A science-based recipe book aims to help women reduce symptoms in midlife. By Sophie Morris
I worry that women are being taught to fear menopause long before they experience any related symptoms. I have friends in their thirties with tales of menopause anxiety (only 1 per cent of women experience premature menopause), while bucketloads of so-called menopause supplements, touting dubious health claims, are marketed at me across social platforms because I’m 43.
I only have to take my coat off for someone to ask “hot flush?” with an understanding nod.
So I was sceptical when I heard the claims about how significantly eating could transform the experiences of women experiencing common menopausal symptoms such as disturbed sleep or brain fog. I want eating to be a joy not a prescription, part of a good life not a measure of potential health benefits.
But the reason there is so much noise around menopause at the moment is that until recently, there’s been a void. The end of a woman’s fertile years has been a taboo topic. No research was carried out and therefore little genuine knowledge emerged on the subject.
In recent years, more data has become available on menopausal health and specifically nutrition and menopause, thanks largely to the Zoe health app, which has gathered data on tens of thousands of pre-, post- and perimenopausal women. The Zoe Predict-1 menopause study, which was first published in The Lancet, looked at whether menopausal symptoms are caused by hormonal changes or biological ageing. The results led public health scientist Dr Federica Amati to write a book on the topic, Recipes for a Better Menopause.
“The good news is that by incorporating new scientific learning on menopause into their diet, women can reduce the unfavourable health impacts of the menopause during the transitionary period and beyond,” explains Amati, “either directly by reducing inflammation and blood sugar spikes or indirectly by altering the gut microbiome.”
How? “Simple changes include increasing consumption of whole plants, reducing ultraprocessed carbohydrates and incorporating more high-fibre and high-polyphenol foods every day,” she says.
THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET
The most important indicator for how what you eat can ease your passage through menopause is that the Mediterranean diet - whole grains, oily fish, olive oil, plenty of fruit and vegetables and little red meat or processed foods - is your best friend.
As well as being associated with a 20 per cent reduction in vasomotor symptoms - hot flushes and night sweats - it can also improve mental health outcomes and give you a better chance of managing weight, says Amati.
Even once we have gone through menopause and waved goodbye to debilitating perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms, following a Mediterranean diet can decrease our risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, which increases after menopause.
“When we take a look at the evidence overall, the strong argument for adopting the Mediterranean diet as a woman preparing for, going through menopause or adapting to postmenopause is clear,” says Amati.
“Decreasing the likelihood of cognitive decline, depression, cancer, hot flushes and heart disease is possible, simply by changing your food to follow this pattern.”
HEALTHY AND DELICIOUS
The idea of “health” food can be seriously dreary, but Recipes for a Better Menopause enlists one of the UK’s best chefs, Jane Baxter, to create interesting recipes you’ll actually want to eat.
“My goal is to offer dishes that are both delicious and achievable,” says Baxter, who has worked everywhere from the River Café to the Riverford Field Kitchen.
“This isn’t a book about maintaining a certain appearance or losing weight, although it may have those benefits,” the chef says. “Rather, I hope it will help you rediscover the pleasure of eating during menopause and beyond.”
Baxter’s recipes range from nutrient-rich breakfasts such as Mexican eggs, buckwheat and sauerkraut pancakes and scrambled tofu to nourishing soups such as spring minestrone and Tuscan ribollita. There are crunchy salads including iceberg cups with spicy coleslaw and peanut sauce, tasty veg dishes such as squash, corn and bean cakes and misoglazed aubergine, and easy fish dinners like mackerel escabeche and Sicilian sardine pasta.
For hot flushes, the book recommends blueberries, beetroot, cavolo nero and cauliflower, and avoiding alcohol and spicy food. For night sweats, eat dark fruits such as plums, blackberries and blueberries, avoid alcohol and late meals.
Increased anxiety is a common complaint, but it can be countered with salmon, mackerel, whole grains, seasonal veg and mushrooms - while cutting back on ultra-processed foods and low fat or low sugar desserts. For poor sleep, eat natural yoghurt, kiwi, and maintain a consistent sleep window and avoid alcohol and spicy food.
DOES WEIGHT MATTER?
Weight is a tricky topic. Obesity is blamed for so many health problems and it can be hard to find genuine solutions.
“Evidence shows that while it’s important to keep a healthy body weight throughout life and through the menopause, eating a healthy, plant-based diet is much more important than restrictive dieting,” says Amati.
That said, the Zoe Health Profile study of over 25,000 women found that excess body weight significantly increases the risk of symptoms, including mood changes and hot flushes.
Reduction flushes. sweats Mediterranean can
“While eating more plants will not eliminate symptoms, as they are variable for each woman, we are more likely to reduce the amount we suffer by adding more plants into our diets,” explains Amati. What counts as a plant? As well as fruit and vegetables, the category includes nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, beans, lentils and whole grains.
Soy is also an important component of a good menopause diet, according to Holland & Barrett senior nutritionist Alex Glover, who recommends eating more edamame and tofu. However, he also says to speak to a health professional first if there’s a history of breast cancer. For soy-based recipes, try Baxter’s kimchi miso mayonnaise, miso cod, or vegetarian take on mapo tofu.
Glover also points out that how we eat certain foods matters.
Whole-skinned almonds are much better for us than skinned or almond butter, for example. While salmon is an oily fish, mackerel (below) and sardines are more beneficial for our health.
in hot and night eating a diet achieve
TIME FOR PUDDING?
I’m sorry to report that all of the advice on menopause nutrition recommends cutting back on sugary and highly processed foods, as well as alcohol.
However, Baxter has worked around these limitations to offer recipes for a few not-quite ice creams - her frozen banana “nice” cream and probiotic-rich yoghurt and cherry semifreddo - along with chocolate, peanut butter and banana brownies.
‘Recipes for a Better Menopause’ by Dr Federica Amati and Jane Baxter is out now (Octopus, £15)