Whenever I see a patient who is experiencing symptoms that are disrupting her life, one of the first things we talk about is her diet. I have learned and stressed over the years that the old adage “you are what you eat” is so very true, especially during the transitional times both before and after menopause.
Eating plenty of healthy proteins such as grass fed beef, bison, and wild caught fish, organic fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats such as grass-fed butter, coconut oil, avocados, and olive oil makes a huge difference for the women I work with. That’s because these real, whole foods provide the nutrients a body needs to stay healthy, to heal, and to keep hormones in balance.
On the other hand, there are certain foods that can throw our hormones and our bodies off balance… and they’re not always the foods you would think of. So, for those who have already made positive changes to their diets and lifestyles and are focused on healthy, whole foods, but are still feeling off, it’s time to explore whether there may be some surprising hormone-disrupting foods or chemicals hidden in plain sight in the kitchen.
How Diet Influences Hormones
This is a topic I could talk about all day, but I’ll keep this brief for now! The relationship between diet and hormones is complex and multifaceted, but here are the basics. Many women come to me with a suspicion that their hormones are out of whack, and sometimes, with the lab results to back it up. Hormonal issues can seem elusive, but so many of the factors that contribute to our hormonal balance can actually be controlled (and changed), and diet is among the most important. The nutrients we consume (from food as well as dietary supplements) actually regulate how our hormones are built and how they function. In other words, if your diet is out of whack, your hormones probably will be too.
Common Sources of Dietary and Hormonal Imbalances
Let’s start at the beginning. When there are imbalances in your diet, there are likely to be imbalances in your hormones, which can lead to all kinds of unwanted symptoms. There are a few issues in particular that are essential to address first. First, you may be eating too much sugar. Too much sugar will throw estrogen, progesterone and testosterone out of balance, because balancing insulin will take precedence. Excessive sugar intake is one of the biggest reasons why we feel tired, have trouble losing weight, and experience all kinds of other frustrating symptoms. Some of my patients assume that sugar is not something they have to worry too much about, because they don’t eat a lot of what we think of as “sugary” or sweet things, but all kinds of packaged foods– including many items marketed as “healthy” options– are loaded with sugar.
This brings me to another common issue that goes hand in hand with sugar: eating too many packaged and processed foods. In addition to sugar, these items contain all kinds of problematic vegetable oils, preservatives, and artificial ingredients.
Not only do processed foods fail to provide the nutritional support your body needs, they are actually introducing harmful ingredients like chemicals and substances that will impair healthy body function and hormone balance.
Today, as the general public is becoming more health-conscious and the demand is higher for options that are gluten-free, made with natural ingredients, and so on, the processed food problem is becoming slightly more confusing. Those of us who are shopping in the natural foods section might expect that we’ve mostly sidestepped the harmful chemical issue, but that’s not necessarily the case. Even organic, gluten-free, dairy-free packaged and processed foods are… well, still packaged and processed foods. Terms like “gluten free” and “organic” that are strategically plastered across the boxes of these food items are not synonyms for “healthy”. It’s still important to read the label, and it’s still important to understand that processed foods go hand-in-hand with preservatives, which are known to disrupt our hormones.
Finally, I see a lot of women who are eating a diet that is too low in fat. Healthy fats are an essential part of a healthy diet, and are required by the body and brain in order to produce hormones, function optimally, and stay in balance.
Foods In Your Kitchen That May Be Causing Hormone Disruption
I can’t emphasize enough the role your food choices play in your health. But sometimes, I meet a woman who is doing a really good job eating healthy, whole foods and avoiding processed foods and sugar, and she still finds herself struggling with hormonal balance. There are often other factors at play here, like stress. But another important factor to consider? Many of the most common foods in our kitchens may contain ingredients that can disrupt our hormones, and some of them may come as a surprise to you.
Media headlines have told us that it’s healthiest to avoid red meat (something that has been misunderstood and misinterpreted; we’ll talk about this more soon). Many women have turned to chicken instead, thinking it’s a healthier protein choice. In fact, the biggest concern about the animal foods we eat is what those animals themselves are eating. When we eat animals and animal products, we take in whatever they have eaten or been exposed to, because it remains in their fat cells. That’s why animals eating a natural diet (like grass-fed beef, bison, pastured pork and wild caught fish) make the best choices.
A chicken’s natural diet is grass and bugs, a combination of healthy protein and grass that has soaked up the vitamin D and energy of the sun. Unfortunately, these days, it’s extremely difficult to find a chicken or turkey that has been allowed to eat a natural diet! The best option, though not always feasible, is to purchase chicken directly from a small, local farm. Even organic chicken and turkey, while certainly a better option, is raised on feed.
The problem is that the feed chickens receive contains soy, which is laden with estrogen-like substances and is likely genetically modified; corn that is not food grade and contains GMOs; cereals often including wheat and GMOs; and processed oils, such as canola oil. Poultry farms are not looking for high quality feed ingredients; they are looking for the cheapest possible protein and fat sources they can find.
Heavy use of soy means that you are ingesting high doses of GMO soy, which can be especially disruptive to your hormonal balance, especially in times of hormonal fluctuation like perimenopause.
In addition, most chicken is raised on antibiotics in order to resist disease in the close quarters of a chicken farm. For this reason, if you do eat chicken or turkey, it is important that you choose organic.
Even free-range (which only means they have some outdoor exposure) organic chicken receives feed – but at least the organic version is fed a vegetarian diet (not a chicken’s natural diet, but without animal waste products) that is without genetically modified ingredients (to the extent we know; most soy and corn today is genetically modified and not always identified as such) or toxic synthetic pesticides.
USDA organic chicken can also only receive antibiotics during their first day of life or if they fall ill, not on an ongoing basis as traditional factory farm chickens do.
If you eat a lot of chicken (or eggs), choose organic, but keep in mind the many possible sources of hormone-disrupting chemicals it may still contain, and look to balance out this part of your diet with other protein options, like grass-fed beef and bison or wild-caught fish.
I just mentioned the fact that soy is a very common ingredient in chicken feed today, and soy contains phytoestrogens (which can mimic real estrogen and throw our hormones out of balance).
These estrogen-like substances can also lead to suppressed thyroid function.
Heavy soy consumption has been shown to impact fat gain, muscle loss, infertility, mood swings and sexual dysfunction. Unfermented soy products such as tempeh and miso are fine, but tofu and soymilk products should be avoided. Try nuts and nut milks, such as almond milk, instead.
While we all need vitamin D to stay healthy, the best way to get it is not from dairy (as the dairy industry would have you believe): it’s naturally, from small doses of skin exposure to sunlight instead. Fat-free dairy won’t enable vitamin D (which requires fat in order to be processed), to even be absorbed in the first place.
So, what’s the problem with dairy? In order to maximize output, cows are kept pregnant, resulting in high levels of estrogen that can not only wreak havoc on your hormones, but cause early puberty for your daughter, breast development for your son, and belly fat concerns for your husband. As with soy, higher levels of reproductive cancers are also found among heavy dairy consumers.
Americans consume enormous amounts of dairy products, especially cheese, and just about everyone can look to cut back. Dairy products don’t just interfere with your hormones, they are linked to increased inflammation, which contributes to the development and progression of a plethora of chronic illnesses.
If you must consume dairy, be sure it is organic, preferably grass-fed. Nut milks, such as almond milk, and products made with nuts, also make delicious substitutes.
Here’s something you don’t come across on a lot of food lists! If you love licorice or licorice-derived products such as fennel, pernod, and anise, you should know that licorice has estrogenic properties so high they are even stronger than contraceptives (but please do not use licorice as birth control!). In fact, licorice is currently being evaluated for possible anti-testosterone drug purposes. So if you happen to have a licorice addiction and you are experiencing symptoms of hormonal imbalance, you might want to cut back on your habit and see what happens.
Okay, as soon as I bring up coffee, I can see you starting to get a little protective of your daily habit, and I totally get it. The truth is, some coffee might be fine, but excessive (or even regular) consumption of coffee and other caffeinated drinks can be a big problem when it comes to hormonal regulation, especially if your hormonal imbalance has been caused in part by adrenal fatigue (which is a pattern I see all the time). I’m not saying you have to completely break up with coffee right now! Just be mindful of how much you’re consuming, and try to cut back. Drinking a cup that is half caffeinated and half decaffeinated is a good way to start gradually training your body not to need as much of it.
Over the last 3 decades, I’ve helped thousands of women restore their hormonal balance. I’ve seen first-hand how important diet and nutritional supplementation are to getting to the root of your uncomfortable symptoms, and relieving them, so that you can finally feel like yourself again. That’s why in addition to good eating habits, I recommend every woman take a high quality multi-vitamin to ensure she gets the support her body needs during times of transition or imbalance.
I also suggest a high-quality omega 3 supplement to ensure your body (and your brain) receives the healthy fat required for optimal functioning; it’s hard to get the nutrition we need from our food supply today, and we often need a bit of extra support here.
The good news is that with some diet and lifestyle changes, coupled with high-quality nutritional support, your body can heal and you can alleviate your symptoms. I’ve helped so many women to finally feel good again — I can help you too!
To read my article on the fundamentals of a healthy diet, click here.
Check out my Menopause Program here to get on the fast track to feeling good again.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD