The keto diet has been getting loads of buzz lately, and with a slew of crazy before-and-after photos floating around the internet, it’s tempting to jump on the bandwagon. We know that can be especially true if you’re postpartum you may be looking for a safe and effective way to lose the baby weight. But, does the ultra-low-carb approach really work… and is it safe for new moms?
Let’s get into it!
What exactly is keto?
Keto refers to the “ketogenic diet,” an eating plan that’s designed to make your body go through mild ketosis — where fat is burned for fuel instead of glucose. To force your body into this fat-burning state, you need to seriously limit your carb intake while increasing your intake of (healthy) fats.
So… it’s just a low carb diet?
Not exactly. Keto puts low-carb predecessors (think Atkins and South Beach) to shame with only 5% of allotted calories from carbs. That’s not a lot. On a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s 100 calories from carbs, which translates to just 25 grams of carbs per day. That’s the equivalent of one banana, half a cup of rice, or two pieces of bread.
Keto favors fat, and that’s where you’ll be getting most of your calories: the macro breakdown is 75% of calories from fat, 20% from protein, and 5% from carbs. For reference, a “standard” low carb diet is 50% fat, 30% protein, and 20% carbs. Some people find keto’s strict macro breakdown to be a little too intense, but others don’t mind — and it’s good to remember that all bodies tolerate and metabolize carbs differently. This is why there isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet.
But it will help me lose weight?
It might. Basically, by limiting sugars and carbs, your body effectively runs out of circulating glucose to use for energy, so it starts burning fat for energy instead. This generally leads to weight loss… but things can get a little complicated from there.
A lot of people drop weight quickly during their first week or two on keto, and even though the rapid progress can be exciting, it’s not really fat loss. Here’s what’s going on: your body stores glucose (energy) in your liver and muscles, and for each gram of glucose you store as glycogen, you store 3 grams of water. Going super low carb will deplete these glycogen stores, and with them, all the extra stored water — so most of that early weight loss is just water weight. The actual loss of excess weight (i.e. excess fat stores) will happen slow and steady, just like any other diet.
According to nutritionist Tom Herbert, one of the reasons people experience success on keto is its compliance factor. When people go on a diet that shows major results right away, they’re more motivated to stick with it. But you have to remember that rapid weight loss is temporary and the water weight will come back as soon as you start eating more carbs again, which isn’t a bad thing!
Here’s the thing: carbs aren’t bad and water weight isn’t bad. It’s about finding a diet that helps your body function at its best.
Consider your hormones
If you’re postpartum, your hormones are naturally all over the place, and your diet can majorly affect them. Since hormones are the driving force in reproductive health, this impacts everything from fertility to lactation. When done properly, keto diets can help restore a healthy hormone balance, but if your primary fat sources are from highly processed foods or fatty red meat then you could be doing more harm than good and sending those hormones even further out of balance.
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.
There are some significant health perks
Keto diets can potentially boost your insulin sensitivity and help with fat loss, which has some significant benefits for individuals who are overweight or have type 2 or pre-diabetes.
Some studies have also shown that it improved fertility in women with PCOS, but the science in this space is still pretty new, and one major caveat: most of the frequently referenced studies (like this and this) studied a very small sample size of women who had BMIs in the obese category. If you’re suffering from PCOS and are considering keto, definitely talk this one over with your doctor first.
In fact, before making any significant dietary change — especially like going keto — talk to your doctor to see if they recommend it for your unique situation and health profile.
Why should you talk to your doc first? Because it’s not automatically healthy
Just because a diet is low carb doesn’t mean it’s healthy. While the super low-carb aspect rules out sugary beverages, cookies, and chips, it’s still leaves room for other processed, fatty foods. You have to make the choice to consume clean, healthy fats and lean proteins.
Also, because you’re limited in the amount of calories you get from carbs, you’re missing out on the fiber and nutrients from healthy foods like whole grains, fruit, root vegetables, legumes, and beans. So, it’s important to plan your diet carefully.
If you’re breastfeeding…
It might not be the diet for you. Dietitian and mom of three Elizabeth Ward says she “can’t endorse such an extreme eating plan for breastfeeding women,” and doctors largely agree that you shouldn’t follow such a low-carb approach when you’re breastfeeding, pregnant, or trying to conceive. The diet can be dehydrating, lack nutrients, and cause you to eat too few calories, which isn’t ideal when you’re in need of more energy while breastfeeding.
It’s really this lack of available energy is what makes researchers wary. Your body requires more energy than normal to produce milk, so if you’re doing this with the keto diet, your body burns more fat and produces more ketones, which can push you past the state of ketosis–and that’s where you get into dangerous territory.
If you think it’s right for you, start slow
If you’re not breastfeeding and want to try a low-carb approach or go full keto postpartum, talk to your doc first and take it slow. Starting any type of strict diet after birth isn’t recommended because it can take your body a while to adjust–and you’ve got enough adjusting to deal with as a new mom! Allow your body a minimum of 6-8 weeks after birth to recover before considering any type of significant dietary change.
If you want to try it out, start by reducing your carb intake slowly while increasing protein and fat to keep your total calorie intake the same. Instead of going cold turkey on carbs, try switching out carb-heavy foods for lower-carb and fiber-rich options.
If you do go keto, listen to your body
Although keto can be a pretty extreme option, a less restrictive low-carb diet works well for some women and some people find that they can use keto to get started with healthier eating habits and become less carb restrictive over time.
We’re not proponents of extreme diets that are hard to stick to, because we want to encourage long-term healthier lifestyle changes that are sustainable. Figuring out what diet makes you feel good and helps you reach your goals is a process, and it won’t happen overnight.
Remember, it’s all about listening to your body, and no cookie-cutter restrictive diet or meal plan you find online will be a sustainable long-term plan, it has to be something you build for yourself, in a way that works for you.
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