Nutrition is never one-size-fits-all, and as more research comes out about the ketogenic diet, we’re starting to realize, with increasing clarity, that keto works differently for different people.
One of the more interesting questions is how a low-carb diet works for men versus how it works for women.
A lot of sites say that women need more carbs than men do and suggest that women avoid a ketogenic diet entirely. Some sites claim that women on keto will suffer “hormonal damage” or have trouble with weight loss.
Lots of women do very well on a high-fat diet, especially if they’re trying to control their blood sugar, lose body fat, increase insulin sensitivity, reduce heart disease risk, lower triglycerides, and otherwise take advantage of the health benefits of ketosis.
All that said, hormones definitely are an important factor when you’re on a keto diet.
Over the course of a month, women have significantly more hormonal fluctuations than men do, and those hormonal shifts can impact your nutritional needs. Ketosis can also affect your thyroid hormones, which may be something to consider for women with thyroid disease.
Here’s a look at how eating low-carb effects women, and how to stay flexible with keto to make sure you’re getting the most out of your diet.
All humans, regardless of biological sex, can burn both carbs and fats for energy, and women are just as good at burning fat for fuel as men are (in fact, during physical activity, women are slightly better at burning fat)[*].
From an energy standpoint, that means you’re perfectly capable of running on fat, regardless of gender.
In healthy people, success with keto depends less on whether you’re male or female and more on your body’s unique nutritional needs. Some folks do great with very low carbohydrate intake, while others do better with more carbs.
However, even if you’re a woman who does well on keto, you may want to consider how eating a low-carb diet interacts with your cycle.
Hormone fluctuations have an enormous impact on how you think and feel. For women, sex hormones change week-to-week, depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. And those hormonal shifts can lead to a few different changes in your body’s nutritional wants and needs.
For one thing, some women may experience a sharp increase in carb cravings during menstruation (interestingly, another study found that during menstruation, a lot of women crave chocolate in particular)[*][*].
You may also burn significantly more daily calories during menstruation — up to 10% more[*] — which can leave you hungrier.
If you’re on keto to lower your body weight, your calories still matter — you have to eat fewer calories than you burn in order to lose fat.
Most dietitians agree that it’s good to keep track of your calories, regardless of whether you’re on a keto diet or a low-fat one.
But during your period, you may want to give yourself some slack on keto, especially if carb cravings hit you hard.
How to Add More Carbs And When
It’s difficult enough to keep functioning at your best when you’re dealing with cramps, muscle aches, bloating, mood swings, and all the other side effects of menstruation. Adding on the pressure of staying keto may be overwhelming.
If you find you crave carbs and struggle with keto during specific parts of your cycle, why not add more flexibility to your diet?
You can incorporate higher-carb variations of keto like cyclical keto or targeted keto, or you may just want to give yourself permission to eat carbs for a few days (while still keeping an eye on your calories, if your goal is weight loss).
Being too strict with yourself can make it hard to stick to a diet long-term. If your body is telling you it wants more carbs during certain times of the month and sticking to keto is making you miserable, try giving yourself a break. You can go right back to keto once you feel 100% again.
And if you do decide to increase how many grams of carbohydrates you eat each day, you’ll still want to stick to healthy sources. Complex carbohydrates are best, as they won’t spike your blood sugar and leave you hungry a couple hours later. Excellent carb sources include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
- Fresh green veggies
- Butternut squash
- Fresh berries (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries)
When it comes to keto for women, there’s one more thing worth mentioning. Women are more likely than men to have hypothyroidism[*] — an underactive thyroid.
For some people, eating low-carb seems to decrease T3 thyroid hormone production[*], which may be an issue for those with hypothyroidism.
On the other hand, many people report that keto improves their hypothyroidism symptoms. Rat studies show that T3 is an essential part of carbohydrate metabolism[*], and feeding rats lots of carbs increases their T3 production[*].
It could be keto decreases thyroid hormone production because you aren’t eating carbs, so you don’t need as much of it, and your thyroid is working just fine.
This is one of those cases where it’s best to talk to a doctor. If you have thyroid disease and are considering a ketogenic diet, chat with your healthcare professional (or find a functional medicine doctor) and work together to figure out if keto is right for you.
Keto works very well for a lot of people, regardless of their sex. Plenty of men and women thrive on keto, while others may feel best when they eat more carbs.
The key is experimenting with different approaches until you find something that works for you.
That said, if you find yourself craving carbs during certain parts of your cycle, try giving yourself permission to eat them (maybe with cyclical keto or targeted keto) and see how you feel. The decreased stress may leave you happier and healthier in the long-term.
And if you haven’t tried keto yet, you may want to give it a go. Lots of people find that it’s amazing for losing weight and improving overall health. This complete beginner’s guide to keto has everything you need to start keto today.