Beat menopausal hot flushes with fruit-and-veg-powered weight loss

By Robyn Chuter, 7th Sep 2015

Hot flushes are the bane of many perimenopausal women’s lives. That sudden rush of heat from the chest up to the neck and face, is not just embarrassing or inconvenient. Hot flushes that occur at night – commonly called night sweats – can severely disrupt sleep, causing day-time fatigue.Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is the standard medical answer for hot flushes, but the worrying findings that HRT dramatically increases the risk of heart disease and breast cancer have made many women understandably wary of taking it. So what’s a hot-and-bothered perimenopausal woman to do? A recent study published in the journal Menopause suggests a remarkably simple answer: lose weight by adopting a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in fat.

17,473 women with menopausal symptoms, who were not taking HRT, were recruited for the Women’s Health Initiative study, which compared outcomes in women who were given dietary counselling, to a control group who made no dietary changes.What’s particularly interesting is that weight loss wasn’t even a goal of the study; the participants were initially recruited to evaluate the effects of a low-fat, high produce dietary pattern on risk of heart disease, breast and colorectal cancer, and fracture in post-menopausal women.However, when the data were analysed, women who had been assigned to the dietary counselling group lost an average of 2 kg between baseline and year one, compared to the control group.

This modest weight loss achieved some benefits, but women who lost over 4.5 kg, or 10% or more of their baseline body weight, were significantly more likely to reduce or eliminate their hot flushes and night sweats after one year of follow-up, compared to women in the control group who continued with their normal diet. Although hot flushes are still not completely understood, they are believed to be caused by the impact of fluctuating hormone levels on the hypothalamus, a region in the brain that regulates our body temperature, blood vessels and sweat glands, and brain chemicals.

Previous research had indicated that both being overweight at the onset of menopause, and gaining weight during the perimenopausal period (as so many women do, when they eat the conventional Western diet!), increased the risk of suffering from hot flushes and night sweats, one reason being that these phenomena provide a way to dissipate the heat that is retained by the insulating effect of excess body fat. However, this study is one of the first – and the largest to date – to show that a diet high in fresh produce and whole grains, and low in fat (read, a wholefoods, plant-based diet low in animal products), improves the most common symptom of menopause.

It echoes the mantra I share with my clients – forget about weight loss, and focus on health gain. When you shift your perspective in this way, you step out of the deprivation/self-punishment model that characterises dieting, and into a place of self-love and appreciation for your magnificent body and the miracles that it performs every day. From this place, you want to make choices that nurture and support your body… and it just so happens that these choices facilitate effortless weight loss.