March 14, 2022
Diets are never a one-size-fits-all endeavor, and keto is no exception. Many turn to ketogenic meal plans for potential benefits like weight loss, but if you’re a woman who hasn’t found success riding the low-carb, high-protein train yet, you’re not alone.
Most of keto’s guidelines are based on research studying only small groups of people or male mice, which means your unique physiology, hormone fluctuations, and other factors haven’t always been taken into account—until now. Inspired by personal experience as well as concerns facing patients in their practices, doctors have started suggesting modifications to help women get the most out of this low-carb lifestyle.
The ketogenic diet promotes high fat, low-carb meals, along with adequate protein. Originally used to treat epilepsy in children, this way of eating has become popularized in recent years because achieving ketosis—a fat-burning metabolic state—is believed to offer certain health benefits as your body learns to burn fat instead of glucose. To drop into ketosis (and stay there) requires reducing carbs to about 50 grams per day or less.
It’s a true and somewhat frustrating fact that men tend to lose weight easier than women. One theory as to why is because men—who naturally have more testosterone—are able to burn calories faster due to having greater muscle mass. Women’s bodies, on the other hand, have lower testosterone and higher estrogen levels, leading to slower results when it comes to weight loss.
Women’s metabolisms also slow down in perimenopause, and thyroid hormones can get out of balance more easily with age. All these fluctuations mean that reduced estrogen may lead to increased abdominal fat. Plus, the stress hormone cortisol can trigger blood sugar spikes and lead to stored belly fat as well.
A study at the University of California, Riverside admits that there’s still a lot to learn when it comes to understanding how genes or proteins impact the diet, but suggests that keto doesn’t work as well for women because they metabolize fat differently than men, and “have different genes turned on and off in response to fasting.” Although adopting a keto diet may be an effective strategy to balance insulin—the main hormone involved in weight gain—you have to do it mindfully because keto may also disrupt hormones. Here are three to look out for:
In her practice as a board-certified physician, functional medicine expert, and author of Women, Food, and Hormones, Dr. Sara Gottfried found that female patients following keto diets were more likely to produce too much cortisol (see above), have menstrual irregularities, and experience thyroid imbalances. Referred to as “lazy keto,” this version of the diet doesn’t include enough fiber and vegetables to feed the gut’s microbiome, and Dr. Gottfried explains that “healthy estrogen balance relies on optimal gut health.” A low-carb diet can also impact sleep in negative ways and can “fall down a hormonal flight of stairs” when ignored, she says.
When following a ketogenic diet, Dr. Gottfried says, “women need to find their own personal carb limit that is not too low that it triggers hormone problems” but still remains low enough to reduce insulin resistance and support fat loss. In her research, Dr. Gottfried found that reducing carbs may help you lose weight in the short-term, but may lead to hormone disruption long-term. From fluctuations in estrogen and cortisol to a slowing metabolism in the perimenopausal years, “if we are not able to manage our refined sugar intake, over time,” she explains, “glucose levels rise in our blood and we have a situation called insulin resistance and fat accumulation. This is one of the biggest factors in weight loss resistance.”
When putting together a keto meal plan, here are a few suggestions that prioritize women’s health while still getting the results you’re after.
It’s easy to stick with your diet goals when flavorful and filling meals are on the menu.
This make-ahead dish works for a range of diets, including gluten-free, paleo, Whole30®, and of course, keto. Every bite is filled with protein-rich eggs, crispy bacon, savory spices, and veggies like kale, peppers, and spinach.
Meatballs are another make-ahead essential that make healthy meals easy to pull together. This Japanese-inspired recipe is infused with bok choy, ginger, and scallions, while tender zucchini noodles round out the meal.
Cauliflower rice is the gold standard when it comes to diet-friendly swaps. This version uses bold Middle Eastern spices like cumin, allspice, and cinnamon to wake up your taste buds, while roasted salmon adds a generous amount of protein.
Weeknight chicken, but make it keto. These golden thighs are paired with fragrant fennel and hearty squash for a simple-yet-filling supper. Did we mention you can make the entire dish on a sheet pan?
This warm dip might taste like you’re cheating, but it’s absolutely keto-friendly. This green side (or main event, depending on your mood) is made with frozen spinach, artichoke hearts, Parmesan cheese, and compliant mayo.
When you stick to compliant ingredients like almond flour and coconut oil, bread is definitely still on the table. This ketogenic loaf is ready for avocado toast, scrambled eggs, or other favorite toppings.
Everyone needs a few no-fuss crowd-pleaser recipes in their back pocket. With a showstopping main (a grass-fed roast) and a few pantry basics (like EVOO, garlic, and tangy mustard), dinner’s practically done. Seriously—your oven does most of the work.
We couldn’t leave out a sweet ending. These seriously satisfying cookies use only five ingredients that are probably already in your pantry: peanut butter, keto-friendly maple syrup, vanilla, almond flour, and an egg.
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