When your reproductive hormones are out of whack, the signs are glaringly obvious.
What's not so straightforward?
How to get things back into harmony. After all, there are almost as many culprits for hormone imbalance as there are symptoms, including your exercise routine, your birth control pills, stress, and—this is a big one—your diet.
Fortunately, changing up your diet can make a big difference in your hormonal health. The first step is to clear your kitchen of inflammatory processed foods and high-sugar snacks, plus meat and dairy from conventionally raised animals that have been injected with antibiotics and growth hormones.
Here are five foods that have shown to be beneficial for hormonal health.
1. Salmon - The protein found in wild-caught salmon can balance your hunger hormones and increase satiety. In addition, salmon provides a hefty dose of healthy fats in the form of omega-3s, which are called essential fatty acids because your body cannot make them. Omega-3s are needed for synthesizing hormones that regulate blood clotting, arterial function, and inflammation. Salmon is known for being heart-healthy, and its ability to tame your body’s inflammatory response can also help control autoimmune diseases including lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may even protect against cancer and other chronic illness. Salmon is a source of cholesterol, which has gotten a bad rap in the nutrition world. However, cholesterol is necessary for building sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone that tend to decline in middle-age, as well as the “sunshine hormone” vitamin D, which you need to maintain strong bones. Supplementing with fish oil has been shown to reduce the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline during stressful situations.
2. Kale - Kale is an excellent source of fiber, which feeds your good gut bacteria. Research shows that friendly gut flora may play an important part in clearing estrogen from your system and encouraging hormone balance. Fiber also helps to increase insulin sensitivity and feelings of fullness. Dark, leafy greens such as kale are rich in magnesium, which supports healthy levels of estrogen and testosterone. Low hormone levels in both women and men have been linked with an increased risk of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. On the flipside, cruciferous veggies help your body process and eliminate excess estrogen so you can avoid estrogen dominance and reduce your risk of hormone-dependent cancers such as breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers. I am often asked whether cruciferous vegetables are harmful to your thyroid gland because they contain goitrogens (substances that interfere with iodine uptake). However, the benefits of cruciferous veggies far outweigh any risks. As long as you get plenty of iodine from foods or supplements, you can enjoy as many kale salads as you’d like!
3. Grass-fed Beef- Grass-fed, pasture-raised beef is an excellent source of the four nutrients that are essential to thyroid health: iodine, selenium, zinc, and iron. Iodine is one of the major building blocks of thyroid hormone. Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of thyroid enlargement, goiter, and hypothyroidism worldwide. Selenium helps convert inactive T4 hormone into active T3. Insufficient amounts of selenium means your thyroid hormones are stuck in their inactive state, leading to hypothyroidism symptoms including brain fog, weight gain, low libido, fatigue, and depression. Eating high-quality food sources of selenium can even help reverse autoimmune thyroid conditions by lowering the levels of thyroid peroxidase antibodies (TPOAb) in your system. Zinc and iron also play a role in the conversion of T4 to T3. Also, zinc triggers your hypothalamus to increase thyroid hormone production when levels are low, and iron helps the enzyme that converts iodide (the form of iodine you eat) into iodine so it can combine with tyrosine to build thyroid hormones.
4. Cherries - Cherries are a natural source of melatonin–the “sleep hormone” released by your pineal gland. Studies have found that cherries have the ability to increase melatonin levels, total sleep time, and quality of sleep. Cherries also contain other hormone-balancing nutrients including magnesium and vitamin C. Like melatonin, magnesium improves sleep by supporting optimal levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes restful sleep. Magnesium also helps calm the body’s stress response by preventing the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Vitamin C is essential for creating and regulating hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. Vitamin C can enhance the effects of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and work with estrogen to promote bone growth, which is particularly important for postmenopausal women who are at an increased risk of osteoporosis due to low estrogen.
5. Maca Root - Chronic stress is the type that never lets up, and keeps pumping out cortisol and adrenaline nonstop until your adrenals are shot. Maca root is an adaptogen, meaning it helps your body “adapt” to ongoing stressors by mediating the body’s stress response. When used over time, maca nourishes and enhances the function of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which restores balance to your overworked adrenal glands. Maca also supports healthy thyroid function and bone density, making it an all-around superfood for women struggling with imbalanced hormones.
Bottom Line: As we get older, our bodies change. Our diet lifestyle should change too. By eating foods that feel good to your body, you will be able to strengthen it by joining the #NKFITSQUAD and stave off aging a little more. Remember, there’s not a one size fits all plan, but these five ingredients are a good place to start, no matter what kind of imbalance you’re dealing with.
And, as always, you should always seek out your doctor’s advice if diet alone doesn’t start to soothe your symptoms.
Jacqueline Corbett, MS RD LD
The low fat craze of our childhoods did not work out for us. We all stopped eating many of our favorite foods thinking they were bad for us and ended up overweight, overly full of refined carbs, and sick. For the first time in 35 years, the USDA and HHS removed the limit on total fat consumption in the American diet (though they still recommend getting less than 10% from saturated fat) in 2015. Evidence clearly shows that eating more foods rich in healthy fats like nuts, oils, and fish have protective effects, particularly for cardiovascular disease. They also help you absorb some vitamins, fill you up so you eat less, and taste good, too.
Here are 9 to enjoy today:
1) Olive Oil - Olive oil is the original healthy fat. A tall body of research finds that it helps lower your risk for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Most recently, Spanish researchers publishing in the journal Molecules reported that the various components of olive oil including oleic acid and secoiridoids slow the aging process. To get the most health benefits, choose extra-virgin olive oil, as it is extracted using natural methods and doesn’t go through as much processing as regular. Research also shows that veggies sautéed in olive oil are also richer in antioxidants than boiled ones—and they taste better too!
2) Fish - You may have heard your mother or grandmother describe fish as "brain food." That’s because fish are brimming with omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain function. Your brain is made up of mostly fat, so you need to consume them in order to stay sharp and healthy. The new Dietary Guidelines recommend eating 8 ounces per week to get healthy amounts of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which feed your brain and fight inflammation and chronic disease. If you're concerned about mercury, choose salmon, anchovies, herring, shad, sardines, Pacific oysters, trout, and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel (not king mackerel), according to the USDA.
3) Avocado – As one of the NKFitSquad, you probably already know how awesome avocadoes are! But they’re more than just Natalie’s favorite food! They also help lower inflammation, which is linked to cardiovascular disease. In a 2014 study, a team of Mexican researchers fed a group of rats too much sugar, which gave them symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including high blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides. They then fed the rats avocado oil, which lowered levels of triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol in their blood, while keeping protective good HDL cholesterol levels intact. You also need to consume healthy fats in order for your body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
4) Eggs - The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines lifted the longstanding limit on cholesterol, as we now know the cholesterol you eat doesn't have that much bearing on the amount of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol floating in your bloodstream, and that saturated fat and genetic makeup are the real driving force behind dangerously high cholesterol. That's good news, since research finds that eating eggs in the morning can help you feel full and satisfied longer, making it easier to resist those pastries in your office pantry. Eggs from hens that are raised on pastures or fed omega-3 enriched feed tend to be higher in omega-3s.
5) Nuts - Nuts are nature's most perfect portable snack. Each handful packs a powerhouse of nutrients including amino acids, vitamin E, and unsaturated fatty acids. In one study in the British Journal of Nutrition, eating a daily one-ounce serving of nuts was associated with a 50% lower incidence of diabetes, a 30% reduction in heart disease, and a nearly 50% lower incidence of stroke. Before you chow down, beware the "candyfication" of nuts. Skip any that say "candied," or "glazed," and make sure there aren't any added ingredients, such as sugar and other vegetable oils. There is no need for oils to be added to nuts because they already have their own!
6) Seeds - Seeds like pumpkin, hemp, flax (grind these in a coffee grinder to release nutrients), chia, and sunflower are rich in monounsaturated fats like omega-3 fatty acids, which suppress inflammation. They're also a good source of protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals like vitamin E, iron, and magnesium. Pumpkin seeds have been found to be especially helpful for balancing blood sugar.
7) Coconut Oil - Coconut oil used to get a bad rap because its calories come predominantly from saturated fats. Now it's receiving some well-deserved vindication. The main type of saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which is known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Coconut oil is also unique from other sources of saturated fats because it contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are metabolized differently—they go straight from the liver to the digestive tract and can then be used up quicker than getting stored. It's also a very stable fat and is great for cooking with high temperatures.
8) Grass-fed Cheese - Cheese has long been regarded as dietary villain that clogs your arteries. However, some studies have found that people who regularly eat cheese have lower risk of high LDL cholesterol and heart disease. Aged cheeses like Parmesan are also a good source of probiotics, which promote healthy digestion and weight. Grass-fed cheese is full of good nutrients like MCT’s, phosphorous, protein, and calcium. It also increases levels of butyric acid in the body, which has been linked to lower obesity risk and a faster metabolism.
9) Dark Chocolate - For years, many of us reserved chocolate for an occasional indulgence. Now we know that a daily chunk of dark chocolate, which is a source of healthy fats, actually protects the heart. Researchers from Louisiana State University reported that when you eat dark chocolate, good gut microbes like Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria feast on it and they grow and ferment it, which produces anti-inflammatory compounds that protect your cardiovascular health. The sweet may also keep you slim. One study published in Archives of Internal Medicine found that folks who eat chocolate five times a week have a lower BMI and are about 6 pounds lighter than those who don’t eat any.
Bottom Line: There is no need to avoid fat. Eat what you love and what loves you back. Reach for the organic dark chocolate. Sprinkle extra seeds on your salad and use the full-fat dressing. Bake eggs in avocado and sprinkle with cheese. By shifting your focus away from the fat content on the food label, your brain, gut, skin, and bones will thank you. Avocado toast anyone?
Jacqueline Corbett, MS RD LD
If your local coffee shop’s menu has grown more confusing in the past few years, you’re not alone. Nondairy milk alternatives have expanded to include a wide variety of options (pea milk, anyone?), all of which maintain a healthy reputation. It can be tricky to keep them straight, much less sort out which ones are actually good for you or even worth the price. Don’t assume that all plant-based milks are all created equal; it is best to think of these alternatives as the liquid form of their original food. Whether you’re eating around dietary restrictions or simply looking for a new flavor profile, more protein, or something more natural, here’s what you need to know about the many products labeled as milk:
The presence of both naturally occurring and genetically modified hormones in dairy today has made it a hot topic with many dietitians. All dairy contains small levels of hormones like various estrogens, but organic brands will help you steer clear of GMOs like rBST.
However, across the board, cow’s milk has the most detrimental environmental impact: according to an Oxford review of over 150 studies, a single glass of cow’s milk uses more land and three times the greenhouse-gas emissions of any of the plant-based alternatives.
2. Lactose-Free Milk According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 65% of the human population (and 90% of adults of East Asian ancestry) have a reduced ability to digest lactose, a complex sugar found in milk, after infancy. Lactose-free milk has a nutrition profile similar to regular milk and offers a nice compromise for those who can’t digest the standard milk. Lactose-free milk isn’t made by removing lactose. Instead, manufacturers add the enzyme lactase, which breaks lactose down into easily digested sugars. This enzyme won’t help anyone with a whey or casein allergy though, as these components remain in the milk. It also tastes slightly sweeter than regular milk, since our tongue recognizes simple sugars as sweeter than complex ones.
3. Goat’s Milk Goat’s milk naturally contains less lactose than cow’s milk and is more nutritionally dense, with 168 calories per cup and around 10g each of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, as well as vitamin D, calcium, and potassium. It has a creamier texture which makes it great for lattes and thick sauces. The flavor of goat’s milk can change depending on goat breed and processing, so you may find that some brands taste sweet and mild, while others have a strong, more pungent flavor.
4. Rice Milk Unsweetened rice milk is primarily carbs, with 11g per cup and essentially no protein, making it a no-go for low-carb diets. At 70 calories per cup, it sits between cow’s milk and almond milk on the caloric spectrum, and it contains 25% of your daily calcium requirement.
Often rice milk contains brown rice syrup in addition to just plain rice, which is sugar by another name. I would recommend looking for milk alternatives that aren’t sweetened, and rice milk is a big offender. Check the label for other common additives, like canola oil, tapioca starch, and xanthan gum, used to thicken the texture.
5. Oat Milk Oat milk has grown in popularity in recent years and is very big in lattes now, thanks to its creamier texture. It’s also closer to cow’s milk in terms of caloric content: 120 calories per cup, 16g carbs, and 5g fat into each serving. Oat milk is also fortified with vitamins A, D, and B12, as well as calcium.
6. Hemp Milk This other recently trendy milk alternative has more fat and protein than almond or rice milk, with 4.7g protein and 7.3g fat (in the form of essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) per 83-calorie serving. Unlike many plant-based options, it contains all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein.
Like other alternatives, it’s fortified with sugars, thickeners, and vitamins A, B12, and D to mimic cow’s milk. Overall, this is a nutritional all-star.
7. Almond Milk Almond milk is great if you’re looking for a traditional milk flavor and texture with fewer calories. A serving of unsweetened almond milk is around 40 calories.
Almonds themselves have a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids that are considered helpful for weight loss, and marketing for almond milk can give the impression that each bottle is packed with almonds. But a lawsuit against Silk (one of the largest milk-alternative brands) in 2015 alleged that each bottle contained less than 2% almonds. The environmental impact is also worth noting: 80% of nuts used in almond milk are grown in drought-prone California, yet it takes over a gallon of water to produce a single almond.
8. Cashew Milk Like almond milk, unsweetened versions of cashew milk are low on macronutrients. So if you’re mainly trying to reduce overall daily caloric intake, swapping whole milk for a nut milk might be a place to start, but for an athlete looking to fuel performance, cashew milk comes up short. Compared to almond milk, cashew milk is slightly creamier, but a one cup serving is a mere 25 calories and less than 1g of both protein and carbs.
9. Soy Milk A 2018 study that compared plant-based milk alternatives found soy to have the most balanced nutritional profile of the bunch. Soy milk has 80 calories per cup, with 4g fat, 7g protein, and 3g carbs, making it similar in protein and fat to a glass of 2% milk. Silk also fortifies its soy milk with vitamins A, D2, and B12, and adds gellan gum to make it thicker.
10. Coconut Milk Coconut milk used to come exclusively in a can, and more often in curry than a latte. But now, more processed, drinkable forms of coconut milk are sold in cartons by the gallon, with a texture similar to almond milk. Both varieties are higher in fat and potassium and lower in protein than other milks. The caloric difference between a cup of canned coconut milk versus a cup of coconut milk is noteworthy: a cup of canned milk has 445 calories with 48g fat, while the carton milk has a mere 45 calories and 4.5 fat. Both offer a full daily dose of vitamin B.
10. Pea Milk Pea milk is derived from pea protein and offers a similar amount of protein and fat as regular whole milk 8g protein and 4g fat. It is higher in carbs, racking up 15g per cup. Pea milk has twice the amount of calcium of cow’s milk—as well as potassium. Most brands making pea milk boost it with additives like sunflower and algal oils, which offer a smooth texture and additional nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids.
Bottom Line: Get in touch with your own individual body. While cow's milk is inflammatory for many people, nuts and seed milks are some of the most prevalent allergens too. Also, carb-heavy milks such as oat milk could be inflammatory if you've been consistent on a low-carb eating plan. This shows that every body will react differently to each milk. Choose a milk that both your taste buds and body enjoy the most.
JACQUELINE CORBETT, MS RD LD
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Women's Health & Fitness Specialist.