While everyone agrees that a well-balanced diet is important for good health, for women after menopause, there is still much to be learned about what constitutes “well-balanced.” We do know that variety in the diet helps ensure a better mix of essential nutrients.
Nutrition During Menopause
Nutritional requirements vary from person to person and change with age. A healthy pre-menopausal woman should have about 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day. The National Institutes of Health recommended that women after menopause consume 1,500 milligrams per day if they are not using hormonal replacement or 1,000 milligrams per day in conjunction with hormonal replacement. Foods high in calcium include milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products; oysters, sardines and canned salmon with bones; and dark-green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli. The body most easily absorbs calcium carbonate in calcium tablets. If you are lactose intolerant, acidophilus milk is more digestible.
Vitamin D is also very important in menopause for calcium absorption and bone formation. A study showed that women with post-menopausal osteoporosis who took vitamin D for three years significantly reduced the occurrence of new spinal fractures. However, the issue is still controversial. High doses of vitamin D can cause kidney stones, constipation or abdominal pain, particularly in women with existing kidney problems. Other nutritional guidelines by the National Research Council include:
- Choose foods low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Fats contain more calories (9 calories per gram) than either carbohydrates or protein (each have only 4 calories per gram). Fat intake should be less than 30 percent of daily calories.
- Eat fruits, vegetables and whole grain cereal products, especially those high in vitamin C and carotene. These include oranges, grapefruit, carrots, winter squash, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower and green leafy vegetables. These foods are good sources of vitamins and minerals and the major sources of dietary fiber. Fiber helps maintain bowel mobility and may reduce the risk of colon cancer. Young and older people alike are encouraged to consume 20 to 30 grams of fiber per day.
- Eat very little salt-cured and smoked foods such as sausages, smoked fish and ham, bacon, bologna, and hot dogs. High blood pressure, which may become more serious with heavy salt intake, is more of a risk as you age.
- Avoid food and drinks containing processed sugar. Sugar contains empty calories, which may substitute for nutritious food and can add excess body weight.
For people who can’t eat an adequate diet, supplements may be necessary. A dietician should tailor these to meet your individual nutritional needs. Using supplements without supervision can be risky because large doses of some vitamins may have serious side effects. Vitamins A and D in large doses can be particularly dangerous.
As you age, your body requires less energy because of a decline in physical activity and a loss of lean body mass. Raising your activity level will increase your need for energy and help you avoid gaining weight. Weight gain often occurs in menopausal women, possibly due in part to declining estrogen. In animal studies, scientists found that estrogen is important in regulating weight gain. Animals with their ovaries surgically removed gained weight, even if they were fed the same diet as the animals with intact ovaries. They also found that progesterone counteracts the effect of estrogen. The higher their progesterone levels, the more the animals ate.