I first met Mel Kettle years ago via the world of food blogging. She is somewhat of a food blogging power-house, dominating on social media with all things food. Today Mel is sharing one special aspect of food… the power of food to assist with supporting healthy hormonal balance. She has some really interesting and helpful personal experiences and research to share on the topic of menopause and perimenopause, which I am sure, you are going to find fascinating. Make sure you also check out her exciting new blogging project: Just As Juicy.

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Menopause and perimenopause are not very commonly talked about or widely understood. What do you wish every woman (and men in those women’s lives) knew about Menopause and perimenopause?

It really frustrates me that menopause is seen as such a taboo subject, especially as it happens to 50% of the world’s population! I suspect some people don’t talk about it because they are embarrassed or they believe it might cause offence. However, I largely suspect it’s because it’s associated with aging, which is something many women (and men) aren’t comfortable with.

Even my GP dismissed my concerns (when I was 45) telling me I was too young and to come back when I was 51!

I started Just as Juicy so women can take control and have the conversation. Yes, perimenopause can be a bit icky – some of the symptoms certainly are! – but the more we talk about it, the less awkward it will be. I know that helping my husband understand my mood swings are hormonal and not all about him has certainly helped our relationship.

I really encourage people to be more open about the changes that are happening to our bodies as we grow and move into the next wonderful stage of our lives.

What do you think are the top misunderstandings or misconceptions about Menopause and perimenopause?

Most people don’t realise that menopause is only one day, and it’s the day that is the 12 month anniversary since we had our last period. Typically in Australia this occurs when women are around the age of 51.

Perimenopause is the time leading up to menopause, and this can last up to 15 years. Yes, you read that correctly! Fortunately for most women it lasts for an average of four years. Our hormones start to decline from the age of 35, and it is usually a few years after then that we can start to experience some of the symptoms of perimenopause – hot flushes, night sweats, anxiety, mood swings, dry and/or itchy skin, vaginal dryness and more. There are about 60 bodily changes – physical and mental – that can occur during perimenopause.

 A few other myths that are completely false are:

  • Everyone has hot flushes – not true! About 20% of women don’t have them at all! And for everyone else, the severity can range from very infrequent to many times a day
  • Menopause is a horrible experience for everyone – not true! Some women sail through and don’t even realise, other than when their periods stop
  • You have no control over it – also not true. What you eat and the types of exercise you do can play a big role. Foods such as sugar, alcohol and chilli can make the symptoms far worse and exercise such as yoga and even walking regularly can improve your symptoms, especially the non-physical such as mood swings and anxiety.

The Cook's Notebook - Mel Kettle

What are the most common symptoms of Menopause and perimenopause and how can diet help to treat them?

Fortunately not all women experience all symptoms. And some women don’t have any!

 More common symptoms include irregular periods, hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings, anxiety, poor sleep, dry and/or itchy skin, general aches and pains, dry vaginas, unexplained weight gain. Many post-menopausal women are also at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, so make sure you have regular health checks to stay on top of any risk.

Diet can help manage a lot of these symptoms. Reduce or remove sugary foods (not fruit, but foods such as cake, biscuits, sweets, packaged foods with hidden sugars), caffeine, chilli and alcohol. Eat more fruit and veg, foods high in omega-3, good fats (avocado, nuts, olive oil), foods with plant phytoestrogens (fermented soy products such as miso and tempeh, legumes, flaxseed, mung beans, alfalfa, leafy green veggies), and calcium rich foods to help prevent osteoporosis which is common in many post-menopausal women.

What are the best foods to eat and avoid for managing hormonal changes during this time?

  • Eat as naturally as you can. Try to cut back on foods bought in packets, tins and jars as these foods are more likely to have additives and preservatives that can do your body harm.
  • Increase your fruit and vegetable intake. Aim for at least 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit a day. The extra fibre you will get from eating more fruit and veg will also help fill you up so you won’t want to eat as many sugary and salty foods.
  • Cut back on the sugar. Most of us eat far too much sugar every day – whether it’s in cakes, ice cream, sweets, sauces, flavoured yogurts, muesli bars, packet foods. Too much sugar can make those hot flushes and night sweats even worse, and can lead to extra weight gain, which is the bane of many menopausal women’s lives!
  • Eat good quality protein such as turkey, chicken, kangaroo, fish, legumes, nuts, seeds.
  • Reduce those foods that can trigger or worsen hot flushes and night sweats. These include stimulants such as caffeine in coffee and tea, alcohol, chocolate and spicy foods. If you do want to eat these foods have them earlier in the day as they are less likely to impact on your sleep.

If you think you have a food intolerance, then eating that food can lead to inflammation in your body which can make your menopause symptoms worse. I’ve been doing an elimination diet for a few weeks (under the guidance of a naturopath), and after only four weeks of not eating gluten, dairy, sugar, caffeine and alcohol, I can safely say I feel amazing. I’m sleeping better than I have in years, I wake up feeling energised, I haven’t had any undue anxiety over ridiculous little things, and after hormonal changes leading to a weight gain of about 18 kg in 18 months, triggered from coming off the pill, I’ve lost 5kg.

If you’re finding you are having a lot of mood swings and anxiety (menopause related or otherwise), you will be pleased to hear that new research from Deakin University has found that diets higher in plant foods, healthy proteins and fats are consistently associated with more positive mental health outcomes. Professor Felice Jacka has found that mood-boosting foods include: fruit, vegetables, legumes, wholegrain cereals, nuts and seeds and foods with omega-3, such as fish.

How are hormones affected by our diets?

What you eat definitely can influence your hormones, as the food choices you make can help you slow the ageing process, and have fewer hormonal imbalances.

For example, Asian women, who eat a lot of plant phytoestrogens, have far fewer menopause symptoms when compared to Western women. Until recently the Japanese didn’t even have a word for “hot flush”. Foods containing phytoestrogens are structurally similar to the estrogen occurring naturally in our bodies and include soy, legumes, flaxseeds, sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, almonds, broccoli, celery, parsley and sage.

Make careful choices if eating soy – you want to choose foods as minimally processed as possible, such as edamame, tofu, tempeh, miso. Avoid soy products containing soya isolate or soya protein isolate as these are highly processed and refined foods and may do more harm than good.

If you eat meat, try to choose grass fed. See if you can choose organic or spray free vegetables and fruit as these won’t have been in contact with as many hormone-disrupting chemicals. One of the worst hormone disruptors are phthalates, which are found in most pesticides. Which is why choosing spray free or organic is a good idea, at least for the dirty dozen.

Hormonal imbalances can also be caused by added sugars, caffeine, chilli, alcohol and highly processed fatty foods (not good fats such as those in fish, nuts, avocado, olive oil).

The Cook's Notebook - Mel Kettle

What are your top tips for including more fresh fruit and vegetable in your diet?

I’ve always been a big veggie eater and it’s a rare day I don’t eat veggies with every meal – yes, including breakfast. A few ways you can add more to your day are:

  • Eat a simple cooked breakfast – I love mushrooms, eggs and asparagus (when it’s in season)
  • Make soup for breakfast – I often have a soup with a few veggies, a poached egg and homemade stock
  • Have a green smoothie as part of your breakfast – include leafy greens such as spinach, cucumber, carrot, beetroot and one piece of fruit for sweetness
  • Add fruit to your breakfast – on cereal, a small fruit salad
  • If you make a curry, pasta sauce, stew, salad, pizza, sandwich, then double or triple the suggested amount of vegetables
  • Have a small bowl of clear vegetable soup or a small salad before each meal
  • Eat fruit and veg as a snack – a piece of whole fruit, some carrot sticks, a handful of berries, half an avocado
  • Add grated or pureed vegetables to meatballs, homemade burger patties or meatloaf
  • Add vegetables to baking – carrot cake, zucchini cake, you can even add mushrooms to a chocolate cake (yum!) – just be careful of the sugar here!
  • Have one or two nights a week when you eat a vegetarian meal – embrace the concept of Meatless Monday
  • If you’re a bit unsure about vegetables, add a new one to your shopping basket each week and experiment with cooking and eating it
  • Make fruity desserts – a simple fruit salad, apple pie, chocolate coated strawberries, add some berries to your ice-cream
  • Make vegetable dips and serve them with veggie sticks
  • Spend some time slicing veggies and fruit to snack on so it’s easy to grab when you’re hungry
  • Keep the fruit bowl in a prominent place so you don’t forget it’s there

How do you get inspired to prepare a meal?

HAHA! I’m sitting here thinking we need to get take-out tonight as I have zero inspiration to eat, let alone cook as it’s insanely hot today – hello Brisbane summer!

I always cook seasonally as it’s far less expensive and far more yum to by local produce that is in season. My inspiration comes from what’s in the shops or at the markets, and my large collection of cookbooks that I spend many happy times flicking through most weeks.  

I also try and meal plan at least four dinners a week (with leftovers for lunch), so there is less to think about at 5pm!

I asked Mel to share with us one of her fav vego meals…

I first made this vegan chilli with coriander lime pesto when I offered to cook dinner for two friends. Both are gluten free and dairy free and one is also vegetarian. It was a bit of a challenge, but the end result was divine. Especially the pesto. Which goes with loads of things! It’s now a meal on regular rotation, and I cook up big batches to keep in the freezer for those nights when cooking from scratch is all too hard!

Vegan chilli with coriander lime pesto
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