When I was 14 years old, a little while after I got my first period I had a blood test that revealed I was mildly low in iron. Looking back I am not surprised in the least since my diet was so poor, but at the time I was a little concerned, mostly because I wanted my tests to confirm I was healthy so that I didn’t have to make any changes to my life (I wanted to get away with not eating because I hated eating) I remember my mum talking to the doctor and the doctor telling her that I needed to eat more red meat. I quickly interrupted to say that I hated beef, to which the doctor replied well then you need to eat more spinach. I was actually less put off by this despite the fact that I barely touched vegetables at the time. But the doctor continued to say that I would need to eat kgs worth of spinach a day in order to get enough iron and that it would be easier for me to just eat some beef since I didn’t need to eat a lot of it (she knew I hated eating). I proceeded to do nothing because I really did hate beef and decided spinach wasn’t worth the effort since I had to eat so much of it. Leaving the iron conversation aside, my doctor actually had a point! The point being that plant-based food is much less calorie dense than animal food and so we need to eat more of it. We especially need to eat more of it to support our hormones because hormone production requires a tremendous amount of energy. We also need the right nutrients to help build our hormones but nutrients come secondary to calories. These nutrients are only truly beneficial when our bodies’ energy needs are met. Not eating enough calories is actually one of the reasons some women can lose their periods. Not eating enough means there is not enough energy to support ovulation (which can mean a loss of period) this condition is called secondary hypothermic amenorrhea and is most common in younger girls who restrict calories such as girls with eating disorders but also in women that overexercise and do not compensate with enough food. The condition is also very common among female athletes. However, you do not need to lose your period in order to suffer the effect of not eating enough to support your hormones. We need enough food and energy to keep both our estrogen and progesterone at optimal levels.
It is estimated that most women of reproductive age need an average of 2000 calories a day for adequate hormone production (more or less depending on energy needs and height) and in order to see an increase in estrogen levels. In order to regain a period, most experts agree that 2500 calories for a prolonged period of time (at least 6-12 months). Depending on the woman and their situation many need much more than that.
Plant-based diets are wonderful for achieving hormone balance ( read my article why I went plant-based for my hormones here: http://hazelandcacao.com/why-i-went-plant-based-for-my-hormones/ ) but for women of reproductive years, plant-based diets can also pose a few problems. 1. Plant-based foods are naturally lower in calories compared to animal foods. 2. Plant-based foods are naturally lower in fat than animal foods. Of course, it is completely possible to eat enough total calories and fat from plant-based diets, and some women can eat more than they really need, but in general, women need to be made aware of these issues so that they eat well to support their hormones.
Personally, although I never lost my period, I was probably well on the path to losing it if I didn’t start eating better. I still had to learn to eat enough on a plant-based diet to help me build up my very low hormones post-birth control. I also needed to eat enough to recover from nutrient deficiencies and build healthy neurotransmitters to combat my anxiety. Thanks to my antidepressants induced food anxiety this was incredibly difficult for me to do! I struggled with food anxiety, nausea and very low appetite for years but I pushed through because the more and better I started to eat, the better I started to feel. I went from eating no more than 6 strawberries a day at my worst to eating an average of 2200 calories a day.
Here are some of the things that I learned to do on my journey to ensure I was eating enough to support my hormones in a healthy way (minimal vegan junk):
Slowly increased portion sizes: One of my biggest anxieties around food was seeing big portion sizes. The approach I took was to set myself a portion that I was comfortable eating, even if it was tiny and then try one or two mouthfuls more at each meal. Over time my portion sizes increased. I knew I had reached adequate portion sizes for my particular body when I could go a full 4-6 hours between meals without getting hungry.
Ate well-balanced meals with no snacks: snacking has a very strong ability to ruin my appetite and I inevitably eat a lot less during the day. I’m also not a fan of snacking as it’s harmful for the stomach, microbiome and also for the teeth. It was very important for me to learn to eat large well balanced meals. This means having a good combination of carbohydrates, protein and fats at every meal, this balance is the secret to feeling full and satisfied and also to thoroughly enjoying my food.
Focused on adding a wide variety of whole foods: the beauty of plant based diets is that because they are so much lower in calories and high in fibre they can be eaten without restriction. As I was making my diet changes I moved my focus from what I shouldn’t be eating (processed foods) to adding as many whole foods as I could from all the different food categories, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, seeds and lots of vegetables. The more foods the better the microbiome diversity which improves overall health. This helps switch the focus from restriction to abundance which is key to health on plant based diets.
Never counted calories: although I knew I needed to reach a certain amount of calories to recover I never counted calories, this is because I’ve heard too many women say that calorie counting is stressful and can become an addiction. I was anxious enough aruond food and didnt want to make things harder for myslef. Instead I learned the average caloric value of the foods I most commonly ate and estimated from there. I have counted calories twice in my life, to use as a reference point. Both times it revelaed about 2200 calories a day which is sufficient for hormone health in my case.
Incorporated anti-inflammatory oils: Oils are an easy way to bump up the calories of the meals your eating and cooking without really noticing. Although I stay away from highly inflammatory processed oils like vegetable oils, I love to be generous with extra olive oil, coconut oil, and grapeseed oil. Fats are also incredibly important for female fertility and female hormones. They are the building blocks of our sex hormones and we can not make enough hormones without adequate calories and adequate fat intake.
Ate more nuts seeds and nut butters: Nuts, seeds, and nut butters are one of the most calorie-dense plant foods, but unlike oils, they are also packed with other beneficial nutrients like vitamins and minerals as well as healthy fats and protein. Many studies suggest that eating just one handful of nuts a day can provide you with most of the nutrients you need for the day.
Juicing: Juicing was and is my alternative to supplements. Since my digestion was too sensitive to supplements post antidepressants, I turned to fresh pressed juice. Here are my 5 favoyurite juicing combinations: http://hazelandcacao.com/juices/ Juicing can offer a concentrated hit of vitamins and minerals within 15 minutes of ingesting. It mostly bypasses the digestion and also offers at least an extra 100 calories per standard glass. Drink your calories.
Fortified my food: I learned to add bits and pieces to my food to increase both nutrients and calories. Instead of drinking my smoothies in the mornings, I would turn them into smoothie bowls where I could top them with things like granola, nut butter, nuts, seeds ands fruit. I did this to as many meals as possible by adding nuts and seeds to salads or on top of soups. Id also get into the habit of serving a side salad with my main meals for extra nourishment and extra calories.
Always had (healthy) dessert: raw vegan desserts are my most favourite way to get the calories and nutrients I need. They are so prevalent on my blog because they truly were instrumental in helping me eat enough and regain my health. Raw desserts are made mostly of nuts, seeds, dried fruit like dates (which are quite high in calories) , healthy sweeteners and healthy fats like coconut cream and coconut oil or cacao butter. They are packed full of calories but also contain so many beneficial nutrients. I made it a point to keep a dessert in my freezer at all times and would indulge in one or two pieces every night after dinner, it was my most favourite part of the day! I also made sure to have chocolate after lunch and if I ever made a baked dessert I tried to fortify it as much as possible by using nut flours as well as whole grain flours and adding different nuts seeds and dried fruit etc
Embraced natural sweeteners: Refined sugar is highly processed and inflammatory and so I did my best to stop cosuming it. Instead I turned to healthier natural sweeteners. Although natural sweeteners are still high in sugar, unlike refined sugar they still contain nutrients including important minerals like iron and magnesium and some even contain a little bit of fibre. This means that the GI is much lower and so does not affect blood sugar in the same way. They are also much less inflammatory than regular sugar. My favourites are maple syrup, raw honey, brown rice syrup and coconut sugar. Read my natural sweetner article here: http://hazelandcacao.com/healthy-natural-sweeteners/
Worked on my anxiety: anxiety shuts down the digestive system and makes it incredibly hard to digest food. For me, anxiety leads to a near-instant lack of appetite. It took me a long time to work on my anxiety in its entirety but I also had to learn to stay calm before and during meals. I would practice deep breathing before and during eating as well as making an effort to get in a good space before meals. For me this meant going for a walk, praying and staying away from a negative conversation or negative news while eating. For a time I had to learn to eat alone as eating around others could be very stressful for me. I also loved to have the TV on while eating so I could distract myself and not concentrate on how anxious I was feeling.
Developed a non restrictive attitude towards food: For me it was very important to eat nourishing wholesome foods because I knew I was lacking in nutrients. I tried my best to eat whole foods as much as possible but I also was completely fine allowing myself to eat junk every once in a while. I loved to eat out with my husband and we would often go to restaurants where I would eat refined flour, inflammatory oils and processed sugar. We also did vegan take out fairly regularly. Personally I don’t enjoy junky vegan/vego food very much because it makes me feel awful and I don’t really even enjoy the taste but I eat it because it’s convenient, it’s nice to socialise with friends over food and it’s better than not eating at all. The more I learned about health the more I would become terrified of processed foods, and although they aren’t good for us I learned that my body can handle a little and stressing over food was actually doing me more harm than eating it.
Became an intuitive eater: it took me a while to eat intuitively. For a long time I had to work on setting up good eating habits and learning to eat and enjoy whole foods. But once my diet was at a good place I could really begin to listen to my body. I respect my appetite shifts and know that I eat less in my follicular phase and my appetite really picks up during the luteal phase and I honour that by eating more when my body asks for it. I also eat more after I exercise and any time my body asks me to. Doing this has actually helped me maintain a mostly stable weight even through periods of change like pregnancy and breastfeeding. It also makes me feel healthy and lets my enjoy life without obsessing over food.
As this was more of a personal article sharing what I did to help me eat more I havent added any references. However I will add a link to a fairly informative post about hypothalmic ammenhorea for anyone that is interested. It was not my experience but I know it could have been and I know so many of my followers on Instagram have reached out to me with this condition. I hope it is helpful.