The Foods Every Perimenopausal Woman Needs
5 dietary changes that can help you feel better and stay healthier, starting now.
Menopause is often referred to as “the change,” but those unnerving shifts and glitches typically begin years before your last period, during perimenopause. As the ovaries wind down their operations, your hormone levels can go haywire, causing symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings. Then there are the permanent changes that occur with age — like a slower metabolism, a more fragile skeleton, and a higher risk for some scary conditions like heart disease.
While these changes are, to a large degree, an unavoidable part of growing older, they can also be influenced by your lifestyle. Making a few changes to your diet can help you stay healthier — and perhaps even ease your perimenopause symptoms.
“I tell my patients, you may have been eating the same way for 40 or 50 years — and maybe not so healthfully all the time — but now your body has different needs,” says Sandra J. Arevalo, director of community and patient education at Montefiore Nyack Hospital in New York and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Arevalo, a registered dietitian nutritionist, offers guidance for you on the foods that should fill your pantry and plate during perimenopause.
Just like your muscles and skin, bone is a living tissue that is constantly producing new cells and breaking down old ones. During perimenopause declining estrogen levels cause bone breakdown to speed up, while production of new bone slows down. As a result, bone mass tends to decline, making your skeleton more fragile and increasing your risk of osteoporosis.
At the same time, it gets harder for your body to absorb calcium — a nutrient that’s essential for bone formation — from food during this time. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body will make up for it by leaching calcium from your bones, which function as a sort of “calcium bank,” says Arevalo. “Your body will first use calcium from food. But if you don’t have enough cash coming in [from dietary calcium], then you’ll have to get it from the bank.” That’s why the National Institutes of Health recommends that women increase their calcium intake to 1,200 milligrams per day (from 1,000 milligrams) starting at age 50.
You probably know that one of the best sources of calcium is dairy, but Arevalo says that many women become lactose intolerant with age. “In that case, you can get calcium from lactose-free dairy products, canned tuna or salmon (where you’re getting the bones), or vegetables like spinach, collard greens or broccoli,” although she notes that you have to consume large portions of these vegetables to get a full serving of calcium.
Bone mass isn’t the only thing that naturally declines with age — muscle mass does, too. Regular exercise can help keep you from losing muscle, and so can eating enough protein. However, Arevalo notes that most Americans get plenty of protein in their diets. Instead of upping your intake, you probably should rethink your protein sources.
“This is a good time to look at where you’re getting your protein,” she says. “You don’t need more burgers, especially since your metabolism slows down during perimenopause while your risk for cardiovascular conditions increases.” Arevalo suggests paring down your consumption of red meat and choosing more fish and vegetable-based protein like tofu, lentils and beans. For some women, soy — which contains a plant form of estrogen — may also help relieve menopause symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats by taking the edge off hormonal swings.
This is one of the best nutrients you can get at any time of life, but especially during perimenopause and beyond. Its magical properties can help bring down your cholesterol and blood pressure, stabilize your blood sugar and decrease your risk of serious conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. “Fiber is full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that clean up your system and mitigate the damage that comes with age.”
Eating lots of fiber also can help you avoid weight gain by keeping you full on fewer calories. “Maintaining your weight can be difficult after menopause. We’re used to eating for a younger body and a faster metabolism, and now we’re burning less calories than we used to, even with the same amount of activity,” says Arevalo.
During perimenopause, she says, it’s vital to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. A drop in estrogen makes it harder for your body’s tissues to retain moisture, and that can lead to dry hair, nails and skin. Drinking water can assist with that and — perhaps counterintuitively — also help relieve bloating that can occur as a result of hormonal changes.
“Make sure you’re getting plenty of water throughout the day, whether it’s flavored water, seltzer or herbal tea,” says Arevalo.
Drinking water instead of coffee can help you cut back on caffeine, which can exacerbate nervousness and anxiety, even hot flashes. “During a time when you’re probably already experiencing sleep issues, too much caffeine can also make it harder to get a good night’s rest,” she says.
Replacing your nightcap with a glass of cucumber water or cup of green tea is beneficial, too. Alcohol can be dehydrating, and it’s associated with a higher risk of breast cancer, which is why women are advised to have no more than one drink a day, max.
What about trigger foods?
One of the worst things about hot flashes is that they can sometimes seem to come out of nowhere. But for some women, hot flashes aren’t always entirely unpredictable. You may notice that you have certain trigger foods that can bring on hot flashes, while other foods may make your symptoms less severe. Common triggers include spicy foods, alcohol or caffeine, although they can be different for everyone. Arevalo suggests keeping a food diary that also tracks perimenopause symptoms like hot flashes to learn more about your triggers.