How going plant-based can help with symptoms of menopause.

eat Jan 31, 2020

If you’re a fan of the Age Sister Facebook page or you are a member of our private group, you might have noticed that I post a lot of vegetarian recipes. I spent many, many years as a vegetarian and still have a very “plant-heavy” diet. It’s because of my habit of eating more vegetarian options that I was interested to know if women who eat less meat have an easier time managing menopausal symptoms. As always, I turned to the scientific research to find out.

Vegetarian diets are usually considered to be healthier than the typical North American diet filled with processed food and lots of meat. There isn’t, however, conclusive evidence that an entirely vegetarian or vegan diet has significant benefits when compared to a plant-based, low meat diet in the general population. However, for women over 50, a vegan or vegetarian diet may make a difference in managing symptoms and weight-gain related to menopause. Here’s how:

Dealing with the internal furnace

In a study comparing perimenopausal and postmenopausal women following a vegan (no animal products) or vegetarian diet (may contain eggs or dairy products) to omnivores, those who consumed the plant-based foods reported fewer night sweats, hot flashes, and fewer flushes (known as vasomotor symptoms). The difference between the plant-based women and the omnivores was most pronounced in perimenopause when symptoms tend to peak.[1]

Managing your weight

Weight gain in menopause is not only distressing for many women, but it may also be a contributor to increased menopausal symptoms. Some researchers think that excess weight may have a two-fold effect; extra weight increases our body’s need to get rid of excess heat and increases the risk of system-wide inflammation.[2] Increased inflammation may contribute to increased vasomotor symptoms. Maintaining a healthy weight throughout menopause can help prevent symptoms. Women in one study who lost at least 10 pounds or 10% of their body weight were more likely to get rid of their vasomotor symptoms completely.

As many of us know, maintaining a healthy weight during peri and post-menopause can be a challenge. Those participating in studies that use vegetarian diets consistently lost and sustained weight loss when compared to non-vegetarian diets; in a recent review (called a meta-analyses) of randomized controlled trial studies (considered the gold standard in research), those who followed a vegetarian diet with no calories restriction or direction to exercise lost on average 3.4kg more weight than their omnivore counterparts. [3]

Even more impressive, when post-menopausal women were randomized into vegan diets that had no other restrictions, they lost more weight overall than those who were following a low-fat, restricted diet.[4]    

How to make plant-based eating a long-term love affair

Remember last week, when I talked about not taking on any eating pattern that you couldn’t maintain long-term? Here’s the good news. In a study of postmenopausal women who had been randomized into three different diet categories, those following a plant-based whole food (less processed food) diet, were able to maintain their diet for a year successfully. The researchers observed that the women who had made a change to a vegetarian diet seemed to be more engaged in trying recipes and exploring the different possibilities of a more plant-based lifestyle.

Ways to make the move

If the idea of having a more plant-based menu intrigues your curiosity, here are some suggestions to get you started:

1. Get your bone-builders. Women in the menopausal years can do well on vegetarian diets but need to ensure that they get enough calcium and vitamin B12 and D. If you don’t eat dairy, look for calcium-rich food such as calcium-fortified soymilk, calcium-added cereals, tofu, tempeh, and vegetables such as those that are green-leafy, broccoli, or Chinese cabbage.

2. Make your move a transition. I like the saying, “Go from four legs to two legs, to no legs.” In other words, start by reducing red meat, then chicken, fish and to entirely vegetarian (if that’s your aim).

3. Make a note of your favourite foods that are meat-free. You’re likely already eating meat-free dishes. Take an inventory of those dishes and make a list of those that you enjoy and could make regularly.

4. Seek out high-quality recipes. When I was a vegetarian, 20-odd years ago, sometimes the recipes I used seemed like a punishment for not eating meat. Vegetarian cooking has come a long way since then and there are so many great plant-based cookbooks and food sites. My personal favourite and regular go-to is Oh She Glows.

5. Go easy on the beans in the beginning. Beans are a great addition to any eating plan and tend to become a staple in a vegetarian or vegan diet. Allow your digestive tract to adjust to all that fibre by adding in beans gradually.

6. Be flexible. Maybe entirely vegetarian is not for you. Try meatless Mondays or just reducing your meat intake overall.

There are more options and support to follow a plant-based diet than ever before. If you want regular recipes and other information about healthy eating, head over to our Facebook page, or for even more in-depth discussion, join our private Facebook Group.

See you in the produce aisle.

Your sister in health,  

 

[1] Beezhold, B., Radnitz, C., McGrath, R. E., & Feldman, A. (2018). Vegans report less bothersome vasomotor and physical menopausal symptoms than omnivores. Maturitas, 112, 12–17.

[2] Fogarty AW, Glancy C, Jones S, Lewis SA, McKeever TM, & Britton JR. (2008). A prospective study of weight change and systemic inflammation over 9 y. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(1), 30–35.

[3] Barnard, N. D., Levin, S. M., & Yokoyama, Y. (2015). A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Changes in Body Weight in Clinical Trials of Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, 115(6), 954–969.

[4] Beezhold, B., Radnitz, C., McGrath, R. E., & Feldman, A. (2018). Vegans report less bothersome vasomotor and physical menopausal symptoms than omnivores. Maturitas, 112, 12–17.

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