The traditional diet in Okinawa (a northern island in Japan), is anchored by root vegetables (principally sweet potatoes), green and yellow vegetables, soybean-based foods, and medicinal plants. Marine foods, lean meats, fruit, medicinal garnishes and spices, tea, alcohol are also moderately consumed.
Many characteristics of the traditional Okinawan diet (an Island at the northern tip of Japan) are shared with other healthy dietary patterns. This includes the traditional Mediterranean diet. What’s interesting for women as they transition their midlife years and move into post-menopause, is that all of these dietary patterns are associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, among other age-associated diseases. [Willcox et al, 2014].
I know myself that confusion abounds about ‘what to eat’ to manage our menopause symptoms and despite lecturing in nutrition for years at university level, I felt the same. But with the menopause transition known to bring inflammatory changes to our cardiovascular health, it made sense to explore the nutritional and heart-health science in relation to women’s health and ageing.
That’s why I want to encourage you to turn your attention to the heart-healthy and blood pressure reducing benefits of root vegetables and other potassium-rich foods.
There is so much emphasis on calcium for bone health as we move through menopause and into the next phase of our lives. And whilst bone health deserves our attention, the other fundamental aspect of our health is to also improve cardiac health and manage our blood pressure.
This is where foods that are higher in potassium come in and it’s why I always have both sweet potatoes and raisins in my pantry.
There’s a common perception that raisins are unhealthy – that’s because they are around 60% sugar, predominantly fructose and glucose, but relatively new research suggests that they are a lot healthier than we think (Olmo-Cunillera, Escobar-Avello et al., 2019). I used to feel guilty about having them as well. But now my mid-life, post-exercise urge to rush to the pantry and grab a handful of raisins makes sense.
After a bout of heavier exercise, I craved their sweetness. Most importantly though, my post-exercise, high blood pressure, needed the potassium hidden in these delectable sweets, in order to recover.
“The role of hormones in women’s heart health demands new research” states a brand new report from Jumana Saleh, a biochemist who studies serum cardiovascular risk markers in women (Nature, 10th June, 2021). I agree.
Women lose their protection as they go through menopause, but generally aren’t being advised on the lifestyle changes they should make to match these changes. It’s an important stage of life for all of us and as I mention in my online 2 hour Masterclass on Menopause webinar, “menopause isn’t just about hot flushes, but this is the primary lens that it has been viewed through to date.“
Whilst backpackers and hikers appreciate their high-energy, low-fat convenience and many of us have packed them into kids lunch-boxes over the years, I bet that you aren’t very focused on having that ½ cup of raisins in your day as you move through menopause. But a new review of the power of raisins to keep us healthy, suggests that you should pack them into your lunchbox too.
“It has been demonstrated that raisins possess a low-to-moderate glycemic index, which makes them a healthy snack. They seem to contribute to a better diet quality and may reduce appetite. Their antioxidant capacity has been correlated to the phenolic content and this may be involved in the improvement of cardiovascular health. In addition, raisins maintain a good oral health due to their antibacterial activity, low adherence to teeth and an optimum oral pH. Raisin consumption also seems to be favorable for colon function. Moreover, gut microbiota could be affected by the prebiotic content of raisins.” [Olmo-Cunillera, Escobar-Avello et al., 2019].
If you have high blood pressure now that you are moving through menopause, and even if you don’t but want to ensure that your blood pressure stays in a healthy range, then raisins (organic preferably) and sweet potatoes are two important foods for you to include in your diet. Both foods are potassium-rich.
They are a great source of potassium and this mineral packs a punch when it comes to lowering our blood pressure as we age. If you are sulfite-sensitive, then stay clear of the golden seedless raisins however, because during processing, golden raisins (sultanas) are exposed to sulfite (sulphur dioxide), which prevents them from unwanted bacteria and yeasts.
If you’ve listened to my Masterclass on Menopause, then I explain that cardiac health is the number one health concern of women as they age and oestrogen declines. Yet, the conversations about this from a lifestyle perspective, seem to be missing. However, there is so much to do in terms of changing our lifestyle to accommodate our menopause transition – adding potassium-rich foods into our diet for our changing heart and blood vessels is just one focus that I have in the MyMT™ Food Guide in both my online programmes.
Potassium is a shortfall nutrient that is not typically found in fortified foods or commonly consumed as dietary supplements. It doesn’t get a lot of mention in dietary conversations for our menopause transition, but it should.
However, a word of caution that if you are on antihypertensives or other cardiac medications, then please check with your Doctor about the amount of potassium-rich foods that are recommended for you.
Potassium is present in all body tissues and is required for normal cell function because of its role in maintaining intracellular fluid volume and the movement of ions across the membranes. It has a strong relationship with sodium, the main regulator of extracellular fluid volume, including our plasma volume.
If you are feeling bloated and ‘heavy’ and you are retaining water in those swollen ankles, then keep an eye on your potassium intake as your levels of progesterone decline in menopause. Lowering progesterone changes fluid balance too. If you’ve got tight swollen breasts that have appeared from nowhere, then you will know what I mean.
When we eat more foods (including raisins) that are higher in potassium, then this allows your kidneys to excrete more sodium in your urine. It’s this, that helps to lower your blood pressure and reduces your risk for heart disease according to the American Heart Association.
With many processed foods containing too much salt, balancing potassium and sodium is fundamental to our health as we age in order to help maintain a healthy blood pressure. Just ¼ cup of raisins contains 270 milligrams of potassium.
And whilst we need over 2,400 milligrams of potassium daily, then this is one way to ensure that you are snacking on a food that is helpful to you during this life-stage you are moving through.
Sweet potatoes contain about 475 milligrams of potassium per 1/2 cup and a adding a banana to your morning oats is another way to get potassium into you as is increasing your citrus fruit intake. [Duarte, Fernandes et al, 2016].
Evidence from trials on blood pressure suggests 3600–3800 mg/day of potassium from fruits and vegetables may be reasonable for heart and bone health.
This is still 1000 mg higher than the current average consumption of potassium in the modern western diet. Improving the potassium: sodium intake ratio has a stronger advantage to heart health than either dietary constituent in isolation. For women in menopause, research suggests that this may be true for bone health also, because both sodium and potassium have opposing actions on calcium excretion. (Weaver, 2013).
But there’s also more to raisins for your heart-healthy snack. Raisins are also high in fibre and contain non-haem iron. This is the type of iron that isn’t in red meat, so if you are moving towards a plant-based diet during your menopause transition, then raisins are a great source of iron for you.
Iron is essential for the creation of haemoglobin in red blood cells and it helps your red blood cells to transport oxygen. If you are still menstruating and doing a lot of higher intensity exercise, then you heard it from me – “Any heart palpitations and/ or increased anxiety, may be due to low iron, especially if you are vegetarian.”
I know myself how we can get so caught up with all the various dieting and exercise regimes these days, but many of these are not evidenced against our changing heart and metabolic health as we move through our menopause years.
Focusing on cardiac health is crucial, especially for those of you who have a lot of stress in your life and/or you aren’t sleeping. Not sleeping increases the brain, heart and liver need for glucose, so even if you can’t join me on the MyMT™ programmes to help resolve your sleep, then make sure you are snacking on some raisins to help your changing blood pressure.
Insomnia is well known to increase your risk of hypertension, because overnight your blood pressure stays elevated without following the dip that it should take when you sleep. [Jarrin, Alvaro et al., 2018].
Incorporating foods into our diet that help our body to age-well is an important focus for all of us.
Whilst many of you still have others who are demanding your attention, then don’t forget that your health and energy is important to prioritise too. If you need support with knowing the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of how to adjust your lifestyle during and after your menopause transition, then please join me on my 12 week programmes if you can. Transform Me is for those of you who have put on weight and Circuit Breaker is for those of you who are thinner and leaner.
You will amazed at your learning and how much better you will feel when you put my powerful lifestyle strategies into action.
Anderson, J., Weiter, K., Christian, A., Ritchey, M. & Harold E. Bays (2014). Raisins compared with other snack effects on glycemia and blood pressure: A randomized, controlled trial. Postgraduate Medicine, 126:1, 37-43, DOI: 10.3810/pgm.2014.01.2723
Duarte, A., Fernandes, J., Bernardes, J. & Miguel, G. (2016). Citrus as a component of the Mediterranean Diet. Journal of Spatial and Organizational Dynamics, Cinturs – Research Centre for Tourism, Sustainability and Well-being, University of Algarve, vol. 4(4), 289-304.
Jarrin D., Alvaro P., Bouchard M., Jarrin S., Drake C., Morin C. (2018). Insomnia and hypertension: A systematic review. Sleep Med Rev. Oct;41:3-38.
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Olmo-Cunillera, A., Escobar-Avello, D., Pérez, A. J., Marhuenda-Muñoz, M., Lamuela-Raventós, R. M., & Vallverdú-Queralt, A. (2019). Is Eating Raisins Healthy?. Nutrients, 12(1), 54 https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12010054
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Saleh, J. (2021). Women’s heart health is not just about hormones. Nature, Vol 594, 10th June, 2021
Weaver C. M. (2013). Potassium and health. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 4(3), 368S–77S. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.112.003533
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