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Food as Medicine – Eat Your Way to Happiness

Did you know that soy can help against hot flashes? Or that water can help regulate your body temperature? Nutritional Physiologist Gunn Helene Arsky offers good advice for women going through menopause.


A healthy diet can reduce symptoms such as hot flashes and help put you in a better mood. It can also work against mild depression which some women experience during menopause.

So true. It is a well-supported fact that omega-3 from fish helps maintain positive moods. In addition, food including the amino acid tryptophan can act as an energizer. For example, oatmeal with milk is a great way to start the day, says Nutritional Physiologist and Course Leader Gunn Helene Arsky.

Arsky has written several books about diet and health including topics such as eating your way to health, dieting, and children with diabetes.

A good, nutritional breakfast gets your metabolism going and helps stabilise blood sugar levels. So if you haven’t yet begun with a good breakfast routine, now is a good time to start. For when you reach menopause, Arsky says, you should be even more aware than before about the types of food you eat and how they affect you and your health.

Yes, indeed - the time in your life when you could eat and drink whatever you wanted without considering the consequences is pretty much over, explains Arsky who works as the nutritional expert on a Norwegian dietary website.



Fill up the water bottle

Metabolism reduces with age. But with several small meals, rather than fewer large ones,
you can maintain a higher metabolism rate throughout the day. That way you can also avoid being overly hungry and eating more than your body actually needs.

In general, you should try to eat more course grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and lean meat. If you eat small meals throughout the day, at least every three to four hours, your blood sugar levels will stabilise and the need for sweet and unhealthy food will diminish.

And if you haven’t already replaced your salt with a lower sodium mineral salt, now is the time to do so. Many of us ingest much too much salt in our food, especially hidden salts in processed foods.

Bake your own bread. Much of the salt we eat comes from store-bought bread. Stay away from salted foods such as cured meats and sausages, salami, cured fish, salted chips and so on, suggests Arsky.

Drinking enough water is also smart. Water maintains heat and regulates body temperature. By getting enough water, you help your body to handle sudden temperature swings. Water is also important for your skin to help maintain its glow.

How much water you need depends on how physically active you are, how much you perspire, outside temperature and so on. But in general, the majority of us need a minimum of 2 litres of water a day, says Arsky.

You yourself can check your urine to see if you are getting enough water. If it is nearly clear, you are most likely getting enough water. If it is darker in colour, you should be drinking more.

Continental drinking

While it would be wiser for many of us to drink more water, we should be doing quite the opposite when it comes to alcohol. During menopause this can be especially smart. Studies show that alcohol can trigger hot flashes and make you feel bloated. Too much alcohol can also lead to sleep problems, depression and a pale complexion.

That’s right. A person can physically sense whether she should continue like she did before. Most likely, this isn’t the case. Instead try a continental approach: choose a tasty drink which can be sipped in small portions rather than chugging down something cheap. A good glass of wine helps to top off both a good meal and a pleasant evening, Arsky explains.

You can hold onto your coffee cup as long as you don’t gulp down litres of coffee a day or notice that your love of coffee triggers hot flashes. Some studies show that just as coffee can temporarily increase blood pressure causing body temperature to rise, caffeine can also trigger hot flashes. And too much coffee can lead to problems in urine production.

The Nutritional Physiologist also believes that those coffee quantities should be sipped in moderation. I think that four or five cups of coffee during the day should be more than enough. Make friends with your water bottle instead, she encourages.

But what about those delicious cakes and cookies that always seem to show up along side the cup of coffee? Many believe that too much sugar can make your mood plummet. 

Can too much sugary food in menopausal years lead to mood swings more than before?

Blood sugar swings can lead to mood swings even before menopause. It is very possible that
two variables that swing simultaneously can increase crossed-effects, although there is no documentation that proves this, says Arsky.

But if you manage to cut your intake of sugar, you are at least not doing your body any harm. Quite the contrary. Refined sugar contains no nutritional value other than calories. The body actually doesn’t need refined sugar at all, so you can safely cut down on your intake. An average northern European adult ingests approximately 8 to 9 percent of his/her energy from added sugar. That is just below the level that the nutritional experts recommend as maximum intake – that is 10 percent of their daily diet.

Mood swings are one thing, but some women also experience the feeling of being bloated.

What can be the cause of this? How can it be made better?

It can be due to too little exercise, too much gassy foods or other conditions. A diet high in fibre will in time improve this. But if one isn’t used to eating course bread and grains, at the beginning there could be an even more gassy feeling before the intestinal bacteria settles down. Remember to drink more fluids with your fibre-rich foods, Arky says.

Other good advice includes staying away from gassy foods such as cabbage, peas, beans, grapes, carbonated soft drinks or beer. It is also important to relax when you eat and take time to chew your food because then you won’t swallow so much air. It can also help to eat more frequently but in smaller portions in order to avoid filling the stomach too much, advises the nutritional physiologist.

Soy to help against menopause discomforts.

Asian women very seldom report hot flashes during menopause. The Asian diet and so-called phytoestrogens are the reasons for this. Phytoestrogen compounds are isoflavones and lignans. Isoflavones are found in soy beans, peas and legumes. Whole grains, berries and other vegetables include lignans.

There is still debate as to the extent that estrogens found in soy plants have on women in the west, but it is worth trying. Many feel better and soy is also a good source of extra protein, fibre and calcium, says Arsky.

She recommends taking a trip to the Asian food section at the grocery store and becoming familiar with tofu. Many other soy products consumed in Asia are also available.

Soy is great. For example, you can eat soy beans in a salad, soy yoghurt or tofu (soy bean curd). Firm tofu can be marinated or fried just like pieces of meat or crushed up like mince. It is excellent in casseroles and in tacos. Tofu is more available than many realize. You can also, for example, use soft/silken tofu and blend it up in a refreshing smoothie or stir it into sauces, notes Arsky who doesn’t shy away from the theory that soy can help women during menopause.

Many have experienced benefits by using soy-based products in their daily diet because soy (and red clover) includes plant estrogens which help duplicate the effects of the female hormones.  The effects are still debated but they are supposedly best for menopause discomforts such as hot flashes and mood swings. And combined with calcium, soy adds to strengthening bones, the nutritional physiologist says.

The Danish homeopath Ruth Appleby recommends eating foods such as carrots, ripe bananas, apples, celery, broccoli, cucumber, berries, papaya, sprouts, linseed, soy products, walnuts and  avocado because these foods contain natural estrogen. Appleby believes that these foods help the body to adapt to the changes which occur during menopause.

Whether it is the estrogen-like elements that do the job or whether it just means that so much good food in a woman’s diet pushes the unhealthy out and therefore improves one’s health is not easy to say, remarks Arsky.


Supplements – nonsense or necessary?

Some believe that taking vitamins without considering everything else you put into your body is of little use. Instead, many claim that you should rather think about getting enough vitamins and minerals through a healthy diet including fish, lean meat, fibre, fruits and vegetables.

In an ideal world this is completely right! But most of us live a hectic life where it isn’t always possible to eat correctly at every meal. A multivitamin as an extra boost doesn’t harm. That way you are safeguarded against those days you can’t live up to the ideal. But taking a multivitamin can never, and should never, take away the focus of what is important: that is to eat as healthy, varied and pure as possible, Arsky emphasizes.

During the last few years there has also been a lot of focus on the polyunsaturated fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 and the relationship between the two. There is wide consensus among researchers and nutritional experts that these fatty acids are essential for the body to function well. Omega-3, which is found in fish, stimulates the brain and is necessary for a number of the body’s functions.

Most national health ministries and departments encourage people to substitute some meat for fish in their meals. If you eat one fish meal a week, research indicates that you have already reduced your chances of cardiovascular illnesses by 30 percent.

You can get omega-3 from cod liver oil or by eating fatty fish some days of the week. Arsky believes that an omega-3 need is covered by eating two meals of fatty fish a week. According to her, the problem is that most of us eat half of this. This is when a supplement can be wise.

Arsky recommends not eating more than two meals with fatty fish a week due to long-term danger of dioxins and heavy metals.

So if you want more than two meals a week of fatty fish, then the other meals should be leaner fish such as cod or coalfish (pollack), advises the nutritional physiologist. This will then ensure us that we get the necessary amount of omega-6 through our diet.

Primrose oil has also had a ‘golden age’ as a dietary supplement for menopause discomforts but works best for PMS symptoms. But then there are often strong PMS symptoms towards the end of a reproductive age, Arsky says.   


Prevent Bone Loss

Northern European women are included among the highest statistics for having hip fractures. And even if one shouldn’t necessarily anticipate this, it can be wise to prevent.

The body doesn’t give immediate feedback if it’s not getting enough calcium. But if you’re careful to get enough calcium, you can prevent bone loss. According to Arsky, you can easily calculate yourself how much calcium that you’re getting.

It is recommended for women of this age category to get 800 milligrams per day. You can’t feel if you’re getting enough but you can easily calculate that 1 dl. milk or yogurt includes about 100 milligrams calcium, cheese on a slice of bread has about 120 milligrams and a small handful of almonds contains approximately 80 milligrams. Dark green leafy vegetables also contain a little calcium.

Are calcium supplements, as tablets or powder, beneficial?

If you know that you are getting less than this, you can take calcium tablets with vitamin D to ensure your intake. Calcium-enriched orange juice can also be a means.

But it isn’t only calcium that is important in preventing osteoporosis . Oily fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel or sea trout, is an important source of vitamin D. This vitamin source is good for the bones and necessary for the body to be able to absorb calcium. Other sources of vitamin D include liver, roe, cod-liver oil and sunlight.

Arsky encourages you to keep an eye on your diet and lifestyle because many discomforts and ailments can be prevented with a healthy and active lifestyle.

Those hormonal changes make us more susceptible to, for example, bone loss and heart disease than when we were younger, says Gunn Helene Arsky.

Rev up your metabolism

Even though it is natural to continue enjoying your food, your calorie requirements reduce with age. But your need for nutrients remains the same. That means that you should become accustomed to good, healthy daily diet habits so that you get as many vitamins and minerals as you did before.

There is as great a need for nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and amino acids but often less need for energy. That means stricter control of what you eat – there just isn’t room for so many sidetracks anymore. Everything should generally be healthy, claims Arsky who also has been the specialist advisor for the weight club ‘A Little Lighter.’

Metabolism rates often drop when women approach menopause, but much of this is also due to the fact that many of us just don’t get enough exercise. And because of that we also lose muscle mass.

What can we do to prevent slowed metabolism rates?

Metabolism is closely connected to muscle mass, so if one is good at moving about and exercising this will keep metabolism rates higher.

Do hormonal changes during menopause affect how fat is distributed on the body?

Yes, fewer female hormones of estrogen means more place for male hormones - thus, the male tendency to gain weight around the middle. And with visceral fat (fat surrounding the organs) the risk also increases for heart disease.

What can I do to help prevent weight gain around my tummy?

Exercise combined with a sensible diet is the best preventive measure if the kilograms have snuck up and settled around your waist. A lean diet alone will help shed the pounds, but studies show that this may do little to burn visceral fat. Exercise, however, appears to rev up metabolism around the waist. This exercise though doesn’t only mean sit-ups, but rather overall training for the entire body is what counts, Arsky reminds us.

If you want to lay the foundation for good health, then unhealthy fats and low fibre foods such as white bread and that bulging chocolate cake will have to be more of the exception rather than the rule. 
In fact, Arsky believes, the only way to have room for more unhealthy food is to exercise.

If you are more physically active then there is more room for a slice of cake or a glass of wine, emphasizes the nutritional physiologist.

Exercise your way to happiness.

Exercise has a number of positive side effects. And to at least as large a degree as when you 
ran around as a child.

Professor Arne Holt at the University of Oslo believes that exercise is very effective against symptoms and discomfort that can lead to reduced quality of life during menopause. Several studies also show that physical activity can help towards mild depression.

No matter what age or shape one is, exercise can positively benefit both physical and mental health. And the worse shape you are in when you start, the faster you notice the changes in your body. Remember that it is never too late to begin exercising.

All adults are encouraged to be physically active for half an hour a day in order to maintain their current shape. That includes Christmas Eve, Sundays and bank holidays, Arsky says and reminds us that exercise is much more than just sit-ups. It is overall training of the entire body which counts, she says.

Some fast-paced, longer walks during the week, ski trips during the winter and swimming in the lake or sea during the summer will definitely be beneficial if you raise your pulse rate. But in order to reap those health benefits, two laps in the pool and then lying on a chaise lounge the rest of the day won’t help. Your pulse rate has to rise and the sweat has to drip. And if you want to lose weight, then exercise is necessary.

To improve your shape or to use exercise to modify your weight, you’ll need to use an hour a day, preferably divided into two sessions. You’ll need to sweat and breathe hard enough to exert yourself but still be able to chat with your exercise buddy. Then you are at the right level. The more you exert yourself, the better the results, informs Arsky.

But the goal should definitely not be to exercise your way to skin and bones. Because just as too much weight is unhealthy, too little body fat is also not good.

Our layers of fat regulate much of our hormone production. Fat is the precursor for developing many of those hormones. Those with too little body fat can have hormonal disturbances just as for those who have too much body fat, says Gunn Helene Arsky.

References: Pocket Guide to Menopause by Ruth Appleby and Midt I Livet – Handbook for en God Overgangsalder by Rønnaug Jarlsbo and Britt-Ingjerd Nesheim

Eat Your Way to Increased Happiness

Saturday 26. January, 2008
Diet & Exercise


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