As you approach menopause, you may have concerns about managing symptoms, such as hot flashes, disturbed sleep patterns, and vaginal dryness. But if you are like many women, you may be unaware of your changing nutritional needs at this time. During menopause and beyond, your diet plays an important role in your health and well-being. What should you eat and why?

Menopause is a natural part of a woman’s life cycle. It is characterized by the loss of monthly menstrual periods and the end of the ability to bear children. Most women reach menopause in their mid-40s to mid-50s, but some experience menopause earlier as the result of genetics, certain health conditions, surgical removal of the ovaries, or other factors. At menopause, your body produces much lower amounts of the hormone estrogen. This change has a strong impact on your health and nutritional needs.

Nutritional Concerns of Menopausal Women

As you approach menopause, you should be aware of the following health and nutritional concerns:

As people age, they naturally lose some bone mass. However, during menopause, dropping estrogen levels cause women to lose bone faster, sometimes leading to osteoporosis—a disease that causes brittle bones. In addition to regular weight-bearing exercise, an adequate intake of calcium can help lower your risk of osteoporosis. Experts recommend 1,200-1,500 mg of calcium per day for women aged 50 years and older.

To increase your intake of this essential mineral, eat more of these calcium-rich foods:

  • Milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Sardines and other canned fish with bones
  • Calcium-fortified foods and juices

You may also want to talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about calcium supplementation.

You will also need vitamin D (400-800 units a day), which helps your body to absorb calcium. Your body makes some vitamin D when you are exposed to sunlight. This vitamin is also in certain foods, such as fortified milk, liver, and tuna.

During and after menopause, some women gain weight, even if they have never had a weight problem before. This may be related to a decrease in metabolic rate (the speed at which your body burns energy), which can occur as hormone levels change. A decreased activity level may also be partly responsible. As you get older, you may be more sedentary and use less energy.

At menopause, you may need to adjust your food choices, reduce your caloric intake, and increase your activity level to avoid weight gain. To help lose weight or maintain a healthful weight, eat a well-balanced diet that is high in fiber, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Overweight postmenopausal women can successfully reduce body weight with regular exercise.

As estrogen levels drop, a woman’s risk of heart disease increases. A number of lifestyle factors can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. These include getting regular exercise, quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress, and eating a healthy diet.

During menopause, many women experience uncomfortable symptoms. For example, if you are experiencing anxiety and insomnia, cutting back on caffeine and alcohol may be helpful.

For symptoms like hot flashes and vaginal dryness, researchers have been studying the use of isoflavones, hormones that are found in plant foods, as a potential treatment. While the evidence is mixed, some studies have found that isoflavones may slightly reduce menopausal symptoms. Isoflavones are found in foods like roasted soybeans, tempeh, soy flour, and processed soy products.

While women are menstruating, they need more dietary iron than men as a result of increased blood loss. Sometimes fluctuating hormone levels and other factors may cause heavy bleeding in women as they approach menopause, thus further increasing iron needs. However, once women reach menopause and stop menstruating, the risk for iron deficiency decreases. When this happens, you may no longer need iron supplements, since too much iron can be harmful. Your doctor can make the best recommendations about iron supplementation based your individual needs.

Take heart and take control. Menopause is not a disease, and there are many changes you can make in your life to stay healthy and reduce your discomfort.