When did we start eating to look a certain way, instead of to feel a certain way? Why are so many of us in the developed world eating for aesthetics rather than energy? We let ourselves go hungry, feel deprived and are endlessly counting down to the next time we “get to eat”. Yes - food should be enjoyed for social and/or emotional fulfilment, yet it seems that most of us have lost touch with the underlying reason we humans inherently need to eat – food is fuel.
The following point cannot be stressed enough (so, listen up ladies!): Chronic under-eating, whether it be of nutrient-dense foods (malnutrition) or simply a lack of food in general (undernutrition) is just as detrimental or potentially more detrimental to your health than over-eating. In our society, poor nutrition should not be the thing that stops us from seizing each day and living our lives to the fullest.
It is both easy and common to fall into the trap of eating far less than what society deems “too much” and completely avoiding the perceived “wrong foods”. All the while letting your poor, tired body get used to the feeling of hunger – perpetuated by the sole focus of looking a certain way. Unfortunately, many women are in this boat, and SO many women are yet to take the first step – recognising that this is you.
Fortunately – it is entirely possible to no longer be a puppet in this gruelling game. When you nourish your body with real, wholesome food that it has been deprived of for so long – you can finally start living to your full health potential. For example, eating the right foods can improve the ability of your cells to hear and respond to the hormonal signals your body is putting out on a minute by minute basis to keep things flowing as they should. You will once again, be able to trust your body and the physiological processes it was designed to carry out.
This topic is particularly important when it comes to women. Optimal health and a ‘hot bod’ are usually not one and the same. Our bodies are smart, much smarter than we give them credit for. Our bodies can sense a high-stress state, such as lack of food or inadequate intake of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Stress can throw our bodies into survival mode and consequently shut off those "non-essential" functions - fertility potentially being one of them! In Palaeolithic times, high-stress usually reflected an environment where it was not safe to reproduce – either the external environment (e.g., poor living not suitable to raise a child) or the internal environment (i.e., you). So yes, your fertility is one of those functions that can take the hit if you are not fuelling yourself adequately – you are not thriving.
And fertility is not all about making babies. Fertility is a reflection of your health.
Far too many women today are experiencing hypothalamic amenorrhea. That is, the hypothalamus (part of the brain) is not effectively communicating with the pituitary gland to release luteinising or gonadotropin releasing hormone. To put it simply, women’s menstrual periods are no longer so periodic. And no, a pill bleed is not a period.
For many women, no or irregular periods are ‘not a problem’. In fact, some women might perceive it as a good thing! Less period = less hassle, right? This is not the case. A woman’s period is a sign of healthy hormonal and physical function. Health implications of hypothalamic amenorrhea might include:
Impaired cardiovascular (heart) health
Impaired bone health (e.g., osteopenia, osteoporosis)
Mood disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety)
There are many contributors to hypothalamic amenorrhea (in addition to a lack of food or malnutrition), such as too much physical activity relative to what your body can tolerate, certain medications and poor mental/emotional health. However, arguably the most COMMON reason is a lack of energy availability (with or without weight loss) or inadequate body fat levels. In other words, your body is not able to utilise its stored fuel (fat and/or micronutrients) efficiently. Otherwise, your body simply does not have enough fuel stored to function to its potential. This could be a problem of not enough stored fuel (e.g., very low body fat percentage) or inability to access stored fuel (e.g. insulin resistance). In any case, there is not necessarily a magical body fat percentage target that will "heal" you – every woman is unique and personally tailored advice is paramount.
Other symptoms of not fuelling your body efficiently include; poor sleep, dry skin, hair loss, anxiety, depression, and mood swings. Even if you’re not experiencing hypothalamic amenorrhea – you still need to ask yourself the following:
Do you feel hungry more than you feel satiated?
Are you constantly feeling tired and struggling to get through the day?
Does your diet allow you to thrive at home, at work, on the weekend, and at the gym?
Are your living to your full potential?
Answering 'yes' to any of these questions is not okay – but, it is becoming all too normal – so much so that women are not seeking the help they need; deserve.
No matter what your goals are, you do not need to go hungry. You cannot be the best version of yourself if you are not putting the right fuel (and enough of it!) into your body. Here are some of our top nutrition tips:
Eat mostly whole foods (i.e., food that isn’t highly processed and doesn’t come from a box). This might include vegetables, fruits, red meat, chicken, fish, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, etc.
Eat when hungry and stop eating when full. This can be extremely difficult for some women and often takes some time to tune in to. However, if you are eating the right types of food that are naturally low in sugar and high in vitamins, minerals and healthy fats – you will not need to weigh and measure foods or count your daily calories. Your body will do the maths for you! You just need to learn to trust it.
Don’t over complicate things. Food essentially breaks down to protein, carbohydrate and fat in your body. We all need different amounts of these macronutrients depending on factors such as body composition, exercise, stress, genetics, etc. The more food is processed, the more the macronutrient (and micro) balance in that food is disrupted. This could affect how your body reacts to and uses these foods. Yes, yet another reason to choose whole foods (think - how would this food have appeared in nature)!
At the end of the day, it is about listening to your body and giving it what it needs. This is not easy and it is recommended that you seek appropriate medical supervision and personally tailored advice from an Accredited Practicing Dietitian to ensure that you are on the right path. Start by becoming aware of your habits and ask yourself the following:
- Are you enjoying a wide range of nutritious foods every day?
- Are you hungry at meal times and when are you most/least hungry?
- What does true hunger feel like to you? Do you ever push past it? Why/why not?
- Are you spacing your meals throughout the day, or only fuelling yourself towards the end of the day?
- Are you eating foods you enjoy, or are you simply eating to get by?
If you feel like you might benefit from personalised nutrition advice, you can book an appointment (phone consultation) with Ellipse Health Accredited Practicing Dietitians Jessica Turton or Melissa Juergens by clicking here.
Chrousos GP, Torpy DJ, Gold PW. Interactions between the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis and the Female Reproductive System: Clinical Implications. Ann Intern Med. 1998;129:229-240. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-129-3-199808010-00012 Meczekalski, B., Katulski, K., Czyzyk, A., Podfigurna-Stopa, A., & Maciejewska-Jeske, M. (2014). Functional hypothalamic amenorrhea and its influence on women’s health. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation, 37(11), 1049–1056. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40618-014-0169-3