There’s no question that the keto diet for women offers many benefits to those who choose to follow that lifestyle. In fact, we are huge fans! The impacts range from weight loss and improved body composition to decreased risk of developing life-threatening illnesses. But like most things in life, there just cannot be a one-fits-all approach to keto – especially if you are a woman. So let’s review some of the aspects to be considered.
Note: this is not medical advice, so please consult your doctor before taking any action.
What is the keto diet and how it works?
The Keto diet, or ketogenic, is one of the many options for a low-carb diet.
You probably already know what all these diets have in common …… a low intake of carbs, for sure.
Yet, you might wonder, low compared to what?
In general, the standard macronutrient recommendation for adults is that carbs account for 45% to 65% of total calories, proteins account for 10% to 35%, and fats account for 20% to 35%.
This diet is classified as a very low-carb diet, in which carbs account for less than 10% of our total calorie intake. This can roughly translate to eating around 20 to 50 grams of carbs per day in a 2000 kcal per day diet.
The macronutrient ratio for the keto diet is around 55% to 60% fat, 30% to 35% protein, and, as mentioned before, 5% to 10% carbohydrates.
So, how does it works?
By drastically lowering your carbohydrate intake and replacing it with fat you reach a metabolic state known as ketosis. For your body to get into ketosis it can take a few days.
Carbs are our primary source of energy, especially for our brains. But when we run out of carbs, namely glucose, our body starts burning more fatty acids as energy sources.
This leads to increase levels of ketone bodies, or just ketones, hence, the name of the diet. These ketones are a secondary source of energy throughout the body. And since they can cross the blood-brain barrier they’re our brain’s fuel during low-carb diets.
Difference between keto for men and women
While the keto diet can have many health benefits, there are differences in nutritional needs, body composition, and hormone balance between men and women.
It’s worth mentioning that most human studies of the keto diet were based on small samples and many more were conducted only in male mice. So research is still ongoing on the possible gender differences.
According to a recent 2019 study, the health benefits of the keto diet seem to be greater in male mice than in female mice. These advantages include better blood glucose control and weight loss.
Moreover, female mice gain weight after having a keto diet for 15 weeks.
Yet, estrogen can play a crucial role in how women respond to the keto diet. The same study found that female mice respond better to the keto diet without the influence of estrogens.
This means there’s a clear link between the keto diet and women’s menstrual cycle and that postmenopausal women may benefit more from the ketogenic diet than younger women.
If you have a healthy and regular menstrual cycle, keto may be a good option for you. But it’s always best to check with your doctor before drastically changing your diet.
On the other hand, research shows that obese women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) may also benefit from the keto diet.
It may not be a good idea to enter the keto diet for women if you are:
- Pregnant or lactating (or trying to get pregnant)
- Lacking a gallbladder
- Have pre-existing issues with the liver, kidneys, or pancreas
- Recovering from an eating disorder
- Under 18 (children in general)
- Struggling with irregular menses
The female body is a complex place, home to many different compounds and many different processes that men just don’t have — (and frankly, they’re probably quite thankful for that). So things that work for men just don’t have the same effect on women. That’s not to say that the diet doesn’t work for women in general because it does. Some women, however, will not find it beneficial to be on an ultra-low carbohydrate plan like keto permanently.
Some authorities in the nutrition field recommend women cycle in and out of ketosis if their goal is weight loss. Once keto stops working for you, try switching to consuming more healthy carbs – like sweet potatoes, quinoa, and a moderate amount of fruit in season. Try alternating between the ultra-low carb and paleo/primal every 3 months and see if it works better for you.
In any case, if you are a woman who wants to try the ketogenic diet, there are many articles online to guide you through the process and ensure success, both physically and mentally.
Keto diet for women from experts
Mark Sisson provides great articles directed at those following the ketogenic diet. Specifically for topics on women and the keto diet. Here’s a quick recap of Mark’s main points:
1. Consume extra fat for the initial week
It helps to upregulate fat burning, ensures there isn’t a caloric deficit and breaks the barrier of thought that says “fat is bad.” Ensure you eat fats that boost AMPK, like marine fat, extra virgin olive oil, and palmitoleic acid (found in macadamia nuts).
2. Don’t purposely try to restrict your calories
Eat until you’re not hungry anymore.
3. Experiment carefully with fasting – start slow.
But fasting is necessary to burn fat and lose weight, despite being male or female. Be cautious about jumping into intermittent fasting and watch out for warning signs (weight gain, insomnia, reduced physical performance, infertility, amenorrhea, excessive hunger).
4. Avoid nutrient-poor “fat bombs”
choose things like eggs with mayo, avocado or guacamole, collagen-enriched smoothies, nut butter on veggies, olives, and raw cheeses.
5. Don’t be a drill sergeant
make sure you’re pretty strict during the first 3-4 weeks of getting into the fat-burning zone (fat-adapted), but once you’re there, there’s no need to micromanage. Keto improves metabolic resilience, so your body will bounce back if you stray a bit.
6. The best advice doesn’t always work
When keto isn’t working for you, it’s probably because your body is under stress and needs more. Sometimes it’s more food and sometimes is more carbs or protein. Women, specifically, are much more sensitive to these metabolic changes than men.
7. Keep your protein adequate
Too much protein can impair ketogenesis, but it’s also necessary to keep your body functioning properly.
Familiar with Robb Wolf? If you’re not, he’s definitely someone who should be on your resource list. His article Females, Carbohydrates, and Hormones gives you the lowdown on how carbohydrates affect the female body. Here are the key takeaways:
- Carbohydrate intake could be the missing puzzle piece to hormone balance, weight loss, quicker recovery, thyroid support, and energy levels.
- It will take some experimentation to find the right balance.
- Moderate carbohydrate intake may be needed if you: are active (high intensity), are struggling to recover from workouts, have adrenal insufficiency, have irregular menstrual cycles, have been on a low-carb diet for a while, are pregnant or nursing.
- Fewer carbohydrates may be okay if you: have specific health conditions (PCOS, fibroids, endometriosis), have SIBO or other yeast overgrowths, have diabetes or are insulin resistant, have a neurodegenerative disorder, or have cancer.
- Attaining hormone balance requires you to convince your body that it’s not in any form of danger – this could mean sleeping more, exercising less, reducing stress, etc.
- Leptin plays a key role in hormone regulation – there’s a certain level of leptin needed to maintain proper hormone levels and the menstrual cycle.
- Carb cycling is a good option for people not ready to consistently bump up their intake.
The keto diet is effective for weight loss in the short term. Plus, since ketosis may help you feel less hungry, you’ll end up eating less
Type 2 diabetes
In people with type 2 diabetes, the keto diet may be beneficial for improving blood glucose and lipid levels, lowering BMI, and lowering insulin dose, with no increased risk of cardiovascular disease or nutrient deficiencies.
Several studies show that low-carb diets, such as the keto diet, can effectively improve HDL-“good” cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood.
This diet was first used to treat epilepsy in children in the early 1920s. The keto diet can reduce seizure frequency in people with drug-resistant epilepsy, which accounts for approximately 30% of epilepsy patients.
How to get started?
Limit your carb intake
Knowing which foods are high in carbs is crucial. Those are the ones you should avoid.
And it is not just about pasta and bread. High-carb foods include some fruits and veggies, chips, baked goods, rice, cereal, sugar, and anything made with sugar, fruit juices, and ice cream.
Plus, even though pulses are rich in protein, they are also high in carbs, so they’re not a good option while on keto.
Choose your fats wisely
While the keto diet calls for a high fat intake, it matters what you choose.
Is always best to go for healthy unsaturated fats, like nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, olive oil, flaxseed oil, chia seed oil, and fatty fish, including salmon, trout, and tuna.
Limit your intake of saturated fats, since too much has been linked to heart disease and increased LDL-“bad” cholesterol levels.
Food rich in saturated fat includes processed meat and snacks, butter, coconut oil, and cocoa butter.
Don’t skim on protein
Around 30% to 35% of your calories should come from protein. The best options include any kind of lean meat, poultry, fatty fish, eggs, plain Greek yogurt, cheese, nuts, and seeds.
The potential cons
Since the keto diet is based on cutting out pretty much a whole food group is quite difficult to maintain in the long run.
The risk of malnutrition increases over time due to the exclusion of a wide variety of veggies, fruits, pulses, and grains. The most common micronutrient deficiencies are selenium, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamins B and C.
Constipation is quite common as a result of the lack of fiber-rich foods in the diet, such as grains and pulses.
Other potential side effects include liver and kidney problems, due to the high metabolic rate, which may worsen any pre-existing conditions.
Moreover, maintaining this type of dietary pattern for life can have long-term consequences of rising total and LDL “bad” cholesterol, a risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease.
We know there’s a lot of conflicting information out there when it comes to women’s health. Just to reiterate, the keto diet has quite a long list of benefits, and it’s a great lifestyle to change if you’re looking to change your body composition, improve your brain function, and boost your energy, among many other things. But there may be times when the ketogenic diet just isn’t suitable for you. Don’t let that get you down. Remember, each body is unique, and what works for someone else may not work for you.
If you are a woman and keto stops working for you, take some time to really tune into your body and see how you feel and how your body is responding. Try adding more healthy carbs to your diet. Journaling can be a great tool for tracking your progress. Be sure to work alongside a trusted functional medicine professional to ensure your health and safety!
- Ketogenic Diet – National Institute of Health
- Low-carbs Diet – National Institute of Health
- Should you try the keto diet? – Harvard Medical School
- Poff, Angela M. PhD; Koutnik, Andrew P. PhD; Egan, Brendan PhD. Current Sports Medicine Reports July 2020 – Volume 19 – Issue 7 – p 251-259. Nutritional Ketosis with Ketogenic Diets or Exogenous Ketones: Features, Convergence, and Divergence.
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- D’Andrea Meira I, Romão TT, Pires do Prado HJ, Krüger LT, Pires MEP, da Conceição PO. Ketogenic Diet and Epilepsy: What We Know So Far. Front Neurosci. 2019 Jan 29; 13:5.