- Hot flashes can be a common discomfort during menopause, but a new study suggests that dietary changes may offer relief.
- Researchers found that a low fat, plant-based diet rich in soy products was as effective as hormone replacement therapy for reducing hot flashes.
- Participants who followed the dietary protocol also experienced weight loss.
- The results suggest a potential for dietary changes as a first-line treatment for hot flashes.
- More research is still needed to understand the role of diet on hot flashes and other menopause-related symptoms.
Making dietary changes during menopause may be as effective as hormone replacement therapy for treating hot flashes without associated health risks.
That’s according to a new study recently published in the journal Menopause by the North American Menopause Society.
According to researchers, participants who adhered to a strictly plant-based diet rich in soy saw an 88% reduction in their symptoms. By comparison, hormone replacement therapy is associated with a 70–90% reduction in hot flashes.
In addition, participants also reduced total weight by 8 pounds on average over 12 weeks.
“Our results mirror the diets of places in the world, like pre-Westernized Japan and modern-day Yucatán Peninsula, where a low fat, plant-based diet including soybeans is more prevalent and where postmenopausal women experience fewer symptoms,” said lead researcher Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine in a news release.
Treating hot flashes with a plant-based diet
For the study, researchers followed 84 postmenopausal participants experiencing two or more hot flashes per day for 12 weeks.
Subjects adhered to a plant-based diet rich in soy products by incorporating the following dietary changes:
- avoidance of animal products
- reduction in overall fat intake
- addition of a daily serving of soybeans
Despite the reduction in hot flashes, the researchers admit they do not fully understand why this particular dietary protocol was so effective.
They did confirm that combining each of the three elements listed above was key to reducing hot flash symptoms.
It’s also important to note that in the study, participants with fewer hot flashes ate significantly less fat and more fiber, and they achieved this in just 12 weeks on a vegan diet that emphasized soy.
In addition, the study neither proved nor disproved that eating meat causes hot flashes, but rather that a low fat, plant-based diet rich in soy foods reduced hot flashes and contributed to weight loss.
Dietary changes and menopause: What experts think
Amy Bragagnini, MS, RD, CSO, a women’s nutrition and oncology nutrition specialist at Trinity Health Lacks Cancer Center in Michigan and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Healthline she sees many clients who are willing to try anything to reduce their hot flashes.
“Clients tell me hot flashes disrupt their sleep, cause irritability, and result in profuse sweating at work,” she said.
Her recommendations for reducing hot flashes with diet include:
- increasing intake of whole soy foods
- increasing consumption of fermented soy products
- limiting processed foods
- reducing alcohol, caffeine, and sugar, which can also negatively impact sleep cycles
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a nutritionist and the author of “Skinny Liver,” said that menopause and the hot flashes that come with it may alter blood vessel function in some individuals.
“This is one of the reasons why postmenopausal women are often more at risk for heart disease than premenopausal women,” Kirkpatrick told Healthline. “Therefore, eliminating foods that are associated with worsening blood vessel health is often recommended.”
Kirkpatrick added that foods with isoflavones, such as whole soy, may also be helpful for blood vessel health.
Dietitian Julie Cunningham, RD, whose female clients with type 2 diabetes also experience menopausal symptoms, explained that the isoflavones in soy foods (and some legumes like chickpeas) mimic estrogen in the body.
While more research is needed to understand how soy isoflavones affect menopausal symptoms, Cunningham offered one possible explanation:
“Since it’s a drop in estrogen during menopause that causes hot flashes, eating these foods effectively convinces the body that there’s plenty of estrogen circulating in the blood, so there’s no need for a hot flash,” she told Healthline.
Is meat off the table during menopause?
Although the new study suggests that a plant-based diet may reduce hot flashes, nutrition experts say this doesn’t mean that animal products should be avoided entirely.
“Lean meat can be a rich source of protein and vitamins [and] minerals,” Bragagnini said.
At the same time, not every meal needs to feature meat, either, and increasing your intake of plant-based foods can offer a number of health benefits.
Bragagnini recommends swapping a meat entree for a vegetarian dish one or two times a week.
“To maintain a good relationship with food, we should not focus on ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but rather, ask ourselves whether this food will help or hinder my health and menopause symptoms,” Kirkpatrick said.
Making the shift to plant-based eating
There are simple, everyday ways to make adjustments to your diet to promote well-being and potentially ease your menopause symptoms.
According to Kirkpatrick, healthy dietary changes may help improve:
- hormone fluctuations
- cholesterol levels
- bone health
Kirkpatrick said you could work toward swapping animal protein with plant-based protein by assessing how many servings of fruits and vegetables you’re getting in your diet and increasing it if you eat less than 7 handfuls a day.
She added that a moderate carbohydrate approach could help regulate blood sugar levels during postmenopause.
“When you have fruits and vegetables, focus on those lower on the glycemic index,” she said.
How to get more soy in your diet
Rich in estrogen, consuming soy could help reduce hot flashes, according to the research findings, and even offer additional health benefits.
As a rule of thumb, opt for soy foods that are minimally processed whenever possible. You might also prefer soy products that are labeled non-GMO.
If you’re interested in getting more soy in your diet, there are a number of soy foods you could try — but it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian first, especially if you have an underlying health condition.
Bragagnini suggests adding edamame as an appetizer to any meal.
“This delicious, green-looking veggie isn’t terribly intimidating, and because of that, your family is more likely to try it,” says Bragagnini.
Try steaming edamame in the shell and then dusting it with a little salt.
Bragagnini said that soy milk is another great option to get a serving of soy into your diet.
“Think about combining soy milk with some fresh or frozen fruit and blend it together for an excellent and delicious smoothie,” she said.
Soy nuts are a great option for a quick protein-packed snack.
“I keep soy nuts at my desk and often snack on them in the afternoon when I am craving something high in protein and fiber,” Bragagnini said.
New research suggests that a low fat, plant-based that emphasizes soy products may help ease hot flash symptoms associated with menopause and lead to weight loss.
Despite the positive findings, however, larger studies are still needed to determine whether this dietary protocol could be considered a first-line treatment or a substitute for hormone replacement therapy.
If you’re experiencing menopause or postmenopause and are interested in shifting to a plant-based diet, it can be helpful to gradually reduce your intake of meat products rather than change everything all at once.
Anyone can benefit from eating more plants — just remember it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian before making any significant changes to your diet.
“The take-home message almost always is, ‘eat a lot more vegetables and a lot less fat,’” Cunningham said.