• A diet rich in fish and legumes may delay the natural start of menopause, while high dietary intake of refined carbs (like rice and pasta) may instead speed it up
  • The age of menopause onset-whether it comes early or late-can have a major impact on a woman's health as she ages
  • This was an observational study, which means it can't prove cause-and-effect. Researchers say more studies are needed to examine the impact of diet on the age menopause begins

There are plenty of factors that can predict what age you’ll begin menopause, from genetics (what year your mother went through “the change”) to BMI, smoking history and chemotherapy exposure. But a study from the University of Leeds suggests there may be another predictor for the start of menopause: the foods you eat every day.

Researchers found that diets consisting mainly of healthy foods like oily fish and fresh legumes, such as peas and green beans, were associated with menopause being delayed by nearly three years. This is based on the average age women start menopause, which is 51 years in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. Meanwhile, participants who consumed a lot of refined white pasta and rice were more likely to begin menopause a year and a half earlier than the average.

The study drew data from more than 14,000 women in the UK, who completed an extensive diet questionnaire and initial survey on reproductive health and history. Four years later, researchers found that more than 900 of the women surveyed had experienced the natural start of menopause, meaning they hadn’t had a period for over a year and didn’t experience anything else that could trigger early menopause, like cancer, surgery or pharmaceutical treatments. Of these 900 women, the quality of their diets offered a strong indication of whether they had started menopause earlier or later than the average.

Both early and late menopause have been associated with long-term health risks.

“The age at which menopause begins can have serious health implications for some women,” said Janet Cade, study co-author and professor of nutritional epidemiology and public health at Leeds, in a press release. Both early and late menopause have been associated with long-term health risks. Delayed menopause has primarily been linked to breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers.

However, the risks of early menopause may prove even greater if diet is a factor. “The early menopause issues for younger women include increased risk for heart and bone disease, depression, dementia and sexual dysfunction," says gynaecologist Dr Philip Sarrel. “If diet alone can delay menopause onset, I think the benefits outweigh the increased breast cancer risk seen with late menopause."

The study is an important step toward better understanding the factors that affect menopause, especially for women who may be predisposed to starting menopause early. "A clear understanding of how diet affects the start of natural menopause will be very beneficial to those who may already be at risk or have a family history of certain complications related to menopause,” she said.

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