Most people equate hormonal imbalances with hot flashes and mood swings in menopausal women. But scratch the surface, and you’ll see that out-of-whack hormones also can set the stage for a wide range of conditions, including cancer, diabetes and depression.

Now: A growing body of evidence shows that potentially dangerous hormonal imbalances respond quickly to changes in diet

Why hormones matter

Most people don’t realize the crucial role that hormones play in overall health. You can think of it this way—it’s your hormones that provide the “operating instructions” for every organ in your body to work effectively.

Secreted by one of many endocrine glands—from the pineal gland within the brain, to the testicles and ovaries of the reproductive system—hormones speed and slow your metabolism…determine how you store and burn fat…control reproduction and sexuality…affect your moods…and more. 

Research shows that compounds in certain foods are the single biggest factor in balancing hormones to create clear instructions within the body. 

Hormone-balancing foods

The hormone-balancing diet I recommend is plant based, consisting of four primary food groups—vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes (beans, lentils, peas). As both research and clinical experience show, this vegan diet works in many ways to balance hormones. 

While you might imagine that a vegan diet is challenging to follow, it turns out to be surprisingly easy. It is simple to have bean chili instead of meat chili or to enjoy a tasty tomato-­based sauce on your pasta instead of a meat or cream sauce. For complete nutrition, get vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes…and add a B-12 supplement (at least 2.4 mcg daily).

Here’s how to select the foods you need to help prevent, control and even reverse these hormone-related conditions…

Breast cancer 

Breast cancer is a serious condition. A combination of treatments is often necessary, so you should see your doctor and follow his/her guidance. Even so, hormone-balancing foods can play a vital role.

Excess estrogen is a common driver of breast cancer. For example, women with higher levels of the estrogen estradiol in the bloodstream have twice the cancer risk as women with lower levels. 

In breast cells, estrogen can damage DNA—turning a healthy cell into a cancer cell. Once a cancer cell arises, high levels of estrogen can stimulate it to multiply. To balance estrogen…

• Cut the fat. There is evidence to suggest that any type of fatty food increases estrogen. And fat cells themselves are hormone factories, producing even more estrogen. Avoid animal fats, as well as coconut and palm oils, which are also high in saturated fat. Skip margarine and butter, too. Go easy on vegetable oils, including olive oil. 

Instead, use non-oil cooking methods, such as steaming, boiling, baking or sautéing in vegetable broth. For an alternative to oily salad dressings, try lemon juice, flavorful vinegars or nonfat dressings. Fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains are naturally very low in fat. For packaged foods, check the label and favor those with 3 g of fat or less per serving.

• Eliminate dairy. Research on dairy’s link to breast cancer has been mixed. However, recent evidence has increasingly found that it plays an important role in how women do after a breast cancer diagnosis. For example, women previously diagnosed with breast cancer who consumed one or more daily servings of high-fat dairy products had a 49% higher risk of dying of their cancer compared with breast cancer patients who ate fewer servings of full-fat dairy or low-fat dairy, according to a study published in Journal of the National Cancer Institute. If you really love milk or yogurt, choose nondairy varieties, such as almond milk or soy yogurt.

• Boost fiber. Fiber helps protect against breast cancer. Women with breast cancer who ate at least five servings a day of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables (and were also physically active) cut their risk of dying from the disease by 50%, according to a study published in Journal of Clinical Oncology. Aim for 40 g of fiber a day—daily servings of beans, vegetables, fruits and grains will get you there.

• Add soy. Soybeans contain isoflavones that reduce the risk of developing breast cancer and, for women who have breast cancer already, improve cancer survival. In numerous studies, women in Asian countries who consume the most soy (about two servings a day) have about a 30% lower risk of developing breast cancer than those who consume less soy. Good choices include tofu, miso soup and soy milk. 

Diabetes

Blood sugar (glucose) is transported into your cells by insulin, a hormone made in the pancreas. If you have type 2 diabetes, your insulin isn’t working right—a problem called insulin resistance. From a dietary perspective, the culprit is fat—beef fat, chicken fat, fryer grease, you name it. Here’s why: Dietary fat turns into microscopic fat particles that block insulin action in muscle and liver cells, interfering with its ability to work. To balance insulin…

• Skip animal products such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Limit vegetable oils, too. 

• Avoid plant-based foods that are high in fat. It turns out that any type of fat can interfere with insulin action—even “good” fats. This includes nuts, peanut butter, seeds and avocados.

• Eat more raw foods, such as fresh fruits and salads. They promote weight loss—and fat loss. Certain vegetables­—such as broccoli and kale—are hard to digest raw. But others, such as carrots and salad greens, are easier.

• Don’t exclude healthy ­carbohydrate-rich foods, such as sweet potatoes, beans and fruit. Remember, the cause of insulin resistance is fat buildup—carbohydrates from whole plant foods are not a problem. In my approach to balancing hormones in diabetes, there are no limits on healthful carbohydrates, but I recommend avoiding high glycemic-index foods that cause blood sugar to spike. Examples: Instead of wheat bread, opt for rye and pumpernickel, which have less effect on blood sugar. Instead of cold cereals, choose old-fashioned oatmeal. 

Prostate cancer 

Being overweight and consuming certain foods have both been linked to prostate cancer. A hormone-taming, plant-based diet can help. To balance hormones that affect the prostate… 

• Go dairy-free. A large body of evidence links dairy products to prostate cancer. Look for dairy and cheese substitutes. Examples: Use nutritional yeast in salads, casseroles and pizza instead of cheese. Wherever you use milk, try soy, almond, rice or oat milk instead.

• Eat more tomatoes.They’re rich in prostate-protecting lycopene. Research published in Journal of the National Cancer Institute shows that men who have 10 or more servings of tomato products each week have 35% less risk of developing prostate cancer, compared with men who have tomatoes less often. Even ketchup and pizza sauce were protective. In fact, cooking helps release lycopene from the tomatoes, making it easier to absorb. 

• Get more soy. As in breast cancer, soybeans have protective hormonal effects, balancing estrogen and testosterone. Research published in Nutrients shows that men who consume the most soy have 29% less risk of developing prostate cancer, compared with their soy-avoiding counterparts.

Depression and norepinephrine

The scientific link between hormones and depression is intriguing, but not definitive. However, research shows that the hormones that control blood pressure—such as norepinephrine (noradrenaline, from the adrenal gland)—also control your emotional state. And low levels of norepinephrine can cause depression. To balance norepinephrine…

• Eat more vegetables. A study in Public Health Nutrition found that people who eat the most vegetables are 62% less likely to develop depression than people who eat the least. 

• Get more soy. Consuming two to four soy servings per day may have a significant antidepressant effect, according to research published in Menopause. This perhaps explains the low prevalence of depression among Japanese people on traditional soy-rich diets. Have two servings per day. A serving would be a cup of soy milk or two to three-and-a-half ounces of tofu.