Does the Ketogenic Diet Work for Women?
There are three things you should never ask a woman:
How old are you?
Are you pregnant?
Do you eat carbs?
If you’re a woman, what emotions come up for you when you read that last question?
For some women, carbs are associated with their sense of morals, feeling proud if they restrict carbs and guilty if they indulge. Others can’t imagine giving up their daily bread, morning oats, fresh fruit, quinoa salad, or baked sweet potato.
The Carbohydrate Conundrum
Ever since the Atkins’ Diet first launched in 1972 and re-vamped in 1992, the “low-carb” kick has been part of headline news stories and put low-fat, whole-grain, granola-heads to the test. In recent years, the ketogenic diet of the 1920s has become popular, claiming humans were designed to consume fat as their primary fuel, shunning the mere thought of a sushi roll with rice or pre-workout banana. A typical ketogenic prescription includes a daily plate comprised of 60-70% fat, 20-30% protein, and 10-20% carbohydrate.
While the low-carb diet has its critics, research shows convincing claims that ketogenic diets are beneficial, not only for weight loss, but also:
- Cancer treatment
- Alzheimer’s and brain-disease prevention
- Diabetes management
- Enhanced athletic performance
- Boosted metabolism
- Heart health
With all these benefits, “going ketogenic” seems to be the answer to the diet our society has been looking for: health, brain power, and lean body mass.
So what’s the downside?
The goal of this article is not to argue whether ketogenic diets are good or bad, but rather is a full-scope look at the benefits and downsides to a ketogenic diet—namely for women. So, if you’re a woman, read on.
Low-Carb for Life?
A low-carb ketogenic approach can work for fat loss. If you cut out excess sugar and starch, which retain water and stores as fat when overconsumed, your body will naturally make positive body composition adjustments, and as an added bonus, you’ll rid yourself of your sweet tooth. A key factor to finding success with this system is making consistent habit changes.
As with most things in life, when you put your mind to something—anything—it can be achieved. By nearly eliminating an entire food group (carbs) that currently comprise about 60% of the average American’s diet, you are forced to become consistent with eating in a different and new way.
It’s no secret that eating healthy fat does not necessarily make you fat. In fact, eating healthy fats keep you more satisfied between meals, decreases the blood-sugar roller-coaster response of insulin (notoriously known as the “fat storage” hormone), and takes longer to digest, which revs the metabolism for digestion in the process.
However, what about ketogenic diets for long-term? Or times when some weight loss has been achieved? When you hit a wall or plateau in your body composition efforts in spite of the same ketogenic approach you had been on? What about long term health for women?
In the realm of science, medicine, and nutrition, where do we turn to find answers to our most burning questions? Research, of course. The problem is, when it comes to ketogenic research, it is safe to say that at least 90% of the research studies are conducted on men.
It’s not rocket science that the anatomy and biological makeup of the XX (women) and XY (men) chromosomes are like night and day—completely different. Thus, ladies, hate to break it to you, but we cannot look or claim the same benefits as most studies claim for men. Why not? One word: Hormones.
And here is where our “problem” with long term ketogenic diets may apply.
Eggs and avocado are popular food choices for a ketogenic diet. [Photo credit: Pixabay]
Ladies, your carbohydrate intake could be a missing piece of the equation when it comes to balancing your hormones, supporting your thyroid, feeling energetic, boosting your mood, losing weight, ‘burning fat,’ and beyond. Several reasons for this include:
Elevated Cortisol. Low-carb diets have been shown to elevate cortisol levels (i.e., your stress hormone). When cortisol is elevated, it completely throws your other hormones out of whack. Unlike men, women have a much more delicate hormonal makeup. When cortisol spikes and our estrogen and testosterone dance with it (rising and/or falling), lost menstrual cycles, infertility, raging PMS, decreased libido, premature menopause, lowered mood and energy, suppressed appetite, and unexplained weight gain can enter the mix.
Accidental Dieting. Often times, unbeknownst to the ketogenic dieter, he or she is really not on a ketogenic diet, but instead, a low-carb, moderate protein, moderate fat diet. Eating fat liberally and with abundance is a part of the ketogenic equation, and if you are simply not eating enough fuel, your body goes into deprivation mode. While the consumption of fats with most meals may seem like an enormous shift from your low-fat, no-fat diet approaches of days’ past, you’re still not eating enough to constitute your new ketogenic diet as “ketogenic.” This is called the “accidental diet”—and if you’re not eating enough your cortisol will do funky things, which leads once more to hormonal imbalance.
Emotional Deprivation. An essential vitamin that everyone needs when it comes to a healthy, happy relationship with food is vitamin P—Vitamin Pleasure. When you lack enjoyment of the food you eat, or you are completely disconnected with your food, Vitamin P goes down. When you view another dish of chicken, broccoli and coconut oil, or salmon, avocado and kale as a “chore” (rather than delicious, nourishing food), this decreased Vitamin P impairs:
- Digestion. Instead of thoroughly chewing and tasting your food, you just power through it leading to poor breakdown of the food.
- Peace of mind. You're constantly stressed about keeping up with your diet or reaching your goal.
- Peace with food. Erratic food behaviors or habits may surface, like binge eating on occasion, or thinking excessively about food.
It’s no secret that our brain impacts our body—namely stress—and when we are stressed your hormones take a hit.
Your Unique Approach
So the big question: Is the ketogenic approach right for you? Only your body can determine the answer, but here are some key components to consider before taking a ketogenic approach in the long-term:
- Understand the short-term benefits. As mentioned, for some, a targeted ketogenic approach can be beneficial when it comes to consistency with weight loss or body fat loss goals, as well as decreased brain fog, and perhaps even finding a balance (and making peace) with incorporating formerly feared healthy fats into your diet.
- Don't make the ketogenic approach about morals (“being good vs. bad”). This diet mentality sets you up for failure in the long term because it disconnects you from how your body really feels and what it needs, and bases your food decisions more on what your mind has determined it needs.
- Ensure that you are really eating a ketogenic diet if you are “going ketogenic” (i.e. 60-70% of your diet is actually healthy fats), and, eating enough (no accidental dieting here).
- Enjoy your food. The world is still your oyster with options of healthy and delicious foods to fit a ketogenic approach. Chew your food thoroughly and rest and digest as you nosh.
- Find individualized balance. Just like you want balanced hormones, your body needs balanced nutrition. And every BODY is different when it comes to what that balance looks like. Some women may very well find they need more carbs, and some may find they don’t need as much.
Here are some general barometers that can help you decide if the ketogenic diet is right for you.
You may need more carbs if:
- You are missing your period
- You struggle with getting pregnant
- You have low thyroid
- You have adrenal fatigue
- You are pregnant or nursing
- You are trying to put on healthy, lean muscle (it can be done with a ketogenic approach, but can prove to require a little more thought)
- You don’t feel energetic
- You often think about food in ‘deprivation’ mode
- You find it difficult to eat that much fat
You may need less carbs and more fats if:
- You have a hyperactive thyroid
- You’ve been trying to lose weight or body fat for quite some time with little to no results
- You experience brain fog regularly
- You have SIBO, Candida, or other bacterial infections
- You don’t fear eating fat
- You often hit a wall or ‘bonk’ after ‘carbing-up’ for your workouts
- You crave sweets and caffeine frequently
The Bottom Line
There is no one size fits all approach to eating, but if you are a woman, long-term ketogenic diets may not be all that our male counterparts chalk them up to be, and a little sweet potato, rice, or fruit never hurt you. Life is all about balance—food, hormones, sanity, and everything in between.
Want to learn more about low-carb diets?