I have been following a ketogenic diet for 7 years at the time of writing this blog post and I have learned two lifetimes worth of not only nutrition education but experience of my own and the amazing people I work with every day. I want to share the top 5 mistakes women make on keto, and I have made myself, so that those of you starting out or restarting can avoid them.
The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make on Keto are not because we somehow misunderstand the guidelines but because we follow them so closely without really understanding how our bodies are responding. It’s due to decades of dieting, restricting, eating less that we need, ignoring hunger, overeating because we are undereating and all of the other things women do in the pursuit of that dream body.
It pains me to see women struggling on keto because they are following guidelines but making them rules. Following a style of keto that is great for men but does not work with women’s bodies or hormones. The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make on Keto is not because we can’t follow instructions, it is because we do … too well.
Top 5 Mistakes Women Make on Keto
1. Not individualising keto
70% fat, 20% protein and 10% carbs. That is the standard ketogenic formula. Ask anyone online about macros and this is what they will tell you. Many women who have followed 70% calories from fat, gain weight. This is because they are insulin resistant, leptin resistant and running on stress hormones.
Looking at your current health and what your body can tolerate is vital to be able to formulate your keto program to suit your body and what it needs. I teach Protein Priority Keto in my Bootcamp because many women are afraid of protein and therefore under eat it. If you have been running on stress hormones for years you need plenty of protein to help your body repair.
Find What Works For You
There are tons of lists of “approved foods” out there but just because it’s on the food list doesn’t mean that it is good for you or your weight loss journey. If a food is causing a reaction (bloating, reflux, other digestion issues) then your body is clearly telling you that you shouldn’t be eating it. However we have learned to ignore these important signs.
If you continue to eat foods that are not good for your body, don’t give your body the nutrition it needs or are eating too much or too little of one macro and you’re sure to run into problems. I speak to people often who are completely ignoring the massive red flags like bloating, fatigue, hunger, cravings. These are messages, signals from your body that are telling you “hey something isn’t good here”. The longer you ignore it the worse the problem becomes.
When weight loss slows down or stops you can make the mistake of restricting your calories in an attempt to get the scale moving again. But here is the problem – it’s nothing to do with how much you’re eating but what you are eating and in what proportion. Keto needs to be personalised for your own body and it’s needs.
2. Being Too Restrictive
This could be number 1 of the Top 5 Mistakes Women Make on Keto because I see so many do it. Most orthodox weight loss diets work on restriction of calories or fat. Keto works on restriction of carbs but they are not the same thing. On keto you are not supposed to restrict calories to the extent that is advised on orthodox diets. Unfortunately so many of us are so used to the toxic restriction of orthodox programs that we do the same on keto.
Wanting quick results makes us push our bodies to the limit. Many of us have success doing this, stress based weight loss works. But it never works long term. Eventually your body starts to adjust to the much lower calorie intake and slows everything down. You stop losing weight and your body starts to fight back. This manifests itself as crazy carb cravings and binge eating.
Years of these cycles of restriction based dieting and then overeating mean that many of us have been pushing our bodies deeper into preservation mode. When you restrict what you feed your body, it starts to cut down on what it uses. Think of it like your salary. If you earn €2000 per month and your bills are €2000 you aren’t going to continue to spend €2000 if your salary decreases. You cut spending. Your body does the exact same thing.
We restrict then we overeat. That is what happens because of biology. Because your body wants to keep you alive. Not because you can’t stick to diets or because you have no will power. In the Minnesota Starvation experiment, (a semi starvation experiment) one man ate RAW rutabaga because he was so hungry. Imagine how desperate he felt. When you restrict too much you get obsessed with food. Have you ever felt like that?
Restriction Leads To Weight Gain
I realised the irony of saying that restrictive diets don’t work after losing more than 46kg (100lbs) on keto, a diet that restricts an entire macro group but when you understand the basic biochemistry, metabolism and physiology behind it you can start to understand why keto works.
It’s not because you restrict calories, although there is a slight calorie reduction. It works because your blood sugar becomes stable and hormones signal your body that it’s “safe” to use stored body fat because food is abundant.
Remember the salary example above? A regular monthly salary into your bank account is the same thing as eating enough. It’s a regular top up of resources so you feel confident enough to “spend”, your body does the same only the signal is from food and nutrition.
The fact is that if you don’t eat enough protein to give your body all of the resources it needs to keep you healthy, you will always be unsatisfied. Your body will happily let you eat thousands of calories extra, risking obesity and sugar toxicity, in order to get your minimum protein needs.
By eating enough and eating regularly we avoid stress based weight loss. It might be slower but it means long term weight loss. You will keep it off.
3. Too many NNSs
NNSs are Non Nutritive Sweeteners. These are sweeteners that have no nutrition or calories in them. No matter what you have read about “safe” or “suitable” sweeteners on keto, we cannot say conclusively that there are no risks.
Several studies have failed to show any positive effect on weight loss by consuming artificial sweeteners instead of plain sugar. The studies showed that NNSs can increase appetite and maintain cravings for sweet food.
NNSs can keep your craving for sweet foods alive if you are addicted and can make cravings worse. The long term effects of consuming artificial sweeteners are unknown which is more concerning. Remember how long people smoked for before the dangers came to light when it was far too late for so many people.
Sweet Flavours Drive Cravings For Carbs
If we continue to eat sweet tasting food we will continue to want sweet tasting food. There is no getting away from it, sweet foods should be kept for a very occasional treat. The problem for many of us is that what would have been once occasional has become daily and for some it’s in every meal. We are simply not designed to eat that much sweet food whether there are calories in it or not.
There is no such thing as a natural sweetener either. All of them require a huge amount of processing that would never have been possible before the industrialisation of our food. Even Stevia, which is marketed as a natural alternative to artificial sweetener but the manufacturers have paid hundreds of thousands to marketing experts to put that out in advertising. Ultimately there is just too much unknown about the long term effects of NNSs.
Sweet tastes will automatically trigger insulin, even if it is a small amount. This is the same for NNSs. So even if there is no sugar present your cephalic digestion tells your brain that sweet taste = sugar and insulin is released to deal with it. Without actual sugar the insulin works on the glucose already circulating in your blood.
Another Blood Sugar Roller Coaster
Your blood glucose lowers due to insulin doing its job but if you’ve not eaten any sugar or carbs your blood sugar will be lower than is optimum. This can lead to low blood sugar. It might not be noticeable until an hour later when you have huge carb cravings.
Back in 2018 I spoke to low carb guru Dr. Eric Westman at Ketofest. I asked him what was the No.1 blocker for weight loss he saw in his clinic. Top of his list was sweeteners. He told me that when weight loss is slow or non-existent for his female patients, he removes sweeteners as the first way to tackle it. That, for me, was enough confirmation of what I saw in my own practice and Keto Bootcamp. For many women, NNSs slow weight loss.
4. Eating Too Much
When people enter my programs, I have to convince them to start tracking their food again. If you don’t know how much you eat, you don’t know what your weight loss sweet spot is. Remember we want to avoid stress based weight loss that will eventually lead to hormonal imbalances and weight gain.
There are so many factors that lead to accidental overeating. Stress is a huge one. When you are stressed and running on cortisol, your body isn’t getting satiety signals. Cortisol inhibits proper sleep and when you sleep, the satiety hormone Leptin, is supposed to signal to your brain how much fuel you have stored. If it cannot give that information to your brain, your body thinks it doesn’t have enough stored fuel and so drives hunger.
If You Don’t Know, You Don’t Know
This might be subtle at first, you don’t notice the extra food you are eating. Once you see the scale creeping up, you restrict what you are eating. But it doesn’t matter how much you restrict, if leptin isn’t able to do its job, you are just going to get hungrier. Tracking your food intake gives you so much more information than just “I ate x calories today”. In fact, in Keto Bootcamp, I teach that tracking isn’t about calories at all. It’s to make sure you’re not eating too little or too much.
Once you can see that your hunger is starting to increase without any outside influence, like an increase in activity like weight lifting, you know that something is out of balance and you can take steps towards fixing the problem. Tracking is information and power to heal yourself.
If you are following mainstream advice of “getting all the fats in” and taking extra fat from things like MCT oil, fresh cream or butter added to everything then it could be that you are simply eating too much. Again, going back to tracking, you can easily see where your sweet spot is for weight loss. If your calories have increased and you are putting on weight, you have the information on hand to cut back enough so that you are back losing weight.
5. Too Much Unmanaged Stress
Back to stress. This one is vital, especially for women. Our hormone balance is delicate and even a little stress can knock it off course. Modern life is packed with stressors and not much time or space to deal with the stress.
Cortisol is a very important stress hormone. Its job is to keep us going during times of stress but it’s not meant to be long term. Many of us have spent time running on cortisol. Stress, fasting, weight loss, calorie restriction, fasted workouts all contribute to rampant cortisol.
Now I am not saying to take yourself off and live on a desert island alone (one can wish). We often cannot do anything about the stressors (job, bills, kids, caring for relatives) but we absolutely have to manage the stress. Spending just 10 minutes a day doing something, anything, that helps you relax is going to make a massive difference.
Remember above I spoke about leptin not being able to message your body if you don’t get enough sleep? It leads to a cascade of hormonal failures and consequences that directly or indirectly lead to obesity.
I cannot understate the importance of taking care of stress so that you can sleep properly. I have met women who are weight loss resistant and just changing this one thing, meant successful weight loss. It might not be what you are eating!
Now you know the top 5 mistakes women make on keto, you can avoid them. Getting it right immediately is not the goal. Adjusting as you need to, being flexible and adapting keto as you progress is how you enjoy long term, sustainable weight loss.