National Nutrition Month is coming to an end, so today is the last of my diet and nutrition mythbusters posts. Here’s part 1 on diet myths that never die, and part 2 on carb myths. I hope they’ve been a helpful resource for you in wading through all the diet nonsense out there! For today’s post I wanted to specifically focus on women’s health nutrition myths, because the diet industry is especially predatory towards women.
Women’s Health and Nutrition Myths
Myth: Soy is bad for hormonal health.
Right up there with eggs (which I covered in part 1), there are few foods that are more divisive. I’ve heard many different iterations of this myth – that soy causes breast cancer, that it’s bad for women around menopause, that it’s bad for the thyroid, etc. At the same time, tofu is often promoted as this plant-based superfood.
I totally get the confusion. Back in the early 2000s, the FDA approved a health claim for soy products stating that soy can help prevent heart disease, only to revoke the claim a few years ago – not because soy was found out to be unhealthy, but because it claim was approved on pretty inadequate evidence, and probably shouldn’t have been approved in the first place.
Fear of soy stems from it’s isoflavone content, a compound that has a similar chemical structure to estrogen. I’ve heard it described as estrogen light, and I think that’s a really helpful way to think of it. Because isoflavones have a similar chemical structure to estrogen, they also attach to estrogen-receptors in our body, but they don’t have as strong of an effect, and in some ways, can even have an anti-estrogen effect. Since some cancers, including certain types of breast cancer, grow when exposed to estrogen, this was an important place for research.
There was a minor media panic in the late 90s when one small study in 24 women linked soy to an increased risk of breast cancer, but over the years, the bulk of research shows either no effect on cancer risk, or a slightly reduced risk of breast cancer, including this 2006 meta-analysis that showed eating soy after a breast cancer diagnosis was linked with reduced mortality. Furthermore, soy isoflavones may also be slightly beneficial for treating symptoms of menopause.
I think it’s really important to look at research on food or nutrients in the context of dietary patterns, and soy is a great example of this. One of the benefits of soy is that it’s a tasty (if you cook it right!) and versatile plant-based protein, and we know dietary patterns that are lower in animal protein are associated with lower risks of many chronic diseases including certain types of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. So basically, let’s chill with the soy as superfood status (and superfoods in general), but also, if you like tofu, tempeh and edamame, maybe consider eating it more often for meatless meals!
If you’re interested in cooking with more soy, try some of these recipes from my blog:
Myth: Weight gain with menopause is unhealthy.
Look at any 20-year-old body next to an 80-year-old body and it’s clear our bodies are supposed to change, but for women we’re expected to hold on to our 20-year old body as long as physically possible. In reality, we got through many periods of change in our life, and menopause is one of them.
Menopause occurs when people with ovaries reach the end of their reproductive period and stop releasing eggs each month. With that, there is a drop in estrogen and progresterone, two hormones produced by the ovaries. This drop in hormones causes the symptoms associated with menopause including hot flashes, insomnia, mood swings, fatigue, low libido, urinary tract issues, vaginal dryness and fatigue. Estrogen depletion is also linked to cardiovascular issues and lower bone mineral density.
When your ovaries stop producing estrogen, adipose tissue (fat tissue) takes over regulating the hormone. We think of body fat as this inert (or annoying!) substance, but body fat actually has it’s benefits, and this is one of them! By helping to regulate estrogen, body fat is actually protective against symptoms of menopause. There are even researchers that refer to belly fat during menopause as a lifesaver - I much prefer that to muffin top!
Myth: Women need a lot less calories than men.
I remember when Scott and I were first dating that I used to feel so uncomfortable if I was eating more than him at a meal. We’re sold this idea that men need much more food than women, so whenever I ate the same amount or more than him, I started to second guess what my hunger cues were telling me. Now that we’ve been together 13 years (!!!) and married for 7 as of this weekend, I know that how much he eats at a meal has no bearing on my needs. Most of the time we end up eating pretty similar amounts.
Generally speaking, men need more energy (calories) than women. They are (again - generally speaking) taller and have a higher ratio of muscle to fat mass, which is a more metabolically active tissue. But that doesn’t account for our individual needs. The way calories are often talked about makes it sound like every 30-year-old woman needs to eat the exact same amount, but energy needs vary quite significantly based on body size, physical activity level, and ratio of lean to fat body mass, dieting history (dieting slows metabolism), and most importantly, genetics. That doesn’t even account for day-to-day fluctuations in metabolism from changes in sleep, time of the month, and stress just to name a few! Even if you look at the Recommended Daily Allowance for energy (which isn’t the same as your unique needs - just an estimation and not a very good one at that), a physically active female needs the same amount of food as a sedentary male of the same age.
Basically, everyone’s energy needs are constantly changing, and trying to assess our needs compared to another persons is trying to nail a moving target. The idea that women should eat less than men is a really gendered expectation that’s not rooted in the reality of our own unique nutrition needs. It has much more to do with beliefs about femininity than what our body actually needs!
Myth: Eat clean during pregnancy.
Washing your fruits and veggies is the only kind of clean eating you need during pregnancy! I’ve worked with quite a few pregnant women through the years, and the amount of fearmongering about nutrition during pregnancy is just absurd. As if it isn’t scary enough to have another human housed inside you!
Now, don’t get me wrong - nutrition during pregnancy can certainly have an effect on fetal and infant health, which is why it’s important to eat plenty of nutritious, fresh whole foods. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a goal to eat a little healthier during pregnancy. What I’m debunking here is hyperfocusing on “clean eating,” only eating organic foods, or eliminating sugar.
Unfortunately, all pregnant women are exposed to pesticides and other chemicals from the environment - reason # 3,487 why hyperfocussing on individual food choices misses the forest for the trees. Frankly, I’m more concerned about pregnant women in agricultural areas or other places where there’s a high level of environmental pollution. Certainly, eating organic foods and less processed foods will slightly reduce exposure, but I’m not sure if it’s enough to make a difference. All the research I’ve seen shows either a very slight benefit associated with eating more organic food, or no difference, which tells me if there is any benefit, it’s quite small. Also, a lot of the headlines are based on shaky research. For example, a 2017 study linked pesticide exposure through food to a lower risk of live-births for people undergoing IVF. Sounds scary, but when you read the research, it was based on a questionnaire, which is notoriously inaccurate, and doesn’t fully account for other healthy behaviors women who eat more organic food might be engaging in. In other words, correlation doesn’t equal causation.
I’ve never been pregnant and am not planning on having kids, but in talking to friends and clients I can certainly empathize with all the stress and fears that come with it. It makes a lot of sense that you would want to do everything to make sure your baby is healthy, especially if you’ve had a difficult time conceiving. If cooking and purchasing all organic, unprocessed foods is something you can afford and isn’t too stressful for you, then by all means go for it! But if aiming for that is causing significant stress in your life, then I don’t know if it’s actually healthy for either you or your child. At the end of the day, eating more produce definitely outweighs eating all organic, and eating adequately, whatever that food might be, is most important of all.
What other women’s health and nutrition questions/myths are you curious about? Leave a question in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer!
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