The average age for a woman in the UK to reach the menopause is 51, but for one in 100, it occurs before the age of 40.
Early onset menopause is linked with lower bone density, osteoporosis and increased risk of heart disease.
The team from the University of Leeds examined the links between diet and the onset of menopause in over 14,150 British women.
The results showed that a high intake of oily fish and fresh legumes such as peas and green beans, were associated with a later onset of menopause, while a high intake of refined white pasta and rice was associated with an earlier start.
The study, published today in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, used data from UK women between the ages of 40 and 65.
Along with a detailed diet questionnaire, they were quizzed on their reproductive history and health.
After a follow-up survey four years later, researchers were able to assess the diets of the women who had experienced the onset of menopause during that time.
By the time the follow-up survey was conducted, more than 900 women had started the menopause naturally – meaning it had not been triggered by other factors such as cancer, surgery or drug treatments.
An analysis of their diets showed those who ate a lot of oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, started the menopause nearly three years later than those who did not.
In contrast, for women who ate a lot of refined white pasta and rice, the results showed that menopause was more likely to occur 1 1/2 years earlier than average.
The study’s co-author Professor Janet Cade said: “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.”
Study lead author Yashvee Dunneram said: “There are a number of causes that have been considered for the relationship between age and start of menopause, such as genetic factors or behavioural and environmental exposures.
“But there are fewer studies that look at the impact of diet.
“This study is the first to investigate the links between individual nutrients and a wide variety of food groups in a large cohort of British women.”