Ooooook! So… I figured it’s time I throw my hat into the mix when it comes to the bruhaha surrounding the keto diet. And more particularly, the keto diet for women. And the reason I want to take things at this angle is because of my personal and professional experience with this diet protocol with my own female clients.
Anyone who knows me, or has been following me for any time at all, knows that I am 100% against fads.
I admit that a few years ago, I used to roll my eyes whenever I would hear anyone mention being on a “ketogenic diet” – waving it off as another passing fad. But the years have taught me well, hands on application has taught me well, and well… Seeing results from many of my own clients have taught me the best.
What Exactly IS a Ketogenic Diet?
Before I get into my thoughts on this topic (and my recommendations) let’s first discuss exactly what a ketogenic diet is – and how it came about.
Essentially speaking, a ketogenic (or keto) diet is one that is primarily comprised of eating a super low amount of carbohydrates (around 5% of the diet), a moderate amount of protein, and a high amount of fat.
What you must understand when eating this diet is that the HIGH AMOUNT OF FAT IS CRUCIAL!
A Really SUPER Brief Layman’s Explanation About The Body and Nutrition
Ok, so I feel like I need to take a big step back – even bigger than just telling you what a ketogenic diet is. By now, if you’re reading this article, you’ve probably already gathered that a ketogenic diet is super low carb, and has some magical fat burning qualities. But nobody ever discusses WHY. And without knowing why, you really have no idea if it is even the right kind of diet for you.
In the perfect scenario, the body actually prefers to use carbohydrates for energy. You see, there are 3 main energy sources that the body uses to fuel EVERYTHING you do – including keeping you alive.
Carbohydrates – the body’s first line of defense and preference when it comes to food sources.
Fat – the body’s second preferred energy source behind carbohydrates. The body will gladly use fats a fuel in the absence of carbs.
Protein – the body’s third preferred energy source behind fats and carbs. This is a more metabolically expensive process for the body to break down protein to use as fuel (it will break it down into glycogen – basically carbs at its most basic form through a process called gluconeogenesis).
Carbs and fats always work conversely in a properly set up diet. Meaning, when carbs go down, fat goes up – and vice versa. That’s the reason why in a ketogenic diet, fats remain super high while the carbs dip incredibly low.
Protein on the hand remains moderate, and the main purpose for protein in your diet is to help keep muscle on as you continue to burn fat. This crucial in any diet if maintaining lean muscle is the main objective (which for many women is the case when you’re looking to get lean, but toned).
What Happens to The Body During a Keto Diet?
There is an interesting thing that happens to the body when you begin to shift it towards relying on fat as the main source of fuel vs carbs.
Well, the body becomes more efficient at it, because all it wants to do is survive and keep you alive. When you drop carbs down super low in your diet, and you raise fats as the main source of energy, the body will go into ketosis. Hence the name “ketogenic diet”… Ah ha!
When the body is in ketosis it essentially becomes better at using fat as fuel (as I mentioned above), and it turns fat into ketones in the liver supplying energy to the brain. As a note, your brain typically prefers to use carbohydrates for fuel. However, ketones do just as well in the absence of carbs in the diet.
See how amazingly efficient the body is.
Another thing that occurs when you’re on a keto diet is that your insulin levels drop super low due to a drastic reduction in blood glucose levels. This all sets up for a perfect environment to burn fat at an even greater degree (particularly body fat).
Why and How Can a Keto Diet Specifically Help Women?
Now that you understand a little bit of the science behind the keto diet, let’s talk specifically about how the keto diet for women is kind of a thing.
In my experience, and even further what’s already been found by various studies here – here – here – here aaaaaand here – all point to one specific conclusion. For women who may be dealing with hormonal issues such as PCOS (poly cystic ovarian syndrome), obesity, or any kind of metabolic conditions that can lead to insulin resistance can all benefit from a keto diet.
I’ve seen some of my very own clients lose a ton of weight after struggling with being stuck on frustrating plateaus after having gone on a keto diet.
Women tend to deal with a ton of health conditions which do set them up for being a great candidate to succeed well on a ketogenic set up in general such as:
- Adrenal Fatigue
Now this is NOT to say that ketogenic diets cure any of these issues. But, what it can do is help the body to better be able to utilize the nutrients you ARE giving it. And if you pair that with the proper caloric levels (you have to be in a caloric deficit, no matter what your macros, to see weight loss), training protocol, plus tools for goal setting and shifting your mindset… You’ll see amazing results, provided that you also regulate your hormonal issues with your doctor.
Keto Diet for Women 101 – Tips to Put Your Plan In Action
Alright! Whew! Now that we’ve gotten through AAAALL of that! Let’s take a look at how to put together a keto diet plan that will work best with your lifestyle. Now, because most of the women who typically follow me (and the ones that I coach) are those whom already workout, I am going to frame this article around ways to best optimize this set up for an active lifestyle.
To be honest with you, a keto diet can be pretty taxing on the body in general. Add training to the equation, and for some that may be a bit taxing. Luckily there are a few ways to be able to do a keto diet and do it well.
The 4 Types of Ketogenic Diets
- Standard ketogenic diet (SKD): This is a very low-carb, moderate-protein and high-fat diet of 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbs.
- Cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD): This diet involves periods of higher-carb refeeds, such as 5 ketogenic days followed by 2 high-carb days.
- Targeted ketogenic diet (TKD): This diet allows you to add carbs around workouts.
- High-protein ketogenic diet (HPKD): This is similar to a standard ketogenic diet, but includes more protein. The ratio is often 60% fat, 35% protein and 5% carbs.
When I am creating a keto diet for my female clients, I will typically use any one of these set ups depending on what that client needs.
- I’ll often use a CKD for clients who are in a contest prep set up, or one who has been on a SKD for some time and I want to boost her metabolism.
- More often, I find myself using a high-protein ketogenic diet approach since many of my clients benefit from this kind of set up due to their active lifestyles.
- We mostly ONLY use a ketogenic diet approach for fat loss. Studies have shown this diet set up to be less effective for building muscle.
Which Approach Should You Use?
You might be wondering which approach you should try first. Well, I always say to go with one and simply put it in action and see what works for you. Set up your diet to try the SKD first to simply see how YOUR body responds to this kind of set up. It will kind of be like your own n=1 experiment, and give you an idea what a baseline set up looks like and how your body responds. You can always adjust things from there.
If you are a woman who trains pretty often (you’re doing something exercise based about 5 days a week or more), then err on the side of trying the high-protein ketogenic diet as your starting point.
If you feel like hunger is an issue during the diet, try increasing your fats a little bit first (all while keeping carbs low), and then you can try to increase protein a bit as well. Protein has a way of blunting hunger while dieting which can help. But BE CAREFUL. Keep in mind protein CAN be broken down into glycogen, which will raise blood glucose level – and kick you OUT of ketosis.
It MIGHT be helpful to use keto sticks to ensure you remain in ketosis throughout the diet, and be able to adjust your macros accordingly.
Setting Up Your Diet Calorically
Overall, you need to be in a caloric deficit to see any of this work at all. But what I DON’T want you to do is starve yourself! I have a very simple equation to help you to figure out the appropriate caloric deficit.
15 x Bodyweight (in Pounds) – 15 to 20% = Your Daily Calories for Fat Loss
For example, if you are a woman who weighs 145 pounds, you would do the following:
- 145 x 15 = 2175
- Subtract 15-20% off of that. You can always adjust this later. 20% is a pretty large deficit, and can be good if you want to push fat loss to a greater degree. I always like to stay conservative to start, so I’m more likely to do a 15% deficit and then increase it if the client’s body doesn’t respond as expected.
- 2175 – 15% = 1848 cals OR 2175 – 20% = 1740 cals
So you can start your diet anywhere between 1740 to 1848 calories per day.
Determining Your Keto Diet Macros
Before we get into figuring out your exact macros, let’s keep the following numbers in mind as they are crucial to the process.
- Protein has 4 calories per gram.
- Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram.
- Fats have 9 calories per gram.
Once you have your calories, you just use the percentages above for either the SKD or the HPKD to get your macros. Let’s use 1740 calories per day as an example:
SKD 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbs
- 1740 = 1305 cals from fat, 348 cals from protein, 87 cals from carbs
- Fat in grams = 145g per day
- Protein in grams = 87g per day
- Carbs in grams = ~22g per day
As you can see, the SKD is SUUUUPER low in protein! And that’s the reason why I actually prefer the HPKD for clients since they would be working out. This kind of set up isn’t bad for someone with a more sedentary lifestyle. But for those who are lifting and training, the HPKD is far better. This what what the macros look like for that set up:
HPKD 60% fat, 35% protein and 5% carbs
- 1740 = 1044 cals from fat, 609 cals from protein, 87 cals from carbs
- Fat in grams = 116g per day
- Protein in grams = 152g per day
- Carbs in grams = ~22g per day
In my opinion, the HPKD is far superior because of what I feel is a more “sane” allocation of macros for the active woman. You have your carbs low enough to get the benefits of the ketogenic diet, but your protein is high enough to support holding onto muscle as you lose fat. And to be honest, that is the main role of both protein in the diet and weight training in the face of fat loss. Keeping muscle ON.
How to Set Up a Keto Diet for Women 101
Now that the hardest part is out of the way (figuring out your numbers), you can do the easy part… Putting together the actual diet.
The guidelines for a keto diet are actually pretty fun. You can have a wide variety of meats, dairy, nuts, and oils.
You cannot have starches or starchy type of carbs (bread, rice, legumes, potatoes). Nor can you have most fruit since fructose will kick you RIGHT out of ketosis.
You can have a wide variety of veggies, just make sure they aren’t starchy type of veggies. Here are a list of foods you can easily have on the diet:
- Meat: Red meat, steak, ham, sausage, bacon, chicken and turkey.
- Fatty fish: Such as salmon, trout, tuna and mackerel.
- Eggs: Look for pastured or omega-3 whole eggs.
- Butter and cream: Look for grass-fed when possible.
- Cheese: Unprocessed cheese (cheddar, goat, cream, blue or mozzarella).
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, etc.
- Healthy oils: Primarily extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil.
- Avocados: Whole avocados or freshly made guacamole.
- Low-carb veggies: Most green veggies, tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc.
- Condiments: You can use salt, pepper and various healthy herbs and spices.
- Fruit: All fruit is typically off limits, a small handful of berries can be ok if you eat it once a day or every other day.
The best way to set up your perfect diet is by simply using an app like My Fitness Pal to create a meal plan to follow each day. Let’s talk a little about that next.
Crafting a Meal Plan for Your Keto Diet
The following set up is just a little sample of how you can design your own meal planning in a ketogenic diet set up. Please make sure to use My Fitness Pal or similar to get the EXACT AMOUNTS that you need to be eating for this sample set up. You can also swap things out with whatever you wish, and based on your preferences.
Sample 5 Meal Plan Set Up
Meal 1 – Breakfast
Eggs scrambled with butter or olive oil (can be made into an omelette w/ veggies)
Meal 2 – Morning Snack
Low carb protein shake (1 scoop of whey isolate, unsweetened almond milk or water)
Nut butter or nuts (almond, peanut, cashew)
Meal 3 – Lunch
Chicken, Turkey, Fish, Shellfish or Beef
Olive Oil or Coconut Oil
Meal 4 – Afternoon Snack
Whole milk Greek yogurt
Small amount of raspberries or blueberries – sweetened with stevia
Meal 5 – Dinner
Chicken, Turkey, Fish, Shellfish or Beef
Large Salad or steamed/grilled veggies of choice
Olive Oil or Coconut Oil
So, When Is a Keto Diet for Women NOT a Good Idea?
Now, that I’ve serenaded you with the serendipity of the keto diet… It’s time for me to suddenly pull the rug from under your feet!
Because guess what sista, this isn’t paradise for EVERYONE.
In fact, there are some women whom, I would say, shouldn’t or wouldn’t fare as well on this kind of set up.
In MY Experience…
I have found in my own coaching practice that women with higher metabolisms have a harder time with a ketogenic diet. These type of women often do better with a higher carbohydrate and lower fat diet. The exact opposite from a keto set up.
I also like to make sure to cycle a client completely OFF of a ketogenic diet after about 12 weeks or so.
There are a few studies that pointed to ketogenic diets possibly having a negative effect on the adrenal system. This can occur after a long period due to an increase in cortisol over time.
This is another reason why I like to throw in refeeds every few weeks, to even weekly from some clients (like my contest prep clients).
Refeeds allow the body to upregulate the body in ways that can briefly undo any negative effects that can be seen in long term usage of the keto diet.
Constipation and GI Issues
Another thing to be very aware of is that this kind of diet can cause constipation due to the decreased amount of protein. Having something like psyllium husks and flax seeds/oil in your diet can be crucial in helping you to stay regular.
Some people might experience flu like symptoms which is a normal part of the process on this kind of diet. This should subside after a few days.
And finally, ketogenic diets might set you up for being deficient in certain minerals and vitamins. So taking a multivitamin daily is going to be crucial to maintain optimal health.
The Final Piece of ANY Successful Diet – Goal Setting
All of this will never work if you don’t take goal setting into the equation!
As you embark on your new diet program, it is going to be crucial that you actually craft a game plan for yourself. More importantly, that you get super connected to the reasons WHY this is important to you.
A goal without a plan is just a wish.
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Mavropoulos, John C et al. “The effects of a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet on the polycystic ovary syndrome: a pilot study” Nutrition & metabolism vol. 2 35. 16 Dec. 2005, doi:10.1186/1743-7075-2-35
Vargas, Salvador et al. “Efficacy of ketogenic diet on body composition during resistance training in trained men: a randomized controlled trial” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 15,1 31. 9 Jul. 2018, doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0236-9
Paoli, Antonio. “Ketogenic diet for obesity: friend or foe?” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 11,2 2092-107. 19 Feb. 2014, doi:10.3390/ijerph110202092
Dashti, Hussein M et al. “Long-term effects of a ketogenic diet in obese patients” Experimental and clinical cardiology vol. 9,3 (2004): 200-5.