S1 E1: Metabolism 101 & Unlearning Dieting Dogma

The first step we take with the women we work with to improve their hormones and overall health is unlearning. So many of us have been dieting from a young age and constantly hopping from one restrictive diet to the next. Leaving our bodies in a constant state of stress and depleting essential minerals that allow us to thrive. This leads to a slowing down of our metabolism. Most people hear the word metabolism and think of weight loss, but it’s actually so much more than that.

Our metabolism is the basic process our body goes through to convert food to energy. If this process slows down that means we have less energy, which means more hormone problems. In this episode, we walk you through the basics of our metabolism, how stress and dieting impact it, and signs that your metabolism needs support.


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Amanda: Hey, this is Amanda, women’s health dietitian. 
Emily: And I’m Emily, nutritional therapy practitioner. 
Amanda: And this is the Are You Menstrual? podcast where we help you navigate the confusing world of women’s hormones and teach you how to have healthy periods. 
Emily: Each week we will be diving into a different topic on women’s health and sharing our perspective using nutrition, female physiology, and metabolic health. 
Amanda: Our goal is to help you wade through conflicting health information and empower you on your healing journey. 
Emily: We hope you enjoy it.

Amanda: Welcome to the first episode of the Are You Menstrual? podcast. I just want to give you a quick intro on what to expect from our podcasts and the episodes moving forward. So, we designed the podcast in a way that shares foundational information in the first, like, 8-12 episodes. And then we’re going to definitely do some more interviews and have guests on and things like that. 

The goal with the foundational informational episodes is that we are going to allow you to build a base knowledge of things like metabolism, certain nutrition principles that we believe in and recommend, and then even things like minerals. So in order for us to dive deeper into certain topics, we feel that you are going to need a certain amount of base knowledge. And while the majority of our community is on Instagram, it’s not super easy to search through Instagram and find certain topics. Sometimes we don’t even like…it’s like a graphic of a post but you can’t always see exactly what it says when it’s just a little small square on the profile. So the goal of the podcast is to make it so that there’s a really easily searchable kind of bank of information for you to choose from. But in order to build on certain things, we want to make sure that you have a basic understanding of, kind of, our approach to hormone health, nutrition, stress, all those things. And then we’re going to get deeper into certain topics in the future. 

So ideally, you’re going to listen to the episodes in order, because that’s how we’re really planning them. So like today we’re talking about metabolism and why metabolism is so important for your hormones and an important marker for your overall health. And then we’re going to dig more into nutrition and creating a nourishing nutrition foundation, we’re going to talk about minerals, we’re going to go through certain nutrition myths. So I promise you that we are going to cover it all, it’s just going to be building on each episode. So just wanted to give you a heads up. Try not to skip around unless maybe you feel like you’ve read a ton of our posts and you kind of grasp what we’re talking about with certain topics. But ideally, you…we’re going to make the podcast very easily digestible short episodes around 30 minutes, and then we’re going to dig deeper into topics in the future. So I just wanted to give you a heads up—that’s how the podcast works, and we hope you enjoy the first episode.

Amanda: We are starting off this podcast with an episode about unlearning. This is the first step that we take with the women that we work with when we’re talking about improving hormone health and overall health. And the main reason for that is because a lot of us have been dieting from a really young age, or constantly hopping from, like, a restrictive diet to another one. Sometimes it’s for health, sometimes it’s for weight loss—either way, it’s like we’re in this dieting mindset. And the issue with this is that it leaves our bodies in a state of constant stress. And that stress is using up and depleting essential minerals and nutrients that allow us to thrive. So what this kind of goes into is slowing down our metabolism. And I know a lot of people hear the word metabolism and they think “weight loss” but our metabolism is very closely tied to our hormones. And just to kind of give you a better understanding of what the heck is our metabolism, it’s really the basic process that our body goes through to convert food to energy. And if this slows down, then that means we have less energy, which means a lot more hormone problems.

Emily: Right. So basically, in a nutshell, our metabolism is what creates energy to power every system in our body. This includes the digestive system, the immune system, the reproductive system—aka our hormones—basically every system you can think of…that is affected by our metabolism. And the thing about hormones is that they’re usually the last thing to change. So if you’re already having period problems, hormonal issues, there’s a good chance that your metabolism has been kind of out of whack for a while. 

So how do we fuel our metabolism? Well, it’s fueled by food. So proper nourishment is absolute key when it comes to keeping that metabolism running properly. And without that, without the right quantities and without quality nourishment the metabolism will inevitably suffer, and this will cause a cascade effect throughout the rest of our body. So like I said, all of those systems that are dependent on the metabolism to thrive will start suffering. So food is obviously what nourishes our metabolism. But what can kind of hinder our metabolism? And this is stressors. So any kind of stressor, which Amanda will talk about, but it adjusts in response to these stressors. So it either slows down or it speeds up based on these stressors that we come up against every day.

Amanda: Yeah, and that’s one thing I feel like, you know, the word stressor, it’s like, what does that even mean? You know, like, we all have stress and everything. So it’s more of, like…in speed up and slow down, when we’re going through stress, like we’re making a lot of cortisol, right? And that is increasing pretty much every system in the body. But it’s like increasing how much energy you’re breaking down, how much sugar you have in your blood at the time so you can respond to that stress. 

But eventually, over time, if we are stuck in that state of breaking our energy stores down, especially like glucose in the liver which we will get into in future episodes, because a lot of people have like sleep issues and blood sugar issues, and they don’t realize it’s because they’re in this like chronic state of fight or flight. 

And so when we’re kind of in that state for too long, what eventually happens is our body can’t compensate anymore—it’s used up its resources, especially minerals. And things like magnesium and sodium and potassium..these are really crucial minerals that kick off all these different reactions in the body. And so when those are used up from things like chronic dieting, you know, restrictive dieting, or like going through cycles of like, under eating and overeating…under eating in general, very stressful, and I think that’s probably the most common thing that we see in the women that we work with. Exercising too much—another big one, or not enough, like not getting enough movement in it can also lead to stress, like a physical stress on the body. 

But being in a chronic state of fight or flight…so if you are someone that maybe you have a chronic illness or chronic pain, that’s a lot—mentally, physically for your body and it’s pretty stressful. If you have past or present emotional trauma. You know, if you had a rough childhood…I have so many clients that they’ve been in a state of fight or flight for the majority of their lives. You know, they might be younger, but they have all these health issues, and they’re not really understanding why—they feel like they’re doing all the things right. But I’m like, you have to recognize that your body’s been stressed for a really long period. 

But even just having a very fast-paced lifestyle, like if you are always in a rush, if you hate slowing down, like if you get very uncomfortable when maybe you try to sit and meditate and it’s like too much, you can’t even like watch a TV show without wanting to look at your phone or being distracted doing other things—that’s, like, a sign that you’re probably in this fight or flight a little bit too much. 

And the last kind of big one that I think we see the most frequently is nutrient deficiencies. So if you’re not getting enough of a certain macronutrient, like protein, or carbs, or if you’re not getting enough of certain micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, then all of those things impact your metabolism and will cause it to slow down. 

Emily: And Amanda, it’s funny that the first one you mentioned is chronic dieting and yo-yo dieting, because unfortunately, I feel like the mainstream wellness industry has us believe and touts that these restrictive diets and these fad diets are what is actually making us healthier and what is necessary for us to reach optimal health—which is actually is the exact opposite because these restrictive diets do everything but support and nourish the metabolism. And so it just adds to our overall stress bucket, which will end up bringing down that thyroid health and that metabolism. So the bottom line, I think, the big thing we want to put out there in this episode, is that we don’t need these special or expensive or restrictive diets and supplements to thrive metabolically and hormonally. 

So I do want to talk about a few of the more common or popular prescribed diets that you’ll read about out there that have just kind of taken off in popularity recently, but that are not necessarily the best choice for most women. So even, like, diets that are prescribed by functional medicine doctors and naturopaths for chronic conditions can really miss the mark, and they’re often adding even more stress to your plate that kind of in the long run undermines any potential health benefits that might be there. 

So one example of these restrictive diets is low FODMAP, which a lot of naturopaths or functional medicine doctors will prescribe to patients or clients with things like SIBO, IBS, digestive issues. And this is a diet that is really hard for some people to sustain long term just because of how restrictive it can be. You either fall into one of two camps, which I see a lot, is you really are desperate for relief from your symptoms so you’re going to sustain this as long as you can. But during that time you’re eating so few foods—first of all, that just adds stress—and then you may see nutrient deficiencies from that. And then there’s also the other camp of people that may just feel like they cannot sustain this at all for any amount of time. So in both camps, there’s just a lot of added stress there. And then a lot of times symptoms can return once you reintroduce other foods, because you’re not actually getting to the root of the problem.

Amanda: And I think, you know, just for people to kind of grasp, like, this…low FODMAP just means you’re eliminating certain types of fibers from your diet. And so then that’s supposed to help with if you have overgrown bacteria or specific digestive issues. But it’s interesting, because a lot of these diets are short term, right? So it’s like a lot of the research is done around like four to six weeks. So we’re not necessarily supposed to be carrying these out for long periods. But a lot of times maybe that’s not being communicated from your provider, or people are often googling…let’s be real, right? People are on their Google search bar, and they’re trying to figure out, like, what do I do to fix this issue? 

So we get it, we totally understand, like, the premise behind wanting to try something like that. But it’s eliminating a lot of quality foods, and then you’re also kind of creating this, like, short-term stress for a long-term problem. And the whole point of us going through these things…like we’ll talk about low carb and keto and stuff next…is that we know that it’s confusing. We know it’s confusing when you’re looking stuff up and you’re trying to understand, like, what is the best way for me to eat? And that’s why we want to talk about metabolism and, like, what allows that to thrive. Because then as you see these diets pop up, you understand—oh, okay, so this is actually going to hurt my metabolism, so this is probably not truly going to help me long term.

Emily: Yes, for sure. And another one, like you just mentioned, Amanda, is low carb or keto, which has just kind of skyrocketed in popularity recently, especially for those who have metabolic conditions like PCOS or diabetes, [or] insulin resistance. I know having PCOS myself this was one that I really wanted to try and thought was the answer for me personally. And honestly, it started with kind of a fear of carbs after I learned about insulin resistance and what that was. So it definitely did add more stress to my plate, which is kind of the point—we don’t want to add more stress because that impacts the thyroid and metabolism. But if you think about it, it also just manages symptoms in a way; it doesn’t actually go back to the root cause, which is, you know, why do you have insulin resistance in the first place? What is causing that? And so when you take out the carbs for a bit, yes, you might have lower blood sugar numbers, you might feel a little better at first, but then if you ever go back to eating normally, or eating…incorporating more carbs into your diet, what’s going to happen, then? A lot of times, you get all the symptoms that you had before. 

Amanda: And when it comes to this whole, like, what is the root cause of your insulin resistance piece…There’s not just one issue, right? We have a really cool, like, blog post that Emily wrote on this, and we put it in our Feminine Periodical newsletter. But there’s so much more to blood sugar balance than just carbohydrates. And you know, you think about it, carbs are our body’s preferred fuel source. So why can’t you tolerate that, right? 

I remember when Emily and I used to work together, she was a client of mine, and she was terrified to drink orange juice, right? She was so scared of the sugar that’s in orange juice. And I’m like, your body runs off sugar. You know, like, it’s scary, because the mainstream media makes you think that carbohydrates are going to, like, cause insulin resistance or make your PCOS worse. But in reality, we have to understand, like, what are the surrounding factors that are also affecting that? So if we think about insulin resistance, like it…visualize an iceberg—it’s like insulin resistance is at the tip and there’s so many things underneath the water and underneath the surface in your body that are impacting those things. So, like, mineral status, like we talked about calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium—those all impact how well you are using glucose in the body. 

And so for example, if you have really low potassium that can actually make it hard to get glucose inside your cells. So that does lead to high blood sugar, and that does lead to higher insulin levels. But it doesn’t mean you eliminate the carbs, right, you want to include more potassium-rich foods. That’s kind of why I brought up the orange juice thing because we talk about adrenal cocktails all the time. And if you’re not familiar, we have a post on this on our Instagram @hormonehealingrd. And the adrenal cocktail has sodium, potassium, and whole food vitamin C. There’s a bunch of different recipes for it, but, like, the basic one is like orange juice—and that’s your whole food vitamin C source—and then like you can mix it with coconut water—which is your potassium source—and then a little bit of sea salt, which is obviously your sodium. And Emily was kind of like, what? You want me to drink orange juice? Like, are you insane? And…but we did hair mineral testing so she saw that she needed the potassium. And once she better understood, like, okay, that minerals are really important, it’s so much more than macronutrients…I think it made it a little easier.

Emily: For sure. Now I drink orange juice every day and I love it. And I think I just have a better understanding that the carb restriction that I was prioritizing before for my PCOS was actually doing my body more harm than good, because it was leading to my under-functioning metabolism and my thyroid just kind of being sluggish. Because like Amanda said, we need glucose in order to make energy, like, that’s our body’s preferred source of energy. And without these available stores of glucose in the liver…first of all, we can’t even convert thyroid hormone from inactive to active—so there’s a big problem right there. And when you have a sluggish thyroid that’s automatically going to equal to a sluggish metabolism. 

But also, I mean, we’ll talk about this later, too, when we are low on the glucose, that raises our cortisol, that’s a huge stressor on the body, which is just adding to more metabolism dysfunction. And so that’s something I had to learn. And I feel like I did, and I’m in a much better place because of it. But if you are just kind of scrolling through Instagram and reading, you know, the mainstream wellness advice for things like PCOS, you’re gonna get a lot of people even, you know, I hate to say it, medical experts saying that low carb is the way to go. So it’s kind of an unfortunate reality.

Amanda: And I think too, I mean, how many women have you heard, like, we have our Healthy Period Protocol group program, and so many of those women are like, yeah my doctor told me to eat low carb or go keto, and they do it and they don’t feel great. And if…and I know we’re gonna get some people that are, like, I feel amazing doing keto and low carb and, like—and that’s great, but your body’s running off of cortisol. So like, you can feel amazing for a short period. And then eventually, I’m like, usually I’m like, talk to me, and like six months to a year and let me know how you’re feeling. Some people are more resilient, and it takes a few years until they completely burn out. But especially for women, it is very difficult to sustain that because our bodies want that glucose, they need that energy. 

And when we’re in that state of fight or flight, your hormones are not prioritized. And I feel like that’s kind of the biggest thing when we’re talking about different diets and how they can impact the metabolism you want to think about, like—is it restricting macronutrients? Like, is it getting rid of a, like, protein, fat, or carb? And then is it limiting micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, which we’ll kind of talk about when we get into this next section. But those are like two to three, like, mainstream type of diets that we tend to see prescribed for “wellness” that are not necessarily going to be doing your body any favors. And kind of the other side of this is like, yes, we can look at the…pick apart these like diets that are prescribed for health, but also, I just think there’s so many extremes—we don’t need to be extreme. If you’re, like, learning about a specific nutrition approach…look at that, and ask yourself, like, is this asking me to take things to an extreme? 

Like I think of Carnivore, you know, like, basically only animal foods, so you’re eliminating all plant foods. How sustainable is that? Realistically. It’s just like to me, I’m like, that’s insane. And you’re going to be missing out on some nutrients, not a ton, because animal foods are very nutrient-dense. They have a lot of vitamins and minerals, but you’re not going to be getting important fibers and stuff like that, which is really important for your gut health. And then of course, carbohydrates, right, you’re not getting your main fuel source. So Carnivore is kind of like one end of the extreme, and the other is, of course, vegan diets. And I don’t say plant-based, because I think plant-based can include animal foods, but vegan specifically, it’s the opposite end—then all of a sudden you’re not getting any of those animal foods that contain very easily absorbed nutrients. And you’re really just getting all the plant foods that can actually make things a lot harder for your health, because you’re missing out on essential vitamins and minerals. And then of course, it can be super challenging for your digestion.

Emily: And I’ve actually heard, Amanda, I know that people who go on Carnivore or vegan diets have, really, a tough time with their blood sugar. I’ve heard of both. So I know a lot of people will go on Carnivore because they think you know, it’s cutting all carbs. Therefore my blood sugar, my insulin will balance out, but I’ve heard the exact opposite happening where there’s extreme highs and lows in blood sugar from eliminating all those plant foods and carbohydrates. I’m sure it’s because of the cortisol factor in the stress that you’re causing your body. But same with vegan diets. I mean, when you take out animal foods, then you have a pretty low protein to carb ratio–you’re not balancing your proteins and your carbs well, so that can also cause that blood sugar dysregulation that I feel like so many people with hormonal issues are afraid of.

Amanda: Then you also have to think about sustainability, like, is this sustainable for you to eat this way? You really want to ask yourself that, because that is one thing, like, when we think about our Healthy Period Protocol program, like the first step, we’re talking about metabolism. As soon as we get into nutrition and step two, we’re not just talking about, like, here are all the foods that you should be eating and not eating. It doesn’t help, right? We’re talking about, like, here’s what supports your body, here’s what can challenge it, but you have to meet yourself where you’re at and then eat in a way that you can maintain for the long haul. And I think that’s kind of like our biggest beef with like Carnivore versus vegan and taking that dieting extreme is that it does make it difficult—like social situations, if you travel, if you eat out—it’s just not truly sustainable. 

But if we’re, of course, we always want to bring it back to the hormone health. And in reality, you’re absorbing 80-90% of the protein and vitamins and minerals in animal foods. They’re in a more bioavailable form, which just means that they’re easier for your body to absorb. Whereas in plant foods, you’re absorbing 40-50% of the protein and vitamins and minerals, because they have anti-nutrients—these little proteins that are binding to minerals—and then that makes it so that there’s less for you to absorb. Things like lectins, oxalates, and phytates. So we think that you should have a mix of both. We don’t like extremes either way, because that’s going to lead to getting more vitamins and minerals, all the macronutrients that your body needs, and then also make it easier for you to balance your blood sugar.

Emily: Speaking of extremes, I want to dive into intermittent fasting just for a second, because if I had, like, $1 for every time a woman told me they were going to try intermittent fasting, I think I would be a millionaire. Because it is all the rage these days. And whenever someone tells me that, I completely understand because there has been some good, you know, research on it around, you know, people doing really well, people losing weight, people feeling better. It always gives me pause, especially for women and hormone health.

Amanda: So while there is definitely research on intermittent fasting, there’s not really any done in women that are cycling. So a lot of the research, unfortunately, is done on men, and then if they do include women in the studies, they’re either in menopause or they’re on the pill. I get why they do it—they’re trying to control for our cycles. Because we have shifts, right, we’re not the same every single day. Our hormones are fluctuating throughout our cycle. I understand that that can provide another variable when you’re obviously looking at research, but it just leaves a lot of unanswered questions for women that are cycling and are struggling with maybe their hormone health. And it’s, like, okay, but is intermittent fasting really gonna help? 

Dr. Stacy Sims, I don’t know if you saw the video she did recently on her IGTV, but she talks about intermittent fasting for women. She focuses mostly on athletes, but it really does apply to all women. And it just adds more stress, right? And that stress is going to lead to a lower blood sugar, which is going to increase your cortisol levels. And we have a whole thing on stress, don’t worry, we’re gonna get into all this stuff. But basically, when you think about the body’s in the fight or flight, you’re breaking things down, you’re not producing adequate hormones in that state—you have to be in an anabolic state to do that. And so you’re using up important hormones like progesterone, which is eventually going to lead to lots of symptoms, like, think PMS, think like extended PMS, right? Like, you know, like, the week or two before you’re getting your period…you do not feel great. That’s a sign of low progesterone and probably an imbalance in estrogen. And when cortisol goes up, estrogen tends to go up. It’s one of those things where it’s kind of like, is intermittent fasting really going to help women? I think it’s really kind of suspect.

Emily: Yeah, and if we’re relating things back to the thyroid and metabolism, this is definitely something that’s not going to be supportive over time. We always talk about—and if you follow us on Instagram—we say that it’s best to eat every three to four hours to keep your thyroid fueled and your metabolism revved. Because that is ultimately what’s going to keep that blood sugar stable and your cortisol balanced. So going any longer than that, with women especially, can definitely start some symptoms back up and just kind of reap overall not very good results.

Amanda: I think too it’s, like, we all fast—we all sleep at night and we’re not eating while we’re sleeping. So it’s, like, technically you are already practicing intermittent fasting at night when you’re sleeping. So to extend that during the day, it just doesn’t make sense. Especially if you already have a lot of stress, right? Like most of us have plenty of stress in our life already. And when we think about that, it’s like, we’re already making a bunch of cortisol. Especially, it’s like, you have a stressful job, or maybe you’re a new mom…I feel like this whole last year has been stressful for everyone. So it’s like, do you want to add another stressor on top of that, because that’s really what intermittent fasting is gonna do.

Emily: You know, we sometimes want to focus on weight loss..we think that weight loss is kind of equal to optimal health. And so we pursue these different diets, right, and we work towards “hormone health” by focusing on weight loss. And this is definitely not our fault. I think a lot of doctors will even…one of the treatments for PCOS…they’ll just tell their patients to lose weight, which I believe is super problematic, because that’ll lead to these restrictive diets and we assume that it’s a good thing and that we’re getting healthier. But I think it’s good to remember that weight loss does not equal health, right, Amanda?

Amanda: It’s usually the opposite. Honestly, that’s what we see with a lot of the women that go through our group program is we don’t lose weight to get healthy, you have to get healthy in order to lose weight. And not even saying that everyone has to lose weight. But we do get a lot of women that they might be in a category where they have PCOS or they have irregular cycles or thyroid issues, and because of this, they have gained a lot of weight and their bodies don’t feel comfortable—they feel inflamed, their joints hurt, all that kind of stuff. And they’re like, my doctor just keeps telling me to lose weight and that my PCOS will get better. When in reality, it’s probably not necessarily going to be the thing that changes that. And you might not even be in a place

Amanda Montalvo

Amanda Montalvo is a women's health dietitian who helps women find the root cause of hormone imbalances and regain healthy menstrual cycles.

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