Katerina Magdalinou, Dietitian-Nutritionist and a partner of omgyno, gives us answers and solutions to a much discussed and important issue.
There are many questions concerning our metabolism and our hormones, and the possible connections with our nutritional habits. The food we eat directly affects our body and its overall health; and our nutritional status is influenced by the quantity and variety of nutrients in the body, especially since they interact with our genes and the way they are expressed. Thus, the various inadequacies in minerals, vitamins and macros (proteins, lipids, carbohydrates) seem to play an important role in gynecology- related issues, such as PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome), Dysmenorrhea (Pain associated with menstruation), Infertility, Infections and Endometriosis.
A vegan diet is defined as a strictly plant-based diet that excludes animal products (such as fish,beef, pork, or poultry) and products originating from them (such as dairy). A less strict form of plant-based diet is followed by vegetarians, as they consume some animal products. For example, lacto-ovo-vegetarians consume dairy products and/or eggs, pesco-vegetarians include fish and seafood in their diet. So, let’s return to the main question: How can a vegan diet affect our hormones?
The surveys focusing exclusively on the relationship between vegan diets and general population’s health and/or womens’ health are insufficient, as the vegan lifestyle is rather new. Though, we could take a look at some findings:
- Vegetarians appear to be generally in good health and for some diseases and medical conditions it may be better in comparison to meat eaters.
- Vegetarian diets may on some level explain improvement in health outcomes when compared with nonvegetarians.
- Plant-based diets, such as vegetarian or completely vegetarian, help reduce inflammation by affecting the levels of inflammation markers in the circulation. Inflammation is present in conditions such as in dysmenorrhea or PCOS, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune diseases.
- A systematic review showed that lacto-ovo vegetarians or vegans had higher overall diet quality compared with nonvegetarians in 9 out of 12 studies. Vegetarians consumed fruit, whole grains, seafood, vegetable protein and sodium closer to dietary recommendations. The recommendations are different for each ingredient. Vegetarians may achieve this in fiber consumption, but not in protein, and non-vegetarians the other way round.
- A study that investigated menstrual differences on vegetarians and non-vegetarians showed that the vegetarian group consumed significantly greater amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids, carbohydrates, vitamin B6, and dietary fiber, in contrast to nonvegetarians, who reported greater intakes of saturated fatty acids, protein, cholesterol, caffeine and alcohol. The survey showed a beneficial effect of a vegetarian diet on menstrual cycles.
- A vegan diet is rich in dietary fiber, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, proteins, polyphenols and micronutrients. There is evidence that the main components of vegan diets affect bacterial composition and metabolic pathways of gut microbiota by increasing beneficial microorganisms, which subsequently is shown to play a positive role in women’s gut and gynecological health.
In addition to these findings, energy metabolism, which is directly related to the types of food we choose to eat, whether plant-based or animal-based, seems to be the leading factor that affects women’s health and hormones. The hormone estrogen plays a crucial role on energy homeostasis and it has been shown that extreme levels of fat in the female body- very high or very low- creates various imbalances and dysfunctions and is strongly connected with the diseases mentioned above.
Katerina’s Professional Advice
According to the existing literature, I would agree that maintaining a healthy body composition and following a plant-based diet would promote your hormones’ balance the best way possible. Concerning vegan diets, it is totally fine if one prefers them, as they are plant-based, but it is important to ensure that they do not develop any deficiencies in essential nutrients such as calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, vit. B12, vit D, and n-3 fatty acids, protein. As mentioned above, little research has been made on vegan diets and even though its long-term consumption was associated with some favorable laboratory measures and health outcomes, it is also related with lowered concentrations of key nutrients compared to reference values. Thus, there is a need for nutritional guidance for vegans.
I would rather suggest a plant-based diet that promotes the consumption of a variety of plant products. Despite whether you prefer a vegan or a vegetarian diet, the key objective is to achieve abundant intake of macro- and micro- nutrients. The macros consumed should meet your personalized needs, in order to keep an ideal body weight and composition, and the food ingredients should vary in order to boost the micronutrient intake, which is important to your hormonal system. Special attention must be paid to folate, iron, zink, magnesium, selenium, calcium, vitamins D, A, C, B12, B6 for the overall health of the female reproductive system.
Are you interested in trying a vegan diet, but don’t know how to start? The best way to achieve your nutrition goals is to take small steps at a time. Modifying our nutrition habits all at once can be hard. If you would like to alter to a vegan diet, but this seems too hard, start by changing products or meals to vegan ones. Meanwhile, add micronutrient rich food sources to boost your health and hormones!
Examples of meal switching from animal products to vegan
1. Morning- Milk with cereals and honey→ almond milk with oats, fresh fruits, nuts and sweetener
2. Morning snack- Sandwich with cheese-ham → sandwich with green leafy vegetables-hummus- falafel
3. Meal- pasta and minced meat → whole grain pasta with lentil sauce
4. Afternoon snack- milk chocolate → dark chocolate, fresh fruits→ vegan dark chocolate, fresh fruits
5. Dinner- chicken salad → salmon salad → pan roasted green beans with flaxseed oil, almonds and vegan yogurt dip
6. Meat 3 times per week → meat 1 time per week and replacement with egg/fish or legume/vegetable dishes
Other sustainable and healthy diet model choices to try before achieving a vegan diet are the Mediterranean diet, DASH diet, and Vegetarian diet (lacto-, ovo-, pesco- and combinations).
For hormonal balance it is recommended to increase the consumption of:
– Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs)
– Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and keep a favorable ratio of n3:n6 PUFAs
– Whole grain products
– Plant protein
Decrease the consumption of:
– Trans fatty acids (TFA)
– Saturated fatty acids (SFA)
– Simple sugars
– Animal protein
– Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) as additives or contaminants in foods
So, how can you help your hormones via nutrition?
– Try to keep a balanced body weight
– Try to keep a balanced fat percentage
– Eat variety of fruits and vegetables during the day
– Decrease the consumption of red meat to a minimum
– Add n3 fatty acids, by consuming fatty fish, such as salmon, small Mediterranean fish, almonds, walnuts, flaxseed oil
– Opt for whole grain versions of bread, pasta, rice, crackers, that are rich in fiber and micronutrients
– Eliminate simple sugars, such as packed juices, sweets, refined carbohydrates, sugar, honey, agave syrup
– Eliminate high fat snacks, junk food, fast food
In conclusion: try to maintain a healthy body weight and keep it plant-based or vegetarian or vegan! Happy hormone days!