Do Women Need More Carbs Than Men? Here's What The Science Says
If you follow along with the latest wellness trends, you've most likely heard about the ketogenic diet. With roots in neurology (it was originally prescribed to patients with seizure disorders and was able to control seizures with some success), this diet encourages high-fat, moderate protein, and limited carbohydrate intake. Unlike the antiquated view that carbs are necessary for fuel, the ketogenic diet turns everything we have been taught about macronutrients on its head—specifically when it comes to fats.
Understanding the benefits of a high-fat diet.
For the latter part of the 20th century, we were told that fat was a threat to our very existence: It was clogging our arteries, making us gain weight, and eventually leading to heart attacks. However, more people are starting to challenge this widely held belief, and an increasing amount of research is showing that there may not be a link between high cholesterol and disease1 after all. Actually, low cholesterol2 might be increasing our likelihood of death.
In fact, research is concluding fat is a far superior fuel source than glucose. Like a log to a fire, fat is a long-lasting sustainable form of energy, unlike glucose, which acts like a quick spark but quickly dies out. When you look at it from a biological3 and evolutionary4 perspective, we rely completely on fat in the form of breast milk for energy and development as a baby. A diet that is fat-focused can also enhance brain health5, decrease inflammation, and lower blood sugar.
Finding the ideal macronutrient ratio for you.
Despite the recent focus on fats, it's important to remember that every person’s biochemistry is different, so finding out what works for you is essential for keeping you healthy and fighting fatigue. When it comes to carbohydrates, specifically, your individual tolerance can vary greatly, and finding your carb sweet spot can be an important aspect of improving your health and feeling your best.
One big question I often get in my functional medicine clinic is whether or not women need more carbs than men due to the fact that women go through more hormonal shifts than men. Interestingly enough, studies have pointed to the opposite being true—women may actually need fewer carbohydrates than men and more fat.
Linking carbs and female hormone balance.
The ratio of macronutrients in the diet can have a surprising effect on female hormones. Research6 has linked a low-fat diet to a decrease in "good" HDL cholesterol, an increase in triglycerides, and a 25 percent decrease in estrogen levels. Low estrogen levels in women can lead to brain fog, depression, hot flashes, night sweats, fatigue, and vaginal dryness. This points to the importance of women consuming enough fat in their diet.
Of course, you don’t want estrogen too high, either, since that can lead to its own set of health problems, such as weight gain, mood swings, headaches, insomnia, breast tenderness, and heavy menstrual bleeding. Finding the optimal ratio of macronutrients for you and your body can help you keep your hormone levels in check. Concerned? Talk to your doctor about getting a full blood and salivary female hormone panel with estrogen isomers to figure out your baseline.
Determining the best fuel for the female body.
Although it's historically thought that women need more carbs than men, recent research has demonstrated the female body's natural preference for fat as fuel. In a study that looked at the difference between fuel metabolism in men and women7, it was found that women derived more energy from fat oxidation whereas men derived more of their energy from carbohydrate oxidation during exercise. Even when at rest, women utilized fats more than men. This suggests that some women, especially those with high activity levels, may require more fat than carbs to sustain their energy.
Additionally, researchers8 found that when estradiol, a form of estrogen that peaks during ovulation, was given to rats, their lipid use during exercise increased drastically. It appears that gender may play a role in fuel source preference, and some women may favor fat over carbohydrates.
As of now there are not enough studies to show that women always require more carbs than men do; in fact, they may need more fat. While these factors are important to consider, your ideal macronutrient ratio has less to do with gender than it does with your body’s particular needs. Overall, your age, level of activity, and health conditions play a larger role in what your body requires than your gender.
A functional medicine practitioner can work with you to run diagnostic labs and create a plan that provides you with the correct macronutrients to help you reach your particular health goals.
Curious about trying a high-fat diet? Learn more about the pros and cons of the ketogenic diet here.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He has holds a level 2 Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) certification. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting.