Do Hormone Balancing Diets Work? Here’s What You Need To Know.
There are a TON of people online who are selling hormone balancing diets. I’ve seen too many ‘health coaches’ and influencers telling followers that raw carrot salads, nettle tea, and seed rotation (don’t ask) will balance hormones. There are also the MLM people selling hormone-balancing essential oils (true story) and shakes.
All of this is crazy. But hormones can be confusing for the layperson, and even more so when I say that like many things pushed by the alternative/integrative/functional medicine community, many hormone balancing diets seem to be based on a bit of truth, and a bit of BS.
Let’s start by talking about hormones, because that’s an important piece of the puzzle when we’re figuring out if these diets are actually helpful.
What are hormones?
In short, hormones are signalling molecules that regulate certain body processes.
The hormones that most hormone balancing diets claim to affect are:
Insulin: the ‘storage hormone.’ Insulin is released when we eat, and takes glucose into the cells to use for energy.
Thyroid: thyroid hormones (TSH, T3, T4) regulate everything from the metabolic rate, breathing rate, heartbeat, body temperature, and menstrual cycles, among other things. I talk more about this here.
Estrogen: Female sex hormones.
Cortisol: a stress hormone.
What are hormone balancing diets?
Because our hormones are responsible for so much, we can really feel it when one or more of them isn’t at the proper levels. When thyroid levels are low, we can gain weight, and feel tired, cold, and lethargic. High or low estrogen and androgen levels can mess up our periods and affect fertility. High cortisol can facilitate fat storage.
Naturally, some (mostly integrative) practitioners have latched on to the idea of a hormone balancing diet. To the layperson, it seems intuitive that what we eat would have an impact on our hormone levels, but that’s not always the case. Hormones become unbalanced for a variety of reasons, and are rarely unbalanced because of what we are – or aren’t – eating.
It’s hard to pinpoint some hormone imbalances, since some hormones – especially estrogen and progesterone – are usually in flux. Hormone imbalance is often diagnosed with symptoms, which can be vague enough for some diet paddlers to convince you that you have an issue, to which OF COURSE they have a $olution.
Most hormone balancing diets end up being what most people would consider a regular, healthy diet and lifestyle: lots of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, more fiber, fewer ultra-processed foods. Eating at regular intervals. Decreasing stress. That sort of stuff, All good.
But, these diets also typically have ‘do not eat’ lists that tend to be restrictive and, based on integrative and functional medicine and may not be based in solid evidence.
It’s funny – and very telling – that a search for actual research and legitimate information about hormones and diet, always leads to pages and pages of alternative medicine sites.
I wonder why that is?
Things hormone diets get right (or, sort of right):
They recommend fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
We know that fiber binds to some metabolized estrogen in the body to remove excess. We have no clue how much estrogen is bound with how much fiber, we just know that it’s one step in an entire process. Fiber also stabilizes blood sugar and insulin levels. But note that the fiber from raw carrots isn’t magical – it’s just fiber.
I do love how many hormone diets recommend not going low in carbs, which can bump up cortisol levels. This is correct.
Most hormone diets recommend phytoestrogens from foods like flax and soy. While they’re a great source of fiber and phytochemicals, research shows that our estrogen levels aren’t significantly affected by our intake of phytoestrogens.
Elizabeth Ward RD, co-author of The Menopause Diet Plan, told me this about phytoestrogens and soy:
Women who have hot flashes, which are caused by plunging estrogen levels, may try to offset them with phytoestrogens found in plant foods. Flax seed and soy products are particularly rich in phytoestrogens, which are weaker forms of the estrogen the body makes. There’s a shortage of research about the effects of phytoestrogens and what does exist is often conflicting. Although some women may get hot flash relief, anyone claiming that phytoestrogens calm or cure hot flashes for everyone is taking liberties with the science. Of course, there are numerous reasons to include flax, soy and other plant foods in a balanced eating plan, including a lower risk for heart disease.
They recommend good fats like those in fish, avocados, and nuts. Fats are used in the production of estrogen and other hormones, and help stabilize blood sugar, insulin, and ghrelin (for satiety) levels when eaten as part of a meal. I’ve seen a lot of hormone diets recommending coconut oil, which..no. There’s no reason why coconut oil would be hormone balancing.
Cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts contain diindolylmethane, which among other nutrients, helps the liver metabolize estrogen. It’s not that cruciferous vegetables are the answer; compounds in them – and other foods – are a part of the puzzle. Adding broccoli into your diet isn’t going to balance your hormones, but it’s definitely healthy.
A lot of people who sell hormone balancing diets will tell you that you have a ‘sluggish liver,’ which doesn’t exist. and recommend crucifers, supplements, a hormone diet meal plan, and a liver detox, which is *BS* Alternative practitioners seem to be obsessed with livers for some reason.
Probiotics. This one is weird. Probiotics can help strengthen our microbiome, which in turn may affect our health. We don’t for sure if they affect our hormones, at least not directly. But, they’re generally safe, so that’s fine. But when ‘hormone doctors’ who aren’t doctors at all start saying things like this, “Probiotics are healthy bacteria that can actually improve your production and regulation of key hormones like insulin, ghrelin, and leptin” – it’s not okay. We have no idea how gut bacteria affects hormones, and even less of an idea of which probiotics may do this. This is a great example of how these people overstep the science and overblow (okay, invent) claims.
They stress the importance of regular meals. Definitely true. Eating on a regular basis helps stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels.
What hormone balancing diets get wrong:
Aside from recommending handfuls of unresearched supplements that you probably don’t need, and claiming that their diet can fix all of your hormone troubles, they usually say not to eat:
Cortisol, the levels of which are primarily driven by our stress levels, can rise if you drink coffee. However, this rise is transitory, and has not be associated with adverse hormonal or other health effects in the real world.
This is completely and utterly without merit. Period. Nothing about GMOs affects hormone balance. Hormone balancing diets usually recommend organic food, but this isn’t necessary. One ‘hormone specialist’ said: “There are studies that show that even one serving of a high-pesticide fruit or vegetable (such as strawberries) has a negative impact on fertility.” Nope. Not even a bit.
While there is bovine estrogen in milk, the amounts are very, very low. Like, much lower than (the human type) we produce in our own bodies. To kick an entire food group to the curb for this would be unnecessary, but it’s not surprising to me that dairy, along with gluten are on the ‘don’t eat’ list. As one person put it, “Dairy, sugar, gluten, high-fat foods, processed foods, and factory-farmed animal protein are all obvious food items to nix if you’re eating for your health with hormones in mind” There’s actually no hormone-based reason to eliminate any of these foods from your diet. Anyone who gives blanket recommendations like this raises a lot of red flags for me.
Uh, nope. Just another empty claim to make gluten the villain. No evidence suggests that gluten has anything to do with our hormone levels EXCEPT if you have celiac disease. Which, most of us don’t.
In moderate amounts, sugar will do nothing to your hormones. In large amounts, just as with everything else, it may cause weight gain, which can impact insulin resistance and blood glucose levels.
This is a play to make it seem as though organic meat is somehow healthier for our hormone levels than conventional meat. There’s no human research out there that confirms that.
Research suggests that artificial sweeteners may impact hormones, but most of these studies are done in lab dishes, and on rodents fed very large amounts of the sweetener. Human studies are observational. Do I recommend large amounts of sweeteners? Nope. But, I don’t recommend large amounts of any sweet (including sugar) (read more here).
An honorable mention goes to the hormone person who said this: “Skipping breakfast could ramp up your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which is linked to fat storage on our bellies.” Apparently, someone was sick the day they taught science at school.
No one food will save – or destroy – your health, or balance your hormones. Even raw carrot salad and Isagenix shakes.
People who sell hormone balancing diets want us to think that if we follow their diet, our hormones will be magically fixed. But hormones become unbalanced because of more than just diet: stress, medications, puberty, menopause, pregnancy, PCOS, diabetes, and thyroid disease are all causes of hormone imbalance. And often, it takes more than diet to balance them.
Hormones can also be tough to measure, leaving symptoms open to interpretation. This doesn’t always happen, but I’ve seen too many ‘diet experts’ using vague symptoms to convince people that they have something wrong with them, when really, they don’t.
I’m not trying to minimize the role that our diet plays in our health, but as far as hormone balancing goes, some of the claims are ahead – or outside of – the science. And food can only do so much.
Hormone balancing diets are as much about the ‘don’t eat’ list as they are about the foods they recommend. The diets are also expensive, full of restriction, and arbitrary rules. Nobody needs any of that. But many of them have some good recommendations.
There’s nothing dangerous about hormone balancing diets except for the unnecessary elimination of foods.
If you want to try a hormone diet, go ahead. Just keep in mind that some of it might not be based in science. And please – think twice about buying tons of supplements from anyone. Do your research first.
Otherwise, eat a varied diet that includes lots of plants, good fats, whole grains, and lean proteins. And don’t be scared into eliminating foods from your diet by people who are trying to sell you something.