During the menopause transition our bodies go through major metabolic changes. It’s super important to find a diet that is going to protect our health and well-being during menopause and beyond. Is the Mediterranean diet for menopause the best choice?
This dietitian thinks so.
Read on to discover more about the Mediterranean diet and how beneficial it can be for health and menopausal symptoms.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
First off, it isn’t actually a diet but more of a flexible style of eating. Encouraging a wide variety of whole foods, it doesn’t restrict any major food groups and it is completely adaptable to personal preferences. It is full of delicious foods that makes it enjoyable, satisfying, and sustainable. This is a key ingredient in any diet or eating style we want to follow long term.
Based on the traditional cuisines of countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, this style of eating has been studied for well over 50 years and has been consistently rated as one of the healthiest.
It has a high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and olive oil. It includes a regular intake of dairy (mostly yogurt and cheese), fatty fish, nuts, seeds and lots of yummy herbs and spices. Red meats and sweets are encouraged in small amounts. A glass or two of red wine can be enjoyed regularly.
Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet during Menopause
The hallmark of the menopause transition is decreasing levels of estrogen. Lower levels of estrogen can result in higher levels of cortisol and low-grade inflammation. Over time this can set us up for an increased chance of developing certain chronic diseases: high blood pressure, depression, osteoporosis and diabetes. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to have a positive impact on preventing or improving all these conditions. As a major bonus it may also help to reduce hot flushes and night sweats; two highly aggravating symptoms common in menopause.
1: Reduced risk of heart disease and stroke
Women who are going through menopause should be looking for ways to reduce their risk of heart disease. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for women in the Unites States and number two in Canada, yet very few women realize this. We need to be proactive as we lose the protective benefits of estrogen. There are loads of studies showing how good a Mediterranean eating pattern is for our hearts. A recent systematic review found that post menopausal women following a Mediterranean diet reduced their risk of heart attack by 30% and risk of stroke by 17%.
2: Improved anxiety and depression
Menopause can be a time when many women experience low mood, increased anxiety and fatigue. A recent study of 3172 adults(72% of them women) found that those who most closely followed the Mediterranean style of eating had lower rates of depression, anxiety and psychological distress than those who did not. Increased intake of fruits and vegetables were especially protective.
While there doesn’t seem to be any studies yet on the ‘brain fog’ that many of us experience during the menopause transition, there is promising data that the Mediterranean diet can improve our brain power as we age. A study of 16,058 postmenopausal women found that long term adherence to this eating style was associated with improved cognition scores.
3: Prevention of osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a condition where our bones become fragile, increasing the risk of fracture. Estrogen plays a key role in regulating bone growth and promoting bone density. At menopause bone loss speeds up dramatically. Women may lose 10% or more of their bone mass in the five to seven years after going through menopause. If we don’t take steps to prevent losses, we could lose 35%-50% of our peak bone mass by the time we are 75! Getting enough calcium, vitamin D along with weight bearing exercise is super important. The Mediterranean diet is supportive as it is associated with greater bone mineral density in post-menopausal women, as well as protective against age-related bone loss.
4: Reduced insulin resistance
According to Dr. Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz in her book, Menopause Bootcamp, as our estrogen levels decline, we tend lose lean body mass, and our insulin resistance increases. Insulin resistance is when the glucose(energy) we need for fuel doesn’t get transported into our cells properly. This means we have too much sugar swimming around in our blood and not enough in our cells for energy. Over time, these high blood sugar levels could lead to Type 2 diabetes. Good news though, a compilation of over 50 studies with a whopping number of 539,046 participants showed that following the Mediterranean style of eating significantly improves insulin resistance. (This study included both men and women across a variety of ages- not just menopausal women).
Does the Mediterranean diet help with menopause symptoms?
It can, but more research is definitely needed in this area.
An Australian study that included six thousand post menopausal women found that closer adherence to the Mediterranean diet decreased their risk of experiencing hot flashes, and night sweats by 20%.
The Women’s Health Initiative followed 6104 post-menopausal women and those that ate a high plant intake (similar to the Mediterranean diet) were 14% more likely to eliminated their vasomotor symptoms aka night sweats, hot flashes within 12 months.
While 20% and 14% are not enormous numbers it could be a much-welcomed bonus for those who are eating this way anyway.
How to start a Mediterranean diet?
Start from where you are. Use this quick assessment tool to see how close your current diet matches up.
If you scored 12-14, your diet is highly consistent with the Mediterranean diet pattern.
If you scored 8-11-, your current diet has a lot in common.
If you scored 4-7, your diet includes some elements.
If you scored 0-3, your diet is not very consistent with the Mediterranean diet.
Tips for Getting Started:
- Start with baby steps: Making a sudden and drastic change to your diet can be overwhelming and difficult to stick to. Instead, start with small changes to your current routine. Look at some of the items you answered no on the tool and make a plan to start there.
- Plan ahead: Meal planning and prepping can help you stay on track with the Mediterranean diet. Plan your meals in advance and make a grocery list to help yourself along.
- Try new foods: The Mediterranean diet includes a wide range of delicious foods. Don’t be afraid to try new fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins to add variety to your meals and prevent boredom.
- Eat mindfully: The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the importance of enjoying your food and eating slowly. Take the time to savor your meals and avoid eating in front of screens or while multitasking. Enjoying your meals with friends and family is a big part of this style of eating.
- Get support: Making sustainable lifestyle changes can be challenging. Having support from friends, family, or a healthcare provider can make it easier. You can always reach out to me here if you want individual support.
Simple Meal Ideas
Still not too sure where to start? Try these simple meal ideas to get you started:
- Avocado toast with a boiled egg and cherry tomatoes
- Grilled chicken breast with roasted vegetables and quinoa
- Tuna salad with mixed greens, tomato, red onion, and olive oil dressing
- Lentil soup with a side of whole grain bread and feta cheese
- Grilled salmon with lemon and herb marinade and a side of roasted asparagus
- Caprese salad with sliced mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
- Greek yogurt with mixed berries, honey, and chopped walnuts
- Whole wheat pasta with cherry tomatoes, garlic, and fresh basil, topped with grated parmesan cheese.
Check out a list of 30 snacks here.
Following the Mediterranean Diet is a healthy way of eating for just about everyone but especially for midlife women. We need to be proactive in keeping ourselves healthy through the menopause transition and well beyond. The Mediterranean diet is a delicious, flexible way of doing just that.
If you are looking to optimize your diet and health during menopause, you can book a consultation with me here.