Fasting, Intermittent Fasting (IF) and Ketogenic diets are all the rage right now.
Five years ago, it started off with just Bulletproof Coffee for breakfast.
Then we hopped on the “eliminate the sweet potatoes and fruit” Ketogenic bandwagon—cutting the carbs, and upping the fats.
And now, it’s all about not eating at all some days—or eating only at particular times of day.
Acclaimed health benefits of these popular dietary practices include:
- Fat loss and weight loss (1,2)
- Cellular repair from oxidative stress
- Reduction of insulin sensitivity
- Decreased inflammation (1, 2)
- Enhanced heart health
- An effective treatment for diabetes, Parkinson’s, cancer, Alzheimers and seizures.
With all these benefits, it’s hard to see why anyone would not follow a ketogenic or fasting lifestyle.
But, are these benefits tried and true for everyone?
Moreover, what does the research say about the effectiveness of these diets for women and women’s health?
Answer: Keto, fasting and IF is not for everyone—with women generally needing to exercise more caution to “do it right.”
SO SHOULD YOU GO KETO OR FAST?
There’s no denying that ketogenic dieting, fasting and intermittent fasting are part of a healthy or therapeutic diet for some people—particularly those with chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, blood sugar imbalances, a stubborn metabolism, cancer, cancer or ‘brain fog.’
That said, what about if you don’t have a disease or are generally a “healthy” individual?
Keto, fasting or IF may not be for you if you FAIL to do one of three things:
- Eat Enough
- Eat Carbs—at all
- Not Listen to their own body (metabolism, digestion & hormones included)
Let’s briefly review each of these:
KETO & IF ROADBLOCK #1: NOT EATING ENOUGH
Simply put, if you’re not eating enough for your body, then eventually, your body is going to crash or lag behind:
- Your adrenals (stress gland regulators) will get overworked or give out
- You’l lose your period or experience crazy PMS
- Your energy levels decrease
- You’ll crave sugar or coffee to keep going
- Your metabolism will slow down
- Constipation or bloating may increase
- Performance and fitness gains in the gym will cease
You may be able to make it by ok for some time, but if you’re not putting fuel into the tank, then your engine starts to sputter.
A roadblock many end up running in to with an IF or Keto approach—built upon eating all your calories for the day in a short amount of time, or fueling up on fat—is that some adherents STILL fear fat or do not eat enough fat (or fuel) with meals to truly make up for their body’s energy needs that day.
For instance, a general rule of thumb for a ketogenic diet is that you consume 50-80% of your calories from fat. If you think a tablespoon or two of coconut oil in the morning, half an avocado at lunch and small filet of salmon with a salad and goat cheese at dinner is enough fat, think again.
I find women struggle with this one more than men because of our deep-rooted beliefs that “fat males us fat”—even if we hear that “fat does not make us fat.”
In addition, a long-term practice of fasting, ketogenic dieting or IF generally does turn off your body’s hunger cues—suppressing appetite. Come meal time, you eat a “normal” sized meal and feel satisfied, and yet your body is only running off 1200 calories per day, leaving you low in energy supply to do all the other things you love to do (like CrossFit, hike the trails, swim laps, spin, etc.).
Lastly, if you have gut issues (bloating, constipation) and follow a Keto or IF diet, you may find it even more difficult to get in the fuel your body optimally needs to thrive during the day, since your hunger and digestive capacity is also suppressed. Eating a larger amount of food in a shortened time frame may prove difficult to do.
KETO & IF ROADBLOCK #2: NO CARBS
Like Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter, “Carbs” are he-who-should-not-be-named.
Carbs and ketogenic diets (and sometimes IF) go together like oil and vinegar—they don’t mix well.
And even if they do, some people run into the “identity crisis” issue—feeling guilty for “giving in” or “caving” to the unhealthy (American) habit of eating a carb-based diet.
Like a vegan or paleo die-hard, when we let one diet philosophy become our identity (keto and IF included), we can develop an (unspoken) sense of self-righteousness, priding ourselves in our ability to deny the most tempting foods to the majority.
You do NOT earn a gold star for saying “no” to the beets or carrots or sweet potato. Nor do you earn a gold star for hitting the “perfect” mark of Keto or “perfect” IF fast for the day.
In other words: The major roadblock I am talking about here is the Roadblock of Identity.
When our diet becomes more about our Identity, and less about fueling our body with the nourishing nutrition it needs at the time (whatever that is for your personal health, lifestyle and mindset), then Keto and IF take on a completely different meaning.
Moreover, on a biological standpoint, an issue some run into with Keto or IF as well is when we neglect carbs, we lower our fiber intake, consequently impacting our elimination (i.e. pooping) capacity.
Fiber and carbs—particularly from some starches and prebiotic foods (cooked and cooled potatoes, green tipped bananas and plantains)—help promote healthy digestion by moving bulk in our stool from one end to the other.
Lower-carb, higher-fat or protein diets do the opposite (stop things up)—even if you ARE eating lots of leafy greens, it may not be enough to push it all through the hose.
KETO & IF ROADBLOCK #3: NOT LISTENING TO YOUR BODY
Lastly, Keto and IF do a great job of teaching us how to follow prescriptions for eating on a plan, but fail to put the disclaimer:
“If your hormones, digestion or metabolism get out of balance, discontinue use.”
Listen to your body.
Some common signs or symptoms that Keto or IF may not be working for you are:
- Frequent Constipation or Bloating despite “eating healthy”
- Missing period
- Thryoid imbalances
- Low energy
- Low mood
- Feelings of emotional/mental “numbness” or not yourself
- Lack of fitness or performance “gains”
- Complete loss of appetite (never feel like eating)
- Falling asleep when you sit down
- Overthinking food or finding your identity in food
Frustrations with your body and food
SO REALLY IS KETO FOR ME?:
The answer? It all depends on YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD & YOUR body.
While very few studies have been conducted strictly on women around these philosophies, the studies that HAVE been conducted do reveal that women’s bodies are different than men.
WHAT RESEARCH SAYS:
Simply put, diets like IF and Keto, can cause hormonal imbalance in women if not done correctly.
One study of rats revealed that women lost their regular cycle when they jumped into restrictive eating patterns.
Another study of the thyroid levels of healthy women and men who performed intermittent fasting during Ramadan discovered decreased free T3 levels and increased reverse T3 levels only in women, not men—indicating hypothyroidism or subclinical hypothyroidism. The good news? These levels reversed when women stopped the fasting and reintroduced balanced eating with some carbohydrates.
As for appetite and stress levels, both Ghrelin (your hunger hormone) and cortisol decrease when men and women eat less (fast), meaning: You lose your appetite and wear down your HPA-Axis (stress levels) when you fast. [Hence: If you don’t eat enough despite not feeling hungry, you are more at risk to suppress cortisol and suffer from HPA-Axis dysfunction (“adrenal fatigue).
And one more study on men and women who followed a Keto diet for 3-weeks found that the women’s blood sugar handling levels worsened (i.e. sugar cravings, energy crashes, fatigue, caffeine dependency), while the men’s improved.
ARE THERE ANY POSITIVES?
While all these studies seem to point to the fact that Ketogenic and fasting diets don’t do women’s bodies good, some positives of IF and Keto for women have been discovered too—but most of these studies include women who were unhealthy or (ironically) had blood sugar and hormonal imbalances from the start:
For instance, research of women with PCOS found that 6-months on a Keto diet improved their body weight—helping them shed unwanted weight gain from hormone imbalance. However, hormone correction was
Another recently released review of seven total studies on overweight and obese women’s hormones on lower-carb diets (McGrice & Porter, 2017) noted positive changes in women’s insulin sensitivity and reproductive hormones to improve fertility outcomes. However, once again, no research was conducted of “average” or normal weight women.
In addition—a personal testimony of a nutrition colleague of mine (Shawn Mynar) reveals that Keto and IF were very beneficial for helping her personally heal from a chronic battle with mold and toxic exposures that suppressed her immune system. Today, she helps women understand exactly HOW to go about a high-fat Keto diet in her FAT BURNING FEMALE PROJECT program , guiding women in declaring peace with fat and breaking through a health plateau or rut.
The bottom line for determining if IF or Keto is for you if you are a woman?
It all comes down to evaluating what your body truly needs—rather than one fad diet you should or shouldn’t follow:
CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF
- Are you having a difficult time eating enough? And, if eating “Keto,” can you handle eating enough fat for real? (generally speaking, at least 1800-2200 calories per day for women who lead a normal, moderately active lifestyle—intense training not included)?
- Do you want to train harder or build lean muscle? (if so, more fuel is required, and some carbs may help fuel your workouts or recover your muscles)
- Do you have blood sugar handling issues (i.e. you need sweets, caffeine, you get hangry between meals, headaches, energy dips or crashes, etc.)? (You may benefit from a body re-set with a higher fat approach)?
- Are you intertwining your identity with your diet? (If you’re involving emotions and judgments based on what you eat or don’t eat, or trying to earn your gold stars through your food, IF and Keto could be a slippery slope)
- Do you have a history of dieting, restricting or eating disorders? (Same thing as number 3—IF and Keto may not be the head space you want to be in—replacing calorie or macro counting with food timing rules and monitoring ketones)
- Do you have a disease, inflammation or illness? (Keto and IF can starve disease as noted by a number of successful trials and outcomes with them therapeutic treatment approaches). And, lastly:
- How do you feel? (If you’re following a Keto or IF diet but still struggling with the following, it may be worth a look at your diet):
Have you lost your period? Have crazy PMS?
Experience constipation and bloating regularly on your Keto or IF diet?
Hit a plateau with your metabolism?
Not sure why you’re tired—even though you sleep for 7-9 hours?
There is NO one size fits all approach to the perfect diet for you, and ketogenic and IF can be extremely beneficial for some, especially as a therapeutic diets.
In both my clinical practice and extensive research, it seems as though the MOST success with individuals who were/are really in need of a health re-set. They were or had:
- Weight management difficulties
- Blood sugar handling imbalances and issues/diabetes
- Cancer or chronic disease
- Toxic exposure
- Parkinson’s disease, seizueres or another neurological condition
- Inflammation—like gout, skin breakouts, “high cholesterol” and heart disease
- Brain fog, ADD/ADHD and mental health issues (anxiety, stress, depression)
- Or they formerly ate a grain-based, sugar-filled Standard-American diet and were ready for an overhaul
However, once the body is RESET, Keto or IF may contribute to hormonal imbalances or thyroid imbalances over time.
One philosophy no human can deny? Real food.
Eat real food. Mostly plants (vegetables, starchy veggies, some fresh fruits). Sustainably raised meats. Healthy fats (oils, animal fats, avocado and plant fats, nuts and seeds). Lots of water.
If it didn’t grow on the land, swim in the sea or roam the earth, it’s not real food.
- Eating is not the enemy.
- Carbs are not the enemy.
- Fats are not the enemy.
- And proteins are not the enemy.
For a healthy body—and more importantly healthy relationship with food—seek to live with the abundance or least restrictive mindset—less heavy on the dogmas (and stress).
And when things get fuzzy or you don’t know what dietary approach to take with food, above all ask yourself these:
Am I nourishing my body?
And, how does my body (really) feel?
The answer is within you.