Menopause and heart health: A guide to eating well in menopause 

The perimenopausal and menopausal years can be difficult for many women and can present various health challenges, but positive changes to diet and lifestyle can help you to manage some of your symptoms and promote long-term health.

When we think of menopause, we often think of loss of periods, hot flushes and disturbed sleep, yet some of the most important side effects of menopause often go unnoticed as their impact is not felt immediately.  During menopause the levels of oestrogen produced by the body decreases, and with this comes an increased risk to our heart and bone health which, if left unaddressed can have very serious long-term health implications.

Oestrogen is a hormone naturally produced in a woman’s body and plays a vital role in regulating menstrual cycles.  During menopause, the levels of oestrogen produced by the ovaries begins to diminish and the protection that it once provided to the heart is lost.  This makes heart health one of the biggest health concerns for women of menopausal age.

Heart disease is by far the biggest killer of women in the UK.  In fact, women are twice as likely to die from coronary heart disease as they are breast cancer.1

Two women taking a selfie whilst hiking

Why is there an increased risk?

  1. During menopause cholesterol levels naturally increase due to hormone changes and over time this can cause damage to the arteries carrying blood from our heart.  You will not know if you have high cholesterol unless it is confirmed with a blood test. 

  2. There is a natural loss of muscle mass during perimenopause and menopause, again due to reduced oestrogen.  With this, metabolism slows, and many women may find that they begin to gain weight and/ or store weight differently than before.  Women may find they begin to store more fat around their middle.  The issue with this is that more fat is being stored around the organs, including the heart, putting it under an additional strain.  The pancreas can also be affected, which in turn can impact blood sugar control.  And high blood sugar levels over time can damage blood vessels carrying blood to our heart and brain.

  3. Blood pressure increases – this may be due to a combination of hormonal changes and increased body fat.  High blood pressure increases the risk of heart disease.  

How can we eat to support our heart
health in menopause?

Reduce saturated fat

Too much saturated fat in our diets can increase cholesterol levels in the blood, which in turn increases the risk to our heart health. Saturated fats are mostly found in animal foods – all meats and animal fats, full-fat dairy products and foods made with them e.g., cakes, biscuits, pastries, creamy sauces etc.

Unsaturated fats on the other hand, when eaten in moderation, have been shown to have a beneficial effect on heart health.2 Unsaturated fats are predominantly found in plant foods – vegetable oils and spreads, nuts, seeds, avocado and oil-rich fish such as salmon, sardines, pilchards and trout.

There are some plant foods to watch out for, these include coconut, palm and shea fats and oils.  These plant fats are actually very high in saturated fat and should be limited.  They are often included in baked products such as granola, biscuits, vegan cheese, vegan butter and coconut desserts.

Top tips for reducing saturated fat:

  • Swap butter for vegetable oil spread
  • Swap full fat dairy products for reduced fat versions
  • Swap cakes and pastry-based desserts for fruit-based crumbles (made with vegetable spread)
  • Swap creamy desserts for low-fat versions, soya alternatives or sugar-free jellies
  • Swap chocolate covered biscuits for plain varieties
  • Swap pastry pies for potato topped pies
  • Swap creamy or coconut-based curries for tomato-based varieties
  • Swap creamy pasta sauces for tomato-based
  • Swap pizzas with stuffed crust or extra cheese or meat for thin crust pizza with vegetable toppings
  • Swap frying or roasting with lard or butter for alternative cooking methods, like grilling or using an air fryer, or use small quantities of vegetable oil
  • Try and aim for at least 2 meat-free days in the week
  • Trim visible fat from meat and remove skin from poultry before cooking
  • Keep processed meats to a minimum (once a week or less). Processed meats include sausages, sausage rolls, bacon, pies, pasties and tinned meats such as corned beef or pâté
  • Aim to have fish twice a week, one serving of which should be an oily fish such as salmon or mackerel, which provide heart-healthy Omega-3 fats
  • With red meat, eat smaller portions and choose lean cuts of meat.  A portion should be no bigger than 70g, which is roughly the size of the palm of your hand.
A bowl full of vegetables, lentils and grains

Prioritise plant foods

Including more plant-based proteins in the diet can be one way to reduce saturated fat intake and provides other health benefits as well.  Try to include more plant proteins such as:

  • kidney beans
  • edamame beans
  • butter beans
  • chickpeas
  • lentils
  • Quorn
  • soya mince
  • tofu
  • nuts and seeds. 

These are just some examples, and you can use them to replace some, or all, of the meat in your normal curries, stews, casseroles, stir-fries etc.  Unsalted nuts, soya, tofu beans and Quorn are also rich in magnesium, iron and zinc, which can support your mood and mental health.3

Adequate protein intake during menopause is important for maintaining muscle and bone health and you should feel reassured that it is possible to get all the essential amino acids (protein building blocks) from plant foods.  In addition, plant protein foods are sources of fibre and other vitamins and minerals as well as being more environmentally friendly than animal sources. 

Fibre in plant based-foods helps to promote good gut health and can have a cholesterol-lowering effect.4 Aside from increasing your intake of plant proteins you can increase your fibre intake by making sure you get your five fruit and veg portions per day, keeping the skins on where possible for extra fibre. You could also opt for wholegrain varieties of bread, pasta and rice and cereals. 

Our bodies prefer protein intakes to be spread across the day. Protein (from any source) is the most satiating macronutrient, meaning it helps us to stay fuller for longer.  If you are being mindful of your weight or weight gain you may want to consider plant protein-rich snacks to keep you satisfied, such as a handful of unsalted nuts or nut butter on wholemeal crackers.

Woman smiling whilst covered in mud for charity race

Reduce salt

Keeping salt to a minimum (no more than 1 teaspoon/ 6g per day) can help maintain normal blood pressure, which is important for heart health.  Most of the salt in our diets comes from highly processed foods:

  • Check your food labels, opt for “reduced salt” or “lower salt” products
  • Avoid foods with “red” salt content on the traffic light system
  • Cook more meals from scratch so you know what’s going into them
  • Reduce fast food/ takeaways and salted snacks (crisps, salted nuts etc)
  • Avoid adding salt to your cooking where possible or reduce the amount you do add.
Infographic of recommended physical exercise

Keep active 

Keeping physically active is strongly linked to better heart health.5  It is important at any stage of life, but particularly during menopausal years, that we reduce the amount of time we spend sitting.  If you have concerns about being overweight or have had recent weight gain in menopause, increasing your level of physical activity can be helpful in trying to manage this.

Image transcript:

Be active at least 150 minutes moderate intensity per week - increased breathing able to talk. Swim, brisk walk, cycle or at least 75 minutes vigorous intensity per week - breathing fast difficulty talking. Run, stairs, sport or a combination of both.

Build strength on at least 2 days a week to keep muscles, bones and joints strong. Gym, yoga, carry heavy bags. Minimise sedentary time. Break up periods of inactivity. For older adults, to reduce the chance of frailty and falls – improve balance 2 days a week - bowls, dance, Tai Chi.

How Simplyhealth can help 

Our 24/7 online GP service gives you the opportunity to speak with a professional who can give advice on menopausal symptoms (and provide an onward referral where necessary) at a quick and convenient time that works for you. Our on-demand counselling services ensure someone is always there to listen and help you get through whatever you’re dealing with.

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