Diets nowadays are rebranding themselves as “lifestyles” to achieve health and wellness. And, sure, if we just had to follow a set of food rules to thrive in a healthy body and feel well with ourselves, how could we say no? Unfortunately, our feminine biology disagrees with the magical promises of many of the most popular diet trends.
Many of us are conscientious women who know the importance of taking care of our bodies as temples. However, in our quest to build a healthy, beautiful, and strong body, we often rely too much on external guidance from so-called “experts” and we don’t listen enough to the one who really knows what it needs: our own body. We just don’t think we can trust it. We tend to have the rooted limiting belief that we can’t feed it according to its cues, but we have to subject it to firm rules and boundaries. Surely what we think about as “bad foods” can’t be good for your body! And being too fat isn’t healthy either, so we should also watch how many calories we’re eating…
But there’s a little problem with this mindset — female sex hormones are extremely sensitive to any kind of food deprivation. Being restrictive about calories, food groups, or both can make our body suppress our menstrual cycles. Why? Because it doesn’t think it’s the ideal situation to conceive. If there’s a famine going on (and that’s exactly what your body feels), it’s better not to get pregnant. This can eventually lead to hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA), that is, losing our periods.
Female sex hormones are extremely sensitive to any kind of food deprivation.
It’s worth noting that you don’t need to be underweight to lose your period. Even a level of restriction that would be “fine” for a man can mess up our female hormones. You don’t have to be starving yourself to suffer hormonal imbalances and HA; you might just be following one of the popular diet trends that you see promoted on social media all the time.
Ketogenic Diet (Keto): Carbs Are Not the Devil
The low-carb crowd has admittedly done a good job questioning the diet establishment’s low-fat bias. But then they’ve gone to the other extreme! Carbohydrates (commonly called carbs) are found in grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, and in the body they’re converted to glucose to be used as energy.
In a keto diet, you keep your carbs at a minimum to stay in ketosis, that is, to use ketone bodies instead of glucose as an energy source. The problem is that this process was meant to be for emergencies, not for everyday life. It’s highly inefficient and, therefore, the body may feel like it can’t get enough energy fast enough to support all its functions. The heart can’t go, neither can the lungs… sorry, it will have to be your period.
Ketosis is a process meant for emergencies, not for everyday life.
Low-carb diets also increase cortisol, known as the stress hormone. This hormone signals the brain to decrease the activity of the pituitary gland, which releases a hormone that’s key for ovulation (GnRH). If that hormone is low, our menstrual cycle will be compromised.
Keto zealots also try to convince us that spikes in insulin levels, which occurs when we consume carbs, are bad for our health and lead to illnesses such as obesity and diabetes. But they forget to mention that we have a protein, called kisspeptin, which is very sensitive to insulin and happens to be key in stimulating GnRH production. That’s why we women have higher concentrations of kisspeptin than men!
Key Takeaway: Carbs shouldn’t be demonized. In fact, they’re essential for fertility and reproductive health.
Intermittent Fasting (IF): It’s Not Just How Much, but How Often
It may seem logical to think that if you aren’t restricting calories or food groups all the time, but just during certain hours of the day, nothing wrong should happen. However, our body perceives this eating pattern as if there were a situation of food scarcity, in which food isn’t always available when you need it or, at least, you can’t take for granted it will be. Consequently — you’ve guessed it — not a good time to get pregnant. And it’s better to start shutting down non-absolutely-essential bodily functions in case the famine gets worse. That means no period.
And here we find an old friend of ours too, kisspeptin! This protein is not only sensitive to insulin, but to the action of two other hormones: leptin (the satiety hormone) and ghrelin (the hunger hormone). If you don’t eat when you’re hungry, but force yourself to wait for hours, leptin decreases and ghrelin increases, a disruption that’s fatal for kisspeptin.
Key Takeaway: Eat when you’re hungry to maintain your body’s trust in you and your hunger hormones’ balance.
If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM): You Need To Eat More Than You Think
IIFYM sells itself as “flexible dieting,” purely because it allows you to eat whatever you want, whenever you want…as long as you don’t go above your rigid daily target of the three macronutrients (macros): fats, carbs, and protein (which in the end, although the fans don’t want to admit it, equate to a total number of calories).
Our bodies are not machines, they’re complex living organisms. One fixed equation that allegedly works for everyone won’t work for almost anyone because our bodies are unique. You might enter values such as your height, weight, and age into the equation, but what about your individual metabolism, your gut microbiota, your genetics, your levels of production of different hormones, etc.? And, very often, the calculations are structured for people whose focus is weight control, so they tend to underestimate the amounts we actually should be eating for optimal health.
Our nutritional needs change from day to day.
Moreover, our nutritional needs change from day to day, and it’s important to listen to our bodies rather than insisting on sticking to a rigid plan. This is especially true for women, since our menstrual cycle has a direct impact on our metabolism. Ovulating and then menstruating is an energy-demanding process that isn’t taken into account when the calculators estimate your energy needs. If you don’t meet those needs, your body will have to shut down the whole process.
Key Takeaway: You don’t have the same nutritional needs every day. It’s totally okay to eat more when you’re hungrier, that’s a signal from your body that it requires more energy to function properly!
Low-Fat (LF): Making Peace with Eating (and Having) Fat
Despite the growing popularity of the opposite diet trend, fat still holds a bad rap, as it’s immediately associated with “getting fat.” Also, the rise of veganism promotes, in many cases, a return to a high-carb/low-fat paradigm.
Dietary fat is used to build cholesterol in the body. We’re always warned about how bad high cholesterol levels are, but almost never about how low cholesterol levels are also dangerous. Cholesterol is a precursor to sex hormones, which are vital for a healthy menstrual cycle, including estrogen and progesterone.
Cholesterol is a precursor to sex hormones, which are vital for a healthy menstrual cycle.
Cholesterol particles are also responsible for synthesizing vitamin D from the sun. In these pandemic times, we hear the phrase “get your vitamin D” a lot due to its role in immunity. But that’s not the only function of vitamin D! Among other things, it has an effect on fertility and other reproductive health issues, such as reducing the risk of miscarriage. If we don’t eat enough fat, we’ll have trouble synthesizing all the vitamin D we need, no matter how much sun exposure we get.
Coming to terms with the fact that eating fat is important is much easier than coming to terms with the fact that having body fat is also fundamental! Fat is not just something that sits there making your body look bigger. On the contrary, it plays an active role in hormonal regulation. Here we can focus on how it influences the amount of leptin (remember, the satiety hormone) we produce. Our brain assesses our body fat levels to regulate hunger hormones so you maintain a healthy body composition that allows you to be in an optimal position for all your physical functions, including having children…and therefore a period. When you go below your ideal body fat levels (that aren’t necessarily what a beauty magazine is telling you), leptin plummets and ghrelin goes through the roof, disrupting again the delicate balance that keeps kisspeptin working at its best.
Key Takeaway: Don’t fear fats, and don’t fear having enough body fat. Both are needed to boost your reproductive health.
Why Hypothalamic Amenorrhea Is a Problem for Women’s Health
We’ve seen how restricting calories and avoiding certain food groups can lead to losing your period, a.k.a. hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA). Obviously, HA means infertility, and you won’t be able to get pregnant until you restore your periods. What’s often more difficult to see is how HA is also a serious problem for women who aren’t planning on having a baby anytime soon. We shouldn’t view our menstrual cycle only as a means of getting pregnant, but as an integral component of female health. Losing your period, and the hormonal imbalances that are behind it, can have an impact on:
Bone Health: Our bones aren’t static like the fossils we see in museums. They’re constantly undergoing a process of bone breakdown and bone formation, called reabsorption. When estrogen levels are low, bone breakdown is greater than reabsorption, leading to a loss of bone density. The fact that young girls are especially vulnerable to fad diets makes things worse, since it’s in our youth when most bone formation occurs, and we need to build a strong foundation to then face adulthood and be prepared for the losses that occur with menopause.
Cardiovascular Health: Low estrogen puts you at a higher risk of heart disease. Estrogen is needed to trigger the production of hormones that expand your arteries, making it easier for the heart to pump blood and for that blood to flow naturally.
Brain Health: This is related to the last point. Not having enough elasticity in the arteries due to lack of estrogen leads to a worse blood supply to the brain, which can cause nerve cell death and is linked to neurodegenerative diseases. Moreover, research shows how inflammation in the brain can impair its correct functioning in old age, and a type of cell that promotes that inflammation (called microglia) is turned off by estrogen and progesterone.
For all of these reasons, it’s important to be zealous and prioritize our menstrual cycle health over following the newest diet trends to supposedly “get fit and healthy.” Sadly, many women don’t realize that because, even when they go to their doctors because they’ve lost their periods, they’re just given contraceptive pills (which don’t solve any of the problems mentioned above), and the root issue is left untreated. If you’re currently suffering from HA, I can’t recommend enough the book No Period. Now What? by Nicola Rinaldi.
Don’t follow the latest diet trends that can make you lose your period by restricting either calories or food groups. Instead, listen to your body’s unique needs and focus on eating a variety of foods, without fearing carbs or fats, and eating enough instead of as little as possible. Respect your body, and it will respond by helping you thrive in health.