Giving menopause some food for thought

A Cork-trained cook, Fiona Staunton was inspired by her own early menopause to help educate and inform other women at this stage of their life about the power of diet, says EMMA CONNOLLY
Giving menopause some food for thought

Fiona Staunton. Picture: Paul Sherwood

A FORMER Ballymaloe House chef wants to help women combat debilitating menopausal symptoms through the food they eat.

Fiona Staunton is motivated by her own horrific experience, including having suffered a hormone headache every day for a full three months.

This was one of several debilitating side effects she was hit with when she experienced the menopause.

“My joints ached so much, I felt like a 90-year-old. I suffered from a vicious cycle of insomnia and fatigue and then there was the brain fog,” said Fiona.

Her experience was a little different to most others. She was catapulted into menopause after being diagnosed with oestrogen positive breast cancer in August, 2020.

“My dad passed away suddenly in the first lockdown, he had been looking after my mother who had reduced mobility after breaking her pelvis in a fall six months earlier. I took on a lot of that responsibility,” she remembers.

Around that time she noticed that one breast was fuller than the other, in the same way it might when breast feeding.

“I went to my GP, and three days before I was to get it checked I noticed a discharge from the nipple so I knew something wasn’t right,” she says.

Fiona Staunton. Picture: Paul Sherwood
Fiona Staunton. Picture: Paul Sherwood

A number of small tumours were detected and she underwent a mastectomy. Fortunately, the cancer had been caught early and hadn’t spread. But subsequent hormone therapy meant she was fast tracked into a medically induced menopause.

Monthly injections as well as a daily tablet were blocking all oestrogen in her body.

Fiona had figured she’d ‘be grand’ with this change, as she was fit and generally healthy.

“But I experienced various symptoms overnight rather than a gradual experience most people would have,” she said, sayng it was like ‘falling off a cliff’.

This was just over a year and a half ago, but by changing her diet she found she was able to relieve many of the symptoms of her menopausal journey. Specifically, she introduced more phytoestrogen rich foods with fantastic results.

“So that’s things like flaxseeds, soybeans and lentils. Also, things like endame beans, which are so easy to eat as a snack, and miso are great,” she said.

Fiona pointed out that these are foods that are found in Asian diets, and research has found women in these countries, especially Japan, have less menopausal symptoms than average.

So now, with her vast cooking experience (her poached eggs were a favourite of the late Myrtle Allen’s), she’s helping others through her six-week virtual cooking course designed to alleviate symptoms of menopause and perimenopause.

One of Fiona's tasty dishes.
One of Fiona's tasty dishes.

Fiona, whose parents both came from Cork (her grandmother Kitty Madden is a former Dean of UCC), believes that women shouldn’t wait for symptoms to kick in, and that from the age of 35 we need to be preparing for this stage in our lives. She compares it to preparing for a storm, and says it’s a case of battening down the hatches.

“I believe that a clear understanding of how diet affects the start of natural menopause can be very beneficial to women. If you eat the right nutrition and make some lifestyle adjustments, surround yourself with information to spot the symptoms, then you will be better armed than just landing in it!” said the mum-of-two. Aged 45 when she was diagnosed, she’s now 47 and says she’s finally back to feeling herself again.

Her 90 minute sessions will run every Wednesday evening from April 27.

“I will teach women how to find the essential nutrients in the food around us and how to prepare it in a practical, time- efficient manner. This course will make cooking good food uncomplicated!”

Fiona will share every hint, tip, and nugget of knowledge in her arsenal during this virtual cookery course. Each week will include an online cooking demonstration with a focus on one nutritional aspect with at least three dishes cooked in real time, plus new recipes and dietary suggestions. She’ll look at foods for brain health, for joint stiffness, for food, heart health and immunity. Importantly, all her approach is all-inclusive and about creating ultimate health for the entire family. Participants will receive a cookery book of over 75 recipes and weekly meal plans and shopping tips for six week. See fionasfoodforlife.ie

Here, Fiona shares three recipes

Fiona Staunton. Picture: Paul Sherwood
Fiona Staunton. Picture: Paul Sherwood

Chocolate seed bars

These tasty squares are full of nutrients to support brain health, energy and digestive system. This recipe is adapted from Susan Jane White’s recipe. They are really tasty snacks that can give you a great lift throughout the day. They are easy to make. Coconut flour is high in fibre, the dates give a lovely natural sweetness and the seeds add a nutritious punch.

Serves: 28 squares

Prep time: 15 mins

Ingredients

140g dates, chopped

100g milled flax, sunflower & pumpkin seeds

60g coconut flour

75g raisins

140g almond butter or peanut butter

125ml maple syrup or agave (honey doesn’t work)

I like to substitute 30g chicory root syrup

3 tablespoons raw cacao nibs

2 tablespoons goji berries

2 generous pinches of sea salt flakes zest from 1 unwaxed orange

100g dark chocolate

80g creamed coconut

Method:

1. In a food processor combine all the ingredients except the chocolate and creamed coconut until gooey.

2. Spoon it out over a parchment-lined shallow tin, approx 20x 25cm. Cover with another sheet of parchment and press down firmly with your fingers. Once the base is smooth, chill in the fridge.

3. Meanwhile, slowly melt the chocolate and coconut in a bowl over a pot of boiling water.

4. Spread the chocolate mixture over the base and decorate with coconut if you wish.

Variations: You could use ground flaxseeds instead of sunflower and pumpkin seeds or perhaps a mix of flax, sunflower and pumpkin seeds I also like to make them with half maple syrup and half chicory root syrup which is great for your gut and helps reduce the overall sugar content.

Serving suggestions: Serve as snack midmorning or afternoon or in a lunchbox.

Storage: Store in the fridge for 1-2 weeks.

Notes: I buy the Dr.coys coconut flour in health food shops, the creamed coconut can be bought in a health food shop or an Asian supermarket and the Chicory root syrup from Homespun, gives a great fibre kick and adds natural sweetness, you will find this in health food shops.

Chia Berry Compote

A great way to add extra nutrients to your diet, great for brain health! This is a great way to get nutritious berries into your diet, it can be used like a jam or as a topping on porridge or Greek yoghurt. Make a batch and keep it in the fridge for the week.

Chia seeds are high in omega 3 and fibre and also a source of protein. The omega 3 ALA that the seeds contain can help maintain a healthy blood cholesterol.

Serves: 6-8 tablespoons

Prep time: 10 mins

Ingredients:

2 cups frozen berries

2 tbsp chia seeds

1 tsp raw honey

Method:

  • Add the berries to a medium saucepan and simmer gently for approx. 5 mins.
  • Mash up the fruit to your desired consistency, I like some larger pieces in my compote.
  • Take off the heat and stir in the chia seeds, allow to cool Add the honey, stir and store in a clean container in the fridge for up to a week.

Variations: This can be made using lots of different fruit or using fresh fruit in season.

Serving suggestions: This is delicious on top of porridge, overnight oats or Greek yoghurt or on a wholemeal scone or a slice of toast. It can also be added to a smoothie.

Storage: Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.

Toasted Sunflower and pumpkin seeds

These are a great healthy eating snack I often offer in my cooking classes!

Ingredients:

1 cup sunflower seeds

1 cup pumpkin seeds

1 tbsp. tamari/Bragg liquid aminos

Method:

1. Soak seeds in water for approx. 1 hr.

2. Rinse and drain seeds.

3. Place in dry pan on hob over a medium heat for about 10-15 mins until all the water has evaporated and seeds are crunchy.

4. Alternatively, place in an oven at 180°C, on a flat tray for 10-15 mins until dried through.

5. Sprinkle with 1-2tbsp tamari.

Variations: If you don’t have time to soak the seeds, just simply rinse and toast.

Storage: Allow to cool completely and store in an airtight container for up to three weeks if they last that long!

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