6 Challenges for Women on Keto — and How to Overcome Them
By: Mary Squillace
- Weight loss plateaus — or even weight gain — are a common stumbling block for women on keto. One way to fight back is to incorporate more fat or try periods of intermittent fasting.
- Restricting your carbs and calories too much on a keto diet can lead to out-of-balance hormones.
- Adjusting your eating habits along with your cycle can keep your keto lifestyle and hormones more in-sync.
- Women who notice their energy is dragging should do carb cycling — “carb-up” once or twice a week with starchy vegetables.
- If emotional eating is thwarting your keto efforts, break habit loops by switching your routine in small ways.
- Ditching a deprivation mindset can help you reframe the narrative around your diet, enabling you to stick with it.
It’s no surprise that the eat-fat-to-lose-fat ethos of a ketogenic diet is an appealing one — in fact, keto was the most searched diet of 2018, according to Google. However, despite the diet’s popularity and keto’s myriad benefits, it can pose some unique challenges to women. Here, six common stumbling blocks for women on keto — and how to overcome them in order to maximize your results. (If you’re just starting keto, be sure to check out our Keto Diet for Beginners guide)
The problem: your weight loss plateaus — or you’re gaining weight
If you aren’t losing weight on keto, there are a number of ways to kick your keto diet into high gear, says Leanne Vogel, nutrition educator, host of The Keto Diet Podcast, and author of The Keto Diet.
Up your fat consumption, Vogel suggests. “Make sure at least 60 percent of your diet is high-quality fats, like olive oil, avocados, grass-fed beef, coconut oil, pastured eggs, grass-fed butter, and ghee.” In fact, most keto diets, including the Bulletproof Diet, recommend upwards of 80 percent of your calories come from fat.
Use coconut-derived MCT oil. MCT oil boosts ketone production in the body, explains Vogel. This gets you into ketosis faster and gives your body more ketones to use as fuel. MCT oil also curbs food cravings, increases your energy levels, and boosts your metabolism.
- Put MCT oil on your food throughout the day to keep ketone levels high. It’s flavorless, so you can blend it in coffee or smoothies, and drizzle on salads, sushi, or vegetables.
Bulletproof intermittent fasting, aka fat-fasting or fast mimicking, is another surefire way to deepen ketosis and kick-start weight loss: “You eat only healthy fats, and your body believes it is actually fasting, so you get all of the benefits of fasting while enjoying your favorite fatty foods,” Vogel says.
- To mimic fasting, skip breakfast and drink Bulletproof Coffee, made with grass-fed butter and MCT oil, instead. Because there’s no protein or carbs, your body thinks it’s in fasting mode. Meanwhile, the MCT oil accelerates your fat burn. Learn more about why keto is more effective with intermittent fasting.
Use a food tracker. Keto diet specialist and certified nutritionist Carole Freeman says that when people gain or stop losing weight, it’s typically because they’re not actually measuring and tracking their food. “They’re guesstimating. Or they’re eating keto food and assume however much they’re eating is okay,” she says.
Suzanne Ryan, best-selling author of Simply Keto recommends using a fitness tracker, such as My Fitness Pal, to keep tabs on your macros. “It can be helpful to track, even just for a week or two, to see if things are sneaking in that might have more carbs than you think or are kicking you out of ketosis,” she says.
The problem: You’re struggling with hormone imbalances on keto
Hormones present a unique challenge to women that male keto-dieters don’t have to reckon with. “The ketogenic diet is an endocrine-based diet, meaning we are relying on hormones to run the show, unlike other diets where calories in/calories out have a larger significance. Because of this, when women go keto, if we have any hormone imbalances, they’re often brought to the surface,” Vogel explains.
Fibroids, heavy periods, endometriosis…these can all be signs of estrogen dominance (having too much estrogen in your body).
Keep body fat at a normal range: Hormonal-related challenges can become especially pronounced if you are restricting too much and are trying to achieve a suboptimal level of body fat, Freeman says. “Women’s bodies are healthiest at around 22 to 29 percent body fat. Hormones function optimally in that range for women. If women are already very lean or low body fat and try to achieve a lower body fat, keto can wreak havoc on hormones, but that’s not keto’s fault,” she says.
Aim for a happy weight: “Understand that there’s happy weight instead of your ‘ideal weight,” Vogel adds. “If you have to fight tooth and nail to get to your ‘ideal weight’ it may not be worth the hassle and could be affecting your hormones. Instead, aim for a weight that’s easy to maintain on keto.” Generally, provided you aren’t too restrictive, keto is compatible with your hormones.
“If you stay the course with keto, eventually your hormones will be able to regulate, your brain will light up, your energy will improve, and you’ll feel more in sync with your body,” Vogel says.
Sync your diet with your cycle: Another way to manage your hormones on keto is to eat with your cycle.
- As a rule of thumb, Vogel recommends upping your protein macros on days one through five of your cycle (aka during your period). From days six through 11 (from the day after your period ends to two days before ovulation), aim for really low carbs and a moderate protein intake. On days 12 through 16,” opt for glutathione-rich keto foods, such as avocado, broccoli, garlic, and parsley and carb up every night.” At the end of end your cycle, on days 17 through 28, carb up once or twice with starchy vegetables.
Practice carb cycling, aka keto cycling, to keep your hormones in balance. On a cyclical keto diet like the Bulletproof Diet, you eat a moderate amount of carbs one day a week during a “carb re-feed.” Cycling in and out of keto each week gives your body the carbs it needs to keep the endocrine system humming along happily. Here’s how to start a keto cycling diet.
The problem: You don’t have enough energy to work out
Yes, keto is a low-carb diet. However it’s possible that you’re restricting your carbs too much — experts say they see this especially with female clients. In addition to affecting your hormones, this could impact your exercise routine. “Your body might not be getting what it needs for balance,” Vogel says.
Carb cycling: “You may need to cycle carbs to get to a healthy level.” Vogel suggests doing carb re-feeds once or twice a week, which means taking most of the fat out of your evening meal and replacing it with Paleo-friendly carbs (think: sweet potatoes, plantains, or cassava.) Learn more about carb cycling here.
The problem: Emotional eating is thwarting your keto efforts
“Women are told we can do it all, so that means we feel like we have to do it all,” Freeman says. The combination of this increased pressure and diminished sense of self worth can send some women down the path of emotional eating — and off keto.
Freeman points out that some women might not feel entitled to special treatment, so food often becomes one small indulgence we’ll allow ourselves.
Break bad snacking habits: To combat emotional eating, you need to break free of habit loops that are leading you astray, Freeman says.
In prehistoric times food was scarce, so our brains would memorize how we got that food again. Now, we have food on every corner, but the brain still has the ability to memorize exactly how to get food.
So if you fall into a pattern of every night after work sitting on the couch with a bag of chips in front of the TV or digging into ice cream every time you’re upset, your brain goes into autopilot. “The brain reinforces those habit loops. The first thing the brain does is release dopamine. That turns on cravings and desire,” Freeman says.
Soon, every time you sit on the couch, your instinct is to reach for a bag of chips or every time you feel down, you automatically go to freezer.
- To break out of the cycle, you have to do something different. “I recommend for clients things as simple as sitting in a different spot on the couch at night. Do something out of your routine,” Freeman says. Research shows taking a short, brisk walk also helps eliminate cravings.
Address emotional issues: Of course, you may also need to examine if there’s something deeper going on emotionally that’s holding you back. “If you don’t address these underlying emotional issues, you’re just putting a Band-Aid on the cause,” Ryan says. “For me, it was important to work on my self-esteem. It’s important to put yourself first and see yourself as a worthy investment when your self-worth is in question.” Follow these strategies to help eliminate emotional eating.
The problem: You keep cheating on keto
Change your mindset: Simply sticking to keto poses a hurdle for many women — one that can be overcome, in part, with a shift in mindset, says Ryan. “I think especially for people who struggle with weight, it’s easy to go into a new way of eating with a mindset that you have to do it because you have to lose weight. It feels like a punishment,” she says. “For me, it was helpful to shift from the mindset that there was something I couldn’t eat to the mindset that I didn’t want to eat those foods because of how my body would react to them.”
Freeman says she’s seen the same thing in the people she’s worked with. “People get stuck in the deprivation mindset. They see everyone eating high-carb foods and think, ‘poor me, I’m so deprived.’ This propels them into the mindset of, oh I’ll have just one thing,” she explains. “Instead, look at those people and think, ‘I feel sorry for them because they’re stuck in that trap and worsening their health.”
Cut out sweeteners: If it’s sugar cravings in particular that are leading you astray, there is something physical you can do as well. To beat back sugar cravings, Freeman recommends getting rid of all sweeteners — even ones that are keto-approved — for the first 30 days. “Even if you’re using a keto-friendly sweetener, it reinforces your craving instead of breaking the habit,” Freeman explains. “What that tells your brain is, ‘good job craving, come again tomorrow.” Do this 30-day no-sugar challenge to wipe out cravings for good.
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