Women who enter menopause early—before turning 45—have a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, cognitive decline and other health conditions. Oh, great, you may be thinking…Another thing to worry about that I have no control over. It is true that many factors that contribute to an early menopause age are beyond a woman’s control, including the age at which she had her first period. Scientists estimate that about 50% of the influences on the onset age for menopause are genetic. And you can’t choose your parents.
But you can choose your dinner.
A new study suggests that the kind of protein a woman eats can help protect her from going through menopause too soon.
Background: The kind of protein in the diet is known to affect a woman’s reproductive health. Example: Animal protein has been linked with higher risk for infertility, while vegetable protein has been linked to greater fertility. But whether dietary protein affects how soon a woman’s reproductive era ends…that is, the onset of menopause…hasn’t been well-studied.
Study: Researchers followed 85,682 women for 20 years. In 1991, at the beginning of the study, the women were in their 30s, and none had yet reached menopause, defined as 12 months after a final period. The women completed dietary questionnaires every two years. Over the course of the study, 2,041 of the women reached menopause before the age of 45—that is, early menopause. Smoking, physical activity, age at first period and breastfeeding can also affect age at menopause, so the researchers factored those out statistically.
Results: Women who consumed the most vegetable protein as a proportion of their overall diets (6.5% of daily calories or more) had 16% lower risk for early menopause than women who consumed the least vegetable protein as a proportion of their overall diets (4% of daily calories or less).
Surprising finding: The proportion of animal protein consumed was not associated with an increased risk for early menopause—instead, it depends on the percentage of calories from vegetable protein, as described above.
Bottom Line: Three or four servings a day of vegetable-protein-rich foods is enough to put a typical woman in the low-risk category based on the results of this study. That includes not just beans, peas, tofu and nuts—plant foods well-known for having lots of protein—but also protein-enriched foods such as pasta and cereal. If you think this sounds generally similar to components of the Mediterranean diet that is recommended for heart health, you’re right—the researchers noted that a diet that protects against heart disease may also help delay early menopause. By protecting cardiovascular health, you’re also protecting your ovaries.