How menopause friendly is a vegan diet?
Tips and advice if you’re considering switching to a plant-based diet
A New Year often prompts a re-think about many aspects of your life, and for many, thoughts turn to what you eat.
If you are considering switching to a vegan diet – whether just for the month of January as part of the Veganuary movement, or on a long-term basis – then you aren’t alone.
More than 600,000 people in the UK took part in Veganuary in 2022, according to the Vegan Society.
But what is a vegan diet, and could it be of benefit during your perimenopause and menopause?
Here, with the help of chef, clinical nutritionist and balance + guru Emma Ellice-Flint, we take a closer look.
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What is a vegan diet?
‘A vegan diet is basically eating and drinking all plant-based foods which will typically contain nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, vegetables and fruit, as well as your lovely herbs and spices,’ says Emma.
‘Vegans will want to avoid meat and offal, seafood, dairy products, and eggs. And for drinks, tea, coffee and cocoa are still permitted.’
What are the health benefits of a vegan diet?
There are numerous benefits to following a vegan diet, says Emma.
‘It can prevent or reduce the harmful effects of metabolic syndrome such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes . It can increase the number of friendly bacteria in your gut which in turn leads to many other health benefits, and a vegan diet has even been found to lower your risk of all types of cancer by 18%.’ [2,3]
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Can a vegan diet help me during the perimenopause and the menopause?
There is some evidence that a vegan diet can lead to a moderate reduction in menopausal symptoms, says Emma [4,5].
Which nutrients may be missing from a vegan diet?
It can be a challenge moving to a vegan diet, especially if you enjoyed eating meat, seafood and dairy before switching. You may also be worried that your diet may not be as nutritionally balanced.
Understanding more about the specific nutrients you need, and what plant-based food sources are rich in these, will help you establish a nutritious vegan diet, says Emma.
‘The key nutrients you will need to learn about if thinking about moving to a vegan diet are Vitamin D, calcium, iron, iodine, zinc, amino acids  and omega-3, because these are the nutrients that vegans can sometimes lack,’ she says.
Let’s take a look at these in more detail:
Protein and amino acids: Amino acids are long chains of molecules that make up proteins, key nutrients that give you energy, help to maintain muscle strength make and support your cells.
Emma says you should look for a variety of proteins to ensure you are gaining ‘complete proteins’ – proteins which contain all the essential amino acids your body needs.
‘Essential amino acids only come from your diet, so it’s important to be careful with your daily food choices,’ she says.
‘Don’t just get your protein intake from nuts and seeds, incorporate some brown rice or lentils for example, and this will help complete the profile of essential amino acids you need. There are also some plant foods that already contain a complete protein profile such as quinoa, soy, pistachios, chia and buckwheat.’
Calcium helps keeps your bones strong, reducing risk of the osteoporosis – which is crucial when estrogen levels fall during the perimenopause and menopause.
When it comes to calcium, if you are mindful about your food choices, you don’t need to go short, Emma says.
‘Good sources of calcium are found in most nuts, seeds and legumes and some food and drinks are fortified with calcium too,’ she says.
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Vitamin D: The so-called sunshine vitamin helps the body absorb calcium. You can obtain vitamin D in three ways – via your diet, through exposure to the sun and by taking a supplement.
If you are vegan, soy and almond milks and yoghurts and some orange juices that are fortified with vitamin D, are all ways to get Vitamin D through your diet.
Iodine is crucial to making thyroid hormones, which help regulate your metabolism, but studies suggest that up to 80% of vegan are deficient in iodine .
Sea vegetables like edible marine algae or seaweed is the best source of iodine from food if you are vegan, Emma says.
‘Don’t be put off by using them, they have a very subtle flavour and are easy to buy dried and reconstitute,’ she adds.
‘Try adding them into cooked dishes such as a bowl of steaming vegetables.’
Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells. Iron from plant-based food isn’t absorbed by your body as well as iron from meat. Good sources of iron for vegans are: pulses, wholemeal bread and flour, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and dried fruits.
Zinc helps maintain a healthy immune system. Beans, nuts and soy products are all good sources of zinc in a vegan diet.
Omega-3 oil is important for brain health.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that is the predominant fat in the brain and helps with cognition as you go through the menopause transition and beyond.
Emma says: ‘Typically the key foods that contain Omega 3 oil are seafoods, so if you are vegan it’s important to eat alternatives.
‘The best vegan sources are chia and flax seeds and walnuts. Eating one tablespoon of chia or ground flax seeds daily will usually achieve recommended daily intake.’
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Spotlight on Vitamin B12
One nutrient that is hard to gain through eating a vegan diet alone however is Vitamin B12, which is essential for forming red blood cells .
Emma’s advice? Simply take this vitamin as a supplement.
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What about processed vegan foods?
Due to the popularity of vegan diets, fast food outlets and supermarket suppliers have bought many new plant-based products to market in the last few years.
However, many of these products are highly processed and have had the most beneficial nutrients removed.
Unfortunately, as with other processed foods, eating lots of these foods can lead to inflammation in the gut, growth of more harmful bacteria and knock-on negative health effects.’
There is also a drive to engineer laboratory-grown meat products to meet demand for healthier and more environmentally friendly ‘meat’ options.
These contain less saturated fat and are higher in Omega-3 fats, a type of polyunsaturated fat. While potentially satisfying those that eat vegan due to health, animal cruelty, or environmental reasons, the health outcomes of eating lab-grown meat products are not yet known.
The bottom line?
‘Variety is always the way to go to ensure you’re getting enough of the right nutrients when eating vegan,’ says Emma.
- Marrone G. et al (2021), ‘Vegan diet health benefits in metabolic syndrome’, Nutrients, 13 (3) 817. doi: 10.3390/nu13030817
- Prochazkova, M. et al. (2022), ‘Vegan diet is associated with favorable effects on the metabolic performance of intestinal microbiota: a cross-sectional multi-omics study’, Frontiers in Nutrition, doi:10.3389/fnut.2021.783302
- Key T.J., Papier K., Tong T.Y.N. (2022), ‘Plant-based diets and long-term health: findings from the EPIC-Oxford study’, The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 81 (2), pp. 190-98. doi: 10.1017/S0029665121003748
- Barnard N.D., Kahleova H., Holtz D.N., Del Aguila F., Neola M., Crosby L.M., Holubkov R. (2021), ‘The women’s study for the alleviation of vasomotor symptoms (WAVS): a randomized, controlled trial of a plant-based diet and whole soybeans for postmenopausal women’, Menopause, 28(10), pp. 1150-56. doi: 10.1097/GME.0000000000001812
- Beezhold B., Radnitz C., McGrath R.E., Feldman A. (2018), ‘Vegans report less bothersome vasomotor and physical menopausal symptoms than omnivores’, Maturitas, 112:12-17. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2018.03.009
- Rogerson D. (2017), ‘Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers’, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14:36. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9
- Krajcovicová-Kudlácková, M. et al. (2003), ‘Iodine deficiency in vegetarians and vegans’, Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 47 (5), pp.183-5. doi:10.1159/000070483
- Gilsing A.M., Crowe F.L., Lloyd-Wright Z., Sanders T.A., Appleby P.N., Allen N.E., Key T.J. (2010), ‘Serum concentrations of vitamin B12 and folate in British male omnivores, vegetarians and vegans: results from a cross-sectional analysis of the EPIC-Oxford cohort study’, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 64 (9), pp.933-9. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2010.142