This is the first installment of our Women’s Health Week blog series about popular trends in women’s health. This piece is the opinion of Jaci Alberts.
The Keto Diet for Women: What You Need To Know
In the 80s, fat was the enemy (cause fat makes you fat, right?) and we all couldn’t stop eating Snackwells and non-fat everything. Then in the 90s, fat became good and carbs were evil, so we all hopped on the Atkins diet wagon and ate nothing but protein and fat, but fruit and other carbs were off limits. Sound familiar? Fad diets are how the health and wellness industry keep us coming back and continuing our damaged relationship with food and weight loss.
Today, the keto diet, Whole30, intermittent fasting, and other “diet challenges” are the latest craze, and I’m here to tell you why you should avoid them, specifically the keto diet for women.
What Is The Keto Diet?
First, to understand the keto diet, we need to understand what ketones are and what ketosis means.
Ketones are organic compounds naturally produced in the body and can be used as an energy source when glycogen (sugar) stores are depleted. Put very simply, when the conditions are “right”, or in other words, when our body is in a state of starvation or when carb intake is extremely low, our body releases fatty acids from our stored body fat. These fatty acids enter other cells and are combined with co-enzymes to form CoA chains. The chains are broken by a sequence of reactions known as oxidation and chemical magic happens and form into our friends, the ketones: Ketones are then released by the liver into the blood and almost any cell that needs energy can grab it from these circulating ketones.
The state of Ketosis happens when blood ketones are higher than normal either through dietary changes or through supplementation. When we eat normally, our brain gets enough energy from glucose. When we stop eating, we run out of stored glucose within 48-72 hours and have to find some other fuel source, that’s where the ketones come in. By cutting off the body’s carbohydrate (aka glucose) supply, but providing energy in the form of fat (plus a little protein), we can get the same effects as straight-up starvation: ketosis. When we eat protein and fat, we release satiety hormones that tell us we’re full, but really we’re starving our bodies from it’s normal energy source, glucose, in the form of carbohydrates, and starvation cannot be good or sustainable for our bodies.
But as soon as you reintroduce carbs back into your diet and your ketone levels become normal, you’re no longer in ketosis and your body will go back to using glucose as energy.
You may find it easy at first to eat less when all you can eat is fat and protein. But after a while, you may grow tired of bringing your own food to parties, and you may start to have fantasies about Oreos and pizza. Not only that, you may be getting some serious nutrient deficiencies.
The Keto Diet for Women
The keto diet for women in particular can have some serious negative effects from lowering carbohydrate intake. Many women have found that keto and other low-carb diets that worked great for their male friends not only didn’t work for them, but it knocked their menstrual cycle completely out of whack.
As negative as this all sounds, the keto diet isn’t all bad. If you suffer from epilepsy, there are several studies proving keto can help reduce seizures and other symptoms. But these patients aren’t using keto for weight loss and are under doctor supervision. While you may see initial results with the keto diet, the longevity of the diet is unrealistic for most people and as soon as you reintroduce carbs into your diet, the weight will creep back on. It’s just another low-carb diet repackaged for 2019.
The Whole30 Diet and Women: What You Need To Know
The Whole30 Diet
A big theme around fad diets is “challenges”. Whether they’re 3-day, one week, or one month, they all have one thing in common; we see them as a quick fix. You’re not going to change your relationship with food or have sustained weight loss in a limited amount of time. You’ll likely repeat this cycle with periods of unhealthy eating inbetween.
The most famous challenge of them all is the Whole30.
The Whole30’s intentions were good. It wanted to jumpstart you into a healthy lifestyle, by changing your habits for 30 days. But the Whole30 diet is extremely restrictive. It’s an elimination diet that doesn’t allow grains, dairy, sugar or sweeteners, legumes, alcohol, or soy. It lasts, you guessed it, for 30 days.
The Whole30 For Women
Many of the foods that are off limits (like whole grains) have high amounts of fiber, protein, and other vitamins and minerals, and these are all nutrients women need in our diets. Unless you have a specific allergy, there is no reason to exclude these foods from your diet, and in doing so you may be robbing your body of essential nutrients. By the diet being so restrictive, it leaves us wanting all of the foods we’re forbidden to have. We daydream about what we’ll eat on day 31 and most likely binge on those foods, completely negating the whole goal of the program, and most people don’t stick with the habits of the program because they’re so strict and they end up repeating the diet again the following year.
But the Whole30 diet isn’t all bad. It does emphasize eating whole foods and avoiding processed foods. It also encourages reading labels so you have a better understanding of what’s in the foods you’re eating. All of which are great habits to include in your life.
Overall, I would avoid doing any kind of “diet challenge” like the recently popular “J.Lo 10 day no-carb challenge”, juice cleanses, etc. They’re not going to magically change your health and most likely, you’ll be miserably counting the minutes until you can eat whatever foods were off limits. It’s an unhealthy cycle that leads to food dependency and is unnecessary.
Intermittent Fasting and Women: What You Need To Know
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is just another way of saying, starvation. For those new to intermittent fasting, it’s a way of eating that doesn’t tell you what to eat, but rather when to eat. Intermittent fasting limits the times you can eat to a specific window. The most common method is called the 16:8 split — fasting for 16 hours and eating for 8 hours. This encourages skipping meals (never good) and an “eat whatever you can” mentality during the 8-hour window and can lead to binge eating and extremely unhealthy habits.
Intermittent Fasting and Women
Women tend to have very different relationships with food than men do. We eat for many reasons other than simple hunger and women are more likely to develop dependencies or eating disorders around food. Intermittent Fasting can be triggering for some women, especially those with past experiences with restrictive eating. For women that don’t care to eat breakfast, intermittent fasting could work fine, but for most people, you’re going to be counting down the minutes until that 8 hour window hits because you’re probably really hungry at this point, and this just encourages a dependency on food. If you’re hungry, you should eat, this is your body telling you it needs nourishment.
My advice is to find a diet that doesn’t feel like work and you can sustain long term. A diet isn’t something that has a beginning and an end, rather it’s the way you eat forever. Depending on your goals, hire a certified health coach or nutritionist to help find a program that works for you and your lifestyle. If you’re eating whole foods, limiting processed foods, and treating yourself in moderation, you will be happier and healthier than if you tried all of these diets. Fad diets are like fashion trends, they’re cool for a minute and later we look back and wonder wtf we’re we doing? Invest in wardrobe staples that will last you much longer and never go out of style, like an overall healthy diet and relationship with food.