There's no miracle cure for hot flashes, but small changes like adding soy to your diet and eliminating hot beverages might help.

Christine Byrne; Nutrition review by Victoria Seaver, M.S., R.D.
December 14, 2020
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Contrary to what advertisers and "anti-aging" product marketers might have you believe, there's absolutely nothing wrong with getting older. In several ways, life actually gets better as you age—you've accumulated plenty of wisdom, and you likely feel more stable than you did in your younger years. Research also shows that most people's self-esteem peaks in their 60s, another plus. All that said, for women, the onset of menopause is an inescapable part of getting older, as well. Often, this normal, natural event comes with uncomfortable symptoms, particularly hot flashes. Thankfully for most women, a healthy diet that includes certain foods, like soy, can help alleviate the severity of them.

What causes hot flashes?

In a nutshell, "hot flashes are thought to be the result of changes in a part of the brain, called the hypothalamus, that regulates body temperature," explains Val Schonberg, M.S., R.D., a dietitian and certified menopause practitioner. "Likely triggered by hormone fluctuations, the hypothalamus mistakenly senses that a woman's body temperature is too warm and thus starts a chain of events to cool the body down." Hot flashes don't cause any serious health issues, but they can be extremely annoying and uncomfortable.

How a healthy diet—including soy—can help

tofu veggie curry

While no food or diet can totally stop hot flashes, a nutritious diet can help alleviate the severity of them. "Although symptoms vary from woman to woman, diet may directly or indirectly alleviate some of the symptoms of menopause by providing important nutrients to the body that have a role in maintaining overall health and well-being," Schonberg says.

Before we go into which foods might help decrease the frequency of hot flashes, let's get something straight: "Excessive worry about food or a fixation on trying to find the 'right' food to resolve a symptom is likely to contribute to unnecessary distress," Schonberg says. In other words, food isn't a miracle cure for hot flashes or other symptoms, and putting too much focus on what you do or don't eat can become a health problem in itself.

A June 2020 report from the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders and the Academy of Eating Disorders found that around 11% of women in their 40s and 50s have had an eating disorder at some point in their life, and that the prevalence of eating disorders among perimenopausal women is rising. Schonberg stresses that while a nutritious diet is important during menopause, you shouldn't make drastic changes to what you eat or fall victim to a strict diet that claims it can "cure" your symptoms (which it can't). In fact, she points out that constant dieting can actually make them worse.

All of that said, there are a few small diet changes that might help alleviate your hot flashes. For many women, soy is the No. 1 food to eat for fewer hot flashes. Soy (edamame, tofu, tempeh and soy-based meat alternatives) is rich in isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen compound. "[Phytoestrogen compounds] are thought to have a potential role in reducing menopause symptoms by acting like [the hormone] estrogen in some tissues in the body," says Schonberg. Because estrogen levels drop significantly during menopause, eating foods with phytoestrogens might help alleviate symptoms.

Other healthy foods to incorporate

sweet potato black bean burger
Alison Miksch Photography / Kindsey Lower Prop Styling / Rishon Hanners Food Styling

Eating more soy foods may not have the same effect in all women, though. Many people aren't able to convert the isoflavones found in food into the type of phytoestrogen that our bodies can use, Schonberg explains. Regardless, she says, "Whether or not these foods will help reduce symptoms, soy foods are a source of high-quality protein and isoflavones have a broad spectrum of non-hormonal benefits, including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Therefore, it's beneficial for women to include these foods as a part of a healthy diet."

Other plant-based foods, like legumes, whole grains and some fruits and vegetables, also contain phytoestrogens and might help reduce the frequency of hot flashes, although Schonberg says that there isn't sufficient evidence to confirm this. Still, she encourages women to eat these foods, as a diet rich in plant foods is associated with many other health benefits. Plus, menopause also triggers digestive issues for some women, and these fiber-rich foods can help alleviate those.

Foods to consider limiting or eliminating for fewer hot flashes

Another important point: Certain foods may actually make hot flashes more intense and more frequent. Because hot flashes are a result of your brain thinking that your body is too warm, avoiding hot beverages can help. Some women also find that avoiding or limiting alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods is helpful, Schonberg says, although this is anecdotal since there isn't much research available.

The Bottom Line

Eating a nutritious diet rich in plant foods, particularly soy, can lead to fewer hot flashes in many women. Unfortunately, this won't work for everyone. "In general, we don't have really good, robust [research] to guide the use of food therapies for alleviating menopause symptoms," Schonberg says. Still, small changes like eating more soy and limiting alcohol, caffeine, hot drinks and spicy foods can be helpful.