VEGAN DIETS + WOMEN'S HEALTH
We don't like writing off vegan diets as so many do when it comes to hormone health and optimal wellness. From managing PCOS, irregular cycles, PMS or sluggish thyroid function, we've witnessed many health professionals claiming that these issues cannot be solved on a plant-based diet. And whilst everyone is different, this may be the case for you.
What we do know is that if you are on a vegan diet for ethical reasons, there is little changing your mind (we LOVE a strong woman) and the stress over if it is or isn't helping underlying imbalance doesn't help things in the slightest.
INSTEAD, let's focus on what we can do to support those on a vegan diet and their health and wellness.
Firstly, let's look at what can be considered unhealthy on a plant-based diet and the endocrine/ reproductive system and target those points directly. We HIGHLY recommend if you are vegan, getting frequent testing done and if you can, working with an expert who can help you maintain the healthiest diet.
Why vegan diets don't always support balanced hormones + the endocrine system:
- High carbohydrate intake can lead to unruly blood sugar.
- Can be lacking key nutrients.
- Low in saturated fat, needed for cholesterol and hormone production.
- Can be high in unhealthy processed foods/meat alternatives.
- Can be low in bioavailable protein.
So, let's have a look into some of the KEY nutrients and elements to focus on when undergoing a vegan diet. Here's our guide to making your vegan diet the healthiest it can be.
Long story short, you can get omega-3 EFAs via a plant-based diet (chia seeds, flax, hemp seeds, walnuts) which are rich sources of ALA. HOWEVER, vegan diets cannot supply the OTHER two types of EFAs (EPA + DHA - found mostly in fish), so a high amount of ALA must be consumed in order to be converted into EPA + DHA in the body - but this isn't always optimal. Getting in those essential sources of fat and a decent amount is SO important for optimal health, from skin health to their anti-inflammatory benefits.
Luckily, algal oil is a rich source of DHA and contains some EPA too, making it a really good source of omega-3 for vegan diets. We recommend not just relying on chia and flaxseed as your primary source of omega-3, but also including a high-quality algae oil supplement too (of course, everyone is different so do your own research/ work with a pro + check for drug/ nutrient interactions).
You most likely already know that vegan diets cannot provide B12, but it's important to emphasise nonetheless. We need B12 primarily for the nervous system and deficiencies can be really detrimental. It is ALSO worth noting that those taking Metformin are at risk of a B12 deficiency, so it is important to supplement in that case too.
If you're not supplementing B12 yet find yourself lacking in energy, are prone to pins and needles, feel weak or have obvious changes in mood - its time to supplement. We also really recommend getting tested too!
To be completely honest, it's bloody hard getting vitamin D in on a non-vegan diet, let alone a vegan diet. We also need vitamin D to absorb calcium, which is essential for healthy bones and muscle function. The reason why vitamin D is mentioned is here because your body has to convert cholesterol into vitamin D. Some plant-based foods contain vitamin D2, but very small amounts (mushrooms, fortifed foods). For hormone health, especially where healthy cycles are concerned, we need vitamin D which an awful lot of us are deficient in. Consider supplementing (it may be recommended to start off slightly higher at first, and then work your way onto a maintenance dose). This is another case of why it is important to get tested first and then work with a pro who can determine the recommended dose. Oh, and GET outside!
If you look on the back of your multivitamin vs a multi designed for men, more often than not, ours will contain iron whilst the male alternative doesn't OR won't contain as much. WHY? Because we bleed for a week straight. You can get iron on a vegan diet but it is in a slightly less bioavailable form and requires vitamin C to aid absorption, so always squeeze a little lemon juice on your dark leafy greens. Not everyone is deficient in iron, HOWEVER, it is a really common deficiency which presents in fatigue and shortness of breath.
Repeat after us, DO NOT supplement with iron unless you have been tested for a deficiency or low levels, as supplementing blindly can cause more harm than good. If not deficient, get in those dark leafy greens (you should be anyway!), sea veggies, legumes and whole grains.
Not really considered a potential deficiency, but we do think vitamin A is really fun to talk about. Vitamin A comes in many different forms, and the preformed type of vitamin A is only bioavailable from animal sources (liver, egg yolks etc) whilst pre-vitamin A carotenoids (such as beta-carotene) are found in plants (sweet potato, carrots, squash etc) and are converted into an available form of vitamin A in the body. It is something to consider about in cases of acne (multifaceted, but its a good idea to address it from all angles). You can't overdo it or get carotenoid toxicity the way you can with preformed vitamin A, which is a great thing.
Iodine is essential for thyroid function and the synthesis of healthy thyroid hormone. When deficient, the thyroid has to work extra hard. It can also result in irregular cycles, anovulatory cycles and is really essential to consider when TTC for baby's development.
Iodine is really rich in seafood and shellfish, so vegans are at risk of a deficiency. Now, I don't recommend blindly supplementing with iodine, as TOO MUCH can also be detrimental. Start incorporating sea veg into your meals every day (add it to the water you boil your grains, add to salads) or you can also take phytoplankton in a small glass of water with some lemon in the morning.
If you are experiencing symptoms of imbalance that you suspect may be thyroid related, we ALWAYS recommend testing - hormone panels BUT also hair mineral analysis. Test first before supplementing iodine, or opt for a very low dose of food grown supplementation.
Vegan diets can also be at risk for zinc deficiency which is essential to consider when looking at the root cause of an imbalance as zinc is responsible for SO many different aspects of hormone health and the endocrine system. From androgen conversion pathways, blood sugar, ovarian function and thyroid function.
As we've mentioned before, ensure that there are no overlaps of zinc in other supplements you may be taking if you do supplement zinc and ensure that it also contains copper too (most good supplements will). Again, really worth getting tested before supplementing. Plant-based sources of zinc include pumpkin seeds and whole grains. To get the most out of these, soak before eating due to possible phytate activity.
I believe that the body is very efficient at calcium homeostasis, so generally speaking, I think there are more important things to worry about, for most people. HOWEVER, when it comes to menopause and if you know that you require more calcium - then it is important to ensure you're getting the right amount to suit your needs.
On a plant-based diet, get your calcium in through dark leafy greens, sesame seeds/ tahini, nuts, wholegrain, legumes and dried figs. If you do choose to supplement, WORK with a professional and ensure you're vitamin D and vitamin K levels are optimal.
BLOOD SUGAR BALANCE
Often overlooked in regards to hormone health and vegan diets. It is really tricky to keep blood sugar stable on a vegan diet due to the high quality of carbohydrates. We need to stabilise blood sugar when working on hormone balance as insulin (released in response to glucose in the blood) can throw off the rest of our sex hormones when chronically high.
Here are a few ways to ensure you're keeping blood sugar stable:
- Ensure that your plate and every meal contains a source of protein, healthy fat, fibre, leafy greens and a mindful carbohydrate source. SO, if you're having a chickpea (protein, carbohydrates) curry, swap the rice for cauliflower rice (fibre), add in coconut milk (fat) then lots of veggies.
- Ensure you're getting in enough healthy fats
- Combine your plant-based protein throughout the day rather than trying to do it all in one meal - this can stack up the carbs.
- Have a source of fat alongside fruit.
- Start the day with a protein and fat focused blood sugar balancing smoothie with plant-based protein (lots of info about these on my feed).
- Opt for high quality, unrefined carbohydrate sources such as legumes and sweet potatoes over bread and pasta.
- Keep blood sugar stable by keeping stress levels down, move your body daily and incorporate ACV and cinnamon.
You can absolutely get in enough protein on a vegan diet - it's just the question of whether or not it is as bioavailable as animal sources.
We like to think of protein like a bag of lego. Salmon, for example, has a full bag of lego needed to make the lego house. It has the FULL range of amino acids needed to be utilised by the body as protein.
Chickpeas, on the other hand, can be considered a half-full bag of lego and to make the house (the full, bioavailable source of protein) we need another bag of half-full lego, such as brown rice, to make the house. NOW, this can be done in one meal or over the course of the day. To avoid cramming in too many carbohydrates into one meal, we recommend the latter. Make sure you're getting in a variety of different sources of plant-based protein throughout the day to ensure your protein is complete.
Quinoa and soy are considered complete forms. Some may find that omitting soy can be beneficial for their hormone health, but this is completely down to the individual.
If you are plant-based or are happy incorporating a little animal protein/ products into your diet to experiment, these are the easiest, less daunting ways of doing it. Everyone is different and it has to fit in with what you're comfortable with.
- Collagen powder - ensure grass-fed and add into smoothies, snacks and hot drinks.
- Fish oil supplements
- Liver supplements (you can also get heart supplements. Organ meats are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet and the supplements are a lot easier to face than the actual organ itself).
- Bone broth blended into soups (you do not notice it is there, but great for gut health and contains collagen).
- Eggs blitzed into protein pancakes - top with coconut yoghurt and berries.
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