An aerial shot of a white plate with a block of tofu

No, you’re not crazy – that sudden weight gain, mysterious moodiness or inexplicable fatigue is happening for a reason. A hormonal imbalance can wreak havoc on our sense of wellbeing, and what we’re eating is often to blame.

Certain foods notoriously throw our systems into a chemical tizzy, which can cause total mind-body mayhem that leaves us feeling helpless, confused and generally unwell. To make sense of the madness, we’re turning to holistic nutritionist,  Kelly LeVeque, and learning about four foods that can instigate hormonal imbalance, what those symptoms look like and what we can do to help ourselves!

Your hormones are affected not only by how you sleep and your stress levels, but they are also highly responsive to what you eat. Food does more than just provide energy and dictate body composition; it sets off a cascade of hormonal changes that can include increased insulin, increased cortisol, increased estrogen, decreased testosterone and decreased dopamine. Here are four foods that often contribute to hormonal imbalance…

Liquid Sugar.
Sugar-loaded beverages like soda and your favorite mimosas are all examples of fast sugar that will send your blood sugar on a roller coaster and leave you hormonally hungry with increased cravings later. When your blood sugar rises after drinking a sugary drink, insulin is released to allow your cells to take in blood sugar for energy or storage and prevents fat cells from being broken down. If the blood-sugar spikes are fast and high, excess insulin may drive blood sugar down quickly and your body may enter a state of hypoglycemia, or very low blood sugar. At which point your body will then release cortisol. Your liver will respond and release the hormone glucagon, which works to raise blood sugar. Cortisol is the issue here; when we are producing too much cortisol it steals the precursors for making sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone, this is called the “cortisol steal.” Not only will this roller coaster offset your hormones and leave you feeling fatigued and low, it might interfere with your sex hormones too! So think twice before downing that excessively sugary beverage.

Soy-Derived Phytoestrogens.
Phytoestrogens are plant compounds found in soy foods that can mimic the effects of estrogen and activate estrogen receptors in the body. What does this mean for your hormones? Hormone imbalances can lead to fatigue, weight gain and mood swings. Phytoestrogens can have the same effect on your body by interfering with your libido and menstrual cycle. Phytoestrogens can even make your face breakout – these hormonal blemishes occur around the mouth and jaw line. Also, one of the associated risks for the consumption of excess soy is hypothyroid. Not only is this a concern for women, but men also experience loss in sperm count, and if the intake is excessive, men can begin to produce prolactin – that’s right, they can actually produce the hormone that produces breast milk for women because of the phytoestrogen presence in their body. Foods that contain the highest amounts of phytoestrogens include soybeans and soy products, tempeh, flaxseed, oats and lentils respectively. It’s important to emphasize that while research on the topic is inconclusive, and that there may be positive benefits, understanding that phytoestrogens may harm your hormones is reason enough to consume with caution or simply avoid them.

High-Glycemic Foods.
Foods high on the glycemic index like bread, pasta and dried fruit can lead to insulin resistance, and cause you to overeat and gain weight. The same roller coaster that you experience when you drink sweet drinks can happen with sugar-rich foods like white breads, cookies and cakes – but the increased insulin and decreased dopamine are the real culprits to weight gain and addiction. Eating these foods can cause insulin, the storage hormone to last six to eight hours in your blood stream, leading to cravings, weight gain and hormonal hunger. More importantly, when you eat these foods, large amounts of dopamine (reward neurotransmitter) are released in the brain; after awhile the receptors to dopamine in your brain down-regulate and you need more of the same foods to feel happy. This reaction is what causes these types of food to be very addictive. These foods also tend to be high in omega 6 oils – like safflower, sunflower, corn and cottonseed oils – which can throw off the omega-3-to-6 ratio in your body, leading to inflammation and elevated cortisol levels. Eating a balanced diet of protein, fat and fiber (my “Fab Four”) is the fastest and most efficient way to balance blood sugar, keeping your hormones in check and allowing you to feel energetic through the day and relaxed around food.

Industrial Seed Oils.
Industrial seed oils such as canola, corn, cottonseed, soybean, vegetable, safflower and sunflower oils oxidize, which causes inflammation. News flash: Ever wonder why your stomach may hurt after eating fast food or out at a restaurant? More often than not, restaurants use seed oils or worse, hydrogenated oils (trans fats) to cook their food, which leaves you bloated, fatigued and full of high blood sugar. A good general rule is to avoid fried foods and check food labels.

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  1. These comments on soy/tofu are completely misleading and false. The article even says “research on the topic is inconclusive”, and “if the intake is excessive”, so why would you put fear into people about eating a food that is perfectly healthy for you and that people have been eating for ages? If you eat too many carrots, you can turn orange. Should we tell people to stop eating them? Everything in moderation. You would have to be eating buckets of tofu a day to see any of these effects and even then, that is not scientifically proven. Organic soy/tofu once in awhile isn’t going to hurt you. I’m disappointed that a healthy blog like this that I look forward to reading would rip on soy.

    Alyssa M. | 07.14.2016 | Reply
    • Hi Alyssa, we like this piece on the historical uses of fermented soy – what do you think on the topic? http://thechalkboardmag.com/is-soy-bad-for-you

      The Chalkboard | 07.25.2016 | Reply
    • Hi Alyssa,
      I added my references below if you would like to learn more, my first career (8 years) was in breast cancer and genetics.
      Thank you!

      Kelly LeVeque | 07.25.2016 | Reply
      • Most of the plant based drs agree organic non processed soy is not bad – in fact anti cancer. Dr greger – dr barnard –

        Rochelle | 06.29.2018 | Reply
    • i don’t! (have to eat buckets) of food to have a negative effect. I have some soy or lentils
      or flaxseed and my body feel like it’s been thrown into pms HELL for 3 days. It depends on how wacked out wrong your hormones are to start with.

      Hypnogal | 12.07.2017 | Reply
  2. And yet people have eaten less processed soy based products, such as tofu, for thousands of years in Asia without hormone imbalances and thyroid problems…Go figure! I think men producing breast milk or growing breasts would have made history. Wonder how many studies actually have been done to validate these statements, instead of people just passing theories along as facts which often happens. I’m all for eating foods that aren’t processed, or that are minimally processed. Time has shown that is what is healthy for people. But it does bother me when healthy foods, such as whole soy products or cruciferous vegetables (in other articles), are strongly discouraged with not a lot to corroborate the statements being made. There are other supposed studies that show phytoestrogens are actually helpful to our bodies in dealing with hormones and hormone based issues. I would hate for someone to reject a healthy food based off something like this listing an unproven possibility, when our understanding of how these components work in our bodies is actually quite limited. Reject processed foods for sure, but think twice before rejecting a whole food with other proven health benefits!

    John | 07.14.2016 | Reply
  3. Was going to make a comment about the soy/phytoestrogens but there’s not much I can add after the good points and comments made my others. Lentils have been consumed in South Asia for centuries and tofu/soy production Japan. You have to wonder why Japan has one of the highest life expectancies, yet consumes more soy than any other culture (miso is fermented soy, pressed into tofu soy, soybeans whole, natto, you get my drift. We can learn a lot about health from these South and East Asian cultures.

    HeartDog | 07.14.2016 | Reply
  4. i almost threw out my non-GMO, organic tofu i just purchased. glad i read further..let’s just all say that moderation is the key to everything…

    susan | 07.14.2016 | Reply
  5. I couldn’t help but have a little chuckle after reading the article and the comments. To me, one key element is clearly overlooked: if tofu can help men produce breast milk, do you know what a boon this is to breastfeeding mothers everywhere?! Seriously dads, eat up! I think that if this were a side effect of eating soy, it would have been discovered and exploited, ahem I mean “used” to people’s benefit, a long time ago. All kidding aside, I do appreciate the other points brought out in the article about sugars and oils.

    Valerie | 07.14.2016 | Reply
  6. I have metastatic breast cancer which is progesterone and estrogen positive. And have had my ovaries removed to revent the production of those hormones which feed my cancer. Why would i introduce them through phyto estrogens when i know that would feed my cancer. Same with yams which are high on the list of phyto estrogens as well

    Stephanie | 07.17.2016 | Reply
  7. While I’ve heard about tofu and soy products in general interfering with hormones, I’ve never heard about oats. I eat oats around 5 days/week for breakfast. I’ve also read that the tofu we can buy in supermarkets is different from the authentic tofu made in Japan. But it all seems a bit lacking in evidence. I’m all for wellbeing and natural approaches, but as long as they have solid scientific evidence.

    Imola | 07.20.2016 | Reply
  8. Thank you all for pointing out the fact that phytoestrogens are 100% healthy for our bodies, especially in women. Soy is a product every woman should be eating, and does the exact opposite than what has been stated in the article above. Phytoestrogens help balance the estrogen levels and help protect from breast cancer. I think it is important that girls between the age of 8 -20 should be eating soy products to help fight against any trace of breast cancer cells within the body. Plant-based foods have not been proven to cause any harm to our bodies like animals foods have been, and the more CORRECT information that’s gets out there, then the fewer myths and mislead guidence practices everyone has to worry about.

    Katie | 07.21.2016 | Reply
    • Katie, the prevention study you are referencing has been cited 347 times and has been proven false. Sadly, the proliferation of false science is due to studies that are over cited like this. Not a single oncologist I worked with in 8 years from Cedars to USC to City of Hope would ever suggest soy.

  9. exactly valerie; why aren’t they pushing soy on breast feeding mothers? you all made such great comments, but this is the one i wanted to make. that and that dr michael greger says he has read every journal and article and that soy is fine. i can say i ate wheat the other day in 5 months, and i got a horrible pain in my ovary, which i recognised as scar tissue from old cysts. my period was not painful for the first time, 2 weeks ago. hope the one slip up with
    bread won’t ruin it!

    Lisette Callis | 07.22.2016 | Reply
  10. I normally don’t respond but I am pretty passionate about soy as well… a few thoughts….

    In regards to men breast feeding that is silly, but elevated Prolactin in men creates symptoms that do include decreased libido, erectile dysfunction, and infertility and all are well documented in phytoestrogen therapy. I have also seen this first hand on blood tests and reversed it with the removal of soy. It might be important to note, I work in conjunction with a functional medicine MD at St. Johns Hospital here in Los Angeles, value hard data and education. My experience taking nutrition courses at UCLA (after my undergrad at USC) proved that the publishers (course books) and some professors aren’t current. I have taken over 8 RD courses ( have fully completed premed science courses) and explored the RD path many times post BS degree. However, I am sure the RD can confirm, nutrition is the fastest changing science and everyone isn’t up to speed. (human microbiome, old science – I have walked out on and dropped classes with bad scinece) After working in genetics and cutting edge science reading pubmed research everyday, I refuse to pay and additional (60k) to learn antiquated information.

    After working for 7 years in Breast Cancer and genetics (first career), my opinion on soy doesn’t change and in fact, it is only stronger. To give you a deeper look, I think its important to share the recent studies that support my suggestion to avoid soy. Opinions are opinions, observational studies are the ones supporting soy ingestion (and sited by soy supporters) and are not reliable mostly correlation not causation, while double blind studies that are nonbiased and not funded by soy big business are my references.

    1) 30% of the women studied showed proliferation of breast epithelial cells when ingesting soy protein. http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/5/10/785.short

    2) 90% of US crop is GMO and sprayed with herbicides

    3)Soybeans are high in Omega 6 disrupting delicate fatty acid balance

    4) The isoflavones found in soy can upregulated/down regulate estrogen receptors in the body, which can disrupt the body’s normal function.

    5) Cancer studies start in animals – here are three totally non bias non observational studies that support my opinion

    6) disruption of thyroid hormone support:

    Kelly LeVeque | 07.25.2016 | Reply
  11. Hi Ali, I appreciate your comment and whole heartedly agree education is very important but I also greatly value current data. Health coaching, was just one step for me. You can learn a little more about me in the comment below.

  12. A friend of mine has thyroid problems (hashimotos) & has been advised by doctors to avoid soy as it
    messes with the thyroid!

    Tanya Payne | 09.08.2016 | Reply
  13. Soy isnt the problem.gmo soy is the problem.

    Thomas | 08.17.2017 | Reply
  14. So as a female you really should avoid soy then because not only does it mimic estrogen. It replaces it. Especially if you have hormonal issues.

    Ayla Cogliando | 11.27.2017 | Reply
  15. Japanese women eat a lot of soy. They have lower breast cancer rates and lower menopause symptoms. GMO soy is probably the problem.

    • Yes and before the Japanese adopted more western foods you would rarely see any obese or even overweight people. They ate and eat a lot of soy And rarely experience the diseases of the American population.

      Sharyn | 06.11.2018 | Reply
  16. Written by an alarmist imbecile, with very likely, zero professional training. Take no notice people. I think we’d have heard about the men/breast milk link by now! Lol.

    Mark | 03.01.2018 | Reply
    • Thank you for your opinions. Now, care to offer a counterargument to validate your…assertions? I will be patiently awaiting your response, as I enjoy the sound of crickets chirping….

  17. Phytoestrogens attatch to estrogen receptors, which is beneficial for women with estrogen dominance as it lowers the amount of estrogen their bodies produce. For women with PCOS, metabolic syndrome, fibroids or other forms of estrogen dominance, eating food rich in phytoestrogens daily is the best thing they can do to regulate their hormones. The National institutes for health are a good, scientifically sound information source for anyone wishing to know more.

    Elle | 07.09.2018 | Reply
  18. I was vegetarian for four years and would eat tofu almost everyday (since I love the taste). I swear, many hairs grew thick on my chin and stomach. Disgusting ! Since I stopped tofu and replaced it with thuna (yes, now I’m pescatarian), those horrible hairs stopped destroying my life.

    Genn | 09.04.2018 | Reply
  19. I worked in Social Service in a healthcare setting and noticed is 85% of the charts there was hypo thyroid issues. Guess what? Our facility served soy loaded foods all day everyday to our elderly and they only got worse and suffered from indigestion daily. I asked dietary why they hadn’t removed soy from the menu and the response was, “the state hasn’t said no to soy, so we are allowed to cook with it. Everything served had a form of soy in it. It was sad to see no attempt to make dietary adjustments to help reduce the symptoms. Studies also show certain processed soy oil creating early dimentia, memory loss. Getting back to real, unprocessed foods and no hydrogenated oils of any kind would make a big difference with moods, thyroid, memory and obesity.

    Karen Elliott | 10.08.2018 | Reply
  20. I don’t love soy enough to not be able to give it up. I’d rather avoid something than take the chance with my body. There’s too many alternative options out there to care.

    Rose | 06.17.2019 | Reply
  21. This article reek of bias opinions for one to believe that a human body is the same as another animal is outrageous has been cited on other articles. Kelly you pull out research articles that are against soy I can post plenty of articles for soy nothing is conclusive.

    Soy has been known to reduce the risk of breast, prostate and thyroid cancer, but in no way is it cure… just look at the history of Asian consumption of soy and their correlation with various cancer diagnose and then research into Asian that have had a Western diet.

    Deeb | 06.25.2019 | Reply
  22. I began to eat Organic soy after swearing off soy for many years. Dietitian recommended and along with fermented soy. I’m confused now. I cannot eat flax at all – it bothers my digestion. Trying to lower cholesterol so that is why I added soy. No lentils????? too?

    Joanne | 08.24.2022 | Reply

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