Have you had the opportunity to rest and reset this holiday season? Typically, this is not a priority amongst American families, especially this time of year. Winter used to be a time that our ancestors would hibernate, restoring physical and emotional functions after a long summer season involving plentiful social interactions and physical activity. Somewhere, amid the creation of the industrial age, our focus on periods of rest was completely lost. The desire to pack as many activities into a small period of time become the norm. If only we could step back to when rest was a necessity, but alas that is something we all must work on every year. And, unfortunately, sometimes rest just is not possible.
As we enter the new year, I know we will be bombarded with fad diets and weight loss plans, and for myself personally, the only way I can conquer this season with a healthy mindset is by being fueled by rest. Rest while you can, and we will be better armed to take on this nonsense head on! First and foremost, I want to decipher the differences between paleo and keto, and debunk the myth that keto is better for you than paleo. Controversial, I KNOW! Check out the reasons why paleo is best for a whole encompassing healthy lifestyle, below!
What is Paleo?
The Paleo diet is a nutrient-dense whole foods diet based on eating a variety of quality meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and healthy fats. It improves health by providing balanced and complete nutrition while avoiding most processed and refined foods and empty calories.
The Paleo Diet has become extremely popular in recent years, with some several hundred million google searches on the topic every year. It is an incredible diet for improving energy, mood, and health conditions. Yet it may perhaps be so famous and so beloved because it is an excellent tool for weight loss. Perhaps the best diet for weight loss around today (even the scientific studies say so.)
There is no emphasis on calorie counting in the paleosphere, only eating when hungry and stopping when you are full. Hence why this is such a fantastic option for anyone that may have had a history of disordered eating.
The paleo diet is more than just a diet, it is an encompassing mindset and lifestyle plan. With paleo, eating whole and unprocessed foods is a large part, but also included in this diet are lifestyle modifications to reduce stress and inflammation on the body. These key principles differentiate keto from paleo, making paleo a great option for those suffering from chronic inflammation, stress, or autoimmune conditions. One of the reasons I was drawn to paleo initially is because getting high quality and adequate amounts of sleep was a pillar. Struggling with insomnia and PCOS, I was looking for help beyond just weight loss, and no other fad diet was providing any successful options.
Paleo helped me maintain my health, sanity, and wellbeing until I was healthy enough to start stemming from the paleo principles into creating a plan that worked best just for me.
What is Ketosis?
I am going to steer clear of giving you a long, technical definition of ketosis. I do however think it’s worth learning the biochemistry if you plan to experiment. In that case, I highly recommend Dr Peter Attia’s posts or Dr Chris Masterjohn’s.
In short, ketosis is a state the body enters when there is an excess of molecules called acetyl groups over oxaloacetate. This happens when there is a shortage of glucose supplied to the metabolic processes that create energy, like when you eat a very low carbohydrate diet. Yet interestingly enough the body will also produce ketones when medium-chain fatty acids enter the metabolic processes.
So then, when there is this excess of acetyl groups relative to oxaloacetate, the body produces something called ketone bodies. Ketone bodies come from fatty acids that the body has liberated from fat tissue, which can be used as an alternative fuel to carbohydrates. This is important because the body (and specifically the brain and heart) literally need carbohydrates or ketone bodies in order to function. When carbs are gone, basically, ketone bodies step in to do their work.
People typically achieve ketosis by fasting or by eating diets very low in carbohydrate (high fat, moderate protein). This calls for at least fewer than 50, and maybe more like 20, grams of carbohydrate a day. This depends on your age, body type, activity level and the like.
You can verify how deeply your body has gone into ketosis by peeing on a stick, which reveals the level of ketone bodies being circulated in and used by your body. Ketosis has blown up recenetly, becoming the top searched for weight loss plan. So what’s the deal?
Similarities Between Paleo and Keto:
Although different, there are a handful of important similarities between paleo and keto.
- Grains are not allowed, specifically glutinous grains.
- Both plans emphasis consuming healthy fats like nuts, seeds, animal fats, and coconut oil.
- Each plan encourages eating quality animal protein (grass-fed, organic).
- Both plans eliminate legumes like garbanzo, black, and pinto beans.
- Refined sugar is not allowed on either plan.
- Both technically encourage eating plenty of non-starchy vegetables and leafy greens, however most non-paleo keto diets do not encourage this because the quantity of carbohydrates in leafy greens.
Key Differences Between Paleo and Keto:
- Paleo is not a strictly low-carb diet. Although, it is easier to accidentally end up low carb on paleo .
- A crucial part of keto is limiting and understanding exactly your macro-nutrient quantities. Often keto strips are used to test levels of ketones in the body, a somewhat simpler way to understand if your body is in ketosis or not. This testing can result in encouraging negative patterns for those with a history of disordered eating.
- Paleo is eating and embodying a lifestyle similar to that of our ancestors to reduce inflammation, promote healthy circadian rhythms, and encourage a healthy physical and emotional lifestyle.
- Keto is often utilized as a tool for weight loss or to assist in reducing symptoms or effects of medical disorders or conditions. See my post here for more info on this.
Why Paleo is Better, IMO
Sustainable Paleo Weight Loss:
Because the paleo diet provides general guidelines for an overall healthier lifestyle, people tend to have more luck sticking with it long term. One of the most important things I learned when I embarked on a paleo journey was understanding the composition of my food, how different foods effected my energy levels and sleep patterns, and learning what micro-nutrients my biochemistry needed from the food I was consuming.
I really took the time to learn all about macro and micro-nutrients, the different chemical compositions of foods, and gaining a general knowledge on nutrition. This evidence based knowledge helped me continue to make choices I was okay with, even when it felt like I wanted to eat a million cookies – I didn’t. The fact that I knew I could have the cookies, but that they really made me feel awful, was the clear difference between holding onto paleo as a fad diet versus incorporating it as a lifestyle change.
I know I am not alone in this field too, many of you have reached out to me to share your stories on how understanding our food has made it easier to consume what makes us feel better in the long run. Paleo, for us, is about understanding balance and your bio-individuality, not just loosing weight.
Because You Are Eating High Quality Food, Healing Inflammation, and Eating When Your Hungry:
The best ways to keep any unwanted weight off is to reduce inflammation. If we are inflamed, our bodies lowest priority is dropping any weight. If anything, the body holds on to weight when inflamed and stressed as a way of protecting us. By consuming high quality food and eating when you are hungry, two important pillars of the paleo diet, you are working towards reducing overall inflammation in the body. Kept as lifestyle factors long-term, both of these are easy ways to not only feel better, but to maintain the weight your body is supposed to be.
We have all seen the pinterest keto diet pics, showing cheese and bacon breakfasts, bulletproof coffee, etc. It seems like it is too good to be true, does it not? Well spoiler alert, it is. Keto does not always emphasize high quality foods, and often people will stick to processed foods that are low carbohydrate but high in fat and protein. These types of foods are often full of unhealthy saturated fats and processed chemicals that increase the bodies levels of inflammation. Therefore those on the keto may loose weight from this low carbohydrate approach, but the results often are not sustainable as inflammation is prominent most of the time.
I am known for my honest opinions on “diet freedom” AKA, this doesn’t exist when you are on a fad diet. With paleo, I believe this is a true possibility. When I first started a paleo protocol, I had all of my food groups planned out precisely, but quantity was not an guideline. I was not limited to one apple a day; I ate as many apples as I wanted which allowed me to grow a healthy and non-restrictive mindset towards food. Food was no longer something I controlled, but rather I consumed when I wanted too, and it had the potential to make me feel good! Which was such an unknown concept to me at the time.
Paleo set me up for a long-term, sustainable healthy relationship with my body and with food, and that is something that I do not believe keto is capable of. I believe this because the obnoxious amount of monitoring that must be completed to understand when the body is in ketosis reallly forces you to track every single detail, which in return is known for enabling restrictive eating habits.
Learning More About What Foods Actually Work For You:
Instead of setting little strict boxes around various macronutrients quantities, paleo emphasizes overall food quality without restriction (at least these days it does. At one time, paleo was very restrictive but the community has grown to eliminate this dogmatic approach). Because you are able to experiment with higher carb, lower fat, or high fat and lower carb while using high quality foods you are able to understand which foods really work best for you without judgement. If you want to eat starchy carbs in the morning and higher fat at night, you CAN. And because paleo gently forces you to be in tune with your biochemistry it becomes a bit easier to understand which foods may not work for you.
For instance, I went a long time eating higher carbohydrate in the morning because it was what I had been taught on the standard american diet protocol. I also coincidentally struggled with extremely low energy levels in the morning for many years of my life. After understanding how my body processes carbohydrates in the morning, I was able to switch my macronutrient levels and discover I maintain much higher energy levels with a lower carbohydrate diet.
Instead of restricting your intake to just high fat and low carbohydrate, you are given the freedom with paleo to experiment with what actually works with your physiological needs.
Focusing on Lifestyle:
Important researchers in the paleo community have shown us the importance of exercise, sleep, and stress reduction in unison with eating whole foods as a trifecta for success. For instance, Sarah Ballantyne, the Paleo Mom, dedicated much of her time pulling together research on why sleep quality is absolutely necessary for a healthy lifestyle.
Figure out your underlying issues by taking stock of your body. What symptoms do you experience? When? For how long? How long have you had them? Take your answers to google and to the doctor. Get some tests done. Paleo is fantastic for healing, but a more targeted approach can help heal you all the faster. Then, the faster you heal your underlying problems, the faster you can lose weight.
Not Contributing to Negative Society Ideals of Weight Loss:
Paleo no longer is about “Loosing Weight” and more about how to maintain some balance amongst the world we live in today. How do we eat, live, breathe and move in a way that is about taking care of ourselves and our bodies, instead of damaging it to the extent where it looses weight out of pure stress? If you are ready to close the door on unhealthy lifestyle patterns and disordered eating, keto may not be for you.
In sum, keto is a restrictive diet approach that lacks informative long term studies proving its sustainable effects on weight loss. Those on keto most often will loose weight at the beginning of the diet; this is typically from water loss not fat loss. While having some positive benefits on physiological symptoms of disorders like epilepsy, we don’t have enough research to know that keto is safe long term. Keto also lacks the lifestyle factors that makes paleo the best and most sustainable option for weight loss. Paleo takes into account your lifestyle, encouraging mindset changes that make a long term impact vs the short term fad diet approach of keto.
I am always in favor of doing what is right for your body, and maybe keto is that option. However, for myself and most women I talk to, paleo teaches you the tools you need to live a healthy life, outside of making loosing weight the ultimate priority. When we step back, is the reason you are considering keto purely for weight loss? If so, I encourage you to understand where this need or thought to loose weight is coming from. Is it your own ideals, or are you listening to what society is trying to tell us to do? If it is the first, then I suggest checking out my program before diving headfirst into keto. You can read every one of my weight loss accelerating tips in the program I finally packaged together for you, Weight Loss Unlocked, here.
One of the more esoteric but much beloved tools in the paleo dieter’s tool-kit is intermittent fasting.
What is intermittent fasting? I.F. is the practice of maintaining overall caloric intake while consuming those calories in fewer meals or in reduced time windows throughout the day. The goal is to create conditions of fasting in the body, but not for extreme lengths of time.
Some examples of intermittent fast strategies include 10, 8, or 5 hour eating windows throughout the day, or perhaps eating just two meals each day: one in the morning, and one at night. The evolutionary premise — the argument that proponents of intermittent fasting make — is that humans evolved to optimize their health under less-than-optimal conditions. Intermittent fasting, they say, is a natural and perhaps even necessary part of being human.
The modern-day scientific correlate appears promising, too:
Most people are nowadays aware that a calorie-restricted diet has the ability not just to decrease body weight but also to lengthen a human life. Emerging research is beginning to show, however, that intermittent fasting is just as effective as calorie restriction in ensuring these health benefits! Amazingly enough, this happens without any of the psychological crippling side effects of cravings and food obsession that practictioners of calorie-restriction often experience.
Intermittent fasting, proponents say, also may benefit the fight against cancer, diabetes, and autoimmunity. Here is an excellent, up-to-date review of the “benefits” of fasting. It is wholly understandable that fasting is all the rage these days.
Intermittent fasting women is a specific interest of mine because of what I have witnessed both in myself and in working with literally thousands of women in the PfW community.
Many women report to me (read more about that in this awesome book) that intermittent fasting causes sleeplessness, anxiety, and irregular periods, among many other symptoms hormone imbalance, such as cystic acne.
I have also personally experienced metabolic distress as a result of fasting, which is evidenced by my interest in hypocretin neurons. Hypocretin neurons have the ability to incite energetic wakefulness, and to prevent a person from falling asleep, in reaction to the body detecting a “starved” state. Hypocretin neurons are one way in which intermittent fasting may dysregulate a woman’s normal hormonal function.
After my own bad experience with IF, I decided to investigate intermittent fasting. I looked into both a) the fasting literature that paleo fasting advocates refer to, and b) the literature that exists out in the metabolic and reproductive research archives.
Intermittent Fasting Women: Problems in the Paleosphere
What I found is that the research articles cited by Mark’s Daily Apple (and others), focus on health benefits such as cancer-fighting properties, insulin sensitivity, and immune function.
However. I was struck by what seemed like an egregious sex-based oversight in that MDA post I linked to above. MDA cites this article as a “great overview” of the health benefits of intermittent fasting. This startled me because the article MDA cited was for me one of the strongest proponents of sex-specific differences in response to fasting.
Sex differences were relevant in two striking areas:
1) women in studies covered by the review did not experience increased insulin sensitivity with IF regimes and
2) intermittent fasting women actually experienced a decrease in glucose tolerance.
These two phenomena mean that women’s metabolisms suffered from IF. The men’s metabolisms on the other hand improved with IF across the board. Recall that the review was reported by MDA as “a great overview of benefits [of IF].”
Secondly, in another fasting post at MDA, of which there are many, the health benefits of fasting are listed and reviewed, but the sex-specific aspects of the hormonal response go unmentioned, and reproduction/fertility/menstrual health isn’t mentioned at all.
This is not to say that Mark is not attentive to who should and who should not be fasting. He knows very well and cautions people against the dangers of fasting while stressed. Still, the mere fact of being more sensitive to fasting simply by being a woman is, I would assert, pretty important for a woman who is contemplating or already practicing IF.
This goes nearly unmentioned in the blogosphere.
Intermittent Fasting Women: Problems in the Literature
Beyond reporting biases in the blogosphere, there remains an even greater problem of a significant testing bias in the fasting literature. Searching “men” + “intermittent fasting” in a Harvard article database yields 71 peer-reviewed articles. Searching “intermittent fasting women” yields 13, none of which are a) solely about women b) controlled studies or c) about more than body weight or cardiovascular benefits.
The animal studies are more equitable, but also a bit less applicable to human studies.
It is well-known in both the research and the nutritional communities that caloric restriction is horrible for female reproductive health. This is not news. There is an infertility condition – called hypothalamic amenorrhea – that millions of women suffer from due to being overly restrictive. But what of fasting?
Intermittent Fasting Women: Should we Fast?
The few studies that exist point towards no.
It is not definitive, since the literature is so sparse, and it necessarily differs for women who are overweight versus normal weight (and who have different genetic makeups), but when it comes to hormones, women of reproductive age may do well to err on the side of caution with fasting.
What follows first is a brief review of what can be gleaned in sex-specific responses to fasting in animal studies. Afterwards I talk about what has been concluded by the few relevant human studies.
Mice & Rats
First up is a study that demonstrates the hippocampal changes of calorie restriction and intermittent fasting for both male and female rats. In this study, they do alternate day fasting, which entails free eating on one day and a fast day on the next.
The study found that brain states while fasting were different for male and female rats. For male rats the change in hippocampus size, hippocampal gene expression, and ambulatory behavior was the same no matter what kind of restricted diet they were on – but for female rats, the degree of change in brain chemistry and in behavior was directly proportional to degree of calorie intake, demonstrating the unique sensitivity of female rats to the starvation response.
” The organization of the females’ response to the energy restricted diets is suggestive of some underlying mechanism that may allow for an organized, pre-programmed, response to enhance survival in times of food scarcity. Comparatively, the males’ genetic response was less specific, suggesting that the males respond to a general stressor but they seem to lack the ability to discriminate between a high energy and low energy stressor.”
Moreover, “IF down-regulated many gene pathways in males including those involved in protein degradation and apoptosis, but up-regulated many gene pathways in females including those involved in cellular energy metabolism (glycolysis, gluconeogenesis, pentose phosphate pathway, electron transport and PGC1-α), cell cycle regulation and protein deacetylation.” In this study, both male and female rats gained small amounts of weight on IF diets.
For female rats, even in the most innocuous form of restriction–intermittent fasting–significant physiological changes take place. Male rats do not experience as dramatic hippocampal and general brain chemistry change as female rats do, and their behaviors, specifically their cognition and their dirunal and nocturnal activity, do not change.
Female rats, on the other hand, “masculinize.” They stop ovulating and menstruating. They become hyper-alert, have better memories, and are more energetic during the periods in which they are supposed to be sleep. Theoretically, according to these researchers, this is an adaptive response to starvation. The more the female rats need calories– or at least the more their bodies detect a “starvation” state– the more they develop traits that will help them find food. They get smart, they get energetic, they get active, and they stop sleeping.
In a follow-up study conducted by the same researchers who explored the masculinzation of female rats, the researchers analyzed the gonadal transcription of male and female rats subjected to IF regimes.
This study found that male reproductivity up-regulates in response to metabolic stress. Female reproductivity down-regulates.
Completely opposite to the female rats becoming infertile while fasting, male rats become more fertile. In the researchers’ own words: “our data show that at the level of gonadal gene responses, the male rats on the IF regime adapt to their environment in a manner that is expected to increase the probability of eventual fertilization of females that the males predict are likely to be sub-fertile due to their perception of a food deficient environment.”
In the final relevant IF rat study I could find, researchers subjected rats to the same diets– to 20 and 40 percent Calorie-Restricted (CR) diets, as well as to alternate-day fasting diets, and monitored them over the long term for hormonal responses. The results were striking. Below is the abstract in full because it’s so powerful:
Females and males typically play different roles in survival of the species and would be expected to respond differently to food scarcity or excess. To elucidate the physiological basis of sex differences in responses to energy intake, we maintained groups of male and female rats for 6 months on diets with usual, reduced [20% and 40% caloric restriction (CR), and intermittent fasting (IF)], or elevated (high-fat/high-glucose) energy levels and measured multiple physiological variables related to reproduction, energy metabolism, and behavior.
In response to 40% CR, females became emaciated, ceased cycling, underwent endocrine masculinization, exhibited a heightened stress response, increased their spontaneous activity, improved their learning and memory, and maintained elevated levels of circulating brain-derived neurotrophic factor. In contrast, males on 40% CR maintained a higher body weight than the 40% CR females and did not change their activity levels as significantly as the 40% CR females. Additionally, there was no significant change in the cognitive ability of the males on the 40% CR diet.
Males and females exhibited similar responses of circulating lipids (cholesterols/triglycerides) and energy-regulating hormones (insulin, leptin, adiponectin, ghrelin) to energy restriction, with the changes being quantitatively greater in males. The high-fat/high-glucose diet had no significant effects on most variables measured but adversely affected the reproductive cycle in females. Heightened cognition and motor activity, combined with reproductive shutdown, in females may maximize the probability of their survival during periods of energy scarcity and may be an evolutionary basis for the vulnerability of women to anorexia nervosa.
They also found this:
The weight of the adrenal gland was similar in rats on all diets; however, when normalized to body weight CR and IF diets caused a relative increase in adrenal size, the magnitude of which was greater in females, compared with males.
The testicular weight was unaffected by any of the diets. In contrast, both CR diets and the IF diet caused a decrease in the size of the ovaries.
And this, bearing in mind that “daytime” for nocturnal rats is “nighttime” for humans:
The daytime activity of females was doubled in response to IF, whereas the IF diet did not affect the activity level of males. Nighttime activity levels of males and females were unaffected by dietary energy restriction.
Uterine activity was monitored daily with vaginal smear tests; cyclicity was scored as regular, irregular, or absent. The mild energy-restriction diets (20% CR and IF) significantly increased the proportion of animals displaying irregular cycling patterns, whereas the 40% CR animals displayed an almost complete loss of estrous cyclicity.
In males, corticosterone levels were elevated only in response to the 40% CR diet, whereas in females corticosterone levels were significantly elevated in response to all three energy-restriction diets, suggesting a relative hyperactivation in females of the adrenal stress response to reduced energy availability.
For lipids, all the rats did well: “Collectively, these data suggest that atherogenic profiles of both males and females are improved by dietary energy restriction.” Interestingly, too, as they pointed out in the abstract, human females also perform cognitively much “better” (memory and alertness) on CR and IF diets than on normal feeding schedules.
There are of course some caveats to this study: A) They are rats. B) They are somewhat “metabolically morbid” rats, which may make them more susceptible to disease. C) The rats were allowed to eat ad libitum on the IF days, but they simply did not meet their caloric requirements this way. So while it is a somewhat natural form of IF, it is still calorically reduced, such that that must be taken into account when gasping in horror at the hormonal responses of IF-ing female rats.
The Few Human Studies
I mentioned above that through the same review that MDA used as a “great overview” of IF benefits for all sexes, I found harmful metabolic effects for women subjected to alternate-day fasting regimes.
This is the study:
Heilbronn et al found that with IF, insulin sensitivity improved in men (21 participants) but not in women (20 participants): after three weeks of alternate day fasting, insulin response to a test meal was reduced in men. Women experienced no significant change. “It is interesting that this effect on insulin sensitivity occurred only in male subjects,” they report.
With respect to other health markers female health actually declined, specifically with respect to glucose tolerance:
“Another diabetes risk factor that has shown a sex-specific effect is glucose tolerance. After 3 weeks of ADF, women but not men had an increase in the area under the glucose curve. This unfavorable effect on glucose tolerance in women, accompanied by an apparent lack of an effect on insulin sensitivity, suggests that short-term ADF may be more beneficial in men than in women in reducing type 2 diabetes risk. ” The opening line of their discussion reads: “Alternate day fasting may adversely affect glucose tolerance in nonobese women but not in nonobese men.”
In a follow up study, Heibron et. al studied the effects of alternate-day fasting on cardiovascular risk. When human subjects fasted on alternate days for another three week period, circulating concentrations of HDL cholesterol increased, whereas triacylglycerol concentrations decreased. This is a good thing. However, the shifts in lipid concentrations were shown to be sex specific: ie, only the women had an increase in HDL-cholesterol concentrations, and only the men had a decrease in triacylglycerol concentrations.
The most recent review of IF agrees with my conclusion: sex-specific differences in metabolism exist and need to be studied further.
This study of alternate day fasting included 12 women and 4 men. In eight weeks, body weight decreased by about 10 pounds, and body fat percentage decreased from 45 to 42. Blood pressure decreased, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and traicylglycerol decreased. These people were significantly obese, which limits the results of this study to an obese population. However, “perimenopausal women were excluded from the study, and postmenopausal women (absence of menses for >2 y) were required to maintain their current hormone replacement therapy regimen for the duration of the study.” (Their words, my emphasis)
The one, big study of intermittent fasting conducted on men and women looked at differences between isocaloric feeding schedules: 3 meals/day feeding versus 1 meal/day.
The study focused on body weight composition, blood pressure, and body temperature in subjects. Subjects were fed isocalorically either one meal each day or three meals each day. All subjects were between 40 and 50 years old (excluding women of reproductive age), and between BMIs of 18 and 25. They ate, so far as I can tell, a healthy diet with 35 percent fat, PUFA < MUFA < SFA. Only 15 of the original 69 completed the study (which goes to show just how fun everyone thought fasting was). As for the results,
“Systolic and diastolic blood pressures were significantly lowered by ≈6% during the period when subjects were consuming 3 meals/d than when they were consuming 1 meal/d. No significant differences in heart rate and body temperature were observed between the 2 diet regimens. Hunger was enormously larger in the one meal/day than in the three meals/day group. “The 1 meal/d diet was significantly higher for hunger (P = 0.003), desire to eat (P = 0.004), and prospective consumption (P = 0.006) than was the 3 meals/d diet. Feelings of fullness were significantly (P = 0.001) lower in the 1 meal/d than in the 3 meals/diet.” Body weight dropped only four pounds after several months. Cortisol dropped, but Total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol were 11.7%, 16.8%, and 8.4% higher, respectively, in subjects consuming 1 meal/d than in those consuming 3 meals/d.
In sum: patients on the one meal/day regiment were unhappy, hungry, lost a little bit of weight, increased cholesterol. This was a small sample, included somewhat menopausal women, and all people of normal body weight.
Intermittent Fasting Women: In Conclusion
All that being said, that’s it. That’s all that exists! Women don’t have much to go on.
There are a few rodent studies. They found that when alternate-day fasting,female rats and found significant negative hormonal changes occurring in the females.
There are even fewer human studies. Human studies on alternate day fasting have not been conducted on women of reproductive age at all, nor have any studies analyzed reproductive responses to fasting.
Moreover, the few studies that have been conducted on non-obese women have demonstrated that their metabolic responses are not nearly as robust as those of men, and may in fact be antagonistic to their health.
This post has focused on sex-specific responses to fasting, specifically intermittent fasting women. Another important distinction to make is between different body weights. Overweight and obese patients appear to experience significant improvements with IF regimes, but normal weight patients do not show the same across-the-board benefits. For women this may be a particularly sensitive issue. Overweight women may experience metabolic benefits, whereas normal weight women do not. I suspect that that may roughly be the case, but who knows. Honestly, no one at this point.
The practical solution, then, I believe, is to look at options, to be honest about priorities, and to listen to one’s body with awareness and love.
Is fasting worth trying if a woman is overweight and trying to improve her metabolic markers, and so far hasn’t had much success? Perhaps. Should it be undertaken if a woman is of normal weight? What if she is a light sleeper? What if her periods begin to dysregulate? Or stop? What if she starts getting acne, getting a stronger appetite, or losing her appetite altogether? These things happen, and I see them in women who fast and contact me time and time again.
We women (people!) should be honest with ourselves about our priorities, and act constantly with our mental and physical health foremost in our minds. All women are different. But the literature is so sparse in this area that we cannot make any real statements or predictions about the effects of fasting, other than that we just don’t know, and that we should continue to emphasize the centrality of awareness, caution, and loving nourishment in moving forward.
IF is one realm in which the female body has unique characteristics and needs that demand attention. There are boatloads of others. If you’re interested in reading about the collective set of them and learning how to optimize female skin, weight loss, and hormone balance, for a few examples, you could do worse than my best-selling book, Sexy by Nature, here.
And that’s a wrap! What do you think?
I’ll admit, fitness is not something I’m great at.
Besides dancing, my ideal life includes a lot of laying down and eating mangoes.
BUT. Fitness is super important. My friend Noelle is really the expert on all that jazz and if you’re just getting started, I recommend checking her website here.
I’ve recently had the chance to try a couple of new fitness products that I really liked.
Super helpful and motivating, these help make working out more convenient and efficient. Check them out!
#1 Go Pockets
Okay, so this is one of the best idea EVER.
What is the deal with women’s workout attire and not having properly sized pockets??
Like I’m going to take my key off of my full key chain or leave my phone at home as I traipse around the city?
Smart phones and credit cards are real and we need to carry them comfortably, but women’s workout pants usually seem more designed to cling as tightly to one’s butt as possible, no room for pockets.
It’s just not practical.
But now there’s Go Pocket. They use a strong adhesive to adhere temporarily to your workout clothes, giving you a perfect pocket to place things in.
They don’t last forever so you aren’t stuck with them, and the adhesive won’t ruin your clothes. They are also easily removed when you don’t want them anymore or want to try a different color.
They are also washable and lasts through several wash cycles.
They can hold your phone, keys, cards, anything you need for your workout.
They come in black and all kinds of fun colors and patterns, changed every season!
This is a brand new product so give it some love and try it with free shipping here.
#2 This Fitness Tracker
Okay, so you probably have one of these already. It seems like everyone does.
But if you don’t, you need to hop on this train!
The Fitbit Alta HR is the best fitness tracker I’ve used.
It’s a bit pricier than other brands but it is definitely worth it. Heart rate monitoring, step counting, food tracking, and lots of fun calculations to see where your fitness is at.
It also tracks sleep (which is just as important as fitness!) and I love that it can help me identify if I’m not sleeping as well. That way I know to kick back a little if I’m overdoing it.
Plus, since so many people have it, you can always find friends to motivate and inspire you to hit those step goalz.
And you have to love the fact that you can change the band.
I mean, looking good is life so… (I love these bands to match it all here)
And if you have prime you can have one in 2 days!
So just take the leap and do it! Find them here.
#3 These am-ah-zing glass bottles
After working out, strenuous cardio or weight lifting exercise, recovery is important. A good carb with a high quality protein is important.
Usually I do this by making myself a protein shake with some fruit, or sometimes I’ll take a branch chain amino acids drink as well.
I get sick of constantly mixing my shakes in the same bottle, washing it out, and remixing it again.
Instead, I bought this set of 6 glass bottles (no BPA, yay!) and I just make my protein shakes up in advance.
I leave them in the fridge or freezer until I need them and voila!
Find the set here.
What are your favorite fitness products??
In 2014, 541,000 Americans finished running a marathon – an all time high.
This past year several dozen of my acquaintances have also completed marathons. (They all say this bestseller – Born to Run – inspired them.) My facebook feed is on the weekends often nothing but finishing lines and bib numbers and hash tags about soldarity, perseverance, and the glory of marathoning.
I am super happy for my friends. Don’t get me wrong. I think – if my friends and the half a million other people who run marathons are happy and healthy – that their perseverance, their accomplishments, and their resulting pride and joy are super awesome.
I just will never be one of them.
Here are three of the main reasons I personally will never run a marathon… and why you, if you’re like me, might not want to either:
1. I don’t like running
Perhaps it goes without saying, but probably the main reason I won’t be running a marathon any time soon is that I don’t like running.
Sure, the sense of accomplishment might be nice, but the actual act of running itself doesn’t give me the pleasure it seems to be able to give some of my friends.
Now, the reason I brought this up is this that, unfortunately, I think a lot of people who run, or who aspire to do marathons, are like me. They don’t like running.
They simply think that they should like running, or maybe they shouldn’t, but they do it anyway. Usually this is for the sake of weight loss. Sometimes it is for feelings of social validation, or self-worth.
If you are one of these people, that is, if you don’t like running but force yourself to do it, I ask you to reconsider. Perhaps think about accepting yourself and your pleasures as they are, and seeking another activity that you enjoy. If it needs to be an activity chock full of challenges or with a high degree of social acclaim (as marathons are), you can still find that in pretty much any sport. Meet Up groups and at your local gym are great for finding communities for cycling, for rock climbing, for dance, for pilates, for yoga, for kayaking, or for whatever other activity feels right for you.
2. Long distance running is a stress on the body
Even if I enjoyed running, I’m not sure that I would want to subject it to long distance runs on a regular basis, and particularly not over an extended period of time.
While the panic over cardiac arrest and death as a marathon runner appears to be slightly overstated (that is – it seems as though most people who suffer deaths as runners already have underlying cardiovascular disease) – running can still cause stress on the body.
Exercise requires the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol spikes are fine in short bursts. If you elevate them chronically, as people do with long distance running and especially if doing it multiple times a week – then it can become a serious problem.
Chronically elevated cortisol is associated with immune system dysregulation, an impairment in fighting off diseases, chronic systemic inflammation, digestive issues, IBS, leaky gut, heart disease, hypothyroidism, anxiety, and depression.
This is a serious concern for all people.
Women, however, have one yet greater set of concerns: the hormonal response to running.
The female body can get pregnant. But if it gets pregnant at a time of famine or stress – then it is at a much higher risk of dying than it would be otherwise. Pregnancy is a highly demand period of a woman’s life and the body takes this very seriously.
In order to prevent you from becoming pregnant at the wrong time, the female body developed an ingenious trick: it shuts down reproductive function in response to stress – both physiological and psychological. This means that hormone production shuts down, thyroid function slows down, and fat burning slows down.
Without healthy hormone production, you can suffer symptoms such as adult acne, low libido, poor sleep, mood swings, depression, anxiety, and weight gain. Because this is important to note – not only does the body want to stop you from starving, but it is also going to try to hang on to as much fat as possible.
The more you over-exercise (read this post to find out if you overexercise), the slower and slower your metabolism will get. Your thyroid production will slow. This causes weight gain, but can also cause fatigue, brittle hair and nails, and feeling chronically cold.
(For a list of more symptoms of impaired thyroid functioning, see the post 19 Indicators You May Be Hypothyroid.)
Of course – if you are a chronic long distance runner – and you love it – you can most likely help prevent yourself from suffering from these things. You can make up for this by making sure you eat plenty of calories and plenty of carbs, and especially after your long runs.
3. I choose to spend my emotional energy elsewhere
Marathons take time. They take effort. They take commitment. They take gusto. They take physical exhaustion.
Unfortunately, we all have a limited amount of energy to expend. And this energy comprises all the kinds of energy we could expend – mental, emotional, physical. We are creatures with a gas tank, and we have to use it sparingly, making sure that we don’t overuse the gas until we are running on fumes, and stuck that way.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a professor back in college. He said, “you can do anything you want, just not everything you want.”
These days, I simply don’t have an abundance of emotional energy. I spend so much of my life and time doing other things, such as working, writing, dancing, and teaching dance–not to mention managing my dysfunctional kidneys and the stress associated with that–that I simply do not have the emotional reserves to undertake such an endeavor. Nor do I anticipate I will ever do so. I don’t feel the call to engage in this public challenge the way so many other people do.
I simply feel emotionally demanded of and called elsewhere – so that is where I shall go.
And I am perfectly okay with that.
If you are unsure about running a marathon, I invite you to be okay with that, too.
(And if you don’t yet know what you want to do, perhaps consider a book on helping you figure it out.)
And with that – I bring my list of reasons I will never run a marathon to a close. I know it’s a short list – but they are all very important and I think very deep points.
I would love to hear what you think…
I am curious about your own relationship with running and with marathons. Did you have any health setbacks while running? Any emotional struggles? Or do you love it and can’t wait until your next marathon? I’d love to hear all about it! Don’t forget that I have absolutely nothing against marathons for other people… they’re just not for me!
So many of my readers and podcast listeners are runners, cross-fitters, and heavy exercisers.
I get questions from these women EVERY DAY because so many of them struggle with hormonal concerns: excessive weight gain, ammenorhea, etc because they want that “perfect” paleo body.
And of course I encourage you to exercise in a way that makes you HAPPY.
There can be a lot of problems when women over-exercise. It can damage your hormones, over-stress and over-tax your adrenals, and be rather unhealthy in general.
If you’ve read any of my numerous articles on the subject, you know how I feel.
But today, I’d like to suggest something to you. An alternative, if you will.
Switch to Walking!
Why Walking is Better
Walking has a host of benefits for your health, not least of which is stress relief.
Instead of being stressful and taxing to your body, like running and cross-fit can be, walking is good for you, gentle, and balancing.
Walking has been shown to improve insulin resistance, especially after meals, which is good news for women with insulin resistant PCOS or those with diabetes.
Not only that, it reduces your risk of various non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Arguably the best thing about walking is how EASY it is.
It’s the one exercise I always resisted because I never felt I was DOING enough.
But that’s precisely the point. Walking is so good for women because it is so natural, so gentle. It’s like breathing.
The key is to walk enough.
And that’s the hard part.
The average person with a desk job gets maybe 3000 steps a day, at the most.
If they take a 20 minute walk every evening, they’re up around 5000.
To see real results and feel the benefits of increased energy, we’ve got to up our walking game.
Of course any amount of walking is better than none, but I encourage you to start slow and aim to increase to something close to 10000 steps a day.
One way to do that is to choose among the numerous fitness trackers on the market to help keep you on track and remind you to walk.
There’s a ton to choose from, and everyone likes something different, but I like the Up2 by Jawbone.
It’s nothing fancy, just a cute bracelet band that connects to your smart phone. It tracks your steps, your sleep, and you can sync it up to track your food as well, if you’re into that sort of thing. The best part about it is it’s accurateness and unobtrusiveness.
I hardly notice the thing on my wrist after a while. And it’s AFFORDABLE, which is something I can’t say about all fitness trackers. Find it here.
When you’re walking, try going barefoot and walking in grass. That’s called Earthing and as hippy-dippy as it sounds, it’s actually really beneficial and stress relieving.
If you can’t stomach going barefoot, try barefoot walking shoes. These kinds of shoes have little to no arch support and wide toe boxes to give your feet the most natural walking experience possible. I like these and these, but there are tons out there.
And to stay hydrated on your long walks, make sure you take along water, preferably in a glass water bottle like this one which is BPA free.
Finally, if you’re not into nature walks and need a little more stimulation, you can take along the modern day fanny pack so you can carry music and other distractions.
Yes, the fanny pack is back.
They call it a “runner’s belt” now, but it’s essentially the same thing. It’s a belt you wear around your waist that fits your phone, headphones, money, and keys without sticking out and looking weird. This is one that I like a lot.
So get walking! You’ll start feeling more energetic than ever very soon. It can be tough to get off the couch after a long day, but be gentle and kind and encourage yourself to be more active!
In today’s culture, it’s rare to hear someone talk about the dangers of over-exercising.
Normally, we are exhorted to exercise as long and as hard as we can, so that we can burn as many calories as possible. We are told to do cardio for no less than 30 minutes, and it’s better to do it for at least 60.
We are told to do it every day, and if we are the most hardcore, we do it twice.
(And then we get to brag about it later over drinks!)
But over-exercise is a real, even scary problem, especially for women.
Why Over-exercise is a problem for women especially
The female body it capable of giving birth. This is a miraculous, fabulous thing.
Yet it is also a potentially dangerous thing. Pregnancy is a very stressful, demanding time for the mother’s body. Without sufficient energy, nutrients, and safety from the surrouding environment (say, not being in a state of famine or war), ancestral women often suffered unsafe, malnourished pregnancies.
In order to prevent a life-threatening pregnancy, therefore, the female body developed systems that are highly sensitive to stress or energy deficits. When stress or restriction is detected, reproduction shuts down. This protects women from becoming pregnant at a time that might threaten their lives and the lives of their babies.
Over-exercise occurs in women more easily than in men exactly because of this sensitivity. It is a protective mechanism, designed to make sure they only get pregnant at safe times.
It is also, unfortunately, a big hassle for women trying to achieve health and hormone balance in today’s environment.
The problem with today’s environment
The problem with today’s environment is that exercise is not only valued, but is exalted beyond good reason.
The more you do, the better, they say. And if you don’t do it much, shame on you, because that means you’re fat and lazy and don’t deserve to feel sexy or healthy.
And so we exercise and exercise and exercise, run and run and run. At least I know I did. At the height of my fitness life, I was lifting weights and running about 15 miles a day, every day. I thought that that was normal.
Women were supposed to train like that, I thought, if they wanted to be worthy.
Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
Signs of over-exercising
Do you over-exercise? Here are some potential signs of over-exercise:
1. Requiring yourself to exercise even when you don’t feel like it
If you have to force yourself to exercise, you may be doing it too much.
Forcing yourself to exercise when you don’t feel like it elevates stress hormone levels. If you do this on a regular basis it will over-fatigue you and you will become chronically tired (and likely sluggish and overweight) in the long-run.
It also indicates that your body isn’t well rested enough after your last bout of exercise and/or stress in order to perform well again.
If you’re feeling too fatigued to work out, consider taking a brief nap, then doing some lunges or push ups later in the day instead. Studies show that brief, intense exercises spaced throughout the day may be even more effective than one long work-out.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but if you find yourself performing less and less well during workouts, this is another sign that your muscles and your hormones are too fatigued to keep up at this pace.
3. Post-workout exhaustion
If you fall into a nap or are otherwise super fatigued at the end of a workout, this means you needed to use way too much of your energetic reserves while working out. Without any good stress hormones or energy floating around in your system, you will crash after a workout.
Make up for this by taking some more off days, or alternating between high effort and lower effort workouts.
4. Missed or irregular menstrual periods
If you find that your menstrual period has become longer or gone absent entirely while exercising a lot, the stressful demands of the exercise coupled with the caloric deficit may be to blame.
You may be able to help alleviate this problem by making sure you eat more – especially after workouts – but I highly recommend cutting back on the exercise by at least half as well.
For more on this kind of amenorrhea and whether or not you may have it, check out this post: Metabolic Distress and Hypothalamic Amenorrhea, or Overcoming Hypothalamic Amenorrhea.
5. Low libido
While there are many causes of low libido, the stress that comes from over-exercise very well may be one of them.
6. Feeling cold, thinning hair, brittle nails, constipation
Feeling cold, thinning hair, brittle nails, and constipation are all signs of hypothyroidism, which is one of the most common results of over-exercise.
In fact, if you over-exercise at all, hypothyroidism is a very serious risk.
You can read about some of the other indicators of hypothyroidism in my post 19 Indicators You May Be Hypothyroid – yet I really do caution you to be wary of hypothyroidism from excess exercise whether you have some indicators or not. When the female body gets stressed or thinks it may be starving, the thyroid gland is one of the very first systems that shuts down.
7. Excessive soreness or slow muscle recovery
If you find that you are sore for a long time or cannot recover or build muscle well, then you may not be giving your body the time it needs to re-build. Exercise is a very serious stress that tears muscles apart.
Muscles absolutely require time and nutrients in order to re-build themselves to their optimal strength.
8. You get sick easily
Under chronic stress, the immune system falters. If you find that you are chronically under the weather while you constantly exercise, you may wish to ramp down and see if that helps your body recover more quickly.
Hormones are a key player in acne, and they can become significantly out of balance (with male hormones out-producing female hormones) if you over-exercise.
This acne is typically cystic, and appears most commonly around the mouth and jaw, though can also be on the cheeks, forehead, upper back, and buttocks.
This is a very real, significant problem for a lot of female athletes (go to your local cross fit box and you might find what I’m talking about.) If you work out a lot and you struggle with this kind of acne, make sure that you refuel properly, and consider cutting back significantly to give your hormones a break.
Here is a post on hormones and female acne.
If you find that you have increased cravings throughout the day and cannot seem to satisfy them no matter what you do, excessive exercise (and quite possibly under-eating) may be to blame.
The more you starve your body, the more it is going to try to make you eat, especially with high energy, super tasty sweet tooth foods.
How much should you exercise?
Of course, every person has a sweet spot, for how much exercise is good for them. I cannot give you a hard and fast number for how much is too much.
For some women, for example, even one work out a day is too many (especially if it is a hard work out). This may be the case if you have a history of dieting and over-exercising, if you’ve been over-exercising for a long time, if you under-eat, or if you are going through a stressful period in your life.
Other women may be able to easily tolerate one work out a day… at least for a while.
I generally recommend that women do no more than 4 really hard sprint or weight lifting work outs a week. That doesn’t mean that you cannot exercise in the meantime, but super hard workouts should always be followed by a rest day.
This is optimal for your muscles, optimal for your thyroid gland, and, in the end, optimal for your energy and waistline, because you are protecting your body’s ability to maintain both of them healthfully and happily.
Ultimately I cannot say how much is too much for anybody – but I do hope that this list has helped. I simply recommend that you remain mindful of the signs of overexercising… and start dialing back ASAP if you see them.
And… as ever, please let me know what you think! What works for you, what have your experiences been… I want to know everything!!