New research suggests that women’s diets might determine when they enter menopause.

The study, published April 30 in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, tracked more than 35,000 British women for four years. Researchers discovered that women whose diets were heavy in refined carbs tended to start menopause earlier, and those who consumed a lot of fish and legumes were likely to enter menopause later.

“In particular, a higher consumption of oily fish was found to delay the timing of natural menopause by approximately three years, and fresh legumes — such as peas and green beans — was linked to a later menopause by around a year,” said study author Yashvee Dunneram, a postgraduate researcher with the nutritional epidemiology group in the school of food science and nutrition at the University of Leeds, in England.

“On the other hand, a higher consumption of refined carbohydrates — such as pasta and rice — hastened the onset of menopause by 1.5 years,” said Dunneram.

The link between women’s diets and the onset of menopause remains unclear, Web MD reported. Dunnerman speculated that it might be explained by examining the way hormones are affected by certain foods.

“Refined carbs are one of the main culprits for insulin resistance,” Dunneram said. “A high level of circulating insulin could interfere with sex hormone activity and boost estrogen levels, both of which might increase the number of menstrual cycles and deplete egg supply faster, thus causing an earlier menopause.”

The study did not prove cause and effect, the investigators cautioned, noting that previous research has linked earlier menopause to both a higher and lower risk of developing an array of diseases.

“As such, we cannot really recommend women to consume these specific foods to influence their onset of natural menopause,” Dunneram said.

The study also found that vegetarian women experienced menopause approximately one year earlier than those who consumed meat. Researchers noted that the high-fiber/low-animal fat content in vegetarian diets had previously been linked to low estrogen levels.

Women who ate meat and consumed higher daily amounts of savory foods — such as potato chips, pretzels and peanuts — experienced menopause about two years earlier.

Investigators stressed that more research will be needed to further determine the specifics of the diet-menopause connection.

Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St Louis, noted that “the age of menopause is also genetically driven, so diet is just one factor.”

Yet, she said, “as a registered dietitian, my response to this study is that it, like so many others, shows why it is important for us to continue to shift from animal protein choices to plant-based choices to improve overall health.”