I arrived at my OB-GYN’s office for my annual checkup expecting the usual routine: Pap smear, breast exam, and blood and urine screens.

As I checked in at registration, the receptionist threw me a curve ball: a bone density test. I was only 38 at the time, so the test came as a surprise.

However, I had also recently entered premature menopause after being diagnosed with breast cancer the year prior.

Chemo sent me into a chemical menopause, and having my ovaries removed as a preventive measure sealed the deal.

Menopause was upon me, and it brought changes I didn’t expect, especially when it came to what I ate.

I expected the hot flashes and night sweats, but other symptoms came as a surprise.

I noticed my pants getting tighter despite no major changes in my diet and exercise routine. My skin felt drier, and I noticed a few areas where my hair seemed thinner.

Turns out, hot flashes and night sweats are just two of many symptoms people in menopause can experience. Others include:

  • weight gain
  • dry skin
  • hair loss or thinning
  • mood changes
  • vaginal dryness
  • difficulty sleeping
  • increased urination
  • memory loss
  • joint stiffness or pain

The changes in hormone levels that cause these symptoms also can reduce bone density and put women at greater risk of developing osteoporosis.

While the hot flashes and dry skin annoyed me, menopause-induced weight gain troubled me the most. Throughout most of my adult life, I’d practiced less-than-healthy eating habits to maintain a certain weight.

Counting calories and restricting portions, coupled with regular exercise, allowed me to stay within a certain weight range. I essentially lived on a diet, concerned more with staying thin than actually providing proper nourishment to my body.

So, when I started gaining weight after entering menopause, I immediately returned to the habits that felt comfortable — restricting food intake and increasing exercise.

However, no matter how hard I tried, the numbers on the scale would barely budge.

Meanwhile, I was hungry. And tired.

My body no longer responded to my previous diet and exercise habits, and the idea of pushing them further — essentially starving myself and overexercising — made me realize something had to change.

Another contributing factor to this shift came at my OB-GYN appointment.

My doctor told me that even though I was gaining weight, I remained healthy. My blood sugar, cholesterol, and other measures all sat firmly in the healthy range.

As I prepared for my first bone density scan, my doctor cautioned that I would need to become more cognizant of my bones and keep them strong.

During menopause, levels of estrogen and other hormones drop significantly. Estrogen helps maintain bone density, so these decreases can trigger bone loss and, over time, low bone density.

Low bone density can lead to one of two conditions: osteopenia or osteoporosis.

Osteopenia refers to lower-than-average bone density, which can put you at higher risk of breaks. Osteoporosis is a disease that occurs when bone density is so low that bones are brittle and can easily break.

I knew that menopause, coupled with my family history (my paternal grandmother had osteoporosis), put me at a higher risk of developing the disease.

While my bone density test that day showed no significant loss, I knew I needed to start acting now to protect my bones going forward.

I added a calcium supplement to my daily multivitamin, but I knew I needed to make bigger changes to the way I approached diet and exercise.

I realized the goal was no longer losing weight. It was (and is) providing what my body needs to stay strong and healthy, no matter my size.

I began to eat more foods rich in calcium and vitamin D, which support bone health. While I already ate plenty of dairy, like cheese, yogurt, and milk, I also added nondairy sources of calcium to my diet.

These sources included:

  • spinach
  • leafy greens
  • beans and lentils
  • nuts and seeds, like almonds and chia

To help give my skin and hair a much-needed boost, I added more foods containing omega-3 fatty acids. These food sources included:

  • salmon
  • oysters
  • walnuts
  • pasteurized eggs
  • spinach
  • Brussels sprouts

Bonus: Those omega-3 fatty acids also help reduce inflammation, making my joint pain less severe.

I also looked for foods rich in vitamin E, like avocados, peanuts, and mangoes. These can help benefit hair and skin health.

Rethinking my focus from eating low calorie foods to stay thin to filling my diet with choices rich in the nutrients that support my body’s changing needs didn’t happen overnight.

I certainly still have days when I have a hard time with weight gain and all the changes my body has gone through since entering menopause.

Still, seeing and feeling the benefits of giving my body what it needs each day gives me far greater satisfaction than fitting into a smaller size.