As women, we have to play around with the keto diet a little more than men. Men – in general – can just dive right into the keto diet and their bodies adjust easily.
Us women have a little more to consider – hormones, being the most important element. (Like, that one week when our bodies and emotions go out of whack and we’d much rather be curled on the sofa with a tub of ice cream. Or – more seriously – suffering from PCOS and endometriosis.)
It is important to remember that men and women are different. There is no denying it. And we don’t have to try force a way of eating that works for them. It is possible to do strict keto as a woman, but there are also times when a keto diet would actually not be suitable for you.
What is Keto?
First – let’s have a quick recap of the keto diet. (If you want get a good understanding of the keto diet, check out our beginner’s guide.)
The keto diet has been in use since the 1920’s and was originally developed to treat certain serious illnesses (such as epilepsy in children). It worked really well, and the side benefit of weight loss was discovered.
The keto diet is a low-carb, moderate protein, and high-fat diet. It isn’t a ‘short-term fix’. It is a lifestyle change and way of eating (also known as WOE). A keto diet is going to change your body and how it uses fat, so you’ll be able to have a sustainable, healthy lifestyle.
The goal of the keto diet is to continually starve your body of carbohydrates. This way it allows your body to burn fat instead of sugar for fuel. You will start to eat more fats and fewer carbs.
Why Would Keto For Women Be Different?
One concern is that research studies conducted to determine the safety and efficacy of the ketogenic diet were performed only on men or animals. This means that while there is research on the keto diet, there isn’t much in the way of how it works for women, specifically.
There is also the concern around hormones. Women’s hormones tend to be more sensitive when making lifestyle and diet changes.
Will making changes to your diet affect your hormones? Yes, for sure. Your nutrition has an effect on your hormones.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, depending on what sort of changes you have made. (Certain diets will negatively impact your hormones, sometimes with even long-lasting consequences.)
Will following a ketogenic diet affect your hormones? Yes, it will.
Is this a bad thing? No – not if you are properly informed.
The Hormone Issue
If you are having issues with your hormones – embarking on a keto diet without properly addressing these issues first can cause you to have a very unpleasant keto experience. These unpleasant experiences are often blamed on the keto diet and ketosis, when in fact the keto diet and ketosis only exacerbated the initial symptoms.
While the ketogenic diet doesn’t negatively affect hormones, it is important to understand what does actually negatively affect hormones.
Causes of Hormonal Imbalances
- Pre-existing hormonal imbalance
- Hypo or hyperthyroidism and thyroid diseases
- Not eating enough
If find yourself in any of the above situations, it is important to address them first before deciding to embark on a ketogenic diet. Especially for the first two causes, work with your doctor to start addressing and treating them.
Pre-existing hormonal imbalance
Irregular periods, unexplained back aches, or chronic headaches all stem from a hormone imbalance.
A keto diet may very well end up making these symptoms worse. Rather – work with a health professional to treat your hormonal imbalance first, and once you have got this under control, you can start looking at following a strict keto diet.
Hypo or hyperthyroidism
Research on the effect of the ketogenic diet and its effect on thyroid health is still limited, and it is a fairly controversial topic.
Some studies have shown that lower carb diets can have a positive effect (just not ones as strict as the ketogenic diet). It is recommended that you reduce your carb intake gradually over time rather than a sudden drastic reduction.
Studies suggest that the keto diet inhibits the conversion of T4 into T3 (active thyroid hormone), which is undesirable if you have hypothyroidism.
If you want to start following a low-carb or keto diet, work with your doctor if you suffer from hypo or hyperthyroidism, or thyroid diseases to keep your hormone levels in check.
Increased levels of stress – especially on a consistent basis – causes increased levels of cortisol. Cortisol messes with your hormones and metabolism.
Consistently high cortisol means consistently high stress. This is tiring for your body and brain. Cortisol also produces glucose for your body (taken from protein stores) for your body’s fight or flight response. This extra glucose leads to elevated blood sugar.
Before starting a ketogenic diet, try to eliminate, reduce, or manage the stress in your life.
Ways to reduce stress could be meditation, yoga, walking or journaling.
Not eating enough
It can take some time to get used to eating the amount of fat required on the keto diet. But don’t be scared of the fat! Your body needs it.
If you are combining keto with intermittent fasting, it is easy to end up undereating if you don’t get all your calories in during your eating window.
It is very important to make sure you are eating enough calories to keep your body working efficiently and help keep your hormones in balance.
Not all types of training are a good match for the keto diet. You can learn more about exercising while on the keto diet here.
Anaerobic exercise such as sprinting and weightlifting, as well as regular high-intensity cardio, will require carbohydrates in order to sustain your training.
If you do not want to adjust your training, then the strict ketogenic diet may not be suitable for you. Not only does your body require more carbohydrates from this, but you will also experience cortisol elevation and other hormonal issues.
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
The strict keto diet is often not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
There isn’t much in the way of evidence-based research on keto and pregnancy (studies, in general, don’t enroll pregnant women due to liability, ethical concerns and the physiologic complexity of pregnancy). However, there are many doctors who actively recommend the keto diet for pregnant women and have many success stories of patients having healthy pregnancies and babies.
If a woman is breastfeeding, then additional carbs need to be added to the diet. While breastmilk does require protein and healthy fats, it also requires carbs to produce the caloric value for milk to be made. You lose sugar through breastfeeding (around 30 grams per day), so a lower-carb (but not strict low-carb) diet will still be effective.
The current research on breastfeeding and keto is still quite limited, and there are moms who have had success with it. However, you won’t be breastfeeding for very long, so I recommend to rather be safe and increase your carbs slightly.
If you still have time, switch to the keto diet before falling pregnant – ideally 2 – 3 months before, so you can become fat adapted before entering pregnancy.