Nutritional scientist Dr Federica Amati explains how to eat your way to a better menopause

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What you eat matters in menopause.  Your diet can impact both the age you go through menopause and your menopause symptoms. That's one of the many revelations in the book  Recipes for a Better Menopause  by Dr Federica Amati (above, right), a nutritional scientist (who is also the author of Every Body Should Know This">Every Body Should Know This , released last month). “Entering perimenopause and menopause with a good nutritional foundation is a powerful tool to protect our health from the natural changes that take place,” she says.

If you're one of the thousands of people signed up to the Zoe diet programme Professor Tim Spector’s hugely popular personalised nutrition programme (fans such as Davina McCall have been seen wearing its bright yellow blood sugar monitors on their arms) you may already have come across Dr Amati, who lends her nutrition expertise to Zoe. In fact, it was two studies by Zoe that eventually led Dr Fed to write the book, to properly join the dots between diet and menopause (yes, menopause belly is a thing, as one of the studies revealed). 

Zoe surveyed 25,000 women and found notable links between your body mass index (BMI) and your likelihood of experiencing menopausal symptoms.

Hot flushes and  BMI: two-thirds of severely obese women had hot flushes, compared with just over half of women of a healthy weight.

Mood changes and BMI: Sixty per cent of healthy-weight women had mood changes, yet they were reported by 70 per cent of those who were obese.

The book is full of insights into the links between our body mass index (BMI), our diet, the age of menopause and the symptoms we might experience. Did you know, for example, that you may be 30 per cent less likely to complain of hot flashes and poor sleep if you eat plenty of healthy whole plant foods? 

There are solutions too (in short - eat more plants!) with health-boosting recipes, created by Amati’s co-author and chef Jane Baxter (above left), formerly of the River Café. So rest assured these dishes are the real deal, seriously delicious and creative, and packed with flavours. (And there’s a dessert section – rejoice!).

Can your diet influence your age of menopause?

Entering menopause between 45 and 51 is the 'sweet spot'  for optimum health, says Amati. Too early and you’re more prone to bone density and cardiovascular problems due to oestrogen diminishing too quickly, too late and lingering oestrogen means an increased risk of breast and womb cancers. (The oestrogen in HRT, it should be noted, is at lower levels than would be naturally found in the body.)

The UK Women’s Cohort Study (UKWCS) followed over 14,000 women and linked their diet with age of menopause, concluding that diets high in oily fish and legumes (hallmarks of the Mediterranean diet) are more likely to have a later age of onset of menopause by three years compared with those women who ate lots of white rice and refined carbohydrates,” says Amati. 

"Weight, predominantly your adiposity level (amount of fat), also has a significant impact on the age of menopause. Women who are underweight are much more likely to experience early menopause, and those who are overweight experience the opposite, going beyond the ideal average age of 51.”

Can diet reduce menopause symptoms?

“Diet – not only what but how we eat – can transform a woman’s menopausal symptoms. Zoe’s study of 25,000 women showed those who were overweight or suffered from obesity were much more likely to report the following menopause symptoms:

· Anxiety

· Joint pain

· Low libido

· Weight gain

“Following a healthy plant-based diet was shown to be protective against symptoms, with women who consumed the most whole plants in their diet much less likely to suffer from any symptoms, even if they were already overweight. 

"Hot flushes and sleep disturbances, which are considered the most debilitating symptoms by many women, were 30 per cent less likely to be reported by women who ate plenty of healthy whole plant foods in their diet, irrespective of their weight.

“This is huge, brilliant news for women everywhere because we can improve our quality of life right now and for the future by adding more plants to our plates.”

What is the best diet to reduce menopause symptoms?

“This evidence shows that while it’s important to keep a healthy body weight throughout life and through menopause, eating a healthy plant-based diet is much more important than restrictive dieting. Adding plants to your plate will likely help with menopause symptoms, regardless of weight and HRT use. It is the first time that this kind of research has been done in such a large group of perimenopausal women and it offers further insight into how we can support our health through this change.

“By incorporating new scientific learnings about menopause into the diet, women can reduce the unfavourable health impacts associated with menopause, either directly by reducing inflammation and blood sugar spikes or indirectly by altering the gut microbiome. Simple changes include increasing consumption of whole plants, reducing ultra-processed carbohydrates and incorporating more high-fibre and high-polyphenol foods every day.

“When we take a look at the evidence overall, there is a strong argument for adopting the Mediterranean Diet as a woman preparing for or going through menopause, or adjusting to life post menopause. It is possible to decrease the likelihood of cognitive decline, depression, cancer, hot flushes and heart disease, simply by changing your food to follow this pattern.”

Easy food swaps to help menopause symptoms

“Here are some simple swaps and foods to add to your plate that can help make that change without too much effort:

  • Rice → pearled barley
  • White pasta → spelt pasta
  • Couscous → buckwheat
  • Iceberg lettuce → colourful lollo rosso or rocket
  • Minced meat bolognese → black beans and mushroom bolognese
  • White sandwich loaf bread → seeded rye sourdough bread
  • Canned tuna → canned mackerel
  • Breakfast cereal or muesli → overnight oats with kefir and nuts
  • Flavoured low-fat dessert → seasonal fruit salad
  • Milk chocolate → dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids or more)
  • Sweet pastries or pancakes → protein pancakes with blueberries
  • Store-bought salad vinaigrette → homemade extra virgin olive oil and apple cider vinegar dressing
  • A handful of spinach, kale or cabbage added to soups or steamed as a side.”

This is an edited extract from Recipes for a Better Menopause (£25, Kyle Books) by Dr Federica Amati and Jane Baxter)