What to think about eating junk food when you're trying to recover hypothalamic amenorrhea? In some ways, it may be even good for you… In other ways, not so much.
I sometimes see in hypothalamic amenorrhea communities that women are encouraged to eat lots of energy rich junk food to get their calories in. In this post, I'd like to share my thoughts on this.
Before we get started, here's a little refresher: If you lost your period because you were over training, over stressing and under eating, then, in a nutshell, your treatment is to train less, stress less and eat more.
If you didn't eat enough to support your activities, your hypothalamus, which connects your nervous system to your endocrine system (the place where your hormones are made) sensed that there's not enough energy coming in to support everything you burn. As a result, it “told” your pituitary glad to put your sex hormone production on hold. No (enough) sex hormone production, no ovulation, no period, and of course, no babies! Plus, there are a host of issues that come with not having a period, which you can read more about in this ebook: 9 Reasons To Want Your Period Back.
So, to get things fixed, you need to start eating more, so that your hypothalamus can calm down and understand that you're safe. Then it will send out a signal to your pituitary gland to start making sex hormones again.
Can Eating Junk Foods Be a Good Thing?
Ideally, you want to eat about 2500 calories a day, if your goal is to recover. Most women who have lost their periods because of hypothalamic amenorrhea have, at some point in their lives, eaten maybe 1500 calories a day… That's why this number, 2500 calories, can be super scary at first, but it really is the way to go.
I've seen in some HA communities that women are encouraged to eat anything and everything, including as much as you want of junk food and sugary treats…
I think this recommendation comes from a good place and in some ways, it can be helpful – especially from the perspective of getting rid of fear foods, labeling foods as “good” and “bad”, and realizing that your eating habits can't, won't and even shouldn't always be perfect.
It's important to realize that the world is not going to end if you eat a bowl of frozen yogurt or a portion of french fries.
You may have lived your life determined by food rules, had your lists for “allowed” and “forbidden” foods, you may have never eaten foods from the “forbidden” list because you thought that those foods will instantly make you fat and sick…
You may have panicked if you had to eat out, because you couldn't control what exactly and how much of each ingredient went into this food. If you did eat, you may have trained two extra hours on that day to undo the “damage” but still felt bad about yourself. So, in that sense, realizing that eating junk food or not-so-perfect foods is actually okay sometimes, can significantly improve your relationship with food.
Secondly, eating these types of foods will really increase your calorie intake quickly, no doubt about that. Because getting a lot of energy from your food is your goal right now, fast food and sweet treats may seem like the fastest way to do it. However, you don't have to – there are many other, healthier ways to get your calories in!
Gut Health Matters Too
The reason why I don't think eating low quality foods in large amounts is a great idea is that it's really not good for your gut health. Too much sugar, processed foods and low quality oils (usually found in fried foods) may lead to many gut issues and cause diseases in your body. You don't want those on top of your hypothalamic amenorrhea…
If you're looking to get pregnant shortly after getting your period back, it's important to have a healthy gut flora, as some of it will be passed on to your placenta and that way affects your baby's development.
To promote good gut health, you can take daily probiotic and eat prebiotic foods. The way that probiotics work is that they kill a lot of the bad bacteria in your gut, strengthening your immune system. That way, there's more room for good bacteria. Prebiotic foods help to increase the good bacteria in your gut. Sauerkraut and kimchi, as well as kefir and yogurt, if you can eat them, are all great foods for your gut.
I'm not saying that eating poor quality foods in small amounts or once in a while will have long term negative effect on your gut flora. But for the most part, it's definitely a better idea to eat whole foods and make ways to make those richer in calories. That way you don't get just empty calories with your food, but the energy you put in your body is actually nourishing and nutritious.
Tips for Smarter Eating
You can absolutely get your calories also from simple, homemade foods or if you eat out, just make better choices. You don't have to eat fries and burgers at McDonald's to get your calories in.
When you cook at home, the simplest way to add more calories you your meals is to be really generous with good fats and oils.
If you were like me in my worse dieting days (6-7 years ago, which was probably my peak, in terms of disordered eating habits, overtraining and hypothalamic amenorrhea – you can read all about it here) and used just lemon juice as your salad dressing, then adding two tablespoons of olive oil gives you 200 more calories and tons more flavor.
The other thing that I used to do back then was to spread crappy low-calorie margarine on my toast. An easy and much healthier way to eat your toast is to add a tablespoon of real butter – and a thick slice of cheese!
I used to stay away from avocados, because they had so much fat in them… Now I eat 1/2 for breakfast almost every single day and ofter the other 1/2 later in the day. Eat a full avocado, and you've added about 250 calories to your diet.
Do all three – 2 tbsp of olive oil, 1 tbsp butter, a piece of toast, a nice slice of cheese, 1 avocado – and you already have over 700 calories. Think about the nutritional value you get, compared to a big fast food meal…
Our bodies need carbs too, but those carbs don't have to come from fast food or sugar. There's nothing wrong if some of them do once in a while, but in general, I wouldn't recommend anyone to eat a box of cookies every single day. You can eat rice, sweet potatoes, potatoes, oatmeal, plantains, bananas, good quality bread… Finding good carb sources isn't hard at all; just don't be afraid of carbs! About 150 grams a day is a good starting point.
For protein, if you can, do your best to buy grass-fed meats and organic products. That's especially important when eating fattier meats, because animals who have been fed hormones, store most of the toxins in fat. If you can buy grass-fed products, then fattier cuts are great. If you can't, then leaner cuts is a better idea, but be generous with fat when cooking them.
If your only source of protein has been super lean chicken breast, mix it up and try making chicken thighs with the skin on. You get more calories, more nutrients and more flavor that way.
There are many easy ways to increase your daily calories without turning to junk food or eating a pint of ice cream daily. You want to make sure to get your vitamins and minerals from food and maintain a good gut health during recovery. Yes, it's absolutely okay to have desserts or fast food once in a while, but it not in large amounts daily.
At the same time, remember that letting go of “food rules” is also very important from your recovery standpoint. Recovery is not only about fixing your physical body, it's also strengthening your mind, part of which is getting over food fears. Don't beat yourself up for an occasional burger or a chocolate bar, but make sure to nourish your body with enough nutrients and especially good quality fats.
If you need support on your journey to recover from overtraining or hypothalamic amenorrhea, my ebook, programs and FREE 20-minute coaching calls are available for you! I get back to every email, so let me know if I can help.