Pamela Malo, MHS, RD, Arivale Coach
Menopause can be a challenging time in life. For many women, the hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, weight gain, and sleep disturbances associated with menopause can disrupt everyday life. Beyond the clinical symptoms are increased risk for bone density loss, cardiovascular and coronary artery diseases, blood sugar imbalances, and breast and other cancers.
A study published April 30 in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health and covered by Medical News Today suggests diets high in fish and legumes could delay the onset of menopause–while eating lots of refined carbohydrates could have the opposite effect.
These findings could be important because, as Medical News Today reports, loss of bone density, higher risk of heart disease, and loss of libido are of particular concern for premature menopause, while another recent study suggests that a late onset of menopause may keep cognitive decline at bay.
Using the UK Women’s Cohort Study of over 35,000 women in Britain, researchers from Leeds University looked at 914 women who experienced menopause naturally between the ages of 40 and 65. They took the women’s weight, reproductive history, physical activity levels, and use of hormone therapy into account. Information on the women’s diet came from food frequency questionnaires.
Researchers found a link between some food items consumed by the women and when they first experienced menopause. For each daily portion of refined carbohydrates, menopause arrived 1.5 years earlier. For each daily portion of fish and legumes (think peas and beans), menopause arrived over three years later. A diet high in vitamin B-6 and zinc was also associated with a later onset of menopause. And among women who didn’t have children, a diet heavy in grapes and poultry was also linked to later menopause.
Researchers aren’t sure of the reason for the link between certain foods and the timing of menopause, though they theorize it could be connected to oxygen-containing molecules called reactive oxygen species that negatively affect the maturation of women’s eggs and their release. The antioxidants in fish and legumes could counter those negative effects and delay menopause.
This study is observational, and therefore we can’t definitely conclude that foods are capable of increasing or decreasing the age at which menopause occurs.
While we can’t say with certainty that changing one’s diet will delay menopause, we do know that healthy dietary changes may mitigate some of the physiologic effects associated with the decline of estrogen. Due to the changes in a woman’s metabolism during menopause, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, and lean proteins can help offset the tendency toward increased cholesterol, improve glycemic markers, and reduce weight gain. Meanwhile, intake of simple carbohydrates like pasta and rice, if in excess, increases cardiovascular risk and glycemic markers. Replacing simple carbs with complex carbohydrates can support the negative health effects of decreased estrogen associated with menopause.
Legumes, including soy-based products, are not only heart-healthy but may also reduce the risk of certain cancers. Breast cancer is of concern when women have longer spans of menstrual cycles, such as in late-menopause. If a diet rich in fruits, veggies, legumes, and oily fish has been found to be associated with delaying the onset of menopause–increasing the amount of estrogen exposure over time–the isoflavone content in foods may be beneficial in offsetting breast-cancer risk.
There are many things we can do to support a woman going through menopause. Fortunately, many of the interventions are lifestyle changes that will not only improve their overall long-term health but will also improve the associated symptoms that disrupt day-to-day living.