, fish, beef, eggs, dairy and beans. Vitamin C is also very important in the production of collagen so think of peppers, tomatoes and green leafy vegetables and also zinc plays a role which you can find in foods like nuts, shellfish, beans and whole grains.
If you really want to go all out to increase production then one of the best ways is to cook a big pot of bone broth…then add it to soups, stews or some people just like to have it as a drink…an acquired taste admittedly but fabulous as a base for soups and highly nutritious. Top tip apparently to help draw out all those valuable nutrients is to add a couple of tablespoons of vinegar…try apple cider vinegar…you need to simmer those bones (marrow, oxtail, whatever takes you fancy) for between 12 – 24 hours, the longer you cook it for the more you will extract. A little point when making and storing bone broth…don’t get put off when you pop it in the fridge and it starts to congeal this is a good sign! When you cook the bones and other bits of cartilage you might have in your pot the collagen turns into gelatin which congeals on cooling…it’s great for that digestive tract…helping food to move through your gut more easily.
Another plus of making bone broth…low in calories…but makes you feel full…
Other foods which boost collagen production include …
Green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, which are packed with antioxidants that protect against those free radicals which breakdown collagen.
All those red veggies like tomatoes, peppers and beetroot which are full of lycopene…they boost collagen production and also protect against sun damage.
Vitamin C is one of the essentials for collagen production…back to all those berries, peppers….
Veggies like sweet potatoes and carrots which are packed with vitamin A which helps to restore collagen.
Oily fish rich in omega-3 like mackerel, salmon and tuna, these all help to contribute to healthy skin, reducing inflammation and help to promote elasticity.
Garlic…helps to rebuild damaged collagen.
Another quick word about supplements…there are so many products out there professing to increase or replace collagen but always err on the side of caution…at the end of the day the best way to boost collagen production is naturally from the inside out…making sure you get plenty of those nutritional basics in your diet and then your skin, hair, teeth, as well as bones, ligaments and muscles will all benefit.
Gut bacteria and gut health…
I know, I know this is a massive topic…but as such it warrants a small mention…
We’ve got trillions of micro-organisms in our gut most of them are bacteria but we’ve also got a few viruses, fungi and protozoa in there as well. Ok I think that’s enough science stuff…basically in simple terms we’ve all got these gut microbiota and its very important that we look after them!
Where do gut microbriota live…in our gastrointestinal tract
Why are they so important…an imbalance can affect our immune system, our cardiovascular system, digestive system…you get the picture.
We are born with our own unique gut microbiota think of it a bit like your individual finger print…some of us might have gut microbes which make us more predisposed to developing disease such as diabetes so, if we can find a way of changing those gut microbes then that obviously lowers our risk of developing these diseases. This finger print however differs to our actual unique finger print found on the ends of our fingers as we have the ability to improve our gut microbiota. Research has found nutrition to be one of the most effective interventions…having a healthy balanced diet.
Eating the right nutrition, feeding not only ourselves but the trillions of bacteria which live in our gut the right foods. This community of mibrobes are a fickle lot and they all prefer different foods so having that variety of plant based foods is essential. Avoid the highly processed foods…eat more fibre so back to thinking about fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds and wholegrain. Basically everything discussed throughout this post will stand you in good stead!
Last but not least there are Prebiotics these are foods which fertilise or feed our existing gut bacteria including foods like wholegrains and some vegetables. Then you’ll hear some people mentioning probiotics…these are foods which include the likes of live yoghurts and fermented foods like kefir and kombucha which can encourage more microbes to grow by already containing live bacteria. Sourdough has some of these benefits as well and is certainly easier to digest…have a read…interesting article by Jackie Lynch.
Microbiome in simple terms means the information of a micro-organism which is held in its DNA (or for some viruses, RNA).
Microbiota refers to the community of micro-organisms themselves.
Ok…there you go…hope that simplifies everything a bit…basically have a good variety of all the above, the more colourful the better and it will usually be more nutritious. Don’t overload your body in any particular direction…meaning too much of a good thing will create an imbalance as well and can have a negative impact on, for example, absorption rates of minerals like iron and such like…everything in moderation hence that phrase…a balanced diet!
Can we talk about supplements just for a minute…what again do I hear…it’s generally recognised that getting all your nutritional requirements through food sources is the best route…but we are all individuals and sometimes for one reason or another we might not process things in as beneficial a way as the person next to us, so some people might require the odd supplement now and again.
Do always remember though that isolating an individual mineral or vitamin rather than getting it through a food source has the potential for a side effect e.g. fatty acid supplements like fish oils might not interact too well with some medications like warfarin…always check with your GP or pharmacist before you start self medicating.
One of the classic supplements everyone should have though, especially if you live in the UK, is vitamin D…needed for processing calcium and magnesium. Let’s face it we don’t get enough through the old sunshine so a good supplement once a day is a good idea…you can get it in various forms like tablets or sprays.
The problems with supplements is that they differ enormously, so always check the contents and make sure you know recommended daily intakes. Some manufacturers are extremely naughty and have been known to recommend intakes over 100 times higher than those found through your every day food sources…this can obviously have an adverse effect so do be careful and as I often say best plan is not to dive into your local supplier grab the nearest half a dozen bottles off the shelves and then start taking random combinations which might all be interacting with each other, plus other medication you might be on and goodness knows what else…always seek advice from someone who knows what they are talking about…a medical herbalist or a pharmacist before you start taking them. Just because something is from a ‘natural’ source doesn’t mean it’s not going to have side effects!
There are however some excellent supplements out there who have many years of research behind them and clinical trials…just tread carefully!
So…what you eat, what you drink, how much exercise you get and the quality of your sleep are all such important factors…oh and don’t forget that all essential R and R!
Previous post: Nutrition and the Menopause…oh yes it makes a difference.
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Any information is as accurate as possible at time of posting and is for information purposes only. The information and support that Let’s Talk Menopause provides is for your own personal use. It is not intended to replace or substitute the judgement of any medical professional you may come in contact with. You should always seek advice from you healthcare professional regarding a medical condition.