Keto diets for women have long been a source of debate within the health community.
Some claim low-carb diets wreak havoc on women’s hormones, while others sing praises of keto’s amazing body-boosting results, lifted brain fog and enhanced energy.
So who is right?
The answer? As with most things in nutrition world, there is NO one-size-fits-all approach for anyone, AND certain dietary philosophies may work differently (for even the same person) depending their current health condition, stress levels and overall health status as a whole.
If you’re wondering if keto for women is for you or not, here are 5 Things Every Female Should Know Before Trying Keto
- You May Be Able to Handle More Carbs
While guys may not be able to handle the carbs and stay in “ketosis,” women doing keto may.
Unfortunately, the majority of studies on keto are on one of two people:
- Chronically sick (such as epilepsy, diabetes or Alzheimers)
While keto has shown TONS of proven benefits for the chronically ill, obese and individuals seeking significant fat loss—especially male subjects, the research on women is mixed as to whether low-carb/no-carb and high-fat diets are really beneficial for women (especially in the long term).
Women Burn More Carbs Naturally
By design, women naturally burn MORE glucose, or carbs, at rest than men, AND they burn more fat when they exercise than men. While men, naturally burn MORE fat at rest, and burn more glucose (carbs) when they exercise.Women also have significantly better blood sugar tolerance than men due to their higher estrogen levels.
What this means?
Women’s bodies may not be as sensitive to eating carbs as keto guideline may make you believe (given you are eating real food, and leading a generally healthy, active lifestyle).
In fact, women’s bodies actually may be MORE sensitive to NOT eating carbs, especially if they are relatively healthy.
Carb Restriction & Hormones
Macronutrient restriction (carbs, proteins or fat) of any sort can be seen as a “threat” by your body, signaling a SPIKE in cortisol (stress). In turn, cortisol—particularly long term elevated cortisol—affects estrogen levels (sending them in the opposite direction), and may take a hit to your PMS or menstruation altogether.
Carbohydrate restriction also impacts leptin levels—your hormone needed to maintain healthy estrogen levels and menstruation.
Glucose (carbs) are essential, JUST like fats and proteins are as well, to maintaining a balanced reproduction.
Meaning, if we are cutting our carbohydrates too low, and/or not eating enough (proteins or fats as well), we may compromise our reproductive systems ability to function at its best.
In fact, TOO LOW of balanced macronutrient intake—carbs, proteins and fats— may be the biggest reason why women experience hypothalamic amenorrhea, as one study demonstrated that in exercising women, those with lower leptin levels were more likely to miss their periods (Corr et al, 2011).
This is the reason why that women on strict keto diets are often encouraged to ensure they are eating enough protein IF they are not eating carbs at all (since proteins can be converted and used like carbs if necessary).
Defining More Carbs
Carb cycling or Modified Keto may give you the best of both worlds for the long term—especially after an initial keto reset.
Keto, as mentioned, has shown GREAT results in improving chronic conditions, but in the long term, the necessity to drastically cut carbs forever, may not be necessary or beneficial.
Carb cycling, or even moderate amounts of carbs each day MAY not be as bad or sacrilegious as you think.
Carb cycling focuses on eating a real-food, nutrient-dense diet first and foremost, eliminating processed and packaged foods, and adding in some starchy carbs (75-150 grams) three to four days per week, as you choose.
Daily carbohydrate consumption on a “modified keto” diet could look like sticking to a higher-fat, moderate protein diet the majority of the day, but adding in a little bit of real-food starch or fruit into the mix, such as: eating a sweet potato with dinner, or (gasp) a piece of fruit and some colorful beets and roasted rainbow carrots on your lunchtime salad.
These additions are not the enemy based on women’s body composition and biology, and you may actually find that you STILL can stay in “ketosis” (i.e. “fat burning mode”) even with the “scary carbs.”
- Your Body May Resist
Similar to the hormone conundrum some women may encounter on a keto diet, another is stalled progress—particularly if you are doing keto for aesthetic, body purposes.
Men respond differently than women when it comes to body fat loss.
This explains why your significant other can eat pizza on a Friday night and seemingly get more ripped, while you just look at the piece and instantly gain “5 pounds.”
Men tend to lose more body fat when they restrict calories, cut back on carbs and/or up aerobic or intense exercise, compared to women.
Women don’t respond as well to these approaches, pointing back to hormones. Since all of these (caloric restriction or fasting, low carbs, and/or exercise intensity) are natural stressors, the elevation of cortisol (stress hormone) and decreased serotonin (Zha et al, 2017) affects the other hormones in women, promoting fat storage.
- Beware of Constipation, Bloating &/or SIBO
The primary “missing” food in keto is carbs, which means fiber is lacking as well—pre-biotic fiber and resistant starch in particular.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock people run into on a keto diet is bloating, constipation or other “gut issues.”
Low carb diets STARVE gut bacteria, since pre-biotics are necessary to help gut bacteria thrive.
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 (i.e. constipation)—even if you ARE eating lots of leafy greens, it may not be enough to push it all through the hose.
Although ketogenic diets have been shown to HELP alter the bad gut bacteria in individuals with epilepsy and other neurological conditions (Xie et al, 2017), ketogenic diets for women and men may have the opposite effect, especially if you are already relatively healthy (Tagliabue et al, 2016 )–altering your gut bacteria as well (that doesn’t need to be altered).
- Eat Enough
Are you eating enough?
Keto diets for women and men are satiating! Fat is the densest source of nutrition we consume, and a handful of nuts can last your fullness levels a heck of a lot longer than a handful of broccoli or even a handful of chicken alone.
Fat fills you up, and a little can go a long way—making it easy to skimp or not eat enough total calories and nutrition in a day!
In addition to feeling fuller, an obstacle many women run into on a keto diet is bringing their former fat phobias into the mix.
After years of adhering to a low-fat diet, or only eating “healthy fats” like avocados and olive oil, the idea of eating butter, coconut oil, red meat and cheese can be a little daunting for some.
Sure you may cook your veggies in a teaspoon of oil, or add some avocado to your grass-fed beef burger, but if 60-70% of your daily intake is “supposed” to be fat, then chances are you are not hitting your daily needs and can end up suffering from chronic undereating, leading to symptoms like:
- Unwanted weight gain
- Poor workout performance or gains
- Lack of appetite
- Constipation and bloating
- Hormone imbalances
- And cravings for sugar
Lastly, when it comes to “eating enough”, keto dieters are also more at risk for overall nutritional deficiencies.
A cup of bulletproof coffee beans and butter in the morning, followed by cucumbers and tuna with mayonnaise for lunch, and salmon with asparagus or cauliflower and olive oil for dinner is low on the “nutrient-rich” totem poll. Couple this with eating many of the same foods day in and day out (because you only have so much to choose from), and you’re at risk for deficiencies of all sorts (ex. Vitamin D, Vitamin A, Vitamin K, B-Vitamins, Magnesium, Potassium).
Variety is the spice of life—including a variety of nutrients.
- Don’t Fall for Processed Foods.
The health and diet industry LOVES diet fads. It gives them a chance to invent new products that eager, desperate consumers will buy, such as:
- The 90’s Low Fat Craze: Slim-Fast (laden with high-fructose corn syrup and soy) and processed Lean Cuisines
- The Paleo Boom of the Mid-2000’s: Stevia-laden protein powders, high-sugar (dried fruit and date-based) energy bars, and inflammatory-provoking almond-flour in EVERYTHING (pasta, crackers, bread, pancake mix)
- And the Keto Frenzy of modern day: Processed ketone powders, cookies and bars spiked with stevia and erythritol (artificial sweetener derived from corn sugar, most often from genetically modified (GMO) corn), and conventional processed dairy products (cheese, cream).
These foods are STILL not real foods.
Even though the label technically says “paleo” or “keto,” it doesn’t mean that your body is fully nourished with these foods. In fact, some of the ingredients in processed diet products can be as detrimental to your health (particularly gut health), resulting in some of the issues previously discussed (like nutrient deficiencies, constipation, and bloating).
For instance, a look at one label of a popular ketogenic meal replacement product lists these ingredients:
MCT Oil Creamer (medium chain triglycerides, Nonfat dry milk, Disodium phosphate and Silicon dioxide), Milk, Soy, Whey Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil Creamer, Digestion Resistant Maltodextrin, Cocoa Powder (Processed With Alkali), Milk Protein Isolate, Natural Flavor, Magnesium Oxide, Xanthan Gum, Salt (Sodium Chloride), Calcium Carbonate, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Rebaudioside A, Stevioside, Vitamin E Acetate, Copper Gluconate, Niacinamide (Niacin), Zinc Oxide, Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3), Lactase, Calcium Pantothenate (Pantothenic Acid), Biotin, Vitamin A Acetate, Potassium Iodide, Pyridoxine HCI (Vitamin B6), Thiamine Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid, Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12)
Houston, we have a problem:
- Soy is a known endocrine (hormone) disruptor (Bar-el & Refein, 2010)
- Digestion Resistant Maltodextrin. A soluble GMO corn fiber used as a thickener, filler or preservative in many processed foods, associated with leaky gut, spiked blood sugar, decreased probiotics https://drlauryn.com/how-to-choose-the-best-probiotic-for-you/ and stomach pain (since it binds to substances in your gut)
- Stevioside kills gut bacteria (Denina et al, 2014)
- Silicon Dioxide is the main chemical compound of sand used as an anti-caking agent in processed foods and powders to prevent clumping, and is linked to rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases (Speck-Hernandez & Montoya-Ortiz, 2012 )
Although a little dirt never hurt once and awhile and 80/20 balance (i.e. no perfection) MUST exist when it comes to food, a common roadblock adherents (of any diet philosophy) fall into is eating processed foods (just like we did back in our Standard American Diet days of pretzel sticks, Special K and Wheat Thins).
- It Can Become an Identity.
You are NOT what you eat, but like any other diet, the keto diet can become an identity…
Whether you’re “paleo,” “vegetarian,” “fruitarian,” “vegan” or “keto,” the problem with strict adherence to any one diet philosophy in particular is that we can stop listening to our own bodies, and instead become enslaved to food rules we “should” follow.
- Have you ever felt guilty for eating a food you “shouldn’t” have?
- Thought about eating a certain food, but instantly shut it down because it is not keto? (or “paleo” or “vegan”)?
- Felt an obligation to eat a certain way because it’s what you THINK you should eat (or others expect you) to eat?
If so, you know the struggle is real. And no matter what diet rules you follow, sometimes they can go to an extreme.
A common roadblock many of my own clients face is defining their own self-worth based on what goes into our mouth.
In terms of keto, they earn their “gold stars” for the day by resisting all carbs (even though they are experiencing horrible gas, hormonal imbalances, low energy or thinking about carbs).
Despite what the body is saying, they followed the keto rules gosh darn it, and for this, they feel proud of themselves and a boost of self-esteem.
Listen up: Your diet does not define you.
Any time we stop listening to our bodies, and more to check boxes, rules and regulations about what we should or shouldn’t eat, or what we can or can’t eat, imbalance usually follows.
The Bottom Line
Keto based diets CAN work great for some people.
However, it’s important to be aware of the common roadblocks—like any other diet—that people run in to in order to “do it” the right way.
Above all, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY…It is smarter than you think.
Join the Thrive Life Project
Want a non-diet approach to getting your best body now!?
Whether you choose a Ketogenic-inspired diet or not, the Thrive Life Project was created for you to learn how to reconnect to your own body, find the way of eating and working out that works for YOU (no one else), AND quiet the diet-rule noise in the health world.
Join the 30-day reset today and let’s reinvent the way your body LOOKS, MOVES AND FEELS on your own terms.