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Food’s Role in Older Women’s Health

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

By Dorian Martin

I Start Wondering Founder

One happy hour in 2014 is indelibly etched in my mind thanks to the clear message it gave me about my unhealthy food choices. I met two girlfriends at a local restaurant, where we caught up over margaritas and a variety of fried snacks. It was a joyful visit—until we left to head home. Walking out to my car, I felt very nauseous—and that feeling didn’t pass quickly.

Photo by Casey Lee on Unsplash
Photo by Casey Lee on Unsplash

What I learned the hard way that evening is that my digestive system was changing with age. I no longer tolerated those happy hour treats as well as I could in my 20s and 30s. In fact, my body told me in no uncertain terms that it no longer wanted me to eat those types of foods or beverages.

Since that fateful happy hour, my digestive tract continues to whisper—and sometimes yell—its feedback. According to Everyday Health, I’m not alone. It turns out that diet and aging are connected.

Older women often notice changes in how their bodies react to food during menopause. Gas, bloating and shifts in bowel movements along with other digestive health changes show up as unwanted visitors as we go through the menopausal transition. We also increasingly can have difficulty absorbing certain nutrients as we age.

Listening to Our Body

As women, we’re told what to eat (not much), where we should focus our eating (on calories) and how to eat (daintily). We also get caught up in the “shoulds” that are trumpeted by marketers, family members, and friends: We should be vegan! We should eat KETO! We should adopt Paleo!

Frankly, that’s way too many “shoulds” for me—and probably for you, too. Here’s what I now believe: All of us have been given a glorious and unique body that is ours to care for. And if we get quiet enough and listen, our body will tell us what will and won’t nourish it.

Case in point: A year after that happy hour, I took a year to reset my life. Food was one of the key areas of focus since I had a health scare. Intrigued by the idea of a detox diet, I turned to “Clean Slate: A Cookbook and Guide” by the editors of Martha Stewart Living. The book, which is based on sound research and advice from nutritionists and health professionals, is designed to reset the body.

The editors offer three detox options: a 3-day plan for a quick reboot, a 7-day detox, or a 21-day action plan. I opted for the 21-day version and was so pleased with the results that I periodically repeated the detox.

I found that the longer version truly opens the communication channels between my brain and body. Here’s how the 21-day action plan rolls out:

  • The first week is devoted to eating only legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, oils, and seasonings.

  • The second week adds fish (although no shellfish) and gluten-free grains to Week 1’s meal plan.

  • The third week introduces eggs and organic (non-GMO) soy to the foods allowed in Week 2.

This plan is challenging in that it removes foods and beverages like caffeine, chocolate, cheese, and alcohol, which are often the comfort foods that women turn to when emotionally upset. But by doing so, we can become more mindful of our eating.

And the book’s recipes are very tasty, and many are not time-consuming! One of my favorites is the recipe for baked sweet potato with greens and avocado (although I often use spinach instead of Swiss chard). Another great and easy treat is the coconut and cherry smoothie (which only uses three ingredients). The editors also include easy dinner options, such as trout, tomatoes, and basil baked in parchment paper.

These regular resets have helped me listen more carefully to my body as it ages. I now know that my body doesn’t like soda or most types of alcohol, although some types of wine are fine. Cheese causes me to become congested, so I limit my consumption (which is difficult since I love cheese). Some grains make my digestive tract grumpy, so I carefully source the types of pasta and flour that I use. I also drink a specific brand of spring water because it quenches my thirst better than tap water or other types of bottled water.

Focusing on Nutrition

Photo by Dorian
Photo by Dorian

Committing to a regular cleanse and seeing how my body reacts has encouraged me to continually explore my ideas about food. Now I focus on nutrition and food quality instead of worrying about calories. That’s because eating a diverse diet of nutritious foods—even those with higher calorie counts, such as nuts—offers protection against diseases such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, which run in my family. I tend to follow more of a Mediterranean diet, which encourages more of a plant-based approach to eating. I also follow the Mayo Clinic’s advice to shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid processed food aisles as much as possible.

I’ve recently finished reading Dr. Mark Hyman’s book, “The Pegan Diet,” which describes the food as medicine and offers 21 principles for using diet to reclaim health. Hyman, the head of strategy and innovation for the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, advocates taking an individualized approach to our diet so that we can optimize our health.

One of the principles that I’m trying to explore encourages eating to build and maintain gut health. Noting that the science of the microbiome is in its infancy, Hyman states that functional medicine physicians have been focusing on gut health to fix complex chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. He invites individuals to look at their diet and then “weed” (removing problematic foods and drugs), “seed” (adding fermented and cultured foods to the diet), and “feed” (eating prebiotic and fiber-rich foods). Hyman also recommends a series of tests that offer insights into the health of our intestinal tract and metabolic and hormonal systems.

I’ve followed his approach and slowly introduced some of the recommendations into my diet. For example, I tried grass-fed beef—and found that I felt better physically the following days. I also am starting to be more intentional in eating fermented and cultured foods. (I recently made dill pickles from cucumbers that Melora Lewis grew.) And I’m planning on trying some of the foods Hyman recommends, such as unsweetened coconut yogurt and dandelion greens.

Savoring Life—and Food

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

As we age, we realize that our time is limited. In my mind, it’s important to savor the time we have—and that includes food. I still enjoy a glass of wine and thanks to Jenni de Jong, I’ve developed an appreciation for good chocolate. I’ve also realized that after trying various milk alternatives, I prefer my coffee with a splash of organic half-and-half.

It all comes down to individual taste. Ultimately, the food that we eat should both nourish the body and tickle the taste buds. I don’t know about you, but I’m through with eating the latest “health food” that tastes like cardboard.

I’ve also learned that I can make a dietary course correction that ultimately makes me healthier and happier as I listen to my body. Sometimes a seasonal approach works best, like eating stews and hot soups in winter for nourishment and then opting for a piece of watermelon or a tomato, cucumber, and basil salad to cool down in summer.

And by adopting my mother’s advice of “Try it once,” I’ve eaten a variety of cuisines that include foods such as kimchi and seaweed (which Hyman recommends). These novel tastes may challenge the taste buds—but they also feed the microbiome.

As we grow older, our bodies change—and the menopausal transition adds an additional layer of complexity to what we experience. That’s why it’s important to learn to truly listen to your body. You might find yourself experiencing a variety of issues, such as dry skin, rashes, indigestion, constipation, and wandering concentration. While these may be signs of other health issues, dietary changes—more water and green tea, less fast food and soda, more vegetables and fruits, more fiber, and less processed food—can add up and make a huge difference. Ultimately, what we want to strive for is remaining as healthy as possible for as long as possible. By listening to our bodies and then mindfully making our food choices, we can increasingly savor both our meals and our life.

Has your body’s reaction to food changed as you’ve aged? Are there foods or beverages you no longer tolerate? And are there foods that now nourish your older body that you wouldn’t have considered when you were younger?

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