We’ve long known that the food we eat today can have a variety of consequences down the road, but a new study indicates our meal choices may even affect the speed at which we enter “the change.”
Research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggests that women who consume a diet rich in fatty fish and green veggies may extend their menstrual cycle up to three years. However, those who follow a diet high in carbohydrates and processed foods might increase the onset of menopause by 18 months.
Investigators from the United Kingdom analyzed data culled from more than 14,150 British women. This data was comprised of dietary information, as well as the women’s reproductive health and histories. The study’s volunteers then received follow-up questions four years later.
The researchers found that more than 900 women between the ages of 40 and 65 had experienced the natural process of menopause (defined as the absence of a menstrual period for 12 consecutive months). Those who reported eating a diet high in oily fish were associated with a delayed onset of menopause by as much as three years. Yet the women whose diets focused on “white carbs,” like refined pasta and white rice, were more likely to enter menopause one-and-a-half years earlier than the average female.
While previous studies over the years suggest that other factors, such as genetics and environment, may play a role in the start of the menopause process, the researchers point out that this is the first study to examine the link between nutrition and menopause within a large cohort of British women.
“The age at which menopause begins can have serious health implications for some women,” stated co-study author Janet Cade, professor of nutritional epidemiology and public health at the University of Leeds’ School of Food Science and Nutrition, in a press release. “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.”
But this latest research is not the first one to link dietary habits and menopause. In a 20-year study that was published in 2017, professors at University of Massachusetts at Amherst discovered that women who consumed approximately 6.5 percent of their daily calories from vegetable proteins (such as soy, tofu, and whole grains) were more likely to prevent early onset menopause
“It is well known that healthy foods such as fatty fish impact numerous functions in the body, from brain and heart health to eye health and much more,” says Julie Upton, MD, RD, co-founder of Appetite for Health. She further explains that oily fishes offer high nutritional value, along with being one of the best sources of vitamin D, which can have an effect on hormones and the endocrine system.
“It could be that the women in this study had higher levels of vitamin D and that was the reason why their sex hormones differed,” Upton continues. “It may also be that diets higher in beneficial fats, like omega 3s, impacts sex hormones, but we will need further studies to identify the mechanisms of action.”
She adds that weight may also play a role in a woman’s reproductive health. “We know that girls who are thinner and have less overall body fat — quite possibly a cue that they have healthier diets — start their menstrual cycles later than girls who have higher percent body fat,” Upton concludes. “Therefore, the same may also be true for women in their 40s and 50s who are entering menopause: Body fat and diet may likely impact how soon you enter menopause, as well as the types and severity of menopausal symptoms.”
This article was written by Amy Capetta.
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