Keto and Carb Cycling for Women
Most people are walking around in chronic sugar burning mode dependent on high-carb, sugar-laden foods. This way of eating depletes your energy, causes irritability, and prevents you from thinking clearly. Consuming high-carbohydrate, high-sugar foods causes inflammation, weight gain, accelerates aging, and results in chronic disease. This is all due to massive fluctuations in blood sugar that occur when consuming this type of diet. To make matters worse, the addictive nature of these foods causes people to crave the very foods that are harming them. A ketogenic lifestyle with carb cycling can help reverse this damaging cycle.
To put an end to this cycle, more and more people are turning to the ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet transitions your body from chronic sugar burning mode to relying on fat for fuel. For women, implementing a ketogenic diet can pose unique challenges. This is where carb cycling become very important.
Keto for Women
To maximize the effectiveness of the ketogenic diet, women should employ carb cycling in sync with their menstrual cycle. The female hormones estrogen and progesterone have significant impact on carbohydrate metabolism. To follow a cyclic style of ketogenic diet, you eat a very low-carb meal plan for several days, then increase your carbohydrate intake to restore and replenish glycogen in the body. The amount of carbohydrates you cycle in will depend on the phase of your menstrual cycle.
This article will discuss the ketogenic diet and how the ketogenic diet benefits women. I will discuss the importance of carb cycling for women on the ketogenic diet and how to carb cycle around your menstrual cycle. I will also explain how to get started on the ketogenic diet and give tips for success on the ketogenic diet.
Keto Vs. Standard American Diet
The typical American diet is comprised of around 55% carbohydrates, ranging from 200-350 grams a day (1). This way of eating can cause extremely harmful effects on the body. A greater intake of refined carbohydrates is associated with a 44% increased prevalence of metabolic syndrome and obesity and a 20% increased risk of developing diabetes. It is estimated that 45.4% of deaths from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are associated with this type of unhealthy diet.
A beneficial alternative to the standard American diet is the ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet is a nutrition and lifestyle plan that helps your body use fat (stored fat and dietary fat) rather than sugar for fuel. This plan helps the body produce ketones from fat. Ketones are byproducts of the body breaking down fat for energy. Introducing carb cycling helps to further boost metabolic health and improve fat burning.
When the body is in ketosis, it utilizes ketones as an energy source instead of sugar. Burning fat for energy is much more efficient and produces less inflammation than burning sugar.
The ketogenic diet is a high fat, low carbohydrate, moderate protein nutrition plan. 60-80% of calories are from healthy fats, 20-30% are from protein sources, and 5-10% are from net carbs (total carbs minus fiber). This style of eating encourages healthy metabolism and enables your body to function at a more efficient level.
How the Ketogenic Diet Benefits Women
A low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet is associated with many health benefits. The ketogenic diet lowers inflammation, balances blood sugar levels and your mood, improves mental performance, gives you energy, ends cravings, helps with fat loss, slows down aging, and reduces your risk of chronic disease.
The ketogenic diet drastically lowers inflammation. This is important because chronic inflammation is the root cause of most chronic health conditions.
Chronic inflammation is caused by free radicals and oxidative stress. Free radicals damage cells causing illness and aging. When you are burning ketones for energy instead of glucose, there is a reduced amount of free radical production.
The ketogenic diet also lowers inflammation by stabilizing blood sugar and insulin levels. Less inflammation means more energy production and a more efficiently functioning body.
Balances Blood Sugar and Your Mood
Have you ever heard the term “HANGRY”? This term refers hunger caused anger. What is actually causing your “hunger” and irritability is blood sugar instability. Blood sugar imbalances can cause rapid changes in a person’s mood and behavior.
When you are consuming a ketogenic diet, your blood sugar and insulin levels will decrease and stabilize. This provides your brain with a stable source of energy to balance your mood and eliminates cravings for carbohydrates and sugar. Including carb cycling helps to further maintain blood sugar levels and keep you feeling stable and energized.
Improves Mental Performance
You have probably heard the terms “Mommy brain” or “brain fog”. Many women notice some decline in their cognitive abilities after having children. Even if you have not had children, you may be experiencing issues with remembering things, thinking clearly, and focus. Ketones provide steady, clean fuel to energize brain cells. You will notice improved cognitive speed, memory and focus with a ketogenic diet.
Consuming healthy fat is critical for a healthy brain. The body uses fat to make new brain tissue and insulation for nerves. Ketones can be used by brain for energy, can shut down neuro-inflammatory pathways, and stimulate BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic growth factor). This is critical because neurological inflammation has been linked with depression, anxiety and poor cognitive function (2). By reducing inflammation in the brain, a ketogenic diet can improve cognitive function.
Gives You Energy
Women need energy for the many roles we lead. A ketogenic diet can give you abundant energy. The ketogenic diet creates the metabolic flexibility to use fat for an energy source. Your body produces significantly more energy from fat as fuel than when your body is using glucose for energy.
With lower levels of inflammation and stabilized blood sugar levels, there is more Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) production. ATP is the energy carrying molecule found in our cells. ATP is produced in the mitochondria (the energy factories of the cells).
The ketogenic diet also stimulates the growth of new and stronger mitochondria. Mitochondria have many important roles in addition to producing ATP. Mitochondria maintain glutathione levels, protect DNA, signal cell reproduction, activate cell apoptosis, and maintain cell electrochemical integrity.
Ends Carb and Sugar Cravings
Cravings for sugar and refined carbohydrates are caused by chronic blood sugar instability. Blood sugar instability signals the brain that you are starving and need food. The body naturally favors sugar over fat as an energy source so we turn to sugar and high carb foods. These foods are very addictive and a harmful cycle is created.
The perpetual cycle looks like this: When you eat sugar, your blood sugar levels spike, dopamine is released in the brain, and mass insulin is secreted to drop blood sugar levels. Next, blood sugar levels fall rapidly and high insulin levels cause immediate fat storage. Then hunger and cravings increase because of the low blood sugar levels.
The key to breaking the destructive high sugar/high carb cycle is to convert from being a sugar burner to a fat burner. Healthy fats are stable source of energy that help balance blood sugar. Transitioning from a sugar burner to a fat burner with the ketogenic diet will eliminate those cravings for carbohydrates and sugar.
Helps you Lose Weight
A ketogenic diet can help with your weight loss efforts. When in ketosis, you are burning fat for energy. The fat burned is both dietary fat and stored fat so say goodbye to body fat! You are also less hungry and feel satiated quicker and longer on a ketogenic diet. This is due to the healthy fats, protein, antioxidants and fiber in the diet.
Several studies show that a high-fat, low carb diet is superior to a low-fat, high-carb diet for improving weight loss (3). Excess body fat, particularly in the gut, is associated with toxin accumulation and hormone imbalances. Implementing the ketogenic diet can be an effective fat and weight loss strategy.
Slows Down the Aging Process
The ketogenic diet has anti-aging and longevity benefits. A recent study found that a ketogenic diet extends longevity and health span (4).Ketones create more metabolic energy and significantly less free radicals and metabolic waste than glucose metabolism (glycolysis). This is equivalent to a vehicle that gets better performance and gas mileage and creates significantly less exhaust and carbon emissions.
Reduces Your Risk of Chronic Disease
The ketogenic lifestyle can improve many risk factors for metabolic and other chronic diseases. By reducing inflammation and improving mitochondrial function, the ketogenic diet allows the body to heal and mitigate disease processes more effectively.
Now that you know some of the benefits of a ketogenic diet and lifestyle, it is important to have guidelines for successful implementation of the ketogenic diet. For many women, one of the more important strategies you can use is carb cycling. This approach may help you get the best benefit from the ketogenic diet and lifestyle.
Carb Cycling for Women on the Ketogenic Diet
Carb cycling can be important for many women who want to be successful on the ketogenic diet. This practice is simply alternating periods of lower and higher carbohydrate content in your diet. For example, you can eat low-carb for 3 days, higher-carb for 1 day, low-carb for 3 days, or low-carb for 5 days and higher-carb for 2 days. For example, on the lower carbohydrate days, you would consume 50 or fewer grams of carbohydrates (perhaps less than 20). On the higher-carbohydrate days, you would consume 80-150 grams of carbohydrates.
The theory behind carb cycling is that it optimizes your body’s metabolic needs. While eating low carb, your body produces glucagon to help you burn fat, is more sensitive to insulin, and is more metabolically efficient.
The problem comes when you eat a low-carbohydrate diet for too long. Over long periods, your thyroid hormones may drop, you may become less sensitive to insulin, and you may gain weight. This is not the case with everyone, some women thrive in ketosis for months at a time without any of these issues. However, if you are struggling and noticing hair loss, lower energy, constipation, mental lethargy, coldness and possible weight gain then doing a carb cycling approach may be needed.
It is important to sync carb cycling with your menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle lasts for 28 days. The female hormones estrogen and progesterone are elevated at different points during the menstrual cycle. These important hormones impact insulin sensitivity and carbohydrate metabolism. Consequently, it is important to consider your hormone levels when determining the amount of carbohydrates to include in your diet.
The first two weeks of your menstrual cycle are called the follicular phase. Menstruation lasts from days 1-5 of this phase. Estrogen levels tend to be more dominant in these two weeks but especially at the end of the follicular phase as the body prepares for ovulation. Day 1-10 are great days for fasting, keto and low-carb diets as the body dosn’t need to build a lot of hormone during this period.
The female body is naturally more insulin-sensitive during the last 4 days of the follicular phase as it needs to build up hormones for ovulation. This means it tolerates carbohydrates better during these final 4 days. Carb cycling to meet this hormonal change is an excellent strategy.
When cycling carbohydrates during the follicular phase, you may need up to 150-200 grams of net carbohydrates (total carbs – fiber). Overweight women who struggle with insulin resistance usually do better on lower levels of carbohydrates (50-80 grams net carbs when they carb cycle). Normal or underweight women may need more carbohydrates and especially so if they are very active. Again, it is important to listen to your body. The infographic below explains more about this.
The ideal foods to use to increase carb levels would be nutrient dense sources such as beets, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, carrots, legumes, berries and other fruit. These have tons of key trace minerals, phytonutrients and anti-oxidants that support the body much better than grains, corn, sugar and white potatoes.
The third and fourth weeks of the menstrual cycle are called the luteal phase which occurs after ovulation. During this phase, progesterone levels are at their highest.
Right after ovulation which is on Day 14 but can vary a few days, the body becomes less insulin-sensitive and does not tolerate carbohydrates as well. It is important to reduce carbohydrate intake during this phase when insulin-sensitivity is at its lowest. I recommend practicing intermittent fasting and low-carb, keto style nutrition during days 17-22.
The final week of the luteal phase the body needs to build hormones again to prepare for menstruation and this is a great time to carb cycle and consume larger amounts of carbs and protein. The key to carb cycling during your menstrual cycle is to listen to your body. If your body is signaling that it needs more carbohydrates, you can up your intake to around 150 grams. If you are feeling great on fewer carbohydrates, keep your intake between 50-80 carbs when you cycle in carbohydrates.
We are all different and respond to the ketogenic diet in our own unique way. These suggestions are guidelines for determining what may work for you.
How to Get Started On A Ketogenic Diet
When getting started on the ketogenic diet, I recommend that you transition to the ketogenic diet slowly. It can be extremely difficult for an individual to go from hundreds of grams of carbohydrates a day to 50 or less on the standard ketogenic diet. If you are already on a low-carb diet, you can transition quicker than someone who is eating a higher carbohydrate diet.
For anyone new to a low-carb lifestyle, the best way to start is to remove sugars, refined carbohydrates and industrialized seed oils from your diet. Eliminate grains and starches like bread, pasta, potatoes, and cereals that are prevalent in the standard American diet. Replace grains and starches with low to moderate carbohydrate fruits and vegetables such as cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, berries, and lemons.
Increase Healthy Fats
You should also increase your healthy fat intake. Healthy fats are found in things like grass-fed butter, coconut oil, MCT oil, pastured eggs, olive oil, olives, avocados, and avocado oil. High fat nuts like macadamia nuts can be great as a snack. By increasing your intake of healthy fats and decreasing your intake of carbohydrates, your body will adjust to this beneficial way of eating.
The body will begin to produce ketones within a few days of eating the ketogenic diet, but usually takes about 2-3 weeks for someone to become “keto adapted”. Keto adapted is when the body begins to convert fatty acids into ketones which are then used by the cells in the brain and body to produce energy. Once you are keto adapted, you can begin carb cycling as discussed above.
Tips for Being Successful on the Ketogenic Diet
The following tips will help you be successful on the ketogenic diet:
- Maximize nutrition and minimize toxins. To get the maximum benefits from a ketogenic diet, it is important to consume healthy fats, clean protein sources, and organic, antioxidant-rich vegetables and herbs. You do not want to consume processed animal products or commercially raised meats. It is also critical to avoid processed vegetable oils that are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids.
- Get plenty of sodium and minerals. On a low carbohydrate diet, your body will not retain sodium as it does on a high-carb diet. You will need to get plenty of sodium from generous amounts of pink Himalayan sea salt. Celery and cucumber are excellent to add to your diet because they are low carb and have natural sodium. 1-2 teaspoons of high quality salt daily is a good goal.
- Supplement with Betaine HCL, ox bile and digestive enzymes for proper digestion. I recommend Super Digest HCL and/or Keto Digest for optimal fat digestion. Also include MCT oil to support ketosis. MCT oil is refined from coconut oil and provides a readily absorbed source of ketones for energy.
- It is important not to eat too much protein. Excess protein will be converted to glucose.
- Make sure you are consuming enough calories. Calorie restriction for a prolonged period can shift your body to a state of conservation and negatively affect hormone levels.
- It is critical to stay very hydrated when on a ketogenic diet. Drink at least half of your body weight in water. Try to super hydrate first thing in the morning.
Incorporating these tips along with cycling carbohydrates, can help you be successful on the ketogenic diet.
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb, moderate-protein diet that influences the metabolism to promote fat burning over sugar burning. This lifestyle can be extremely beneficial to women due to the amazing health benefits associated with the ketogenic lifestyle. The ketogenic diet lowers inflammation, balances blood sugar levels and your mood, improves mental performance, gives you energy, ends cravings, helps with fat loss, slows down aging, and reduces your risk of chronic disease.
For women, following a cyclic style of ketogenic diet in sync with their menstrual cycle is important. With a cyclical ketogenic diet, you alternate low-carbohydrate days with slightly higher-carbohydrate days. This cycles the body in and out of ketosis and is beneficial for hormone levels while keeping inflammatory levels very low.
During the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, estrogen levels tend to be more dominant, the female body is naturally more insulin-sensitive, and women may need higher amounts of carbohydrates. During the luteal phase, progesterone levels are at their highest, the body is naturally less insulin-sensitive, and does not tolerate carbohydrates as well. It is important to reduce carbohydrate intake during this phase.
Additional tips for success on a ketogenic diet are maximizing nutrition and minimizing toxins, using helpful supplements, getting adequate amounts of minerals and calories, limiting protein, and super hydrating. Cycling carbohydrates in sync with your menstrual cycle and following these tips will greatly benefit women on a ketogenic diet.
If you are looking for more great keto meal ideas than check out our complete Navigating the Ketogenic Diet program here