Ketogenic diets are nothing new, but they’ve definitely been a growing trend in recent months. Whether it’s a diet that you’ve tried, wanted to try, or never even heard of, it’s good to know what it might mean for you. That’s because it’s a diet that can have a big impact on your reproductive health – affecting everything from fertility, to pregnancy, and even breastfeeding.
But let’s cover some basics first, what is a keto diet? In short, it’s a diet designed to make your body go through ketosis – where fat is burned instead of glucose (aka sugar – or the energy we get from carbs). You do this by strictly limiting carbs in your diet while increasing your intake of fats – ideally healthy fats! It may seem counterintuitive that eating more fat will help you burn fat, but it’s fairly simple when you break it down: by limiting sugars and carbs your body effectively runs out of circulating glucose to use for energy, so it starts burning up fat (including stored fat) for energy instead. What this generally leads to is a reduction in overall body fat and thus, weight loss.
This all sounds pretty great, right? Well as with many things, it can be – but in moderation and when done correctly. Remaining in a state of ketosis for an extended period of time actually leads to cell damage and even cell death. Our bodies aren’t meant to burn up all of our stored fat – and a prolonged or uncontrolled ketogenic state is something to avoid, as it can be life-threatening. However, if you’re on a controlled ketogenic diet, your body should not get to this state – so there’s no need to worry.
A ketogenic diet is more about jumpstarting fat burning and training your body to rely less on carbohydrates – and reduce cravings for carbs while you’re at it. The accepted guidelines for a ketogenic diet are 5% carbohydrates, 35% proteins, and 65% fat. To give you an idea of how this compares to a ‘regular’ diet, general recommendations are usually 40% carbohydrates, 30% fat, and 30% protein. Of course, depending on your unique health profile and nutritional needs, you may have slightly different recommendations. The best way to learn what’s right for you when it comes to any diet is to speak with a qualified nutritionist who can provide personalized guidance.
While the idea of fat burning (and resulting weight loss) may sound great – it’s not without its downsides. You can read more about the highs and lows of ketogenic diets here. But what we’re really here to talk about is how keto diets impact your hormonal balance. Since hormones are the driving force in reproductive health, this impacts everything from fertility to pregnancy and even lactation. When done properly, ketogenic diets can help restore a healthy hormone balance, however, if your primary fat sources are from highly processed foods or fatty red meat then you could be doing more harm than good. Focusing on consuming healthy fats, such as those found in fish, nuts & seeds, beans, avocados, and lean meats is so important if this is a diet you want to try.
To give you an overview of how a keto diet might affect you right now – here’s what you need to know about keto diets during conception, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.
Ketogenic Diets & Conception
Although fertility problems can be linked to a wide variety of different issues, some fertility experts and women themselves are hailing the ketogenic diet, or at least a low carb/high fat diet (which is slightly less extreme than a traditional keto diet) as a new, affordable, holistic fertility treatment.
More studies are needed to properly ascertain the benefits of a ketogenic diet to increased fertility, but research has been carried out on fertility-related problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, hormone imbalances and polycystic ovaries and the results are positive. Here’s a rundown of the top benefits:
- Studies suggest that keto diets have potential to improve symptoms of PCOS and improve the quality of the egg (and sperm if your man follows a ketogenic diet!). It’s potential to assist in weight loss can also reduce symptoms associated with PCOS, irregular ovulation, anovulation and hormonal imbalances
- A study found that women TTC following a low carb diet had a pregnancy rate of 48% compared to 14% for the control group who followed a ‘normal’ high carb diet.
- A study, published by the British Journal of Nutrition, suggests that low carb diets can optimize levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL), important for healthy hormone production – however – they also uncovered the importance of consuming healthy fats to reduce chances of raising LDL (or “bad” cholesterol).
- Recently, leading fertility experts in the UK suggest having a low carb diet could improve your chances of conception by five times. Keep in mind that this is not only a ketogenic diet but any diet that limits you to one portion of healthy complex carbohydrates a day while increasing fat and protein.
When starting a ketogenic diet, keep in mind that there is an adjustment period that your body will go through, and it can come with side effects. So if you’re wanting to continue with this diet into pregnancy, many women suggest starting 2-3 months before planning on getting pregnant so that your body is fully adapted ahead of time. Which brings us to ketogenic diets during pregnancy…
Ketogenic Diets & Pregnancy
The majority of us enter into a state of ketosis on a daily basis, usually while we’re asleep. Being in a state of ketosis can happen more regularly during pregnancy when you add nausea, morning sickness, food aversions and sporadic eating habits into the mix. If this is mediated, it is not in itself dangerous to your health or your baby’s health.
During pregnancy, your aim is to get the whole host essential nutrients to optimize your health and support baby’s development, regulate blood sugar levels (reducing the likelihood of gestational diabetes), and ensure you get enough calories to sustain your energy. There are currently no studies on pregnant women and ketogenic diets due to the ethical issues, the risk of liability and the physiological complexity of pregnancies. However, there is an increasing number of women who have shared their generally positive pregnancy journeys whilst following a ketogenic diet, as well as a slowly growing number of dietitians and doctors who also promote the benefits of a ketogenic diet during pregnancy. If this is something that you are seriously interested in, we recommend speaking with your doctor directly as they will be able to best advise you and recommend nutritional professionals to assist if needed.
We know we stress this a lot, but this is another case where it’s so important to listen to your body. A ketogenic or low-carb diet during pregnancy might be OK for you, or it might not be the best option for your nutritional needs. You may be on a keto diet and find that increasing your carb intake counters nausea and morning sickness, and that’s OK! It’s about doing what’s best for you and your body.
Now for the final question, can you be on a keto diet while breastfeeding?
Ketogenic Diets & Breastfeeding
As with pregnancy, there is little to no research on breastfeeding while following a ketogenic diet – but that doesn’t mean people haven’t tried it. There are women who have done so and with good results, as long as there is a focus on eating a balanced, varied diet and opting for complex carbohydrates and healthy fats.
Starting a strict keto diet straight after birth is not recommended as it can take a while for your body to adjust – and you’ve got enough adjusting to deal with as a new mom! Beyond that, your body goes through a massive transitional period after birth due to hormonal changes. It’s also thought that starting a keto diet at this stage could have a negative impact on milk supply.
If you would like to try a low carb diet as a form of weight loss or are returning to a ketogenic diet a few months after birth, then start by tracking your food consumption and milk production, then slowly adjust your diet and see how things go. You can start by shifting to complex carbohydrates from processed grains, and gradually reduce your carb intake while lightly increasing your consumption of lean proteins and healthy fats.
As with every single diet out there, what works for one person may not necessarily work for you. There is always some trial and error that comes with trying a new diet. We always recommend looking for healthy, clean diets that you enjoy and are relatively easy to follow – because that’s when you can make long-lasting and impactful dietary changes to promote your health for years to come.
Regardless of what you chose to do, it is always best to talk to your doctor or healthcare professional before starting a new diet, especially if you have any pre-existing conditions, to ensure that you do not increase the risk of complications. Above all, it’s important to understand how the diet you’re following works, what it’s meant to do, and how it affects you – because that’s when you can make informed and empowered decisions for yourself, your health, and your body.