This week we will be discussing menopause and plant-based diets, their potential benefits, and how to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet.
What is a Plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet (PBD) is following a diet that comes from plants and no animal products such as eggs, milk, meat, and honey. It is similar to a vegan diet but prioritises unrefined foods and avoids processed foods such as vegan cheese or fake meats. The five main food groups in a PBD include:
- Tubers (e.g., potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cassava)
- Whole grains
- Legumes 
There are a number of reasons why people choose to follow a plant-based diet. This may include health benefits, environmental concerns, animal welfare concern, or personal choice. Some of the reported health benefits of a plant-based diet are a reduced risk of heart disease, strokes, and type 2 diabetes. There are also positive effects on risk factors for disease, such as reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, and promoting weight loss. Additionally, meat and dairy products are associated with more greenhouse gas emissions than plant foods. Therefore, a plant-based diet may have some benefits for the environment .
What are the Benefits of a Plant-based diet for Menopause?
The main benefit of menopause and plant-based diets is related to phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens, or plant oestrogens, are chemical compounds found in plants. They have a similar structure to human oestrogen, the main sex hormone in the female body. They can also bind to the receptors that oestrogen normally does, making them useful for women with low oestrogen levels, such as women going through menopause.
There are two main types: isoflavones and lignans. Isoflavones are found in soy products, such as tofu and soy milk, and legumes, like chickpeas and lentils. Lignans are found in grains, like oats and quinoa, vegetables, and seeds, such as flaxseed and sunflower seeds .
Phytoestrogens have been found to reduce the frequency and severity of some menopausal symptoms, including vaginal dryness and hot flushes . This is further supported by a study that found that low-fat, plant-based diets, including soybeans as a source of phytoestrogens, reduced incidence, and severity of hot flashes. Measures of quality of life are also shown to be improved after 12 weeks of following a plant-based diet .
Additionally, plant-based diets have been found to be associated with both preventing obesity and encouraging weight loss . This may help during menopause where weight gain is a common issue.
Research from the US gut health project found that those who ate 30 different plant foods a week had increased gut bacteria diversity which supports a healthy gut. To learn more about the 30 plants a week study, read the blog post here.
How to Eat More Plant-based?
Plant-based diets tend to have a bad reputation when it comes to possible nutrient deficiencies. However, a healthy, balanced plant-based diet can be suitable for most people at all stages of life.
Protein is one of the most mentioned concerns when it comes to a diet lacking animal protein. Although, there are many sources of plant-based proteins that you can consume to meet your protein requirements. These can include lentils, beans, seeds, nuts, tofu, tempeh, and chickpeas. There are also meat substitutes available, which contain good levels of protein, but these can be high in salt, and fat so should be consumed in moderation. Some examples of meat substitutes are seitan, soya sausages and ‘Quorn’ products.
Another consideration surrounding plant protein is around the consumption of complementary proteins. Plant proteins are sometimes called incomplete proteins, as they have varying levels of different amino acids (the building blocks that make up proteins) in them. This means that it is important to eat a variety of plant proteins as where one protein may lack an amino acid, another type of protein may make up for this, creating complete proteins. Some examples of complementary protein combinations are grains (e.g., rice, corn, and wheat) and legumes (e.g., beans, peas, and lentils); nuts and legumes; and grains and dairy products, if you consume dairy. These proteins don’t have to be eaten at the same time, but it is important to eat a variety of plant proteins throughout the day.
Key nutrients in a plant-based diet
Some other nutrients of concern are calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Calcium is important to maintain the health of teeth and bones. Most people get calcium from dairy foods, like milk, cheese, and yoghurt, which would be suitable for vegetarians who choose to consume dairy products. For vegans, or vegetarians who only eat eggs, some good sources of calcium are green leafy vegetables, like broccoli or kale, dried fruits, fortified dairy alternative/plant-based milk drinks, and tofu. Calcium is particularly important in menopause, due to the increased risk of osteoporosis. Learn more about calcium and bone health here.
In terms of vitamin D, this is a common deficiency for everyone, especially during the winter months. Vitamin D is helps to regulate calcium and phosphate levels in the body. It also contributes to the health of bones, teeth, and muscles. Exposure to sunlight is the main source of vitamin D, but it is important to cover up and protect your skin whilst out in the sun. Fortified spreads, breakfast cereals and dairy alternative/plant-based milks drinks are also good sources of vitamin D. You may be at risk of vitamin D deficiency, for example if you don’t get much exposure to sunlight or if you are a person of colour. Therefore, a vitamin D supplement may be needed, especially during the winter months.
Vitamin B12 is important for a healthy nervous system and blood. However, most people get B12 from animal sources and most plant-based sources come from fortified products. You may find that a vitamin B12 supplement is the best option for you, but if not products such as fortified breakfast cereals, fortified soya drinks, and yeast extract are available.
Iron is another possible deficiency as iron from plant-based sources is not as well absorbed by the body. Some good sources of iron for people following a plant-based diet are, pulses (baked beans and chickpeas), dark leafy, green vegetables, wholemeal bread, and nuts. Additionally, research has shown that eating foods containing vitamin C at the same time as iron can increase iron absorption by the body. Some examples of foods containing vitamin C would be citrus fruits, tomatoes, and peppers.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Finally, omega-3 fatty acids, usually found in oily fish, are a consideration in plant-based diets. Omega-3 is important as it helps to maintain a healthy heart and can reduce the risk of heart disease. Some plant-based sources of omega-3 are flaxseed oil, soya-based foods, like tofu, walnuts, and rapeseed oil . For more information on omega-3 and heart health in menopause, read this blog post.
Following a PBD can have numerous benefits for overall health as well as aiding throughout menopause. In menopause, a plant-based diet can help to manage symptoms and support a healthy weight. It is important to make sustainable changes when changing your lifestyle to prevent yourself from feeling overwhelmed and make you more likely to stick to any changes made.
Top Tips for menopause and plant-based diets:
- Eat a variety of complementary plant proteins.
- Eat vitamin C at the same time as iron to promote absorption.
- Fill up your plate with lots of vegetables to ensure you are meeting all your nutrient requirements.
- Try eating meat free for one day, or meal, of the week.
- Cut down on the amount of meat on your plate and add plant proteins instead.
Caroline Hill is a specialist menopause dietitian supporting women making dietary change. Caroline uses her extensive knowledge, skills and expertise of food and nutrition to help women manage their symptoms and weight during menopause. Caroline believes in providing sustainable, individualised, evidence-based advice to women making dietary change.