A Lesson on Menopause and Diet

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I had the pleasure recently of meeting one Ginny Gong at a chichi reception honoring women in the arts. Gong is national president of OCA, the Organization of Chinese Americans. She kept me rapt for about a half-hour, comparing the health and habits of Asian-American women with those of other American women.

She informed me, for example, that Chinese women and indeed Chinese-American women do not experience menopause. According to Gong, they do not exhibit the same symptoms (hot flashes, weight gain, thinning of the skin) that American women typically endure when their periods stop. Why?

Gong attributes much of the difference to diet: Chinese women eat a lot more soy.

The "health jury" (government scientists, doctors, and researchers) in this country is still deliberating over the benefits of soy. It's a cheap and generally thought-to-be-healthy source of protein. It's wildly popular with vegetarians and health-world denizens. But it has its detractors. As the Washington Post reported in 2001, "While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows food labels to display a health claim stating that soy products can lower blood cholesterol, the amount of soy foods necessary to achieve this benefit--as many as four servings a day--comes awfully close to the level that some researchers say might increase the risk for developing breast cancer. That's right: Some scientists are concerned that too much soy could promote the growth of malignant tumors rather than protect against them."

Still, western medicine is in a quandary about western women and menopause. And the U.S. government reports that Asian-American women have the highest life expectancy of any demographic group in the country.

Surely we are far enough along in our research on women's health (thanks in large part to U.S. News's Bernadine Healy and her launch of the Women's Health Initiative study while she was director of the National Institutes of Health) that there is something scientists can glean and pass along to American women about why Chinese women do not suffer through menopause the way their western sisters do.