Possibly Worth Studying: Women and Low-Carbing

Trigger Warning for Eating Disorders/Body Image/Diet Talk

In two weeks, I will report my low-carb findings. Right now, I can’t stop being surprised by how little of the information on low-carbing available online is relevant to most women.

After two decades of trying to lose weight, I thought I knew what to expect with low-carbing. What I’d never considered was the fact that while most weight loss plans are dominated by and at least somewhat geared towards women, low-carbing is one of the few where men seem to make up a majority, at least online. Exact numbers vary according to personal experience, and I have no hard data, but in my research on the matter (i.e. hours spent searching and bookmarking specific keto concerns), I’ve discovered that many of the answers I’d found are only relevant to most men, i.e. not so for most women.

Medical studies often ignore how drugs can affect women differently; similar issues can be found with exercise studies. The phenomena below have yet to be studied, but many ladies on keto report having experienced them (I apologize for the problematic name of that sub-Reddit). Proper scientific studies on diet and exercise are difficult to conduct and therefore rare, and even rarer are ones that take such differences into account.

Again, to clarify: This list does not represent peer-reviewed scientific studies because such research has yet to be conducted. I do think that any item would make an excellent hypothesis to be tested.

It would be interesting to find out whether or not the following phenomena occur at all, and, if so, are due to women low-carbing.

5. Does keto trigger early periods?


Not only does the infamous “Atkins flu” cause PMS-like symptoms (irritability, incessant hunger, nausea, weakness, fatigue, and so on), but induction into low-carbing seems to cause shorter menstrual cycles in some women. Annoyingly, water retention during menstruation, a proven phenomenon, can create the illusion that a woman has gained rather than lost weight, which can be highly disappointing.

4. How do bodily fluids (any and all of them) change for women on keto, if at all?

Keto forums are rife with posts about how urine and saliva change in odor, appearance, and so on. While shifts in diet are known to change vaginal secretions, low-carbing’s effects in particular seem quite dramatic.

3. How much do weight fluctuations factor into women’s results from low-carbing?


Period-related water retention aside, many women’s bodies are quite sensitive to things like sodium, so a woman’s weight can vary throughout the day, leading to great dismay at the scale. This is true regardless of keto, but is especially relevant to keto because so many men post their dramatic results online, results that women can’t seem to replicate.

2. Is weight loss truly slower for women than for men? If so, by how much and due to what?

“I lost a zillion pounds in just 3 days!” declare the dudebros on keto forums. Unfortunately, similar results are generally unheard of in women regardless of diet/lifestyle choices. For a variety of reasons, most women seem to lose weight at a slower pace than most men do.

1. Can you really eat all the calories you want to and still lose weight by counting carbs?

Conventional wisdom calls for the calories-in calories-out method. There is controversy over this in keto-land (no one seems to be able to agree whether or not calories as well as carbs count) but for many women, weight loss seems to be slow or impossible without restricting calories as well as carbs.

Bottom line? Your mileage may vary, and probably will, if you’re a woman comparing your weight loss to that of men. Also, we need more studies on this sort of thing.

EDIT: Changed to ensure that the speculative nature of the piece was clear.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. This is not completely on-topic, but I always wondered why low-carb diets were so popular with men. A few years back it seemed that most of the men in my office were on some form of low-carbing. (I can’t recall any man ever talking about being on something like Weight Watchers.) And they would talk about it *all the time*, it drove me nuts. I could only imagine a woman coming in and talking incessantly about Jenny Craig and how that would be received.

    How did low-carbing come to be viewed as so macho? Good marketing?

    1. I have a few theories: the lack of focus on calories (i.e. eating “as much as you want” even though that’s up for debate); the focus on high-fat foods like meat and cheese as opposed to “rabbit food” (eating veggies/vegetarianism is for some reason perceived as less manly); and the perception that eating more protein causes muscle gain.

      1. Yeah that’s it exactly.

        I started going vegetarian right around the time it became popular and I heard ALL THE TIME “why don’t you try a man’s diet” (referring to low carbs) or “try atkins and eat a steak like man”. It’s definitely perceived as the manly man’s diet.

  2. One of the sources you cite (beautytiptoday) also cites no sources. It’s written by someone who fully admits in their bio that: “I am not a beauty expert or a dermatologist. But like you, too, I am a consumer.”

    Given how little evidence is presented in this article in general, I’m concerned about the overall reliability/skeptical efficacy of all the claims expressed herein.

    1. Edited to add a major disclaimer/clarification. I was careful to use words like “seem” and “appears.” These are things worthy of study, not definitive claims. I have found a better link for the one that you rightfully called out. If there’s any way I could make the speculative nature of this piece more clear, please let me know.

      1. You did a great job clarifying, and it certainly is something that we should look into. Thanks for addressing my concerns, it’s very admirable.

  3. I’ve actually just started on a low-carb diet myself, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the results so far. I started on this after reading Gary Taubes ‘Why we get fat’ where he made a very persuasive case for low/no-carbing.

    I hope you will see the excellent results I have.
    Just two things:

    First, you wrote in the post that there’s little research on low-card diets. True, but I’m currently reading ‘The art and science of low carbohydrate living’. Its aimed at doctors and most of the science in it is well over my head, but you might get more out of it.

    Secondly, that ‘Livestrong’ link is talking nonsense. Those symptoms read more like sodium deficiency, a common problem with low-carb diets from what I understand, (the staples of low carb diets, meat and green plants, have little salt in them). The page does touch on it, but only in passing, mostly attributing it to ‘carbohydrate withdrawal’.

    1. I don’t think it’s nonsense. I experienced horrific “carb flu” for almost the full 2 weeks of induction and no amount of sodium would help.

      1. I second what Troika is saying. Gary Taubes’ books on low carb are excellent. “Why We Get Fat…” is a quicker read, almost a condensed version of his first book “Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health”. The book “The Art & Science of Low Carbohydrate Living” is also an excellent resource and it was written by two of the authors of “New Atkins for a New You”. I own and have read all of these books mentioned and follow the advice they contain. Not only have I lost weight but I have gone from pre-diabetic to normal sugar levels.

        As far as the induction flu, I never experienced it. Sorry you did. Hydration and sodium may have helped me, but the induction flu is very much another YMMV part of low carbing.

        My question for you is, was this going anywhere? 4. How do bodily fluids (any and all of them) change for women on keto, if at all?

        Keto forums are rife with posts about how urine and saliva change in odor, appearance, and so on. While shifts in diet are known to change vaginal secretions, low-carbing’s effects in particular

  4. When I was an anthro major I learned that the more nutrition and calories a woman had the earlier the period would come. Women in sports or on certain diets or both would have a reduction or even lose their periods.

    As for the carb flu. I had it really bad. Definitely was not sodium and I don’t think the low carb foods have less sodium arguments make sense. I mean, seriously, you don’t salt your steak? I asked my Dr about it and he said it was ridiculous.

    I lost 8# in a week first time I went low carb. It’s been harder this time to fight carb cravings.

  5. Hi Heina,
    Liked the article.
    I don’t very much like the keto diet myself, who wants to walk around with a funky taste in their mouth all the time, and stinky breath for little to no gain?
    It also ignores the very useful aspects of a post-exercise insulin rush, which as a man generally trying to be a bigger man, I can’t go without.
    Some of the reasons Keto is more useful among a generic male population is the general goals, lifestyle fit, and the exercise habits of men in general. as well as good old fashioned testosterone.
    If you examine the generic male keto user compared to a women, usually a man under 40, and look at his daily calorie intake, even though he will say “calories dont matter” he will usually be eating under 2500 calories a day. extremely large and strong men (well over 200 pounds) will be eating under 4000 in practice.
    He’ll usually be eating the fattier meats(which are generally more nutritious than their no-fat counterparts) than his female counterpart, and he will usually have an intense weight training session every few days. Plenty of the time with 0 cardio at all. Compared to women who feel as though if they touch something heavy, they will look like an Olympic shot putter (we obviously need to make women feel better in the weight room, and make them look for something positive from their body other than matching a scrawny bikini model) . And that’s fine, he can do an intense weightlifting workout, which places unique demands on the body compared to lighter weight or cardio workouts. He can do this intense workout and recover only because of his testosterone stimulating muscle recovery, a calorie and fat intensive process that continues for a couple days after exercise.
    If you compare the men eating Keto to the men eating other ways, maybe for example the leangains eating protocol (in which all daily calories are eaten within a 8 hour window of the day, post workout), they are pretty much eating the same amount of calories, maybe keto will be slightly ahead. They both produce fantastic results in conjunction with exercise.
    Men who don’t exercise still generally have 10KG of lean body mass compared to their female counterpart, which has an affect on how much meat they can eat before going over their BMR. The stomach size between a man and a woman isnt that different, so of course when a man has eaten his fill, his likelihood of staying in a calorie deficit is higher.
    What you’ll find is that most men not on a keto diet, when they try to ‘eat healthy’ will be reduced to salads and fruits, wont be getting appropriate amounts of protein or fat because of that, and as such will need to consume a horridly low calorie content to make up for lousy workouts. They still lose heaps of weight, they’re just miserable.

    In general most diets seem to be elaborate ways to eat an appropriate amount of protein, a proper amount of fat, and still come in under the calories your body wants to start storing fat.

    A common thread in men on these diets, or any diet, or no diet, is that once they hit “that age”, where the hormones change and they can no longer lift 400 pounds off the floor and be okay the next day, these ridiculous testosterone driven workouts stop, and the weight piles on.
    Men without the high testosterone count are probably a lot more like most women in that regard, forced to do cardio or light exercise that doesn’t effect their daily calorie requirements on non-training days.

    For this reason, most women that I’ve helped lose weight have been encouraged to come to the “mans side” of the gym, use the barbells with intensity, up their protein intake, and generally see the weight come away without the horrid side effects of diets that make their periods disappear, or all that other fun stuff.

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