Irish Examiner – Menopause: fuel for life and finding balance – plus a feelgood chicken-salad recipe

In her new book ‘The Menopause Kitchen’ nutritionist Rachel Graham helps women to manage their symptoms and rebalance their health through diet

“I was my own case study,” says nutritionist and medicinal chef Rachel Graham, the author of The Menopause Kitchen (Gill Books).

Graham, like many women, was blindsided by the onset of menopause. In her book, published this week, she writes of being affected by symptoms that initially she didn’t connect with menopause: Aching joints, waking up during the night, brain fog, anxiety, and hot flushes.

“I never heard my mum talking about this. It was just ‘The Change’, we’ll get on with it. There was a lot of suffering in silence. But it’s a natural part of the life cycle, like puberty and pregnancy. It shouldn’t be taboo.”

Graham traces the new openness about menopause in Ireland to the Liveline radio show in May 2021. “That definitely opened the conversation,” she says. “One woman started talking, it gave other women confidence and Joe Duffy had a tsunami of phone calls.”

That one woman was Sallyanne Brady, co-founder of The Irish Menopause support group, and her initial call led to Duffy and his team programming five seismic days of women sharing their stories.

The areas of women’s health and menopause were something that Dundalk-based Graham was already focused on. As a nutritionist with years of experience in the food industry, she worked with clients to help them eat better and feel better during this important time of their lives.

“My interest in healthy food has spanned all my career,” she says. “I opened a small bistro café (Eno Café) in Dundalk with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, Victor, in 2008. The focus was on healthy Mediterranean food and it was very popular, growing into a restaurant [in 2011]. During that time, I was also doing wellness events in the restaurant.”

In 2015, Graham embarked on a three-year course to train as a nutritional therapist at the British-based College of Naturopathic Medicine which has a campus in Griffith College. “I was working, studying and had two kids. Ironically, this coincided with my mid-life menopause journey.”

With food already at the centre of her work life, she decided to specialise in menopause. She completed training from the Menopause Charity in Britain, which was set up by GP and menopause specialist Dr Louise Newson, qualifying Graham “to support women on all areas regarding menopause treatment options, including HRT (hormone replacement therapy), alternatives to HRT and nutrition for menopause”.

For Graham, a good diet is a vital part of managing menopause symptoms. As a practising nutritional therapist with first-hand experience working with women presenting with symptoms similar to her own, Graham had been putting together her own resources and recipes. Frustrated that there wasn’t an evidence-based menopause cookbook available in Ireland, she initially decided to self-publish. That book, which came out last September, successfully sold 400 copies on two print runs: “Women were buying them in multiples for their friends and their sisters.”

Gill Books came knocking and The Menopause Kitchen is the result, a reworking of her earlier book with extra content. “I wanted to provide a resource that was more than just a cookbook, to let women reduce symptoms, rebalance their health, give them more energy and motivation to exercise,” she says. “And I wanted to create really tasty recipes for really enjoyable food.”

She is keenly aware of the squeeze on budgets. “I understand that there’s a cost aspect of going to see a nutritionist,” says Graham, “and not everyone can afford it. This book contains all of what I go through with my clients at a very affordable price point.”

The Menopause Kitchen is laid out in four parts: Understanding menopause, future-proofing your health (which explains how to avoid chronic health conditions, including menopause-related weight gain, and includes Graham’s meno food pyramid, prioritising vegetables), a third section focuses on what Graham calls her Meno 8 key nutrient categories (omega-3, protein, antioxidants, etc) with useful tips and tables on nutrient content. The book’s final part contains recipes split into these Meno 8 categories. Fibre, for instance, runs from porridge bread to carrot cake squares, including beetroot ketchup and savoury granola along the way. The probiotics section features sauerkraut with fennel and apple, four-seed rye sourdough bread and frozen yoghurt bark.

With plenty of recipes, beautifully photographed by Jo Murphy, that are family-friendly, these are options that can be incorporated into the weekly meal routine without too much fuss. Dishes like spiced chicken tagine, salmon kedgeree, mushroom and lentil shepherd’s pie are good for family dinners. Then there’s a pear tart with date and ginger caramel, chocolate tahini bliss balls and hazelnut butter brownies for those of us who like to have something sweet — but not too sweet — on hand.

“At the bottom of each recipe, there’s a bar chart tracking 16 nutrients,” says Graham, and this “at-a-glance information” is designed to make decisions easier.

“For example, women are at greater risk of osteoporosis at this life stage so they want to optimise for calcium. With recipes categorised for nutrients, you can see all the recipes in that section and that they will benefit your bone health,” she says.

While — as noted at the start of the book — The Menopause Kitchen is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, Graham focuses on evidence-based information to develop recipes with flavour. It’s much easier to eat nutritious food if it tastes good. “Menopause can be a really positive time in your life,” says Graham.

“It’s a time for reassessing and reevaluating, a time of incredible opportunity, reinvention and self-discovery.”

Eating well is a positive step in the right direction.

Rachel Graham’s ‘Lit from Within’ Chicken Salad

This Thai-inspired salad, bursting with antioxidants, vitamin C and beta-carotene, is a good source of folic acid too. There are a lot of elements to it, so the secret is to prep ahead.

Ingredients

  • 75g butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp pink Himalayan salt
  • 1 nest of wholemeal noodles or buckwheat noodles (gluten-free option)
  • 60g tender stem broccoli, cut in half lengthways
  • 3–4 cashews
  • 1 tsp sesame seeds
  • 1 chicken breast, poached or roasted
  • 1 big handful of fresh baby spinach leaves
  • handful of mangetout, cut into thin strips
  • ¼ red pepper, cut into thin strips
  • 1 spring onion, finely sliced
  • ½ orange, peeled and segmented, or 1 mandarin orange, peeled
  • Dressing:
  • 100ml walnut oil or olive oil
  • 2 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 1 tbsp miso paste
  • 1 tsp grated ginger
  • 1 tsp grated garlic (1 small clove)
  • ¼ finely chopped red chilli
  • 1 tbsp organic maple syrup

Mehod

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  2. Drizzle the cubed butternut squash with olive oil, sprinkle with a little garlic powder and salt, then roast for 25–30 minutes until tender.
  3. Cook the noodles according to the pack instructions, drain and set aside.
  4. Position a colander over a pot of boiling water and place your tender stem broccoli into it, with the lid on, for a couple of minutes. Set aside.
  5. Whisk together the dressing ingredients. This will make approximately four servings of dressing, so store the extra in an airtight glass container in the fridge.
  6. Toast the cashews and, as they are browning, add the sesame seeds to the dry pan. These will only take a minute to brown.
  7. Lastly, shred the chicken breast with your hands or a fork.
  8. To assemble the salad, put the noodles and spinach leaves in a mixing bowl, along with half the dressing. Mix well and divide between two salad bowls.
  9. Add all the other ingredients on top, finishing with the toasted nuts and the rest of the dressing.