As I’ve been taking on more clients and speaking directly to readers, I’ve noticed an increasing number of them on Keto, Whole30 or Paleo diets, consuming low carbohydrates and dealing with amenorrhea, irregular periods, are pre-menapause, or have thyroid disease. It makes sense they look to me for answers because I dealt with 5 years of amenorrhea and have Hashimoto’s disease and no matter how many doctors I saw I never got answers which is why I became a nutritionist to find my own.
Recently, I had an alarming comment from a someone who told me they were avoiding oats because they were making them fat. Oats are a part of a healthy diet. They’re high in fiber, meaning they remove the junk from your body which is why they’re great for weight loss and a healthy heart. Fiber also removes excess hormones. When paired properly with omega-3 healthy fats, they help the body work optimally. So, when I saw this comment I knew I had to finally address why you need carbohydrates.
Unfortunately, eliminating carbs is a common reaction when someone senses something wrong with their body. It’s one of the reasons I’m personally not a fan of Paleo, Keto or Whole30 diets. They eliminate some of the best foods the body needs (beans, rice, oats, etc). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for those diets, and if they work for you, that’s great! But I don’t believe they’re ideal for the general population.
Why You Need Carbs
Carbs are a necessary component of healthy brain and hormone function. Not only is it the brain’s preferred fuel, but it’s also needed for reproductive and thyroid hormone production along with healthy omega-3 fats. Often, women with amenorrhea, who are on lower carb diets eating healthy fats discover once they add carbohydrates to their diet they regain their periods or begin losing weight.
This doesn’t work for everyone though, but it has worked for some, myself included when I was dealing with severe sugar cravings, gaining belly fat and couldn’t get answers from any of the 20+ doctors I saw between 2014 to 2015. As you recall from this post, I was put on an estrogen supplement to jumpstart my periods which resulted in me having higher insulin and becoming leptin resistant. Too much estrogen creates more hormones. It’s a fine balance!
Insulin plays a critical role in weight loss and how you store fat. The more insulin resistant you are, the more insulin you release and the more fat you store. Getting this under control can be tricky, and often people assume reducing carbohydrate intake is the answer. However, in my experience stress is generally the bigger culprit, not healthy carbohydrates.
Why Does Stress Matter?
The HPA axis of the brain controls hormone function. It’s the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenals that work together and decide how well, or not well your hormones function, and it’s highly sensitive to chronic stress. Generally, the HPA is equipped to deal with small amounts of stress but depending on the person, even a small amount of stress (whether perceived or actual) can contribute to hormone deregulation. This was the case with me. I was under extreme perceived stress for years, combined with metabolic stress from guess what? Not eating enough carbohydrates.
How Does Stress Effect Weight?
Chronic stress (psychological or metabolic) leads to increased cortisol production. Cortisol is part of the flight or fight response of the HPA axis. If you’re body senses stress, increased cortisol will be released signaling increased insulin, which means increased fat storage. Basically, the body is protecting itself for survival by storing fat.
If you’re not eating enough calories or carbohydrates, the body may be under metabolic stress and begin slowing down functions to preserve itself. An example of this is the thyroid. The HPA axis may deregulate the thyroid, which slows metabolism causing your basal metabolic rate to decrease, or the number of calories you need to survive. This means you would have to consume way fewer calories to maintain your weight or you may start gaining weight. Something you do not want to happen and why eating 1200 calories a day is dangerous.
Leptin is another complicated factor in this equation. It controls hunger, satiety, manages fat metabolism, and monitors how much energy is circulating in the body. Leptin is produced by fat cells, and what’s ironic is those who have difficulty losing weight generally have leptin resistance. Leptin resistance is perceived by the body as starvation, which causes the body to store more fat. Leptin resistance also stimulates formation of reverse T3 (thyroid hormone) which blocks thyroid effect on metabolism.
To summarize, a person’s body can believe it’s starving and keep telling them to eat more even though they’re eating excess calories. It’s a horrible, vicious cycle! Causes of high leptin include stress, high insulin levels, overeating, over exercising, and lack of sleep. Once again, did you see that word? Stress! The most dangerous, not enough talked about thing to our health! And, exercise while we tend to think of it as healthy, can be contributing to this stress.
What’s The Right Amount of Carbs Then?
There are cases for when lower carbohydrates is warranted such as those with PCOS, those who are 15 pounds or more overweight, those who are pre-diabetic, have diabetes, are insulin resistant, and those who have low levels of activity.
The tricky part is finding the right balance because there is no one-size fits all. My recommendation is to first address your stress and sleep levels because this impacts everything. Nothing you do with your diet will work until stress is under control. Once it is, that is when you look at your diet.
If you’ve been doing a low carbohydrate diet for some time and not seeing results, adding healthy carbohydrates along with omega-3 healthy fats to your diet is something to consider. I’ve done this in the past, and have dropped weight. Not what you would expect, is it?
A few more recommendations. Stop exercising to reduce stress, eat 3 meals a day (no snacking), avoid processed carbohydrates and simple starches, and consume enough lean protein. If you believe you are dealing with any of the issues outlined here, here’s two ways I can help you.
I create custom meal plans that fit you, your calorie needs, activity level, health conditions and food preferences. They’re intended to make your body work optimally. Clients who sign up for these are dealing with conditions like those I outlined in this post, and are either unable to lose weight or they need this type of structure. Remember, food is about making your body work for you. Not against you. That’s why what you put in it, is so important!
Custom meal plans help you fuel and heal your body. I do the work for you by determining the foods you should eat to do that and how much you need to eat. Custom plans come with weekly virtual coaching so we can monitor your progress, printable grocery lists and recipes, and exclusive access to my Facebook group.
One on one nutrition counseling is ideal for those who have been dieting for some time and not getting results. This is so we can take a deeper look at what’s going on. During the first session, we go through your complete medical history, I do an assessment and we discuss a plan to address what’s going on. You can do a one time consult with me, or purchase a 3 month or 6 month package. Generally, 6 month packages get the best results!
Also, my friend Ashley wrote about her experience with amenorrhea and how she got her period back. It’s a fast read and she has some good tips!
I know this was a long post, but I hope you found it helpful!