Feeling sluggish, fatigued, or struggling to lose weight? If you feel like taking energy supplements just to get through the day, hormonal imbalances may be to blame for your symptoms- at least according to popular media.
While there’s no doubt that hormones play an enormously important role in metabolism, hunger, and satiety, many individuals ascribe their perceived inability to lose weight as a hormonal issue, rather than a behavioral one. More often than not, a hormonal imbalance isn’t behind slow or nonexistent weight loss; rather, ineffective dietary methodology is to blame for the inability to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
However, in certain instances, hormonal conditions can impede weight loss and make reaching and maintaining a healthy weight harder. Conditions like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and hypothyroidism, Hashimoto’s disease, insulin resistance, and other hormonal imbalances can make losing weight difficult, and cause bothersome symptoms like fatigue, constipation, and susceptibility to cold.
Diagnosing Hormonal Imbalances
While it’s tempting to self-diagnose yourself, it’s important that you leave diagnosis to medical professionals. Diagnosing an individual with a hormonal condition or imbalance requires nothing more than a simple blood test. At the very least, diagnosis (or lack thereof) will have you on the right path to finding a way to balance your weight and improve your long-term health outcome.
In the absence of a diagnosis (in other words, if your lack of weight loss success cannot be attributed to a hormonal condition), your best bet is to contact a registered dietitian to help you find the best way to lose weight. Often, consumers shy away from the most effective method-Calorie counting- instead opting for trendy elimination diets that fail to produce long term results.
Can eating certain foods optimize hormone balance?
Yes and no. It largely depends on the individual, their weight, and disease status. The way one food affects one person may differ drastically from the way it affects another.
Let’s consider two individuals: one metabolically healthy woman, and a woman with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Insulin resistance is considered to be a hallmark symptom of PCOS. Insulin is a hormone that allows the body to effectively store and metabolize carbohydrate. When the body becomes resistant to insulin, the body is no longer able to tolerate carbohydrate to a normal, healthy degree.
As a consequence, blood sugar becomes high and the body secretes even more insulin in an attempt to sweep large amounts of sugar from the bloodstream, directing sugar to be stored as fat in the abdomen. For this reason, abdominal obesity is very common in women with PCOS, and restricting carbohydrate and high glycemic foods can be helpful and necessary for women with PCOS to lose weight. The same cannot be said for metabolically healthy individuals, for whom carbohydrate restriction is not nearly so important in terms of weight loss.
While carbohydrate restriction can be an effective tool in weight loss regardless of metabolic health, for women with PCOS it often become a necessity, not a choice or preference.
In metabolically healthy individuals, modifying diet to optimize hormone function is more tricky than in metabolically dysfunctional individuals, because there simply isn’t much to optimize in an individual who is able to tolerate and metabolize different food effectively.
Although altering macronutrient ratios and favoring different foods can certainly optimize certain health outcomes (for example, many bodybuilders reduce carbohydrate consumption to aid fat loss and increase leanness), the overwhelming driver of weight status will always be Calorie consumption, not any one food group.
Hormonal Imbalances and Obesity: Does eliminating certain foods improve hormone levels?
That being said, being overweight or obese does dramatically affect hormone levels. For men, for example, being overweight can increase circulating estrogen, driving fat to the midsection and causing gynecomastia (aka, man boobs). For women, high androgen (specifically, testosterone) can cause acne and facial hair. These and other metabolic abnormalities come as a consequence of having excess fat tissue.
Additionally, with excess fat, the body can become insulin resistance as described above in the discussion of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Insulin resistance, borderline insulin resistance, and prediabetes are extremely common, even in individuals who are only moderately overweight. For this reason, reducing carbohydrate can improve weight loss outcomes, but only when used in conjunction with Caloric reduction.