Picture of veggies with brown rice. Anti-inflammatory diet for menopause: a plant-based approach. Veg Out With Maria

As a woman transitioning through menopause, you often go through a variety of physical and emotional changes. Among these changes, one significant factor is the increased incidence of inflammation in the body. Inflammation, a key player in various health conditions, tends to rise during menopause due to hormonal fluctuations.

This heightened inflammation not only amplifies common menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and joint pain but also poses risks for long-term health issues such as heart disease and osteoporosis. However, despite these challenges, there are things you can do to turn this inflammatory response around.

One of the solutions is adopting an anti-inflammatory diet. Plant-based nutrition is the foundation of an anti-inflammatory diet and is a key approach to reducing inflammation and promoting overall health during menopause.

In this blog, we’ll delve into some of the causes and effects of inflammation during menopause and explore how plant-based foods can improve symptoms of inflammation so that you can stay healthy and strong throughout this phase of your life and beyond.

Understanding Menopause & Inflammation

During perimenopause and menopause, hormonal shifts, a decline in progesterone and particularly estrogen (estradiol) levels, play a significant role in increasing inflammation in the body.

Immune System

Estrogen, known for its anti-inflammatory properties, helps regulate the immune system and maintain a balance in the inflammatory response. As estrogen levels decline during perimenopause and menopause, this balance is disrupted, leading to an increased inflammatory state1,2.

Worsening Symptoms

Inflammation increases menopausal symptoms in various ways. For example, it can intensify hot flashes and night sweats, common symptoms which you may already be experiencing.

Estrogen deficiency can also cause Inflammation within the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates body temperature, and may contribute to the occurrence and severity of hot flashes3.

Muscle & Joint Pain

Another common symptom of menopause is joint pain and muscle stiffness which can intensify under inflammatory conditions. Estrogen deficiency can lead to changes in joint tissue and bone density, making women more susceptible to inflammation-related joint issues such as arthritis4,5.

Mood & Brain Health

Inflammation can also impact your mood and cognitive function during menopause. Studies suggest a link between inflammation and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, as well as contributing to cognitive decline and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease6,7.

So, if you’ve been feeling a little crazy and not yourself lately you now know why! But this doesn’t mean that you have to sit back and take all of this. Fighting inflammation through dietary and lifestyle interventions can significantly help you manage menopausal symptoms and better support your overall health.

What Foods Cause Inflammation?

Although there are many contributing factors to chronic inflammation, your diet plays a big role. The standard American diet which is high in ultra-processed foods and red meat and low in fiber, fruit, and vegetables is an example of a pro-inflammatory diet.

This way of eating affects your gut health which is a big part of your immune system. An imbalance between beneficial and bad bacteria occurs leading to dysbiosis or an overgrowth of harmful bacteria which promotes inflammation.

Several foods have been associated with promoting inflammation in the body. These include:

Ultra-Processed Foods

junk food: fast food and sugar. Burger, chips, sweets, soda, french fries, onion rings, doughnut on a dark background. Foods that cause inflammation.

Processed foods high in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives can trigger inflammation. Examples include fast food, packaged snacks, sugary cereals, deep-fried foods, and baked goods and desserts made with refined white flour and sugar.

Trans Fats & Saturated Fats

Trans fats, found in partially hydrogenated oils used in many processed and fried foods, are well-known for their pro-inflammatory effects. Foods potentially high in trans fats include: vegetable shortening, commercially prepared pastries, cookies, and pies, fried foods (french fries, doughnuts), frozen pizza, microwaved popcorn, some non-dairy creamers, and packaged foods using partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

The main sources of saturated fat are found in animal products like full-fat dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt, ice cream), meat, butter, lard, and tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil. For more on healthy and not-so-healthy fats refer to the blog “The Best Vegan Healthy Fats.”

Red Meat & Processed Meats

Red meat like steaks, hamburgers and processed meats like bacon, sausage, ham, hot dogs, and deli meats contain saturated fat and often additives, preservatives, and high levels of sodium, which can contribute to inflammation and increase the risk of chronic diseases.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified processed meats as a carcinogen, meaning that there’s strong evidence showing that they cause cancer, particularly colon cancer8.

picture of processed meats. Inflammatory foods

Added Sugars & Sugary Beverages

Soda, fruit juices, energy drinks, fancy coffee drinks, and other sugary beverages are high in added sugars, which can lead to inflammation when consumed in excess. These drinks also provide empty calories and lack essential nutrients.

Per the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) the leading sources of added sugars in the US diet besides sugar-sweetened beverages are desserts and sweet snacks. Some examples of desserts and sweet snacks are cookies, cereals, brownies, cakes, pies, ice cream, frozen dairy desserts, doughnuts, sweet rolls, and pastries.

An excess of added sugars in the diet and processed foods may be “a key factor leading to the occurrence and aggravation of inflammation9.”

Refined Grains/Carbohydrates

Refined grains are white bread, white rice, bagels, biscuits, pancakes, and pasta made from refined white flour. They also include pastries, cookies, cakes, candy, chips, crackers, pizza, processed cereals with added sugar, etc.

These types of carbs have all been stripped of fiber and nutrients and usually have added sugar, fat, and sodium, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels promoting inflammation.

Excessive Alcohol

Recently I’ve been hearing the message that any amount of alcohol is considered unhealthy. There have been communities, however, that have lived long healthy lives even while consuming moderate amounts of alcohol. I still plan on enjoying my glass of red wine with a clear conscience.

Excessive intake, on the other hand, can unfortunately lead to inflammation, liver damage, and other negative health consequences. Alcohol can also disrupt gut health, further exacerbating inflammation.

Excessive Vegetable Oils High in Omega-6 Fatty Acids

bottles of vegetable oil high in omega-6 fatty acids.

Vegetable and seed oils are not inherently bad for you in moderation – despite what you may hear in the media. They are a source of omega-6 fatty acids which are essential for health.

There have been studies showing a beneficial impact on insulin sensitivity and heart health when using these oils (more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) over saturated fat sources like meat, cheese, butter, and lard15. But, don’t get all fired up, there’s more to the story.

The downside is that vegetable oils are highly processed, many coming from GMO sources such as canola, soybean, and corn oil. Ideally, you would want to choose organic cold-pressed varieties when buying oil. You would also not want to cook with these oils using high temperatures as they tend to oxidize easily leading to an increase in free radicals which can promote inflammation.

An additional problem though is that these oils are added to most packaged and processed foods, so the amount that most people are eating is excessive.

Since omega-6s and omega-3s use the same enzymes they compete with each other. An imbalance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in the diet can potentially promote inflammation.

It’s important to limit your intake of these oils (including packaged/processed foods) and balance them with ensuring you’re getting enough omega-3s. Read more on plant-based omega-3s in the blog: Best Vegan Omega-3 Sources. If you’re going to use oil, I would recommend extra-virgin olive oil as your staple and avocado oil for higher-temperature cooking.

Artificial Additives

Artificial additives like artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and food colorings found in many processed foods may trigger inflammation in some individuals. It’s best to choose whole, minimally processed foods whenever possible to avoid these additives.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet for Menopause

So, what foods fight inflammation? Plant foods do! An anti-inflammatory diet emphasizes whole, nutrient-dense foods that are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, while minimizing or avoiding processed foods and those known to promote inflammation.

Key components of an anti-inflammatory diet include:

Fruits & Vegetables

colorful fruits and vegetables. Anti-inflammatory diet for menopause.

Colorful fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals that help combat inflammation. Berries, dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and citrus fruits are particularly beneficial. We all know this, but the sad fact is that the majority of Americans do not come close to eating the bare recommendation of 5 servings a day.

If you were to pick one vegetable to eat every day, a superstar choice would be dark leafy greens. They’re a great source of fiber, antioxidants, vitamin K, potassium, iron, and natural nitrates which can be protective for the lining of your blood vessels. They also provide calcium, magnesium, and B vitamins – important nutrients to have on board during menopause.

Whole Grains

Whole grains like oats, quinoa, brown rice, and barley provide fiber and essential nutrients while helping to stabilize blood sugar levels and improve gut health.

While some people may be sensitive to grains and gluten, this does not mean that all grains and sources of gluten are bad and inflammatory for everyone. Whole grains are actually rich in nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, and have been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect10.

Of course, if you have celiac disease you must avoid gluten. Others can often resolve their sensitivity to grains and gluten once their gut health improves along with their overall diet.

Grains and glyphosate: I mention this because it is a common concern. Glyphosate, a widely used herbicide, has been linked with cancer and other toxic effects11. When it comes to grains, my recommendation is to buy organic wherever possible to avoid excessive exposure to glyphosate and other herbicides and pesticides.

Organic crops are not allowed to be treated with glyphosate. This does not mean it will be glyphosate-free, because there’s often incidental exposure, but it’s likely to be much lower than in conventional crops which are intentionally treated with glyphosate12.

The bottom line, though is that the risks do not seem to outweigh the known nutritional benefits of whole grains13,14.

Healthy Fats

flax, chia and hemp seeds in wooden spoons on a wood table. Healthy fats.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and soy foods, have potent anti-inflammatory properties. Additionally, monounsaturated fats found in olives, avocados, nuts, and seeds have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels, lowering your risk of heart attack and stroke.

I would throw dark chocolate into the healthy fats category as well! Healthy fats help with hormone production, and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and support brain health and mood regulation.

Plant Protein

Tofu, tempeh, legumes, and beans, provide essential amino acids without the saturated fat and cholesterol found in red and processed meats, which – as mentioned above – can contribute to inflammation.

In addition, legumes like beans, lentils, and chickpeas are not only excellent plant-based protein sources, but they are full of fiber, and phytonutrients. These fiber-rich proteins have been linked with improved gut health and reduced inflammatory markers16,17. Bring on the beans!

Soy foods like soybeans, edamame, tofu, and tempeh are also packed with protein, vitamins, minerals, and compounds called isoflavones. These isoflavones offer protection for menopausal women in a variety of ways including reducing inflammation and risk of cardiovascular disease as well as reducing the incidence of hot flashes. For more on soy, check out the blog: Pros and Cons of Soy.

Fermented Foods

Fermented foods are another nice addition to your anti-inflammatory diet. These foods include miso, tempeh, natto, fermented beets, sauerkraut, and kimchi. They contain beneficial probiotics that support gut health and are linked to reduced inflammation and improved immune function.

Herbs & Spices

ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric. Anti-inflammatory spices.

It’s easy to underestimate the health benefits of herbs and spices. Not only do they add delicious flavor to your food but things like turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, and rosemary contain bioactive compounds with potent anti-inflammatory properties.

So, add some variety to your spice rack and some anti-inflammatory flavor to your meals!

Bottomline

Overall, hormonal changes (especially the loss of estrogen) during menopause disrupt the body’s ability to regulate inflammation effectively, leading to an increase in inflammatory markers and worsening menopausal symptoms affecting many systems in your body.

Many factors can impact inflammation, but one thing that has the biggest payoff is changing what you eat and drink. By focusing on a plant-based diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods, you can help decrease inflammation and symptoms of menopause and better support your overall health.

Cheers to that!

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