Does dieting affect your period?

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Naturopath, Herbalist and Yoga teacher (BA, Dip Nat, Dip Herb)
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27 September 2022

Does dieting affect your period?

Limiting your calorie intake, yoyo dieting and restrictive diets can prevent your body from getting enough nutrients to meet your hormonal needs. When this happens, the body can go into starvation mode, using nutrients for other vital areas such as your brain and heart. This can result in missed or irregular periods.

Diet and your period

Our diet effects our menstrual cycle, whether we are dieting or not. A healthy diet is one of the best things for a healthy menstrual cycle! Dieting can cause problems for your period if you are restricting your calorie intake and not meeting your nutritional needs. It's all about balance. Eating a very unhealthy diet can contribute PMS and symptoms of oestrogen dominance, so eating a healthier diet can be very beneficial for your hormones.

Our periods are known as our fifth vital sign. It is a great feedback system to let us know when something in our life is out of balance and when our body needs some more care and attention. If you are experiencing any menstrual problems, looking at your diet is a good place to start!

When does dieting have a negative effect on your period?

1. Not eating enough calories

If you are dieting to lose weight and are not getting enough calories to meet your daily needs, this means you are also not getting enough nutrients to meet your hormone's needs. Often when the body perceives a period of starvation it thinks, "Oh dear, famine! Not a good time for making babies!" and so the menstrual cycle often ceases, to prevent landing you with an extra mouth to feed in times of famine. Your body would rather keep you alive by bringing essential nutrients to your heart and brain. The reproductive system is less important for your survival!

2. Yo-yo dieting

Yo-yo dieting is another way that dieting can negatively affect your period. When we have an erratic intake of food, eating healthily for a few days, and then hitting a big binge of fatty, processed or sugary foods, it sends very mixed signals to our hormonal system and often causes irregular periods and symptoms of PMS.

For some women, maintaining a healthy diet is easy for most of their cycle but, during the days leading up to their period, PMS symptoms and junk food cravings rear their annoying heads. Throwing all caution to the wind, we might feed our cravings but this, in turn, has a negative effect on our periods, worsening PMS symptoms.

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3. Eating disorders

When dieting becomes obsessive to a level that feels unhealthy it may be considered an eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa is often associated with the same amenorrhea, or lack of period, as those with very low nutritional intake due to an unhealthy diet. Those suffering from bulimia nervosa experience many of the same hormonal problems as yo-yo dieters. It is really important if you are suffering from any kind of eating disorder to seek the appropriate support from a therapist or support group.

Bodywhys in Ireland and Beat in the UK are good resources to check out if you need support recovering from an eating disorder.

4. Ketogenic diet

The ketogenic diet is another type of diet that can cause changes to your menstrual cycle. A ketogenic diet includes high levels of fat and low levels of carbohydrates. It is widely touted as a great way to lose weight and does have some therapeutic benefits in cases of epilepsy. (1) However for the vast majority of women, it is not a great long term diet to undertake as it can cause irregular periods or can cause periods to stop altogether, a sign that the body is under stress.

How can diet have a positive effect on your period?

While dieting can have a negative effect on the menstrual cycle, so too can obesity and unhealthy eating. So it is important to eat well and maintain healthy body weight to keep your hormones happy. If you are obese, losing weight may help you to see a reduction in PMS and help your cycle to be more regular and less heavy. That being said, unhealthy diets with low levels of nutrition are unhealthy for all women's menstrual cycles, whether you are under or overweight, or a healthy weight.

1. Eat real food

Eating a wholefood, mostly unprocessed diet is one of the best things you can do for your health in general. Getting good levels of nutrition, including good fats, is really important for your hormones. Reducing your intake of processed foods, high in salt and sugar, can also help to reduce symptoms of PMS and dysmenorrhea, aka painful periods.

2. Mediterranean diet

Following a Mediterranean diet has many health benefits but it is the one diet that consistently shows benefits for women and their menstrual cycles.(2) Eating lots of plants, good fats like olive oil and avocados, protein from plants, fish and a small amount of meat provides good building blocks for your hormones but it can also be a good choice to help you lose weight, if you need to, without counting calories or going hungry.(3

3. Fibre

A diet high in fibre is also associated with a healthy menstrual cycle. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that higher levels of fibre in the diet were linked to lower levels of oestrogen, thus reducing PMS.(4

4. Phytoestrogens

Phytoestrogens are plant-based substances that have an oestrogen-balancing effect in the body. So, whether someone has no period due to excessive dieting, or heavy periods and PMS due to an unhealthy diet or obesity, the phytoestrogens can help balance things out. Soya and flax are both great sources of phytoestrogens. I recommend 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds a day for anyone looking to support their hormones. Women can also enjoy a few servings of minimally processed soya per week; things like tofu, tempeh, miso, nato or edamame beans.

Bye-bye diet culture, hello self-love!

The pressure on women to be thin, this dieting culture we have grown up with, and the media and fashion industries' portrayals of a particular body type are some of the biggest failings that women are dealt by modern western culture, in my opinion. And it has caused countless physical and emotional issues for women for decades.

It is important to recognise what a huge money-making business the diet industry is. The weight loss and weight management diet market size was valued at $192.2 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $295.3 billion by 2027.(5) Yet 95% of diets don't work.

We diet, we lose some weight, we gain it back again (usually with a few extra pounds!). Or we starve ourselves, developing an unhealthy relationship with that which should nurture us, to be thin at any cost. It is vicious cycle that affects our mental health, our digestive health and our hormonal health.

Self-love, self-acceptance, and prioritising health, rather than physical appearance, are much better ideals and concepts for our girls and young women to be growing up with. When I have clients who want to lose weight, whether for health reasons or otherwise, I always recommend the work of Louise Hay. Her book You Can Heal Your Life was instrumental in my own journey and countless of my clients, friends and colleagues!

When you begin to love and accept yourself, as you are right now, it becomes so much easier to make the right food choices for your body, and for your hormones!

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