healthy eating: menopause and the mediterranean diet
Keto. Paleo. Atkins. Raw. So many diets claim to make you slimmer, healthier, and more nutritionally balanced. They’ll lower your cholesterol, reduce adipose fat, boost energy, aid sleep, control appetite, and allow you to leap tall buildings with a single bound ….
But which is really good for you? Which really works?
Any woman in perimenopause or menopause will tell you that her body is like no other, and what works for her friend, sister, colleague just doesn’t work the same way for her. And that’s absolutely true, which is why determining a “best” diet is very difficult to do.
However, there are some basic principles that help most bodies operate better, and many of those principles can be found in the Mediterranean Diet.
To learn more, we talked with Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) Mary Purdy, host of the podcast “Mary’s Nutrition Show," author, and eco-dietitian.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
According to Mary, this diet, considered by many to be one of the healthiest in the world, is “essentially focused on eating foods typically found in Mediterranean fare and recipes. This includes an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruit, legumes, seeds, nuts, lots of flavorful and beneficial herbs and spices, whole grains and an emphasis on fish, avocado and olive oil as main fat sources.”
The diet also “advocates for moderate amounts of cheese, chicken and eggs and minimal amounts of processed and refined foods including sugar. Wine, (for those who imbibe) is also a welcome part of this eating pattern, although moderation is key here, and adequate water is very much encouraged.”
But, says Mary, the healthiness of this diet doesn’t come only from the food and drink choices. “Much of this approach is also centered around regular physical activity and social connections with others – both of which we know are critical to someone's wellness picture. Of course, living in the Mediterranean may come with its own benefits. I think I might feel a little better if I were on the Island of Santorini right now!”
Why is the Mediterranean diet good for women in midlife and menopause?
We know the drop in estrogen in these years can cause increased risk of certain health issues. Two of the biggest areas of concern are heart health and brain health – both of which are supported by eating Mediterranean style.
- Your heart. Says Mary, “Cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol tend to increase at this time of life. The Mediterranean Diet tends to be low in saturated fat and includes heart-protective foods like beans and whole grains, whose high fiber content can support healthy cholesterol levels, and help with satiety which often promotes healthy weight maintenance. “With so many vegetables, this eating pattern is also high in minerals like potassium and magnesium, needed to keep blood pressure balanced. Dark leafy greens contain high amounts of the vitamin folate that can keep down levels of a protein called homocysteine. When elevated, homocysteine can have negative implications for not only heart health but potentially brain health too.” Which brings us to…
- Your brain. Whether this be mood, fogginess, or cognitive function, many women struggle to feel like themselves in midlife. But there’s good news, says Mary: “There is a bounty of research supporting the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet for supporting the health of our brains. As mentioned above, the diet supports heart health, and what's good for the heart is good for the aging brain. The omega 3's found in foods in the Med diet like fish and walnuts have been found in some studies to be associated with reduced risk for age-related cognitive decline. The high amount of protective antioxidants in the myriad of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices can help fight inflammation, one of the hall marks of cognitive dysfunction.”
Diet alone won’t get you to optimal health, Mary reminds us. “Physical activity is also key for managing symptoms, and the emphasis on social connection may be critical for women going through what can often feel like an isolating experience.”
And of course, for optimum quality of life, there’s stress reduction, which is so important for women in midlife and menopause. Vasomotor symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats are, at best, uncomfortable, and for many women, they’re downright disruptive and erode quality of life. “In my clinical experience,” says Mary, “I have seen that lowering stress as part of this lifestyle approach can have a positive impact on these issues. Specifically, paced breathing and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction may be helpful in reducing hot flashes.”
Ultimately, there are endless benefits from adopting or focusing on a healthy lifestyle and the Mediterranean diet eating pattern.
Do I have to eat like this 100% of the time to get the benefits?
According to Mary, to be successful, diets need to have some “wiggle room.” And this way of eating, though delicious, is no different. She tells us, “I think the key is meeting a woman where she’s at. For some, this is a major overhaul. For someone else, it's just about making some tweaks and staying consistent. Start with baby steps as necessary and work on consistency rather than being 100% perfect. Working with a dietitian can be a great way to get ideas, stay accountable, and work through some of the issues that come up for many women around food and body image.”
OK, I’m convinced. How do I eat Mediterranean?
Mary admits there’s a LOT of information, and you could drown in a Mediterranean sea (har har) of information. So she made it easy for us. Check out the uber-handy Mediterranean Diet info and simple meal plan sheet, designed to have a broad appeal for a variety of palates and starting points.
In terms of recipes, good golly! Where do I begin? A classic Mediterranean grain and bean salad is always an easy starting place. Here's one of my faves from Two Peas & Their Pod. Sometimes I swap out the quinoa for different grains to provide a little variety. And I admit that I love kale, so this recipe from Nourishing Meals is close to my heart.”
In the end, Mary reminds us, “bringing mindfulness to the table is key.” Mindfulness supports digestion and thus enhances absorption of nutrients, but also allows for “more intentional and conscious eating which can be fantastic for helping improve one's relationship with food, and that can have positive implications for one's health, both mental and physical.”
Have you tried the Mediterranean (or any other) Diet? How did it work for you — or not? We'd love to hear how you eat, what you eat, and the fabulous effects your food choices are having on your life and your menopause experience. Fill us in! Share your story with the Gennev community. You can talk with us in the comments below, in our community forums, on our Facebook page, or in Midlife & Menopause Solutions, our closed Facebook group.
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