Researchers have postulated, in the first UK study of its kind, that specific foods (namely fish and legumes) may affect the age at which women commence menopause.
New research out of the UK revealed that two integral elements of the Mediterranean diet, fish and legumes, may delay the onset of natural menopause, while a diet rich in refined carbohydrates, such as pasta and rice, may accelerate it.
The results, which were published online in the Journal of Epidemiology And Community Health, revealed that each additional portion of oily fish and antioxidant-rich legumes was associated with a delay of three and one years, respectively. And for refined carbohydrates, 1.5 years earlier.
Although several socioeconomic and reproductive factors have been proven to affect age at natural menopause, the limited amount of existing studies taking diet into account have presented conflicting results.
“I think in part it is because diet is difficult to measure, and also there are a few large enough follow-up studies on women of the right age which could look at this,” explained Yashvee Dunneram, researcher at the School of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds, in an interview for Olive Oil Times. “And perhaps, controversially,” she added, “in a male-dominated funding prioritization climate no one has thought to study this aspect of women’s health through the life course.”
The study involved a group of more than 35,000 women from England, Scotland and Wales who fell between the ages of 35 and 69. In addition to providing information on weight, physical activity, reproductive history and hormone replacement therapy — all of which were considered potentially influential factors — participants were asked to complete a food frequency questionnaire to assess their diet at baseline.
Four years later, researchers compiled data on when the women underwent natural menopause — or the permanent cessation of menstrual periods for at least 12 consecutive months — and used regression modeling to assess whether there were any associations with diet.
In addition to fish and legumes, the study revealed that higher intakes of vitamin B6 and zinc were associated with later menopause. On the contrary, a meat-heavy diet, similar to refined carbohydrates, was associated with a hastening incidence of menopause.
Although this was an observational study without proof of causality, researchers have speculated that the relationship between antioxidants and DNA-damaging free radicals (also known as reactive oxygen species, or ROS) may partly explain the association.
“Oily fish is a rich source of omega‑3 fatty acid which can potentially improve antioxidant capacity,” explained Dunneram. “Therefore, in a similar way to the fresh legumes and vitamins… the antioxidant properties exerted by the oily fish intake could possibly offset ROS, therefore decreasing the proportion of follicles undergoing follicular atresia and delaying onset of natural menopause.”
Refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, are widely considered to be a risk factor for insulin resistance, which researchers believe may increase estrogen levels and lead, in turn, to early menopause.
The reason timing is so important? There are risk factors associated with both early and late menopause — including osteoporosis and heart disease for women with an earlier onset, and breast, endometrial and ovarian cancers for those with a later onset. The average age of menopause, according to the study, was 51.
“This may be relevant at a public health level since age at natural menopause may have implications on future health outcomes,” concluded Dunneram. “Health practitioners might thus also need to take into account the diet of women when dealing with menopause-related issues.”