For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions taken from last week’s post on the power of pairing low-carb with fasting. First, do I have any advice for a woman who’s struggling to see results eating one meal a day? Second, how does low-carb interact with the different types of glucose tests you can take? And third, what are my thoughts on carb limits when fasting? Is lower always better? Is there a carb threshold after which fasting stops working so well?
I have been dappling in low carb for nearly year and in the last 2-3 months I have been playing around with OMAD. My question is, I eat ’till I’m full ,which is about 12-18 grams of carbs, never over 100g protein and around 100g fat, sitting at 1000-1400 calories—but I’m not losing weight. Over 3 months I’ve lost about 6kg and I have about 30kg to lose. Do I keep going? I’m enjoying it but I get frustrated about the lack of weight loss (I’ve lost a dress size).
The majority of women don’t do well on one meal a day. Consider the average office worker struggling to lose weight. They do coffee for breakfast and maybe have a salad with no meat (and few calories) for lunch, struggle mightily not to eat five stale donuts at 3p.m. in the break room, only to cave at night and eat a sack of potato chips and take out while streaming some show.
My point is not that these people would do better if only they ate a solid meal for dinner rather than chips and snacks and Netflix. Nor is it that this problem only afflicts women and never men. Plenty of men do it, too, and have bad results. But it shows more quickly in women, who by nature of their reproductive physiology are simply more vulnerable to nutritional insults than men—on average. I explain the reasons this happens in this post on fasting for women. Long story short, because reproduction is far more costly and demanding on a woman’s body than a man’s (conception, pregnancy, nursing); woman are more finely attuned to caloric restriction and fasting. My point is that fasting for most of the day, every day, doesn’t work well for most women—it becomes a constant stressor, driving unhealthy cravings to which you eventually succumb.
It sounds like OMAD might not be working for you. Just one dress size (which is a better barometer than weight) in 3 months? Yeah, it might be time to try something else.
Was low carb with more frequent meals working?
I’ve seen a lot of men burn out on OMAD, too. Throw in some sleep disturbances, a heavy training schedule, work-related stress, cooking for the family, bills, and whatever other stressors modern life throws our way, and OMAD can be counterproductive.
For one thing, your calorie intake is way too low. One thousand calories is way too low; 1400 calories is really pushing it. Perpetually starving yourself for 22 hours a day and then trying to cram a big meal in that doesn’t even provide enough calories or nutrients just doesn’t work for most people. I can imagine your leptin is low, your caloric expenditure dampened, your thyroid function inhibited.
Here’s what you might try.
Do OMAD with 1000-1400 calories once a week. Twice max. Eat normal—two to three meals—the rest of the days. This way you pulse your fasting and OMAD’ing. You eat normal amounts of calories for five days a week and then drop them down low twice a week, giving your body a message of relative abundance punctuated with short bouts of scarcity.
I think that’ll work better for you. Write back with your results.
If you are low carb and need to do a glucose blood test and an A1C test: What is the best fasting times then? Just the night before or for 24 hours?
If you fast longer, shouldn’t the glucose reading be lower?
It really depends on what kind of test you take.
If you’re doing a fasting blood glucose test, fasting will probably lower it.
If you’re doing a postprandial blood glucose test, fasting will probably raise it. You’re asking your body to suddenly go from burning fat to processing 75 grams of pure glucose. The fat-based metabolism triggers transient insulin resistance, which inhibits your ability to process the glucose efficiently. Your postprandial reading will thus be higher than is “real.”
If you’re doing an HbA1c test, fasting won’t affect it. HbA1c is the “average” blood sugar over three months or so; a single meal will have no impact.
I totally agree with the science of this relationship. Mark, at what intake level of carbs are you considering this relationship no longer synergistic? Anything over 100 grams or should the carb intake be kept lower to have the greatest fat-burning / weight-loss effect?
The bulk of the synergy lies in the ease with which you can maintain the fast. Low-carb/fat-based metabolisms simply make it easier to slip into and remain in the fat-based metabolism of the fasting state. If you can easily fast, easily slip back into ketosis and maintain the fast while eating an otherwise moderate or high-carb diet, have at it. That isn’t as common as the opposite, drawing on my experience talking to hundreds of people about this.
However, some people get the best weight-loss effect by combining intermittent fasting, heavy weight training, and periodic/timed carb feeds. The trick is to time your carbs around your workouts, and eat no more than you’ve actually expended through glycogen depletion. That means you’re still in a fat-based metabolism because the carbs you do eat are going toward glycogen repletion rather than being burned for energy, so they never actually inhibit the burning of body fat.
If you’re doing CrossFit WODs that hit every muscle and leave you panting on the ground (or the equivalent), you could probably get away with 100-200 grams right after without any issues. It really depends, of course. More muscle, larger glycogen sinks. Some people just slip right back into ketosis more easily. Others have a life history that may inhibit this. But that 100-ish carbs after a “hard” training session that you feel should be a good target for most people.
You should keep fat low and protein high in these carb-heavy meals. What you want is to refill that glycogen and hit the protein hard.
That’s it for today, folks. Take care. Be sure to ask any followups or additional questions down below. Thanks for reading!
The post Dear Mark: OMAD for Women, Low-Carb Glucose Testing, and Carb Limit When Fasting appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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Are carbs really the waist-expanding enemy we’ve been led to believe they are? A dietician weighs in on this touchy topic…
The post Do You Really Need To Give Up Carbs To Lose Weight? appeared first on Women’s Health.
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Folks, you know I’m a long-time believer in intermittent fasting for longevity, autophagy, mental clarity, fitness performance, metabolic health, and more. I’m excited that Dr. Jason Fung has stopped by the blog today to share a bit about common fasting mistakes. Enjoy!
So, you’ve decided to add some fasting to your lifestyle. Excellent. No matter how much you have (or haven’t) read on the topic, you’re likely to find aspects of fasting to be challenging or even frustrating. It can be hard to stay on track when you’re feeling hungry, irritable and not really noticing any changes.
It’ll become tremendously easier once you begin to experience the health benefits of fasting, but we all know it takes a little while for that to happen. Benefits like mental clarity and improved energy will show up sooner than significant weight loss. Plus, the benefits you experience will depend on what kind of fast you’re doing and how well you stick to it.
But if you’re making fasting mistakes, you might never accomplish the benefits you were hoping for. . Before you throw in the towel, I want to help you identify some possible fasting pitfalls you might not be aware of and also help you avoid them. Plus, don’t miss the Number One reason fasts fail, shared at the end of this article.
1. You’re Snacking or “Grazing”
Look, the entire purpose of a fast is to contain your eating within certain windows of time. Snacking or “grazing” all day long is basically the opposite of fasting, so stop thinking that you can get away with it. Fasting is “on” or “off”—there is no gray area. Even having “just a bite,” no matter how healthy or how little, will almost invariably kick your body out of fasting mode and will interfere with the healing process responsible for fasting’s many benefits. It also creates a situation where your body is producing insulin all day long. Bad idea.
Avoid grazing by putting snacks and food out of sight. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” really applies here. You’ll be amazed how much easier it is to bypass snacking when the food isn’t sitting right in front of you. If you snack out of habit, get creative and find new, non-food based habits. If your snacking comes from genuine hunger, you may need to re-evaluate the meals you eat during your eating window. Make sure you’re getting enough healthy, unsaturated fats with each meal as these will keep you satiated for longer.
2. You Aren’t Drinking Enough Water
This is not only a common fasting mistake, but a mistake most people make no matter what their diet is. Drinking a minimum of eight glasses of water daily is essential to staying hydrated and healthy. Some signs that you aren’t drinking enough water include dizziness and lightheadedness, feeling tired, or constipation.
Even worse, when you don’t drink enough water, your brain may try to trick you into thinking that you’re hungry, so you get the vitamins and minerals you’re lacking. Minerals like potassium and magnesium are essential to your brain health. So don’t be surprised next time you feel hungry but find that drinking a glass of water makes the appetite disappear. Various kinds of tea are also a satisfying way to hydrate, or try some bone broth if you’re truly struggling.
3. You Aren’t Consuming Enough Salts
Speaking of vitamins and minerals, appropriate salt intake is vital to your health. Now, when I say “salt,” I’m not talking about the kind you put in a shaker. I’m talking about electrolytes, which are essential to your diet. Sodium (Na), which is also commonly known as table salt, is one of these electrolytes, along with potassium (K), magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), and chloride (Cl).
How can you tell if you’re low on electrolytes? Some symptoms of electrolyte deficiency are anxiety, irritability, trouble sleeping, muscle spasms, fatigue, digestive issues, and dizziness. If these are the kinds of symptoms you experience during your fast, lack of electrolytes could be the answer. Try taking some pink Himalayan rock salt and placing it under your tongue to dissolve. You can also try drinking some pickle juice — just make sure it’s from high-quality natural pickles and not the kind made with sugar.
4. You’re Eating Right Before You Go To Sleep
Your body needs time to digest all the food from your last meal before you go to sleep. If you’ve scheduled your eating window to happen right before bedtime, your body will be taking all the time you’ve allotted to rest to digest instead. That takes energy, and instead of waking up feeling restored and ready to take on the day, you’ll just feel tired.
When you’re following a fasting plan, a seven-hour window is an ideal amount of time to leave between your last meal and when you go to sleep. Even three or four hours is enough to make a difference. Unfortunately, with crazy work schedules and early mornings, a lot of people aren’t able to stick to that three- or four-hour window. It’s more like get home, eat dinner, and go straight to bed. If this is you, the next best thing is to eat a light meal, like salad, and avoid a meal filled with carbohydrates and protein.
5. You’re Eating Too Much of Some Food Groups
When we cut certain foods from our diet, especially carbs, it’s easy to rely on other food groups, like nuts and dairy. They’re readily available and a staple of most diets.
Nuts are a low-carb, healthy fat option, but only in small amounts. They’re great to add to fruit or veggie salads, and they’re easy to grab a handful of when you need a quick snack. But those quick snacks can add up, especially on top of eating full meals. Nuts are high in good fat, low in carbs, and are a good source of protein, but too much protein can be detrimental to your fast. Excess protein that your body doesn’t need is converted to glucose and stored as fat. If you’re fasting to lose weight, this is the exact opposite of what you want.
Dairy, the other easy food group that too many people defect to, can cause inflammation, upset stomach, bloating, gas, and other kinds of discomfort. If this is a pattern you’ve noticed with your own health and eating habits, try cutting out dairy for a few weeks and see if these symptoms improve. If you haven’t noticed these symptoms, be more mindful of your eating habits and track how you feel after eating dairy.
6. You Aren’t Eating Enough of Certain Food Groups
As easy as it is to eat too much of one food group, it’s equally easy to not get enough of another. Just because you can eat “whatever” you want during your eating window doesn’t mean you should. Empty calories and junk food are momentarily satisfying, but they don’t fuel your body. Eating the right foods provides your body with the nutrients it needs to thrive throughout the day; these foods will also keep you feeling fuller, longer.
Vegetables are one of the best food groups to keep you nourished and thriving. They’re low calorie and they provide different vitamins and minerals like potassium, fiber, folate, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Fruits are also healthy, but don’t overdo it, as most are high in sugar. Fruit juices typically have added sugar as well. Naturally flavored drinks and teas are the healthiest option. Nuts are high in fat and a good source of protein, as are eggs. Refined carbohydrates and sugars are highly unnecessary for your body and if you’re going to include them in your meals, there should be very little.
7. You’re Pushing Your Body Too Hard
Did you dive off the deep end and go from zero fasting to attempting 24-hr fasts every other day? Back up and take a more moderate approach first. Don’t expect fasting to be easy right away. Not only will your body need time to adjust, but your mind will, too. If you’ve been accustomed to three square meals a day, plus snacks and calorie-filled drinks, your body has gotten used to this routine.
Your body needs time to adapt. First it burns through stored sugar and then it will start burning body fat for energy. Start slow and get a feeling for this new practice. You can start with a twelve-hour fasting period and twelve-hour eating window. When eight hours of that fast are during your sleeping hours, this window is relatively easy. Once you’ve become accustomed to this schedule, you can reduce your eating window to ten hours. Continue decreasing your eating window by two hours every one to two weeks, until you’ve hit the fasting period you want.
8. You Have the Wrong Mindset
Fasting provides your body with everything it needs to thrive, but without the right mindset, you’re bound to fail. Focusing on the negative, like not being allowed to eat certain foods or at certain times, will easily spiral into other negative self-talk. The harder you are on yourself, the more difficult it is to achieve success.
Rather than thinking about how hard the fast is, focus on the positive that will come out of it. Fasting allows your body to heal. Fasting can help you lose weight. You’ll feel more energized and have a clearer mind. Whatever the reason you’ve chosen to fast, focus on that. Fasting with a friend, family member, partner, or online community is another way to hold yourself accountable and can be very helpful.
9. You’re Too Stressed
When you’re stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is problematic when fasting because it can prompt your body to break down muscle tissue instead of fat. When fasting, your body should tap into stored body fat and preserve your healthy muscle tissue.
If you’re stressed on occasion, this shouldn’t cause much of a problem. But if you’re chronically stressed, that constant release of cortisol can lead to a breakdown of muscle tissue.
Not sure if you’re stressed? Here are some symptoms:
- Teeth grinding
- Muscle tension
- Digestive problems
- Trouble concentrating
Alleviate stress with deep breathing, positive visualization, an epsom salt bath, and stress-relieving teas. If you can, take some time off from work. If you’re an outdoorsy person, relax in nature.
10. You’re Inactive
Being inactive is one of the biggest mistakes people make during their fast. If you aren’t eating, you should rest and save your energy, right? Wrong. Exercise is a great way to improve your fasting. Activity increases fat burning and boosts circulation. Going outside and getting some sunlight and fresh air can improve your mood, making you more likely to stick to your fast. Movement generally makes people feel better than sitting on the couch inside all day; being inactive makes you cold, tired, and unfocused.
Since a lot of people work sedentary jobs that tie them to a desk all day, exercise isn’t a convenient way to stay active. But taking a short walk or stretching are two easy ways to get your blood flowing throughout the day.
Fasting shouldn’t be synonymous with suffering. If you’re feeling deprived during your fast, be sure that you aren’t making any of the above fasting mistakes. Ease yourself into your fast, stick with it, and enjoy the results when they come with time.
But there’s one more—in fact, the number one reason fasts fail….
Can you guess what it is?
***Giving Into Cravings
Which is why I want to tell you about my new favorite secret weapon for staying fasted longer and with less difficulty: Pique Fasting Teas. Why tea? The combination of catechins and caffeine gives you a higher chance of experiencing tangible benefits from fasting. It suppresses hunger cravings, boosts calorie burn and supports malabsorption of unhealthy fats and sugars.
These Fasting Teas include ingredients targeted at maximizing the fasting experience:
1) Organic highest ceremonial grade matcha, which increases levels of l-theanine to calm and tide you through your fasts with ease. 2) Organic peppermint, which is a natural appetite suppressant with calming properties. 3) Proprietary blend of high catechin green Tea Crystals, which regulate the hunger hormone ghrelin and increase thermogenesis (burning fat for fuel). This helps you to stay fasted and see quicker results. 4) Additional plant ingredients including ginger and citrus peel to support digestion and enhance autophagy.
As with all of Pique’s teas, you can rest assured these are pure and Triple Toxin Screened for pesticides, heavy metals and toxic mold. For a limited time only, if you order through the Mark’s Daily Apple link, you can get up to 8% off and free shipping (U.S. only).
Thanks again to Dr. Jason Fung for today’s post. Have questions on fasting protocols or missteps? Share them below, everybody, and have a great day.
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It seems every “keto for women” forum abounds with stories about menstrual cycles gone wild in the first few months of keto. Irregular cycles, breakthrough bleeding, and periods lasting much longer than normal are common complaints. Sometimes these stories are cited as evidence that keto isn’t good for women, at least not premenopausal women, and that we need carbs for healthy hormones. Yet, many women don’t notice any changes in their menstrual cycles at all, while others report improvement in PMS symptoms and cycle regularity from the get-go.
What gives? Why do some women’s cycles apparently become wacky when they start keto, while others feel like keto is the key to period bliss? Can keto “mess up” the menstrual cycle?
We know that diet—what and how much we eat—can profoundly affect our hormones. This is true for both women and men. One of the reasons people are so excited about ketogenic diets is specifically because keto shows promise for helping to regulate hormones and improve cellular sensitivity to hormones such as insulin and leptin.
At the same time, women’s hormones are especially sensitive not only to dietary changes but also to downstream effects such as body fat loss. Furthermore, one of the ways women’s bodies respond to stressors is by turning down the dial on our reproductive systems. It’s reasonable to hypothesize, then, that women might have a tougher time adapting to or sustaining a ketogenic diet. Keto can be stressful depending on one’s approach, and that might negatively impact women’s reproductive health. But do the data actually bear that out, or is so-called “keto period” more misplaced hype than genuine fact?
Note that throughout this post, I’m going to use the term “reproductive health” to refer to all aspects of women’s menstrual cycle, reproductive hormones, and fertility. Even if you aren’t interested in reproducing right now, your body’s willingness to reproduce is an important indicator of overall health. When your reproductive health goes awry—irregular or absent periods (amenorrhea) or hormone imbalances—that’s a big red flag. Of course, post-menopausal women can also experience hormone imbalances that affect their health and quality of life (and low-carb and keto diets can be a great option for them).
Menstrual Cycle 101
Let’s briefly review what constitutes a normal, healthy menstrual cycle, understanding that everybody’s “normal” will be a little different. A typical cycle lasts from 21 to 24 days on the short end to 31 to 35 days on the long end, with 28 days being the median. Day 1 is the first day of your period and begins the follicular phase, which lasts until ovulation. Just before ovulation, levels of luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), and estradiol (a form of estrogen) spike. Next comes the luteal phase covering the approximately 14 days from ovulation to menses. LH, FSH, and estradiol drop, while progesterone rises. Estradiol bumps up again in the middle of the luteal phase. If a fertilized egg is not implanted, menstruation commences, and the whole cycles starts over again. All this is regulated by a complex communication network under the hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal (HPG) axis, which is closely tied to the actions of the adrenal (the A in HPA axis) and thyroid glands.
Across the cycle, fluctuations in body weight are common as fluid is retained and then released along with shifts in estrogen and progesterone. Changes in blood glucose are also normal, and insulin-dependent diabetics often find that they need to adjust their dose at different times of their cycles to keep their blood sugar in check. The most common pattern is higher blood glucose readings in the pre-menstrual period (the second half of the luteal phase), and lower readings after starting your period and before ovulation. This is generally attributed to the fact that progesterone, which is highest during the luteal phase, is known to reduce insulin sensitivity. However, different women experience different patterns, which can also be affected by other factors such as oral contraceptive use.
Normal fluctuations in insulin resistance and blood glucose can mean that women get lower ketone readings at certain times of the month than others. When these occur premenstrually—and so they tend to coincide with a period of (transient) weight gain and food/carbohydrate cravings—women often feel as though they are doing something wrong. Rest assured that these variations reflect normal physiology.
The many factors that affect your cycle and the levels of your sex hormones include: other hormones, gut health and microbiome, metabolic health (e.g., insulin sensitivity), environmental toxins, stress, sleep, immune health, nutrient deficiencies, activity level and energy expenditure, and age. Each affects the others, and all (except age of course) can be affected by diet. It’s no surprise, then, that it can be extremely difficult to pin down a root cause of menstrual changes or reproductive issues.
What the Research Tells Us About Keto and Menstruation
As I said at the outset, there are lots of anecdotes, both positive and negative. In my experience, most women whose cycles seem to go crazy when they start keto find that things get back to normal—and often a better version of normal—after a few months.
First, it’s tricky to determine the effects of keto per se, since many people combine a ketogenic diet with calorie restriction (intentionally to lose weight or unintentionally due to the appetite suppressing effects of keto) and with fasting (intermittent and/or extended). Each of these can independently impact the factors listed above, lead to weight loss, and affect the menstrual cycle and reproductive health.
So, is there any evidence that keto itself causes changes to menstruation?
The scientific evidence is scant….
The one statistic you’ll see floating around the interwebs is “45% of (adolescent) females experience irregular menstrual cycles on keto.” This statistic comes from one small study of adolescent girls using a therapeutic ketogenic diet to treat epilepsy. Six of the twenty girls reported amenorrhea (loss of period) and three were diagnosed with delayed puberty. However, the ketogenic diet used for epilepsy is different and usually much stricter than an “everyday” keto diet needs to be, and epilepsy is frequently associated with menstrual dysfunction regardless of diet.
To extrapolate the findings of this study and argue that nearly half of teenage girls (or women generally) are likely to experience menstrual problems from going keto is a huge leap.
The fact is, I’m unable to find any studies done in healthy human females (or mice for that matter) demonstrating that otherwise normal menstrual cycles are disturbed by going keto.
5 Ways Keto-Related Factors *Might* Affect Your Menstrual Cycle
With the limited amount of research looking directly at keto and menstruation, let’s look first at whether there are direct effects of carbohydrate restriction or elevated ketone production on the menstrual cycle. Those are the defining characteristics of keto and what differentiates keto from other ways of eating. Then we can examine indirect effects that occur due to factors such as weight loss. These are not unique to keto, though they might be more likely on a ketogenic diet compared to other ways of eating.
There is no real body of evidence that looks at ketogenic levels of carb restriction and menstruation, but there are some clues. In this small study, functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA) was associated with dietary fat restriction; women with FHA actually ate non-significantly more carbs than matched controls and nearly identical total calories. Likewise, in this small study, FHA was associated with lower fat intake but no significant difference in carb intake.
This meta-analysis looked at the effect of low-carb (not keto) diets on markers of reproductive health among overweight women. The researchers found four studies that examined effects on menstruation; all showed improved menstrual regularity and/or ovulation rates. Of six studies that looked at levels of reproductive hormones, five reported significant improvements.
Carb restriction also results in decreased insulin production. Hyperinsulinemia and insulin resistance are frequently associated with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), one of the leading causes of female infertility and a frequent cause of menstrual irregularity. There is currently a lot of interest in using keto to treat PCOS, but only one small study has so far directly tested the effectiveness of a ketogenic diet to treat PCOS, with positive results.
No studies have looked at the direct effects of ketones on menstruation.
Of course weight loss is not unique to keto, but keto can be very effective for weight loss. Some women experience rapid weight loss when first starting a keto diet. Weight loss in and of itself can impact menstruation through a variety of pathways. A key way is by reducing the hormone leptin. Leptin’s main job is to communicate energy availability to the hypothalamus—high levels of leptin tell the hypothalamus that we have enough energy on board, which also means we can reproduce. Low leptin can disrupt the menstrual cycle and is linked to hypothalamic amenorrhea.
Body fat loss can also affect estrogen levels since estrogen is both stored and produced in adipocytes (fat cells). While fat loss in the long term will decrease estrogen production, it is possible that rapid fat loss might temporarily raise estrogen levels and can also affect estrogen-progesterone balance. These transient changes in estrogen levels might underlie some of the menstrual irregularities women report.
Stress can impact the menstrual cycle in myriad ways. Cortisol acts on the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, affecting hormone levels, sleep, immune function, and gut health, to name a few. Diets can be a source of stress, both at the physiological and psychological levels. Keto has a reputation for being especially stressful because it is more restrictive than other low-carb diets, but this can be mitigated by following the Keto Reset tips for women.
Thyroid dysregulation is another common cause of menstrual irregularities, and there remains a pervasive belief that keto is bad for thyroid health. Indeed, the thyroid is sensitive to nutrient deficiencies and caloric restriction, and thyroid hormones, especially T3, do frequently decline on keto. However, as Mark has discussed in a previous post, changes in T3 levels might not be a problem, especially in the absence of other problematic symptoms. Moreover, many practitioners now use keto as a cornerstone in their treatment of thyroid disorders.
What Should I Take From These Findings?
The first takeaway: there just isn’t much direct evidence about how keto might affect your menstrual cycle, positively or negatively. We have some studies suggesting that low-carb diets improve some aspects of menstruation and reproductive health, but keto is more than just another low-carb diet. Ketones themselves have important physiological properties, such as being directly anti-inflammatory, which might positively impact women’s reproductive health.
Second, the ways that keto is likely to (negatively) affect menstruation aren’t unique to keto, they’re common to any diet: hormone shifts mediated by energy balance, stress, and weight loss.
Furthermore, since keto is so often combined with caloric restriction, time-restricted eating, and fasting, even the anecdotal evidence might not be able to tell us all that much. If a woman is eating ketogenically, in a big caloric deficit, and doing OMAD (one meal a day), and her leptin plummets, how are we to know what really caused it? We don’t have good evidence that otherwise healthy women start a well-executed ketogenic diet and end up messing up their menstrual cycles.
That said, women do need to be cognizant of the sum total of the signals they are sending their bodies when it comes to energy availability and stress. A lot of women come to the keto diet with a history of adrenal, thyroid, metabolic, and reproductive issues. It’s important that they’re extra careful about how they approach keto. Done correctly, it might be just what the doctor ordered. I encourage any woman who’s dealing with other hormonal issues to work with a medical practitioner to tailor a keto diet to her unique needs.
But I’m Telling You, Keto Made My Period Go Haywire!
Ok, I believe you, really! But changes do not necessarily equal dysfunction. It is normal to experience hormone fluctuations when you make a massive—or even a relatively small but important—shift in your nutrition. Sometimes those fluctuations are unpleasant or unwanted, such as a period that lasts 14 days or one that arrives a week before you planned while you’re on vacation. However, that doesn’t make them bad from a health perspective. We need to respect that our bodies are dynamic systems. Changing the input will invariably change the output, and the system might need a few months to adapt to a new normal.
If your cycle goes wonky but you’re otherwise feeling good, give it a few months to sort itself out. If after a few months it’s still all over the place (or definitely if you’re having other disruptive symptoms), enlist help. In the meantime, check to make sure you’re not short-changing yourself nutritionally or calorically. Scale back on fasting efforts, and consider shifting more toward a traditional Primal way of eating.
At the end of the day, if you go keto and experience negative effects, stop. Keto is super hyped right now, but if your body is sending you clear signals that keto is not a good approach for you at this time, don’t do it. You can always try again later. It might be that your first attempt at keto didn’t work, but with a few adjustments and some experimentation over time you can find a version of keto that works for you.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Do you have comments, questions, or feedback? Let me know below.
Comninos AN, Jayasena CN, Dhillo WS. The relationship between gut and adipose hormones, and reproduction. Human Reproduction Update 2014; 20(2): 153–174.
Fontana R, Della Torre S. The Deep Correlation between Energy Metabolism and Reproduction: A View on the Effects of Nutrition for Women Fertility. Nutrients. 2016;8(2):87.
Klok MD, Jakobsdottir S, Drent ML. The role of leptin and ghrelin in the regulation of food intake and body weight in humans: a review. Obesity Reviews 2007;8(1):21-34.
Meczekalski B, Katulski K, Czyzyk A, Podfigurna-Stopa A, Maciejewska-Jeske M. Functional hypothalamic amenorrhea and its influence on women’s health. J Endocrinol Invest. 2014;37(11):1049–1056.
Tena-Sempere M. Roles of Ghrelin and Leptin in the Control of Reproductive Function. Neuroendocrinology 2007;86:229-241.
The post Keto and the Menstrual Cycle: Is There Reason To Worry? appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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I’m continuing my crusade of keto mythbusting. Recently, there was keto crotch, then keto bloat, and today I’m returning to one of the O.G. myths—keto body odor. Yes, it seems detractors of the keto diet are hell-bent on making you think your body will become a stinky, bloated mess if you dare to drop your carbs below 50 grams per day…but is it true?
Here’s the spoiler: Yes, people in online keto diet forums occasionally complain about an unpleasant change in body odor when they first go keto. There is no scientific evidence that it actually happens, nor a clear, compelling explanation for why it would. Moreover, the anecdotal (and it’s all anecdotal) evidence suggests that if it does occur, it is rare and temporary. In other words, the whole idea of keto body odor seems to be exaggerated—shocking, I know.
That said, significant dietary changes can result in other physiological changes that may manifest in a variety of ways. Since nobody wants to be the stinky kid, let’s take this opportunity to look at what might be plausible about keto body odor and what to do if you think you’ve been afflicted.
What Causes Body Odor?
First, let’s clarify what’s meant by “body odor.” In the medical literature, the term is used in reference to aromas associated with breath, urine, feces, vaginal secretions, sweat (usually from the axilla, or armpits), and general bodily essence as it were. Because it’s such a broad term, the causes are also extremely varied. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to use the term “body odor” to mean aromas from sweat and general bodily funk, since that’s what’s usually meant by keto body odor.
Body odor arises when odorless compounds leave the body through glands in the skin and interact with microbes living on the skin’s surface. The microbes then release chemical compounds—what we actually detect as body odor. Typically, commercial deodorants target both pieces of the equation by using antiperspirants to minimize the excretion of the odor precursors and by creating an unfavorable environment for the microbes living on the skin. There is also a genetic component to how much individuals secrete compounds that cause body odor.
Although a huge industry is built around trying to help people mask their natural odors—and suggesting that body odor is always the result of poor hygiene—bodily scents are actually quite important. Just as other animals do, humans use olfactory cues for recognizing kin, making judgments about others’ personality traits and attractiveness, and even for detecting fertility. Although we rarely recognize it, the data suggests that smell probably factors into all our face-to-face social interactions.
Body odor can also result from illness. Before the use of sophisticated modern disease detection techniques, doctors were taught to use their sniffers as a diagnostic tool. Even today, smell can be an important clue that an individual is unwell. Often these odors emanate from the breath or urine, but certain infectious and metabolic diseases can be associated with distinctive body odors. In addition to perceptible body odor, the human olfactory system can detect infection and sense illness in others, presumably an important means of preventing the spread of communicable disease.
Diet and Body Odor
The whole notion that a keto diet can cause body odor rests on the assumption that how we smell is affected by what we eat. It turns out that there is scant evidence that that is actually the case.
When I’ve taken up the question of keto diet and body odor previously, I noted that there are really only two human studies that speak to this. One small study found that women judged men’s body odor more negatively when they ate a diet that contained red meat compared to when they abstained from red meat. However, the diets differed in other ways as well. In contrast, a different study found that women rated men’s body odor more positively when the men reported eating more fat, meat, and eggs, and more negatively when they ate more carbs. Hmm.
Nevertheless, the common belief persists that certain foods will make you stinky: garlic, onions, cruciferous vegetables, and spicy foods especially. However, there is no evidence that this is actually the case beyond the obvious bad breath and, ahem, flatus that these foods can cause. In fact, the one study I found on the subject reported that garlic counterintuitively improved body odor.
So, Can Keto Make You Stinky?
As you can see, there’s minimal evidence at best linking body odor to diet, and none of it has to do with the keto diet itself. Nevertheless, the belief that keto causes body odor persists…thanks to the few complaints from some in the keto community (and, just maybe, those who have nothing to do with keto but want to cause a stir). While I don’t want to dismiss anecdotal evidence out of hand, I have noticed that once people go keto, their diet is immediately to blame for every weird smell, twitch, or symptom. It’s remarkable really.
In the interest of fairness, let’s look at the explanations that are typically offered for why keto might cause body odor:
Is It the Protein?
The first hypothesis is that keto dieters smell funky because they’re eating a lot more meat. As I already mentioned, there are only two small studies that speak to this, and the findings conflict. The idea at work: protein metabolism yields ammonia as a byproduct (true), which builds up because of eating “too much protein,” resulting in body odor.
To which I object… First of all, it’s not necessarily true that going keto means eating more meat. My version of a keto diet certainly isn’t a steak-and-bacon fest—I still eat tons of veggies. If anything, my observation is that keto folks by and large remain fearful of eating “too much” protein lest it kick them out of ketosis. (The issue is not nearly so simple as that, as I’ve explained.) In any case, even if you’re eating a good deal of meat, a healthy liver should be able to convert the amount of ammonia generated into urea and send it off to the kidneys to be excreted as urine.
Maybe It’s the “Detoxing”?
Toxins such as environmental pollutants accumulate in adipose tissue, a.k.a. fat cells, and these toxins are then released into the bloodstream when people burn fat. Because the keto diet often results in increased burning of body fat, the theory goes that the body is “detoxing” all these pollutants, and that’s what causes body odor. Detoxing is a controversial subject, and while it is true that some of these toxins can be excreted through the skin, the actual amounts are fairly small (the majority get excreted via urine and feces). Plus, it’s not evident that the toxins that are excreted through the skin cause any particular odor. And wouldn’t any diet that actually does what it’s supposed to—i.e. burn fat—be subject to the same “stinky” detox effect? I think we can safely chuck this claim.
Are Ketones a Cause?
Maybe ketones themselves make you smelly? This one has the most potential validity, as it’s well documented that acetone—one of the three ketone bodies—gets excreted when you’re in ketosis. However, it’s the cause of the familiar keto breath, not body odor per se. I’ve seen no evidence linking acetone to actual body odor.
What To Do About It
Ok, I hear you saying, “Mark, I see that you’re skeptical, but I’m telling you… I stink!” What can you do about it?
Well, since there isn’t a clearcut cause, I can’t give a clearcut answer, but I’ll tell you what the general wisdom says:
First, you can support your body’s own detoxification pathways as I describe here. Your body should be able to do a fine job taking out the garbage—it’s designed to do so and is efficient at it—but hey, why not drink some coffee and throw some broccoli sprouts on your salad. This is a “can’t hurt, might help” situation.
Same thing goes for taking some nice epsom salt baths, another common recommendation. Whether there is any truth to their detoxifying nature, you’ll get a nice dose of transdermal magnesium with a hefty side of relaxation. Throw in some essential oils and olive oil and soak your cares away… hopefully taking some of the b.o. with it.
You can also experiment with eating less protein and more carbs, but I do see potential downsides to both. You definitely don’t want to eat too little protein, since it serves such a vital role in healthy functioning, and you don’t want to add back too many carbs if being in ketosis is your goal. That said, especially with regard to the protein you probably have room to play around, so feel free to experiment if you want. I’m not overly optimistic that this is the answer, but I’m always a fan of finding what works for you.
Or, take a wait and see approach. Most keto side effects come and go as people become keto-adapted. If your problem is keto breath, not body odor per se, you can try chewing on some fresh herbs or taking chlorophyll supplements, but these will just mask the issue.
Lastly, if it is very noticeable and very bothersome, you can—and probably should—consult your doctor. If you are excreting significant ammonia, which usually happens via the breath, this is a sign of liver or kidney problems that need to be diagnosed asap.
The Bottom Line…
Because switching to a keto diet can initiate a profound metabolic shift, some people might experience side effects. And, sure, it’s conceivable that transient changes to body odor might be one of them. The lack of evidence that body odor is strongly affected by diet (as well as my own experience interacting with the thousands of people in my community who have tried keto) leads me to believe that this is a minor problem at most—and one that most people won’t experience at all. If it’s affecting you, feel free to try to solutions I described above. They might not resolve the problem immediately, but at least they’ll likely have other positive benefits.
Ok, what say you? Are your friends giving you a wide berth now that you’re in ketosis, or are you chalking this up to yet another thing the haters are blowing out of proportion?
Groyecka A, Pisanski K, Sorokowska A, et al. Attractiveness Is Multimodal: Beauty Is Also in the Nose and Ear of the Beholder. Front Psychol. 2017;8:778.
James AG, Austin CJ, Cox DS, Taylor D, Calvert R. Microbiological and biochemical origins of human axillary odour. FEMS Microbiol Ecol. 2013 Mar;83(3):527-40.
Natsch, A. What Makes Us Smell: The Biochemistry of Body Odour and the Design of New Deodorant Ingredients. CHIMIA Intl J Chem. 2015 Aug;69(7-8):414-420.
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For this week’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions from readers. First, is the reduced protein efficiency in older adults due to inactivity, or is it something inherent to the aging process, or both? Second, how does a person know if they’ve actually “earned” any carbs? Does everyone on a keto diet earn carbs by virtue of exercising, or is there more to it? And finally, how can a hardgainer with a packed schedule all week long and limited gym time maintain what little muscle mass he’s managed to gain?
Let’s find out:
Interesting observation on protein needs and training in Sunday with Sisson – general consensus is that older folks need more protein as they age but maybe that’s because they are less active and not simply a result of aging.
That’s probably part of it, but it’s not all of it.
In studies where they compare resistance training seniors who eat extra protein with resistance training seniors who don’t, only the seniors eating extra protein gain muscle mass.
Now, it may be that a lifetime of inactivity degrades your ability to utilize protein, and if these older adults had always lifted weights they would have retained their protein efficiency. But maybe not. As it stands, all else being equal, an older adult needs more protein to get the same effect, even if he or she is lifting weights.
Enjoyable read. As someone who lives a ketogenic lifestyle, and who is athletically active, I am not sure exactly how to go about consuming the carbs I’ve “earned.” I rarely run into problems with athletic energy, at least not below anaerobic threshold. Not sure that eating more carbs will improve my performance. And, if they would improve my performance, how does one go about calculating earned carb replacement without losing the fat burning benefits of ketosis?
It sounds like you’re in a good place.
When I say “eat the carbs you earn,” I’m talking to the people who do run into problems with athletic energy, poor performance, insomnia, and other symptoms of exercise-induced stress. Typically, the people who “earn their carbs” are doing stuff like CrossFit, high volume moderate-to-high intensity endurance work, martial arts training, and team sports.
I doubt extra carbs will improve your performance if most of your training takes place in the aerobic zone. But if you wanted to experiment, you could try a small sweet potato immediately after a workout where you passed the anaerobic threshold.
That’s the best way to determine if you’ve earned carbs. Eat 20-30 grams after a workout and see if you enjoy performance gains without gaining body fat. There’s no consumer-friendly way to directly calculate carb debt; self-experimentation is it.
I recently took a job that has me out of bed at 4am and not home until 6pm Monday Through Friday. Is there an efficient way I can maintain muscle mass only lifting weights Saturday and Sunday? I’m a hardgainer at 5’10” and only 140lbs. I’m afraid giving up my 5 day split will ruin what muscle I’ve been able to gain.
Any hardgainer has to eat, and eat, and eat. Increase your food intake. Just eat. Stick to healthy Primal fare, but pack in the food. Meat, milk, veggies, potatoes, rice, eggs, avocados, fruit. Throw some liver in, too (old bodybuilder staple). It doesn’t sound like fat gain is an issue for you, so I’d take advantage of that and just consume calories.
As for training, get some exercise snacks in during the week.
As soon as you wake up, do a quick superset of pushups. Do as many pushups as you can. Wait 30 seconds. Do as many pushups as you can. Wait 30 seconds. Do as many pushups as you can. There you go. That shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes in the morning. Can you squeeze that in?
Repeat this every morning with a different exercise. Pullups, bodyweight rows, kettlebell swings, handstand pushups, dips, bodyweight squats, goblet squats, reverse lunges, reverse weighted lunges. Just choose one thing to do every morning, cram as many reps as you can using the same format (max reps, 30 s rest, max reps, 30 s rest, max reps). Buy any equipment you can if you choose to use weights.
When you get home at night, do the same thing with a different exercise. Morning pushups, evening KB swings, etc. That way, you get about 10 minutes per weekday of intense strength training without impacting your sleep or schedule in any real meaningful way.
Make sure your sleep hygiene is rock solid. Dim those lights at night, turn on f.lux or night mode, wear the blue blocking goggles, get to bed (ideally) by 8:30, 9 to give you 7 to 7.5 hours of sleep. Sleep is essential for gaining lean mass (and staying healthy in general).
On the weekend, hit the weights hard on both days, hitting the entire body. Go high volume/reps. If size is your goal, dropping the weight a bit and focusing on range of motion and a high rep count (10-15 per set) is very effective.
Food, sleep, reps. Good luck!
Thanks for stopping in today, everybody. Additional thoughts for these folks—or questions of your own? Share them below.
Tieland M, Dirks ML, Van der zwaluw N, et al. Protein supplementation increases muscle mass gain during prolonged resistance-type exercise training in frail elderly people: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2012;13(8):713-9.
The post Dear Mark: Protein Efficiency in Seniors, Earned Carbs, Hardgainer with Limited Time appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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I have a confession to make: I, Mark Sisson, suffer from keto crotch.
It’s embarrassing, really. I thought maybe it was just the change in climate moving from Malibu to Miami—the humidity, the heat, the fact that I’m paddling and swimming more often now. There’s a whole lot of moisture down there. Perpetual steaminess.
But then I met up with my writing partner and good pal Brad Kearns, who’s been working with me on my upcoming book. Brad lives in Northern California, which is far from hot or humid right now. He’s also a staunch keto guy most of the time, and, well, let’s just say I could smell him before I could see him. We met up at a coffee shop and cleared out everyone in a fifteen foot radius. We sampled a new exogenous ketone product he’s been trying and not one, not two, but three separate individuals approached to inquire if we were salmon fishermen.
Okay, let’s get serious. Does “keto crotch” really exist? And, if it does, what can you do to prevent it?
I’m writing this not because of overwhelming demand from loyal followers of the Keto Reset plan. In fact, I hadn’t ever heard of “keto crotch” before last week. There’s a good chance almost no one heard of it before March 2019, if Google Trend data for “keto crotch” searches is any indication. I’m writing this post because the barrage of news articles, Twitter hashtag campaigns, and extremely serious warnings from people with lots of acronyms after their name has led people to ask me if it’s a legitimate phenomenon. A few acquaintances have brought it up in social situations. Our marketing director found herself fielding keto crotch questions at a dinner for Expo West last week.
So, are women following a ketogenic diet experiencing an epidemic of stinky vaginas?
Is Keto Crotch Even Physiologically Plausible?
Vaginal odor does change. It fluctuates naturally, and sometimes it can get worse. The most common cause of unpleasant changes to vaginal odor is bacterial vaginosis, which occurs when something upsets the balance between the beneficial lactobacilli bacteria that normally live in the vagina and pathogenic bacteria. What can upset the balance?
The vagina is supposed to be an acidic environment; that’s how the healthy lactobacilli thrive. If something upsets that pH balance, tilting it toward alkalinity, unhealthy bacteria gain a foothold and become predominant, and begin producing unpleasant-smelling amines like putrescine, tyramine, and cadaverine. This is bacterial vaginosis. As it turns out, the lactobacilli bacteria normally present in the vagina are instrumental in maintaining an acidic pH. They consume glycogen, spit out lactic acid, and exert antimicrobial and antifungal effects that block common vaginal pathogens like candida, e. coli, and gardnerella from taking hold and causing trouble.
The interaction between diet and vaginal biome is understudied. To my knowledge, there exist no direct controlled trials that address the issue. It’d be great to have a study take a cohort of women, split them up into different dietary groups, and follow them for a year, tracking their vaginal pH and bacterial levels. Alas, we do not.
We do have a study that provides a hint. In 2011, researchers looked for correlations between dietary patterns and bacterial vaginosis in a cohort of nearly 2000 non-pregnant mostly African-American women aged 15-44. While there probably weren’t many keto dieters, and the diets as a whole were of the standard American variety, glycemic load—which basically boils down to carb load—was the strongest predictor of bacterial vaginosis. Other markers of food quality, like a person’s adherence to “healthy eating guidelines,” initially seemed to reduce the chance of bacterial vaginosis, but those relationships were almost abolished after controlling for other factors. Only glycemic load remained highly significant.
This connection between dietary glycemic load and bacterial vaginosis starts looking more causal when you realize that diabetes—a disease where one’s “glycemic load” is perpetually elevated and exaggerated—is another risk factor for bacterial vaginosis.
There’s also a 2007 study that found “high” intakes of dietary fat, particularly saturated and monounsaturated fat, were a significant predictor of bacterial vaginosis. In this study, “high fat” meant around 39% of energy from fat. That leaves 61% of energy from carbohydrate and protein, the kind of “high-fat, high-carb” Standard American No-Man’s-Land that’s landed the country in the current metabolic predicament. High-fat intakes in the presence of high-carb intakes may very well be bad for your vagina, but it says nothing about the likelihood of keto crotch.
At any rate, neither study was a controlled trial, so we can’t say anything about causality.
What about a yeast infection? The most common offender is candida, which usually favors sugar for fuel, but there’s also evidence that it can metabolize ketones. Could keto make a latent yeast infection worse and lead to smelly “keto crotch”?
Perhaps keto can make candida worse (that’s for another day), but that’s not the cause of “keto crotch.” Candida vagina infections don’t smell very much, if at all, and they certainly don’t smell “fishy.” That’s only caused by bacteria and the aforementioned amines they can produce.
Free glycogen levels in vaginal fluid are a strong predictor of bacterial vaginosis. If ample glycogen is available, the good lactic acid bacteria have plenty of food and produce plenty of lactic acid to maintain the acidic pH conducive to vaginal health. If inadequate glycogen is present, the lactic acid bacteria have less food and produce less lactic acid, increasing the chances of the pH tilting toward alkalinity. An alkaline vagina is a vagina where pathogenic bacteria—the ones that produce stinky amines—can establish themselves.
The question then is if ketogenic diets lower free glycogen in the vaginal fluid. That’s a fair question. I wasn’t able to find any solid answers. I guess “ketosis effect on vaginal glycogen” isn’t the most lucrative avenue of scientific inquiry.
Should I Worry?
Even assuming this is a real phenomenon, it’s a rare one. The vast, vast majority of people following a ketogenic diet aren’t coming down with keto crotch. Other than a few Reddit posts from the past 5 years, I haven’t seen anyone at all in our neck of the woods complain.
Maybe people doing Primal keto are eating more nutrient-dense ketogenic diets than people doing conventional (or caricature) keto. Salads, steaks, eggs, and lots of non-starchy veggies are a great way to stay keto and obtain micronutrients. And there are links between micronutrient status and bacterial vaginosis. The most common relevant deficiencies include vitamin D (correcting the deficiency can cure the vaginosis) and folate. Hard to get adequate folate if your diet is based on salami and cream cheese.
We also know that the health of your skin biome tracks closely with that of your gut, and that eating plenty of non-starchy veggies, fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc), and colorful produce can provide prebiotic fiber, prebiotic polyphenols, and probiotic bacteria that nourish your gut biome. If the vaginal biome is also connected to the gut biome (and it is), tending to the latter should also have positive effects on the former.
The Primal brand of keto tends to emphasize micronutrients and gut health a bit more than some other types of keto I see floating around. If—and it’s a very big “if”—keto crotch is legit, that may explain some of the discrepancy.
Finally, be sure to check out this very interesting Twitter thread where the author lays out his suspicions that the whole “keto crotch” phenomenon might be a manufactured stunt designed to vilify the ascendant ketogenic diet. Nothing definitive, but it’s certainly food for thought.
If You’re Concerned…
Okay. Say you’ve recently gone keto and your vagina is smellier than usual. (And you’ve ruled out other, more obvious potential causes like changes in soaps, etc.) It’s hard to ignore, and I wouldn’t want you to. What can you do?
- Confirm that you have bacterial vaginosis. Seriously, get it checked out.
- Make sure you’re getting enough folate and vitamin D. Supplement if need be.
- Eat prebiotics and probiotics. Fermented food and/or a good probiotic supplement.
- Try a carb refeed. If ketosis depletes vaginal glycogen and increases pH, the occasional carb refeed could restore glycogen by 30-50 grams and should do the trick. Note that this is entirely theoretical; I’m not saying it’s a “problem” on keto.
- Hang out in the keto zone. I’ve written about the keto zone—that metabolic state where you’ve reached full keto and fat-adaptation and find yourself shifting in and out of ketosis as you please due to increased metabolic flexibility. A few carbs here, a fasting day there, a few more days of keto. Again, if full keto is theoretically depleting vaginal glycogen, maybe relaxing your restrictions will solve the issue while maintaining your fat adaptation. This is actually where I hang out most of the time.
That’s it for today, folks. Do you have “keto crotch”? Do you know anyone who does? Or did your vaginal health improve on keto? I’m curious to hear what everyone’s experiences have been, so don’t be shy.
Take care and be well.
Thoma ME, Klebanoff MA, Rovner AJ, et al. Bacterial vaginosis is associated with variation in dietary indices. J Nutr. 2011;141(9):1698-704.
Kalra B, Kalra S. Vulvovaginitis and diabetes. J Pak Med Assoc. 2017;67(1):143-145.
Taheri M, Baheiraei A, Foroushani AR, Nikmanesh B, Modarres M. Treatment of vitamin D deficiency is an effective method in the elimination of asymptomatic bacterial vaginosis: A placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial. Indian J Med Res. 2015;141(6):799-806.
Dunlop AL, Taylor RN, Tangpricha V, Fortunato S, Menon R. Maternal vitamin D, folate, and polyunsaturated fatty acid status and bacterial vaginosis during pregnancy. Infect Dis Obstet Gynecol. 2011;2011:216217.
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As you and millions of other people embark on new dietary journeys, you’re going to hear a ton about calories.
“Calorie counting is everything.”
“If you aren’t counting calories, you won’t lose weight.”
“Just eat less calories than you expend.” For one, it’s “fewer.” Two, that’s not the whole picture.
These statements aren’t wrong exactly, but they offer an overly simplistic picture of the relationship between weight loss and calories. They ignore context. And context is everything, especially when you’re talking about calories and weight loss.
Most people (even many scientists) believe that the body composition challenge is a relatively simple equation: to lose weight you must reduce calories (either eat less or burn more), to gain weight you must add calories (eat more or burn less), and to maintain weight you keep calories constant (eat and burn identical amounts). Calories in over calories out.
Right away, it sounds preposterous. Are people really maintaining perfect caloric balance by dutifully tracking and comparing their intake to their burn? Are they walking six fewer steps lest they lose an extra ounce off their midsection?
Are All Calories the Same?
The truth is, it’s more like a complex equation where you have to factor in many other very important variables:
- Am I getting calories from fat, protein, or carbs?
- Am I getting my calories through whole foods or refined processed foods?
- Are my glycogen stores full or empty?
- When’s the last time I exercised?
- Am I insulin-sensitive or insulin-resistant?
- Am I trying to lose “weight” or lose fat?
- How’s my stress level?
- Am I sleeping enough?
The answers to all those questions (and more) affect the fate of the calories we consume. They change the context of calories.
Ideally, all that complexity is handled under the hood. That’s how it works in wild animals. They don’t calorie count. They don’t think about what to eat or how to exercise. They just eat, move, sleep, and somehow it all works. I mean, they die, often violently, but you don’t see obese, metabolically-deranged wildlife—unless the obesity and metabolic derangement is physiological, as in bears preparing to hibernate. Somehow they figure it out. They’ve delegated the complex stuff to their subconscious.
This is generally true in “wild humans,” too. Hunter-gatherer groups by and large did not and do not show any evidence of metabolic derangement, obesity, or the other degenerative trappings of modern humans living in civilization. They are fully human in terms of physiology, so it’s not that they have special genetic adaptations that resist obesity. They’re living lifestyles and eating diets more in line with our evolutionary heritage. They’re moving around all the time, not going through drive throughs. They’re eating whole unprocessed foods that they have to procure, catch or kill.
What they don’t have is the ridiculous concept of calories and macronutrients floating around in their heads, informing their dietary choices. They don’t even think about food in terms of calories, or movement in terms of calories expended. Metabolically speaking, they consume their calories in the proper context.
But you? You might have to think about context. You might have to answer those questions and create the proper context.
Most people do not think about context. They home in on the number of calories the food database claims the food they’re eating contains, plot it against the numbers of calories the exercise database claims the exercise they’re doing expends, and then wonder why nothing’s working. That’s why “dieting doesn’t work”—because, as practiced in accordance with the expert advice from up high, it doesn’t. Almost invariably, the people who see great results from strict calorie counting, weighing and balancing, those types who frequent online weight lifting forums and have the freedom to spend hours perfecting their program, have the other relevant variables under control without realizing it.
They’re younger, with fewer responsibilities—and less stress and fewer disruptions to their sleep.
They’re lifting weights and training religiously, creating huge glycogen sinks and maintaining optimal insulin sensitivity.
They’re eating a lot of protein, the macronutrient that curbs hunger and increases energy expenditure the most.
They’re eating mostly whole foods.
They’ve had less time on this earth to accumulate metabolic damage.
Not everyone is so lucky.
Fat burning, glucose burning, ketone burning, glycogen storage, fat storage, gluconeogenesis, and protein turnover—what we do with the calories we consume—do not occur at constant rates. They ebb and flow, wax and wane in response to your micronutrient intake, macronutrient intake, energy intake, exercise and activity habits, sleep schedule, stress levels, and a dozen other factors. All of these energy-related processes are going on simultaneously in each of us at all times. But the rate at which each of these processes happens is different in each of us and they can increase or decrease depending on the context of our present circumstances and our long term goals. All of these processes utilize the same gene-based principles of energy metabolism—the biochemical machinery that we all share—but because they all involve different starting points and different inputs as well as different goals or possible outcomes, they often require different action plans. We can alter the rate at which each of these metabolic processes happens simply by changing what and when we eat and addressing the non-dietary variables. We can change the context.
But don’t controlled trials demonstrate that a “calorie is a calorie”?
People hear things like “in controlled isocaloric trials, low-carb diets have never been shown to confer a metabolic advantage or result in more weight loss than low-fat diets.” While often true, they miss the point.
People aren’t living in metabolic wards with white lab coats providing and precisely measuring all their food. They’re living in the real world, fixing their own food. Free living is entirely uncontrolled with dozens of variables bleeding in from all angles. In the lab situation, you eat what they give you, and that’s that. The situations are not analogous—real world vs. controlled lab environment.
In real world situations…
Why a Calorie Isn’t Just a Calorie
The macronutrient composition of the calories we eat alters their metabolic effects.
The metabolism of protein famously increases energy expenditure over and above the metabolism of fat or carbohydrate. For a given caloric load, protein will make you burn more energy than other macronutrients.
Protein is also more satiating than other macronutrients. Eat more protein, curb hunger, inadvertently eat less without even trying (or needing a lab coat to limit your intake).
Protein and fat together (AKA “meat”) appear to be even more satiating than either alone, almost as if we’re meant to consume fat and protein in the same meal.
The isocaloric studies tend to focus on “weight loss” and discount “fat loss.” We don’t want to lose weight. We want to lose fat and gain or retain lean muscle mass. A standard low calorie diet might cause the same amount of weight loss as a low-carb, high-fat diet (if you force the subjects to maintain isocaloric parity), but the low-carb approach has been shown to increase fat loss and enhance muscle gain. Most people who lose weight with a standard approach end up losing a significant amount of muscle along with it. Most who lose weight with a low-carb, higher-protein-and-fat approach lose mostly fat and gain or retain most of their muscle.
Take the 2004 study that placed overweight men and women on one of two diets: a very low-carb ketogenic diet or a low-fat diet. The low-carb group ate more calories but lost more weight and more body fat, especially dangerous abdominal fat.
Or the study from 1989 that placed healthy adult men on high-carb or high-fat diets. Even though the high-carb group lost slightly more body weight, the high-fat group lost slightly more body fat and retained more lean mass.
Both describe “weight lost,” but which is healthier?
Whether the calories come in the form of processed or whole food determines their effect.
We even have a study that directly examines this. For two weeks, participants either supplemented their diets with isocaloric amounts of candy (mostly sugar) or roasted peanuts (mostly fat and protein). This was added to their regular diet. After two weeks, researchers found that body weight, waist circumference, LDL, and ApoB (a rough measure of LDL particle number) were highest in the candy group, indicating increased fat mass and worsening metabolic health. In the peanut group, basal metabolic rate shot up and neither body weight nor waist size saw any significant increases.
Your current metabolic state determines the effect of calories.
In one study, a person’s metabolic reaction to high-carb or low-carb diets was determined by their degree of insulin resistance. The more insulin resistant a subject, the better they did and the more weight they lost on low-carb. The more insulin sensitive a subject, the better they did and the more weight they lost on low-fat. Calories were the same across the board.
In another study, insulin-sensitive obese patients (a rarity in the general population) were able to lose weight on either low-carb or low-fat, but insulin-resistant obese patients (very common) only lost weight on low-carb.
Whether you exercise determines the effect of calories.
If you’ve just finished a heavy lifting workout followed by a sprint session, your response to a given number of calories will differ from the person who hasn’t trained in a year.
Training: Your muscle glycogen stores will be empty, so the carbs you eat will go toward glycogen storage or directly burned, rather than inhibit fat burning. Your insulin sensitivity will be elevated, so you can move protein and carbs around without spiking insulin and inhibiting fat release. You’ll be in hypertrophy mode, so some of the protein you eat will go toward building muscle, not burned for energy.
Not Training: Your muscle glycogen stores will be full, so any carbs you eat will inhibit fat burning and be more likely to promote fat storage. Your insulin sensitivity will be low, so you’ll have to release more insulin to handle the carbs, thereby inhibiting fat burning the process. You won’t have sent any hypertrophy signals to your muscles, so the protein you eat will be wasted or burned for energy.
How you slept last night determines the effects of calories.
A single night of bad sleep is enough to:
- Give you the insulin resistance levels of a diabetic. Try eating carbs in an insulin-resistant state and tell me a “calorie is a calorie.”
- Make the reward system of your brain light up in response to junk food and dampen in response to healthy whole food. The more rewarding you find junk food, the more your brain will compel you to eat more of it.
- Reduce energy expenditure. Your “calories out” drops if you sleep poorly.
And those are just a few important variables that determine the context of calories. There are many more, but this post has gone on long enough…
The Take-Home Message
If calorie-counting works for you, great! You’re one of the lucky ones. Own that and keep doing what you’re doing. You’ve clearly got a good handle on the context of calories.
If calorie-counting and weighing and measuring failed you in the past, you’re not alone and there’s a way forward. Address the variables mentioned in this post that need addressing. Do you need better sleep? Do you need to manage stress better? Could you eat more protein or fat, eat more whole food and less processed food, or get more exercise, or lift more weights, or take more walks?
Handle those variables, fix those deficiencies, and I bet that your caloric context will start making more sense. The trick isn’t to increase the number of variables you plug into your calories in/calories out formula. It’s to make sure all your lifestyle and dietary ducks are in a row so that the caloric balance works itself out.
By understanding how these metabolic processes work, and knowing that we can control the rates at which each one happens through our diet (and exercise and other lifestyle factors) we needn’t agonize over the day-to-day calorie counting. As long as we are generally eating a PB-style plan and providing the right context, our bodies will ease into a healthy, fit, long-lived comfort zone rather effortlessly.
So, what’s your caloric context looking like? Thanks for reading today, everyone.
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***This article was substantially revised from the original version, which you can read here.
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For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions. First, what are some less expensive sources of marine fat high in omega-3s? Is canned salmon a good, safe, effective option? Second, a reader is training hard, eating low-carb/keto, doing IF, and feels pretty good despite not losing or gaining any weight? What should she do? What could she be doing wrong? And third, should you go keto while nursing?
Marine fat. Good examples? I have tried to eat sardines, I really have. I don’t know why they repulse me so. Where else can I turn? Safe salmon is just so expensive unless you get canned, and even then, can you trust it? If it’s true satiety I’m going for, a supplement (cod liver oil?) is probably not going to give me that.
I hear you on the canned salmon. When I was first looking into this years ago, I worried that canned fish would be damaged by heat and perform worse than supplements. Turns out it’s very useful. In one study, researchers gave women with a high risk of breast cancer omega-3 fats via fish oil caps or canned salmon. Both “supplements” worked at increasing levels of DHA and EPA. Fish oil increased the EPA content of red blood cells and plasma four-fold; canned salmon increased it two-fold. The change in DHA was similar in both groups, as was the overall change in breast tissue fatty acids. Fish oil may be more potent, but it’s unclear if quadrupling your RBC EPA is necessarily more desirable than doubling. You also have to consider the two things the fish eaters got that the fish oil quaffers didn’t: all the micronutrients (selenium, iodine, astaxanthin, etc) and macronutrients (protein) salmon provides.
Canned salmon is a good option, and most of it is BPA-free these days (but verify). If you enjoy it (some do not), look for salmon that includes the bones and skin. Tons of benefits there—calcium, collagen, extra oil. Trader Joe’s used to carry one like that. They still might.
Fresh mackerel is good. Here’s a buying and cooking guide to mackerel I did awhile back. It’s affordable and full of omega-3s.
If you can find them, fresh sardines are a totally different animal. Just make sure the fish smells clean, has clear eyes, is firm, and resists sagging when held parallel to the floor by the tail.
#6 is me right now. I am eating low carb (maybe even Keto), and I’m IF’ing every day (allowing only coffee w/ a splash of cream in the morning). My appetite is finally feeling quite suppressed. The nice thing is that I’m not counting. I am eating intuitively; and at the end of the day, I log what I ate as best as I know how (since I didn’t measure), to just check, and everything seems to be on point with my calories and macros. I train brazilian jiu jitsu several times a week, as well as do HITT style workouts, with strength training on my off days. I usually have a couple days a week that I don’t train.
My question is, I’m not losing and I’m not gaining – so do I keep doing what I’m doing? Or do I change things up? I feel fine – plenty of energy, and I’m not hungry. If I were hungry, I’d eat. My goal is to lose another 15 lbs, and I love the keto/IF style for me because it works well with my lifestyle.
First, make sure you actually need to lose another 15 pounds. 15 pounds of what? Fat, lean? Rather than thinking in terms of bodyweight, it’s often more helpful to have concrete goals. Is there an article of clothing you want to be able to fit into?
You’re training a ton. That’s great, it can be incredibly rewarding—I know the feeling. But that, paired with “my appetite is finally feeling quite suppressed” is a bit of a warning sign. When I trained daily, my appetite was through the roof. I couldn’t get enough food. You’re hitting it really hard. BJJ, extremely demanding, glucose-intensive. HIIT, extremely demanding, glucose-intensive. Weights, extremely demanding. You should be hungrier, not less.
All in all, the message your training and restricted eating may be sending to your body is one of scarcity. It’s good that you’re neither gaining nor losing and have plenty of energy, but that could change quickly. Try giving your body a few more signals of abundance; it may be exactly what you need, and it could help you avoid problems in the future.
Try eating a few more carbs and calories on your training days, timed after your workouts. You’re burning through a lot of glycogen, and if you’re eating keto with IF you’re probably not replenishing it.
Good luck and keep us posted.
Is it safe to do a moderate keto diet while breast feeding?
If you recall from previous posts, oxaloacetate is necessary for finishing the Krebs’ cycle and producing ATP from fat and glucose. Running out of oxaloacetate means we can’t make ATP from fat and glucose and need an alternate energy source: Ketones. Lactating women also use it to produce lactose, the milk sugar that provides much of the nursing baby’s energy needs. That means that lactating women can eat more carbs and protein and still remain in ketosis. It also means that eating a strict ketogenic diet extremely low in carbs and protein is likely to impair milk production.
While many women report remaining ketogenic while nursing without issue, there are a few case studies of breastfeeding women suffering lactation ketoacidosis, a dangerous condition where chronically low insulin prevents the cells from accessing blood glucose and promotes unchecked ketone production that make the body overly acidic. This can be life threatening. Triggers of lactation ketoacidosis have included starvation (don’t starve yourself or even fast while breastfeeding), twin lactation (feeding two increases the amount of lactation substrate you need to consume), and a low-calorie/low-carb/high-fat diet (bad combo).
Had I a set of breasts from which an infant would be suckling, I’d just opt for a regular old low-carb diet, Primal style. I wouldn’t worry about ketone production so much as eating enough calories.
That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading, take care, and chime in down below with your own input!
The post Dear Mark: Marine Fat Sources, Not Gaining/Losing, Keto Breastfeeding appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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