5 Healthy Foods You Should Avoid If You Have A Hormonal Imbalance
Thanks to brave women like Lena Dunham, Padma Lakshmi, Daisy Ridley, and others—women's hormonal health conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) have finally been given some much-deserved media attention in the past few years.
As someone who once suffered from the devastating effects of PCOS, I'm thrilled to see influential women speaking out. Their stories hit home for many reasons. As I explain in my book WomanCode, I experienced the same agonizing acne as Ridley—not to mention weight gain, sleeplessness, depression, and other PCOS symptoms.
While obesity, family history, and insulin resistance are known risk factors for PCOS1, the role of nutrition2 in the prevention and treatment of this hormonal imbalance has only recently gained traction. I can tell you personally that nutrition is paramount in PCOS. I was able to successfully solve my hormonal imbalance the same way Ridley found relief: through food.
There are two strategic dietary changes to start with that will make a significant dent in PCOS symptoms—namely limiting or cutting out dairy and added sugars. For many women, nixing these two notorious endocrine disruptors with a low starch/low dairy3 dietary approach can help tremendously.
But what if you've already completely cut milk products and sweets from your diet and you're still experiencing the pimples, messed-up periods, extra pounds, and hair loss associated with PCOS?
Before I made it my mission to fix my hormones and help other women get back on track, I had no idea that some of the "healthy" foods I was consuming could actually make my problems worse. And I see the disbelief on my clients' faces every day when I break the news that some of the hyped-up health foods they've been dutifully consuming may actually be sabotaging their best efforts to overcome PCOS symptoms.
Here are the "healthy" foods that I personally recommend women with PCOS avoid due to an abundance of caution:
1. Raw kale (and some other greens)
Need a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor? Most women do. After all, kale is often hailed as the superfood of all superfoods—heck, even Beyoncé loves it! And rightly so, kale is chock full of nutrients and antioxidant phytochemicals.
But when eaten raw, regularly, and in large quantities (think smoothies), cruciferous veggies in the Brassica family (specifically Russian/Siberian kale, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, collards, and Brussels sprouts) contain goitrogens that can suppress thyroid function4.
It turns out that hypothyroidism and PCOS5 are linked, although the exact mechanisms and direction of this association are still being worked out through research.
If you're going to go raw with kale and related Brassica veggies, just consume in moderation or opt for alternatives like celery, chard, romaine lettuce, or beet leaves instead. But if kale, cauliflower, broccoli, or Brussels sprouts are what your heart desires, cook them first. I like to sauté them with a little coconut oil before digging in.
Soybeans are legumes that show up as a common substitute in my clients' diets, and the intention behind the swap is always so good—they've ditched dairy and stocked up on soy milk in an effort to alleviate their hormonal symptoms. But—surprise—because soy contains phytoestrogens ("phyto" or plant estrogen), it can act like estrogen in the body.
Soy isoflavone phytoestrogens aren’t identical to your body's estrogen, but some research (mostly in animals/rodents) suggests that eating soy in large amounts over time may confuse your body into thinking it has a sufficient estrogen supply. This signals your endocrine system to slow down estrogen production, subsequently slowing the production of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This can negatively impact ovulation and contribute to menstrual cycle irregularities.
While high levels of soy are linked to potential, negative reproductive health6 issues, regular or occasional soy intake may be totally fine (and even healthy) according to more recent research7.
If you're cutting out added sugar (good for you!), you may be swapping in natural sweeteners like stevia. The research is weak, mixed, and limited to a handful of rodent studies, but stevia may have anti-fertility properties8 (at least in some rats or hamsters). If you're not hormonally sensitive, typical amounts of stevia won't likely have an effect on your fertility or cycles. But if you have PCOS or another hormonal imbalance, it's best to err on the side of caution and simply choose a different sweetener, like honey or coconut nectar.
4. Red meat
Many of my clients with PCOS have been told to follow a meat-heavy Paleo diet, but in my experience, this isn't the best option. Higher red meat intake is correlated with lower levels of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG)9, a protein in the body that PCOS sufferers need to help reduce their abnormally high testosterone levels.
5. No carbs
Another problem with Paleo is that it cuts out carbs altogether. Not only is this restrictive approach hard to sustain in the long term, it may not be the right fit for individuals with PCOS. A lower carbohydrate dietary pattern with healthy carbs (fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains) in moderation has beneficial effects on PCOS10 according to a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials in the International Journal of Endocrinology.
Alisa Vitti is a women's hormone and functional nutrition expert and pioneer in female biohacking. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Vitti has been featured on The Dr. Oz Show, Lifetime, and has been a regular contributor for Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, and Women’s Health. She is the founder of The FLO Living Hormone Center, the world's first menstrual healthcare platform that has helped hundreds of thousands of women around the world put their period issues like PCOS, Fibroids, Endometriosis, and PMS into remission naturally using her highly effective FLO Protocol and the FLO Balance Period Supplements, and the creator the MyFLO period app—the first and only functional medicine period tracker. She is also the author of the best-selling book WomenCode. She has presented at SXSW, TEDx, Talks@Google, Summit Series Outside, and SHE Summit and regularly trains women in the workplace on how to use her Cycle Syncing Method for greater creativity, productivity, and wellbeing at work.