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My plant-based eating journey wasn’t always one of beaming health.
I personally suffered from hormonal health issues after eating an unhealthy version of a vegan diet for many years.
When I first made the transition to a vegan diet, I was a 15-year-old high school kid living in a predominantly meat-eating family—it’s a true stereotype that Texans love their meat—and I was not yet empowered with the knowledge of how to eat a sustainable and well-rounded vegan meal.
What started out as only eating the bun without the hamburger patty at family BBQs, to just skipping the meat at family meals, resulted in malnutrition. So much so, that I started eating meat again, because I thought that was the only way.
A few years later, while in university, I came back (this time as a vegetarian) with more knowledge. I knew about whole grains and legumes, and I started being more mindful of what I was eating. The days of the teenage junk-food vegan were long gone.
But, my hormones still suffered.
I had a lot of work to do, and it was a long road to recovery. I continued to make mistakes, but those mistakes were all learning experiences that led me to where I am today. It also led me to my life’s work, so I don’t regret any of the hardships endured.
Because of my journey, I’ve made it one of my missions to help others transition to a plant-based diet the healthy and sustainable way. As a holistic health practitioner, I see clients seeking help for an array of problems, yet the root cause is usually hormonal imbalances manifested in the physical symptoms of irregular or painful periods, ovarian cysts, acne, difficulty losing weight, fatigue, and/or difficulty conceiving.
The good news is, if I find out they are vegan or vegetarian, I know immediately where to start looking. Common deficiencies I see in vegans and vegetarians are protein, healthy fats, zinc, selenium, and iodine, all of which are necessary for hormonal health.
From personal experience, the journey of hormonal imbalance is one hell of a rough ride and is best to be avoided. So if you are vegan or vegetarian (or even if you’re an omnivore!), I encourage you to follow these five tips in order to promote your optimum hormonal health:
1. Nourish with healthy fats.
Healthy fats are vital for healthy hormones. It is by eating healthy fats that our bodies get cholesterol, which is the mother of all our hormones. This is one of the many reasons low-fat diets are detrimental to our health.
Healthy fats are high in Omega-3 fatty acids and saturated fats such as coconut oil, avocados, olive oil (unheated), and for the vegetarians, grass-fed butter, ghee, and pastured eggs. These types of fats are crucial for proper cell function and for the production of cholesterol, which is then converted into estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
It’s best to avoid vegetable-based oils and chemically altered spreads like margarine and shortening, as they are high in Omega-6 fatty acids and polysaturated fats, which oxidize easily in the body and create inflammation. Many vegan substitute meat products and pre-packaged meals are made with canola or some other form of vegetable oil, so choose wisely when shopping.
An easy way to get healthy fats in your diet is by blending coconut oil and/or grass-fed butter into your coffee or tea in the morning. Not only will it promote healthy and balanced hormones, but you will be amazed by the increased mental clarity it brings!
2. Keep a food journal to document daily protein intake.
It is possible to get enough protein on a vegan diet, and if anyone else tells you otherwise, they are misinformed. However, it doesn’t just happen automatically. Getting enough protein on a vegan diet requires effort and planning, but it does get easier with time.
At first, I found keeping a journal documenting all the protein I was eating on a daily basis helpful. And after eating a plant-based diet for a season or two, I began to get a sense of what I needed to eat and in what quantity for my protein needs.
So, how much protein do we require?
Well, it all boils down to the individual. How frequently do they work out? Are they male or female? How much do they weigh? Are they under stress, or are they pregnant? A simple 0.45 grams of protein per pound like the USDA recommends may not be enough.
According to women’s hormone expert, Dr. Sara Gottfried, we should eat an average of 0.75 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass. Athletes, people who are under extreme stress, and those who are lactating or pregnant should eat on the higher end. Those who lead a more sedentary lifestyle, or work out less than three times a week, should aim for the lower end.
I agree with the amounts listed by Dr. Gottfried, but with one exception: for those who lead a sedentary lifestyle, 0.4-0.5 grams per pound of lean body mass should be sufficient for their needs (per Dave Asprey, founder and CEO of Bulletproof).
When we are under a lot of stress, our bodies will create more cortisol to compensate. This is bad news because high cortisol can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, and can throw your sex hormones out of balance. So, it’s wise to get those cortisol levels back to normal as quickly as possible. Protein is required for cortisol levels to return to normal, as our body burns through more protein while under times of stress. So, in order to get your cortisol back to its ideal level, it’s important to get enough protein.
3. Avoid going soy crazy.
Many of the vegan substitutes contain soy. Although okay in moderation for those who can digest it properly, soy can seriously disrupt our hormones if eaten in large amounts. This is all due to the isoflavones that soy contains. Isoflavones can be dangerous to our hormones because they contain estrogen mimickers that increase estrogenic activity. This means that too much soy can create excess levels of estrogen in the body, which physically manifests in women with symptoms like heavy periods, bloating, headaches, acne, and mood swings. In men, excess estrogen results in lower levels of testosterone and can lead to man boobs!
The healthiest versions of soy are in its fermented form like tofu and tempeh, never as a processed filler or as a milk. We should always look for organic, non-GMO soy, as conventional soy is full of nasty chemicals like glyphosate, which is an endocrine disruptor.
So how much soy should we eat? It’s impossible to give a definite amount, because the key is a bioindividualized approach. Perhaps one serving a day could work for one person—but for another, two to three servings a week is the cut off. Alternatively, if you are like me, I can’t eat soy at all because my body does not digest it well. This is another way that keeping a food journal comes in handy, as it helps us pinpoint what is serving us and what is not.
4. Keep blood sugar levels balanced.
Sugar is one of the biggest enemies to happy and healthy hormones. Unfortunately, many products labeled as vegan on the shelves today are high in sugar. Eating too much sugar leads to high blood glucose levels, which, if unaddressed, will lead to high cortisol levels.
In regard to our hormonal health, this is where it all starts to go downhill.
Think of cortisol as the puppet master, and a greedy one at that. Cortisol pulls the strings, and when it is too high, it will steal from our other sex hormones. From an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies will always prioritize cortisol, because it’s what enables us to get away from that saber-toothed tiger. This is why our bodies will always put survival over reproduction.
When our bodies aren’t making enough hormones thanks to greedy cortisol, then bigger health issues will eventually manifest such as HPA Axis Dysregulation, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, infertility, and thyroid dysfunction.
The best way to keep our blood sugar levels balanced is by keeping our diet as low-glycemic as possible. This means avoiding foods with added sugars, and by limiting our intake of high glucose foods like breads and pasta (even if gluten-free!), sweeteners, and fruits. Everyone has a unique sensitivity level to sugar, so it’s important to find our own. One method is to buy a glucose meter and take our fasting blood sugar levels in the morning and after eating. This way we can see how different foods affect us.
One simple way of knowing if the food we’re eating is serving us is to observe our energy levels after eating. If we feel tired after eating, then our blood sugar level has spiked. If we feel energized after eating, then our blood sugar level has most likely dropped. I encourage you to listen to what your body is telling you, and write these observations down in your trusty food journal.
5. Be open-minded about supplements.
Sometimes, we need a little help from our friends, and that’s okay. While I’m a big advocate of getting our nutrients from foods, sometimes it just isn’t possible. All vegans (and I think this goes for vegetarians and omnivores as well) should take an activated B12 and folate supplement, as well as a full spectrum of amino acids. It’s very difficult to get these on a vegan diet, and our hormones greatly rely on them.
So good luck on your journey! And remember that we all possess the ability to eat right for our body type; we just need to learn how to tap into our intuition in order to discover what diet will keep our energy levels high, hormones balanced, and brains working efficiently, in order to serve ourselves and others to our highest capabilities.
Author: Jenna Longoria
Image: Tom Sodoge/Unsplash
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis