Every January, women all around the world create New Year’s Resolutions and set an intention to live healthier, happier lives. At the top of most people’s list includes eating well and hitting the gym-- and as a High-Performance Women’s Wellness Coach, I encourage taking every opportunity to elevate your health and invest in yourself!
I'm going to let you in on a dirty little secret though that the diet industry won't: most diets are based on research done almost exclusively on men and male hormones.
There are important things women should know about our hormones and consider before jumping on a diet or nutrition plan.
Men’s hormones operate on a 24-hour cycle. Every day, they wake up with peak levels of testosterone and cortisol, which level off throughout the day. Some testosterone is also converted into estrogen. Estrogen lowers at night, and then their hormones are reset during their sleep. This means that day after day, men have the same hormonal levels, which influence their metabolism, insulin, resilience to stress, energy, behavior, and mood.
Women have a monthly hormonal cycle. During our menstrual phase, estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest. As the menstrual phase ends, we enter the follicular phase and estrogen begins to climb. At ovulation, our estrogen and testosterone peak. After ovulation estrogen declines. In the later part of the cycle, we enter the luteal phase, where progesterone rises and then declines before we start the menstrual phase again. That means that our metabolism, insulin, resilience to stress, energy, behavior, and mood will be influenced by different hormonal phases, which all last for several days. They're still consistent and predictable-- but we're operating on a calendar, while men are operating on a clock. What serves our bodies best during part of our cycle may not be best for us during another part.
That being said, every diet aims to meet it's goal through at least one of three strategies:
1) Stabilizing your blood sugar to increase insulin sensitivity
2) Creating a calorie deficit
3) Providing your body with nutrients
Whether it’s keto, intermittent fasting, low carb, Whole30, paleo, raw vegan, Mediterranean, or flexible dieting (macros), each diet has a unique way of trying to achieve its goal.
... But before you commit to any plan, let's dive into few ways diets can interact with your hormones and go over a few questions you should ask yourself to get a more clear picture of what's right for you.
Questions To Ask Yourself
Are you eating enough calories? Extreme calorie cutting is unsustainable because it dysregulates your hunger hormones, which also influences your energy levels. The same way you tend to binge at night if you don’t eat enough during the day, the hunger hormone ghrelin will motivate you to seek out food if you cut calories too much for even one day. Restricting calories by 22% or more reduces reproductive function in women, which as we know, impacts not only fertility itself, but also your behavior, energy, mood, and long-term metabolism. When energy is scarce and stress on your body is high, your sex hormones also have to prioritize which functions it can and cannot support. For example: one study showed that women who exercise frequently and have amenorrhea (absent periods) have ghrelin levels that are up to 85% higher than women who do have regular menstrual cycles, meaning fertility is highly unlikely and their bodies are asking for more food. It’s often said that 1lb per week is ideal for healthy weight loss, however, that may change for women since our hormones are not the same every week. Instead, women who are trying to lose weight may notice weight loss is easier during follicular phase (post-period, pre-ovulation) and ovulation phase, but more difficult during luteal and menstrual phase. This doesn’t necessarily reflect a plateau or a lack of willpower, but a change in your hormones based on the phase you're in.
When & how frequently are you eating? Intermittent fasting has been a popular weight loss method for years now. The idea is that you fast for a set amount of time-- sometimes 16 hours or more-- and then you have a window of time to eat in. In theory, IF can improve insulin resistance and allow your body time to process and use stored energy it’s holding. However, most people are fasting in an extremely counterintuitive way. First, both men and women will experience slightly more insulin resistance at night. Secondly, women will also be slightly more insulin resistant during the luteal phase, which is the phase before your period. Anyone who’s taking the “easy route” for fasting by skipping breakfast and then eating later is working against what their hormones really want to do. They're missing out on a more insulin sensitive morning meal and you’re telling their ghrelin to make them hungrier at night, when insulin is more resistant and you’re more likely to store fat. Although most studies on this don't like to include women (wow, we are SHOCKED), a study found that men's insulin response improved with alternate day intermittent fasting, while women's blood sugar response worsened. Women should also approach fasting cautiously during times of stress or when cortisol is high (such as luteal phase and menstrual phase, when we’re less resilient to the effects of cortisol), because cortisol also makes fat and muscle tissue resistant to insulin. Women who choose intermittent fasting need to be mindful of not going longer than 12 or 14 hours at the most and should still begin with breakfast. Our bodies really need to be fed consistently for our metabolism to thrive!
Are you eating enough fat and carbohydrates? Low-fat/ high-carb diets pose the risk of potentially spiking your blood sugar too much if you’re not getting enough fat and protein. Another risk is that your mood can suffer, with research showing that dropping healthy fats from your diet can make you feel angry and hostile. Cholesterol, even LDL (aka "the bad kind"), is used to create steroid hormones-- such as estrogen and testosterone. Estrogen not only makes your figure curvy and your lips plump, but it also protects your bones and your heart. Testosterone helps your muscle mass and maintain reproductive organs. Low-carb/ high-fat diets, on the other hand, have been really trendy lately, with keto on the rise. Unfortunately, keto causing menstrual irregularities, hormonal imbalance, and digestive issues seems to happen just as frequently as keto success stories for women. A study done on mice (again, because science is behind on including us real women) showed that males lost weight and females gained weight when fed a keto diet for 15 weeks-- unless their ovaries were removed. Yikes! We're certainly different from mice, but the fact that having ovaries is what made the difference is particularly unsettling. Women who don't get enough carbs may also experience increased mood swings because insulin can help carry tryptophan (a precursor for serotonin) up to the brain. Focusing on protein intake can help balance blood sugar, reduce cravings, and improve metabolism by helping build lean muscle. Choosing low-glycemic carbohydrates (like vegetables, legumes, sweet potato, squash, or quinoa), and healthy fats (like avocado, olive oil, nuts, and salmon) every day can help you find balance with your macronutrients and provide more sustainable results.
What are your food preferences and natural cravings? During the follicular and ovulation phase, you tend to naturally feel like eating lighter meals. Your body often craves the crunchiness of juiciness of fresh produce and lean proteins. Your insulin is more sensitive, which can help stabilize your blood sugar levels and your metabolism. During the luteal phase, especially the week before your period, you naturally crave more calories and denser foods. Your insulin is slightly more resistant and your progesterone levels may slow down digestion, favoring cooked vegetables and digestive spices. A lot of people assume that if we ate what we wanted, it would mean eating nothing but ice cream and croissants, but your body naturally craves many different foods and nutrients that support your cycle. By listening to that, you'll eat a variety of foods, improve your digestion, and strengthen the intuitive connection with your body. One of the reasons most diets don’t work is because women try to force themselves to give up their cravings, restrict themselves, and then they eventually give in and it creates a guilt cycle. Each time you “give in,” you have more of your craving than you otherwise would, so then you feel like you need to restrict yourself again to make up for it later. This creates a nasty, vicious cycle of dieting-- hint: this is possible even if you don’t think you’re on a "diet."
Does the diet you’re interested in make any foods “off limits”? Aside from the cravings we just talked about, some diets restrict certain foods that aren’t necessarily desserts or unprocessed foods. For example: in Whole 30 or the Paleo diet, legumes of all kinds are considered off limits, and in many low-carb diets, certain fruits and vegetables might be restricted if they’re considered too high in starch or natural sugar. If you’re allergic or sensitive to a certain food, obviously you can and should remove that from your diet… but before you take what a caveman or a swimsuit model ate as the Gospel truth of what is right for your body, pause and take a moment to consider if it’s really right for you. Some might say chickpeas are off limits and if chickpeas upset their stomach, that may be true for them…. But when I eat cooked chickpeas (especially in the luteal phase), I feel happier and digest them well. Chickpeas contain tryptophan, which as I explained earlier, can be carried to the brain by insulin and used to help make serotonin. Truthfully, my mood and body feel best when I eat legumes during the luteal phase. Some might say bananas are off limits because of the sugar and carbs, while others may not eat them because they have a banana allergy… but when I eat bananas, I’m adding magnesium to my diet, which helps calm anxiety. Plus, carbohydrates provide energy and bananas are an unprocessed source. If I restricted myself from eating these foods that make me feel great, I’d miss out the experience of including them in satisfying, healthy meals!
Are you surprised to learn how different diets can be for women than they are for men? Take a minute to process this information. It can be a huge shock to learn that our cycles influence in such a unique way us all month long!
Think about the answers to these questions and what feels best for you. As women, our intuition has a way of letting us know if something isn’t right for our bodies, so if you read this and a lightbulb went off for you, you're probably onto something!
Begin tracking your cycle (if you aren’t already!) and noticing the changes you’re going through during each phase. Practice listening to your body (check out my article on the Hunger Scale here!) and noticing what feels best for you. You'll begin to notice recurring themes that indicate changes in your hormone levels! Each day, ask yourself questions like... Is this food satisfying? What foods would support my energy and what I need to do today? How do I feel after eating that meal? You should also take note of signs that something isn’t working, such as bloating, migraines, and irritability. As you continue, this data will be so valuable for you as you balance your hormones and advocate for your health!
My calendar is open for new clients in 2021! If you're an ambitious, high-performing woman who's ready to live naturally PMS free, have more energy than ever, and balance your hormones book a Discovery Call with me to learn more about my 1:1 coaching programs.