I’d be lying if I said I haven’t tried a diet that eliminates or restricts entire food groups (carbs, fats). The thing with these types of diets is that for most people, in the long term, they just aren’t sustainable.
They mess with your hormones, leave you hungry and can create food anxiety or orthorexia because let’s face it: in our culture, going out to eat with your friends or having family dinners is common and its ENJOYABLE. These diets are even less sustainable for women because our hormones fluctuate from day to day, depending on what part of our cycle we’re in. The amount of and type of macronutrients we eat varies with each phase of the menstrual cycle. For example: during the menstrual part of the cycle (while you’re bleeding), our body benefits from an increase in healthy fats like omega fatty acids and monosaturated fats in order to help produce enough hormones for the rest of the cycle (plot twist: our hormones are actually made from fat & cholesterol!!). During our luteal phase (from ovulation to menstruation), we need lots more B vitamins than other parts of our cycle to adequately support healthy progesterone levels, energy, and so that we don’t experience crippling PMS!
How fad dieting or restrictive dieting can affect your hormones
We all know the cycle. You start the diet and you’re doing well for the first week or two because you lose some weight, your pants fit looser and you’re feeling good. Then the weekend rolls around and your body goes into starvation mode because you’ve been denying it healthy amounts of what it needs. Your stress hormone cortisol increases and your body decides you need to eat a whole bag of chips to survive – the whole diet is ruined, you say “f$&k it”, and eat the entire kitchen. This whole cycle of stress can lead to high cortisol and HPA axis dysfunction, which is detrimental to female hormone balance.
Hormonally, a few things are happening:
- HPA axis Dysfunction can decrease your thyroid function, due to high levels of cortisol. Poor thyroid function decreases your metabolism. Once you make it to the other side of your binge weekend, your metabolism is going to be even more messed up than to begin with.
- High cortisol also steals from our progesterone bank and increases estrogen, leaving you with a hormonal imbalance that can cause PMS, infertility, PCOS, heavy periods, etc, etc, etc. For you twenty and thirty some-odd gals who are thinking of becoming pregnant, remember progesterone = pro-gestation-hormone. You need this to achieve and sustain a pregnancy!
- When your body is stressed and starving on a cellular level, it ramps you up for the impending threat that is coming. It thinks “if we aren’t in danger then why would you be starving me out like this?”. Glucose is constantly being released from your liver stores (Which are only supposed to be used during long gaps between meals and while you sleep to provide your brain with energy to stay alive) all day long. This leads to a constant release of insulin. This can worsen conditions like PCOS or put you at risk for type 2 diabetes later in life when your pancreas is too exhausted from inappropriately counteracting the constant release of glucose its whole life.
Aside from just these few (among many) affects that dieting can have on your hormones, having these constant fluctuations in hormones, HPA Axis dysfunction, and blood sugar crashes are going to negatively affect your mental health – especially if you’re already an anxious person or are prone to depression.
So what to do if you’re feeling like (or actually really need to) shed some pounds for health reasons?
Focus on these 10 points created by Danielle & myself to guide your eating habits, and figure out what works for YOU. There is not one diet out there that we believe should be followed to a T, however you may have noticed a common theme among many diets: paleo, keto, the Mediterranean diet, weight watchers, jenny craig, beach body, which I think we can all agree on:
- Increase your vegetable intake.
Focus on getting 7-8+ servings of vegetables or low sugar fruits in your diet daily and you’ll find that it crowds out space for poor food choices because vegetables physically fill you up!
- Decrease your sugar intake.
Cutting it out completely may be difficult but especially if you’re struggling hormonally, you need to really dial it back. **Points 1+2 are also very important if you’re dealing with recurrent UTI’s, Bacterial Vaginosis or Yeast infections.
- Focus on high quality protein and healthy fat at each meal.
This doesn’t have to mean animal products, but it may mean including a protein supplement or beans/legumes with each meal because I’m sorry friends, avocado toast does not provide enough protein to be a daily meal staple if you’re trying to slim down. Some sources of healthy fat can include nuts, avocado, oily fish, and pasture raised eggs.
- Keep your blood sugar steady eddy all day.
Have a balance of all three macronutrients at each meal, and avoid coffee and sugary drinks.
- Address food sensitivities or gut issues to decrease bloating.
Maybe you don’t actually need to lose weight but what you really need is to lose the bloat to get your pants to fit better! If you’re bloating after every meal, you may need to review your diet with a nutritionist or have food sensitivity testing done.
- Focus on getting enough of the right nutrients in, daily.
Living with a food-restrictive mindset also restricts you from getting all the nutrients you need!
Moving your body daily for 30 minutes a day helps to increase your cells receptivity to insulin and increases your metabolic function. It doesn’t have to be a high heart rate HIIT workout, hitting the gym or going for a run. Make it fun and do what your body is craving. Going for a walk, dance around your living room, or stretch for 30 minutes are all still considered exercise.
- Take your time to enjoy your food.
Whether you are eating a salad or a bowl of pasta, taking the time to chew your food fully (about 20 “chomps” per bite) will not only help to increase digestion and decrease bloat BUT it also gives your body/brain time to connect and enjoy the food. It takes roughly 10-20 minutes BEFORE your brain actually registers that the stomach is full so slowing down, taking your time and enjoying gives your brain extra time to read this signal AS WELL makes it less likely that you are going to over eat.
- Prepare as much of your own food as possible!
You may not know this but digestion actually starts to occur before food reaches our mouths. Those who prepare their own food have registered up to 50% increase in digestive juices! Also preparing your own food means you can skip all the added sugars in things like dressings, marinades, etc and add in extra nutrients instead.
- Ask yourself why it is that you are eating.
Take the time before you pick up the bag of chips/cookies/sandwich to figure out if you’re eating for emotional reasons vs. because you are actually hungry can provide some insight into what might be going on, on a deeper level. Numbing emotional distress with food (or other substances) can trigger you to gain and keep weight on as you are not addressing the deeper issue at hand!
Have you fallen victim to the fad diet craze and experienced symptoms of HPA axis dysfunction? Are there things you do to help you maintain a certain weight? We’d love to hear below in the comments!
Danielle Lindsay is a Holistic Nutritionist and Certified Counsellor located in Vancouver, BC, Canada. As the owner of her business Thyme to Nourish, she offers nutritional counselling that is all about bringing balance into your life through coaching, nutrition and a holistic lifestyle. She specializes in helping folks with mental health, adrenal, thyroid and blood sugar issues.
Check her out through her blog here
Or on Instagram @thyme_to_nourish
HPA Axis Dysfunction: Also known as “adrenal fatigue”. HPA Axis stands for Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis, which describes the complex chemical reactions that occur between our Hypothalamus, Pituitary gland, and our adrenal glands. When this isn’t in good working order, it can lead to signs of “adrenal fatigue”: Brain fog, exhaustion, anxiety, low blood pressure, insomnia (“tired but too wired” to sleep), thyroid dysfunction (and subsequently; weight gain..) and other autoimmune disorders.
Orthorexia: An eating disorder where a person will ONLY eat foods that they consider healthy, to the point where it interferes with their life and becomes a problem.