The Effects of a Vegetarian diet on the Menstrual Cycle & Strength Training

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Before I get into all the fun research stuff (Yes, manipulating my body composition by trying different diets and compiling information on the positive and negative effects it has on my body and brain is what I consider a fun time) I need to place a disclaimer.

This little experiment was done only on me.  The information I’m about to share is what I found when I tested myself being on a Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian diet for one month and how it affected my strength training and my menstrual cycle. As a woman, we quickly learn that each and every one of our bodies is unique and different in a lot of ways so if any other woman decides to try this one day then please share your results with me.

Here are some factors though that some women might also have in common with me:

  • I am 32, single, no children and I have PCOS. There are symptoms to indicate that I might have endometriosis but I have to do the necessary tests to confirm if and what stage
  • I work on average for 8-9 hours at my moderately stressful full time job on weekdays and I have two less stressful part time jobs that I do after work or on weekends
  • I spend 3 hours on average in traffic daily on weekdays
  • I get an average of 5.5-6 hours of sleep on weekdays and maybe 7 on weekends.
  • I go to the gym 3-4 days for the week and my workouts are spent mainly doing medium to heavy strength training with minimum cardio.
  • My diet is a mixture of macro based and flexible dieting. In the macro spectrum I prioritize protein and manage my carbs and fats based on energy expenditure and I keep my diet 80% whole foods and 20% junk food.

My main reason for going vegetarian for one month was to research how my Fat Loss/Muscle building diet programs would affect my future vegetarian clients but to also test the following:

  • How this diet would affect my strength training and if it was possible for me to maintain muscle while on this diet.
  • If I could find viable vegetarian protein sources that were not also high in carbohydrates; a common misconception that people have with vegetarianism is that you can find a lot of protein in peas and beans. While you can, the reality is that legumes are mostly carbohydrate sources. What this means is that even though you can get a lot of protein in them, the carbohydrate content is double the amount. For e.g. 1 cup of boiled channa is 14% fat, 21% protein and 65% carbohydrates.- *Based on the above, this is why I decided to try a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (it does not allow meat but consumption of animal products such as egg and dairy) and not vegan (plant based diet).
  • How this diet would affect my worst PCOS and PMS symptoms (specifically bloating, mood swings and fatigue levels) and if it would help to alleviate pain during my menstrual cycle.

Let’s begin.

The effects of a Lacto-Ovo vegetarian diet on Strength Training:

In my opinion, unless you are a vegetarian for religious or ethical reasons, I would not recommend this diet if you are trying to maintain your muscle mass; that is unless you supplement with a plant protein powder.

A lot of people have been led to believe that taking a protein supplement is a must in order to build muscle. The fact is that once you get an adequate amount of protein in your diet, you DO NOT NEED a protein supplement. Protein supplements are simply a convenient and fast way to get more protein in your diet and should be taken if you are not getting enough in your diet or if you are trying to build muscle quickly. I currently don’t take any protein supplements and I haven’t in over a year or more; I rely solely on my diet for my protein intake and successfully get over 70g on most days. Only if I were trying to build a decent amount of muscle in less than a month then I would consider taking a protein supplement.

I did not take any vegan protein supplement during this period as I stubbornly decided to try and find reliable vegetarian protein sources locally. This ended up being the most frustrating part of this process for me. Protein sources for vegetarians are severely limited locally and purchasing food on the outside was even more exasperating as our local diet is more carbohydrate driven. Usually on my carnivore diet I have a wide variety of meats I choose from but I was limited to mostly eggs, greek yogurt, full cream milk, veggie burger patties and mixing in some lentils ever so often in order to get a somewhat decent amount of protein daily. Even then so, this diet proved to be more catabolic; this basically means that it put my body in a breaking down of muscle state rather than building or maintenance muscle state.

There has been a lot of debate about plant protein versus animal protein but I’ll only go into that when I test myself again on the effects of being on a vegan diet but this time taking a vegan protein supplement against being on my usual meat eating diet with a vegan protein supplement.  In the past I’ve taken a whey protein supplement on my usual meat eating diet and was able to build some decent muscle so I’m aware of the positive effects of whey protein supplements on my body. I’ve never take a vegan protein supplement so that should be interesting to test in the near future.

Second to add to the frustration from the lack of dependable vegetarian sources was that my recovery periods became longer. A predominant function of your dietary protein is to repair and rebuild the tissues of your body, including damaged muscle fibers, by supplying your cells with protein building blocks called amino acids. On my normal meat diet it usually takes me around a day and a half to fully recover from any muscle soreness after one of my heavy strength training workouts. It was now taking me close to three days to feel comfortable enough to perform another heavy lift without possibly injuring myself. This therefore affected how often I was able to train which further compromised muscle maintenance during this period.

Verdict: As I mentioned above, unless for religious or ethical reasons, I WOULD NOT recommend a vegetarian diet when trying to build or maintain muscle through Strength training as it is more catabolic than anabolic, UNLESS you plan to complement your diet with a protein supplement.

The effects of a Lacto-Ovo vegetarian diet on my Menstrual Cycle and PCOS/PMS Symptoms:

Before going vegetarian I had always assumed that the way to define if you had Inflammatory PCOS was the absence of insulin resistance (check out my past blogs on this topic).  However, it became clear to me quickly that inflammation and insulin resistance are both interconnected, while on this diet. At what level I can’t say but I’m sure it would vary for every woman, of course.

Insulin is a hormone that’s made by the pancreas. It allows your cells to use glucose (sugar) for energy. People who have insulin resistance have cells throughout their body that don’t use insulin effectively. This means that the cells have trouble absorbing the sugar which can cause a buildup of sugar in the blood.  Insulin resistance related PCOS is the most common form of PCOS. This is why a lot of women with PCOS have weight issues. Insulin is also a fat storing hormone and the more of it that circulates in the body, the harder it becomes to burn fat. High levels of insulin can also make you feel tired, bloated and crave sugar.

Lack of physical activity can also cause these cells to be clogged by fat and because I’ve always been active and been able to manage my weight through exercise is why I believe I’ve had less insulin resistance PCOS related weight issues.

I had severe cystic acne breakouts which had signaled the beginning of my hormone imbalance journey and because it was so inflamed and painful I was more inclined to believe that my PCOS was more inflammatory related. Added to this was the fact that I saw the biggest reduction in my acne when I started taking Omega 3 fish oil supplements. There are two types of Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil; DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). EPA and DHA can reduce inflammation, which causes swelling and pain.

Now it seems pretty clear, to me, that inflammation plays a major role in the development of insulin resistance.

How so?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that I ate more vegetables or fruits than I normally do whilst on my vegetarian diet than I do on my usual diet to be honest. It was more of excluding any meat. Because I don’t take protein supplements, I rely mostly on meat as my main protein source. So, as I mentioned earlier, it was extremely maddening to not find any dependable protein sources other than legumes. Because of this I decided to try tofu in my first week of vegetarian meal prep. This decision unknowingly set off a chain reactions in my body that became the most revelatory aspect of being on a vegetarian diet.

You see, I always read that soybeans (which tofu is made from) could affect estrogen levels but I wanted to know at what levels in my body; I was in for a big surprise.

Soy contains phytoestrogen called isoflavones that may mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen in your body and while soy when consumed in moderation can have a modest effect on estrogen levels, it drastically affected my estrogen levels. I had decided to start the vegetarian diet on the last day of my menstrual cycle in order to have a better understanding of the influence of this diet on my hormones; therefore my estrogen levels at this phase (the follicular phase where estradiol is the main hormone) would have been naturally rising. With the introduction of soy, I can only assume that it negatively influenced the estrogen levels in my body and I felt the effects of it almost immediately in my moods and body. My moods became erratic and I felt overall fatigue which normally does not happen for me around that time. I usually feel the most fatigue and mood swings during my luteal phase aka my PMS phase. I also ovulated very early as well as experienced light spotting.

Needless to say, I immediately started researching ways to reduce the negative effects that soy had on my estrogen levels as it was beginning to affect my mental health which directly affects the quality of my life. I found a product called Quorn (which was absurdly overpriced by the way) that is a meat substitute but more importantly soy free and had that as my meal prep ‘meat sub’ (I think I bought Quorn’s turkey roast which was surprisingly great tasting and actually taste like turkey).  Again, I immediately felt the effects of the reduced soy influence on my moods and energy levels and my body felt balanced again.

After having experienced this, the only soy influence that remained in my diet was the vege burger patties because at this point it was only way to get a somewhat decent amount of protein in my diet without relying solely on legumes. This unknowingly led to another amazing revelation about the influence of soy on my hormones.

In the luteal phase of my cycle (re: the last two weeks before you get your period), where progesterone is the main hormone, I found that soy (from the vege burger patties) had a surprisingly positive effect on my cycle. For the first time in years, I had zero PMS issues. I had no bloating, I had stable moods, no sore or painful swelling of my breasts and my energy levels were unbelievable. I couldn’t recall a time in my life before when I had no PMS issues which is why this was such a pivotal moment for me in my hormone imbalance journey. To add to this milestone was the fact that I had a pain-free period also and by ‘pain-free’ it doesn’t mean no pain at all but more of a pain level of 1 out 10 with 10 being the highest. Exercise helps me a lot with tolerating my painful menstrual cramps but even then so my first two days (my cycle is 4 days) still tends to be quite painful (a 7 out of 10 on the pain scale).

These two things were so monumental for me that when I resumed eating meat (I completed my one month vegetarian research on April 30th by the way) I decided to go lacto-ovo vegetarian again for only one week before my period to see if I would get the same results and the same thing happened again; no PMS symptoms and low pain level menstrual cramps. This has been life changing for me.

So what does the above information have to do with inflammation and insulin?

With regard to inflammation, I naively always thought that inflammation was caused mainly by dairy, sugar and processed fats consumption, but never in my life did I think meat was linked to inflammation. I so still didn’t want to believe this which is the reason why I decided to test it again by going lacto-ovo vegetarian again a week before my period to see if I got the same results. The fact that I had resumed my normal meat eating diet and only restricted meat consumption (I replaced it with vege burger patties) to a week before my period and got the same results (no PMS and barely any cramps) solidified for me the influence of meat consumption as being pro-inflammatory.

With regard to insulin, my insulin levels had never been that stable in my life. I usually crave something sweet after I eat and during this diet I did not crave sugar or anything sweet for a matter of fact. It was like my body had become to reject it as when I did eat something sweet it made me feel upset. After resuming my normal meat diet I became acutely aware of how much I craved sugar again. For me, at least, it indicates some connection between inflammatory producing foods and the effect it has on the body’s insulin levels, hence linking inflammation and insulin.

Verdict: A lacto-ovo vegetarian or vegan diet is well suited for women that have severe PMS symptoms and painful periods and those with PCOS who are trying to get their insulin resistance under control, in my opinion.

Painful periods: The uterus contracts to help expel its lining during your period and hormone like substances called prostaglandins involved in pain and inflammation trigger the uterine muscle contractions. Higher levels of prostaglandins are associated with more severe menstrual cramps. The fact that restricting meat consumption for only one week before my period helped me to have a less painful period indicates that meat can possibly trigger an increase in the body’s prostaglandin level, or at least for mine it did.

PMS symptoms: I would have to say that the introduction of soy in my diet played a huge part in relieving most of my PMS symptoms BUT only when consumed at specific stages in my menstrual cycle. During my follicular phase (re: the first two weeks after my period) it negatively affects my PCOS symptoms re: it makes my mood swings and energy levels worse. During the luteal phase of my menstrual cycle (re: the first two weeks before my period) when I consumed soy (mainly from the vege burger patties) it helped to balance my body a lot. I would advise that if you want to try consuming soy to help relieve your PMS that you try it for a month like I did and track how you feel during your follicular and luteal phase as each woman’s body is different and it may influence your cycle differently.

PCOS Insulin resistance weight issues:  As mentioned earlier, Insulin is also a fat storing hormone and the more it is left circulating in the body the harder it becomes to burn fat which is why a lot of women with PCOS have weight related issues. From what I personally experienced with my stable insulin levels and lack of sugar cravings I would advise that going vegetarian and complementing this diet with exercise should be an effective means of seeing fast weight loss and getting your insulin under control (and by fast I mean at least 6 weeks of consistency, not 2 weeks). In case you forgot, I am a Specialist in Fitness and Nutrition and my consultations are free, so if you need guidance, I am here to help.

‘Research is creating new knowledge.” – Neil Armstrong.

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