Originally written for The Washington Post, July 17, 2018
For something that’s been discussed as far back as Aristotle, there is still a lot that’s unknown about menopause. But new research is shedding light on how women can better manage this often-unsettling time in their lives.
Although the average age for natural menopause (365 days without a period) in the United States is 51, perimenopausal, or early, symptoms can occur in some women years before, and the intensity of symptoms varies greatly. Some women may experience weight gain, specifically in the abdominal region, decreased muscle mass and increased fat mass, as well as hot flashes and mood changes. In addition, women have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
The factors that can lead to these outcomes are as variable as women’s experiences of menopause. They can include genetics, lifestyle choices, metabolic changes, hormonal shifts and environmental factors.
In this first-of-its-kind study, a team from the University of Leeds followed 914 women for four years, examining their food and nutrient intake related to age of natural menopause. Their findings, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in April, indicate that eating a high intake of oily fish delayed onset of menopause by 3.3 years per portion per day, and a high intake of legumes delayed onset by 0.9 years per portion per day. In addition, higher intake of two micronutrients, vitamin B6 and zinc, delayed onset by 0.6 and 0.3 years, respectively. The research also found that higher intakes of refined pasta and rice led to earlier menopause by 1½ years.
Legumes, vitamin B6 and zinc all have antioxidant properties, and oily fish are associated with potentially improving antioxidant capacity. So, the results, and data from other studies, suggest that an antioxidant-rich diet can potentially delay onset of menopause, which is associated with greater life expectancy and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. (Delayed menopause, however, is also associated with increased risk of breast, endometrial and ovarian cancers.)
Antioxidants are nutrients that capture molecules called free radicals roaming around our systems. Free radicals react with other molecules and can cause damage to cells through a process called oxidation. Antioxidants do just what their name suggests, and protect us from potential damage. You’ll find them in a variety of foods that are high in vitamins A, C and E, along with many other nutrients. These include fruits such as berries and citrus, and vegetables such as tomatoes, greens, broccoli, cauliflower, onions and garlic. Nuts, seeds and avocado are antioxidant-rich, along with seafood, green tea and dark chocolate.
Although a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods may help delay the onset of menopause — and further study needs to be done — more established research suggests that consuming heart-healthy and bone-strengthening foods, exercising and avoiding weight gain are good strategies for avoiding the cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis that so often are associated with menopause. Although it’s never too late to start, these habits have to be initiated earlier rather than later to have the most positive impact.
To promote heart health, your diet should include the unsaturated fats in nuts, seeds and avocado. Consuming antioxidant-rich foods also supports the heart, and antioxidant-heavy fruits and vegetables, which are high in fiber and low in calories, can help fight weight gain as well.
Calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K are all nutrients associated with improved bone health, and can be found in foods such as dairy, leafy greens and oily fish.
Different types of exercise can mitigate different health problems associated with menopause: Aerobic exercise can support heart health, resistance exercise is associated with improved bone health and a consistent exercise routine is associated with long-term weight maintenance.
You’ll notice that there is a lot of crossover in recommendations that support weight loss, improved bone health and a healthy heart. And they not only can provide a smoother transition through menopause, they reinforce a healthy lifestyle no matter your age.