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I spend a disproportionate amount of my time telling women to eat carbohydrates.
In the paleosphere, it is incredibly common to eat a low carbohydrate diet. Plenty of people use low carbohydrate diets to lose weight, to sharpen insulin sensitivity, and to reduce appetite in the short term.
On the other hand, low carbohydrate diets can be a significant tax on people, women especially.
Because low carbohydrate diets are so popular for weight loss, it is common for women trying to lose weight and to “look good” to exercise often, eat very few carbohydrates, fast, and restrict food intake. The more of these restrictions a woman undertakes at once, the more and more her body reads this as living in a starved, stressed state.
The effects of this are significant: adrenal glands work overtime, livers get tired from performing so much gluconeogenesis, insulin sensitivity drops, body fat levels fluctuate, sleep quality decreases, and libido and fertility decrease.
The problems that come from a low-carbohydrate diet of course don’t affect every woman. Each of us is different. But women who experience stalled weight loss, low-thyroid symptoms, menstrual dysregulation, sleep and or mood and mental health related issues may find significant relief from adding carbohydrates back into their diets.
Also, this is my favorite paleo cookbook with plentiful carbs in it. It’s by Russ Crandall, and he’s an amazing chef, as well as one of my favorite people of all time.
Carbohydrates are beneficial for fertility and health because…
-Glucose is necessary for the conversion of T4 to T3 in the liver.
Without adequate glucose, the liver struggles to make enough T3, which is the form of thyroid hormone critical for healthy thyroid function.
Without sufficient T3, hypothyroidism results. Hypothyroidism is implicated in mood disorders, reproductive irregularities such as PCOS and amenorrhea, in skin conditions, and in weight gain, among other things. (For more on how to figure out your particular type of PCOS and how hypothyroidism may be at play, see my program PCOS Unlocked or read my post on the causes of PCOS)
Many women, contrary to popular paleo belief, in fact lose weight once they add carbohydrates back into their diets. This is because the carbs help the body produce more T3.
(Now, low carb dieters might be quick to point out that the liver can manufacture its own glucose. Certainly, the liver is capable of producing its own glucose with gluconeogenesis, but that process can become taxed over time, particularly if the liver is already taxed from poor eating habits in the past, mineral deficiencies, stress, or calorie restriction.)
-Glucose elicits an insulin response, which in turn spikes leptin levels in the blood.
This is a short-term spike, so eating carbohydrates should not be used as a replacement for body fat, which is the primary long-term secretor of leptin.
However, moderate, regular consumption of carbohydrate spikes leptin frequently enough to help signal to the hypothalamus that the body is being fed. Leptin is absolutely crucial for reproductive function. Without leptin, the hypothalamus does not tell the pituitary to produce sex hormones, so it doesn’t.
–Insulin is also an important signaler of the “fed” state.
In addition to leptin, the hypothalamus also responds to insulin. These two hormones are largely responsible for the female body determining whether it is in a “fed” state.
Being in a fed state is critical for convincing the body it is in a healthy enough environment to reproduce, have a libido, and also lose weight.
–Moderate carbohydrate intake is associated with better mood, stress-reduction, and sleep quality.
Carbohydrate intake boosts tryptophan levels in the brain, and tryptophan is the protein precursor to serotonin. Getting at least some carbohydrate in the diet helps with the vast array of issues associated with serotonin deficiency which include moodiness, stress, and insomnia. People have been shown to sleep better if their dinner includes carbohydrates in it.
This is especially true for women.
For a look at the details and complexities of the issue, see Emily Deans writing here and here. The primary takeaway of this point being that while the exact mechanism of carbohydrates boosting mood and sleep quality is unknown, carbohydrates still appear to be a healthy, and in many cases necessary, macronutrient.
Carbohydrates for fertility and health
The main point here is that carbohydrates are not just okay but important. For women who have appetite control problems, sugar addictions, and a lot of weight to lose, absolutely I believe a low-carbohydrate diet can do them wonders. For women who struggle with menstruation, fertility, stress, exercise performance, or any other hormonal oddities, carbohydrates help assure the woman’s body that she is healthy and fed. This is crucial for reproductive health.
In all cases, diet is a matter of personal physiology and experimentation. If a woman’s body works better on carbs, she should eat them, and delight in those joys rather than worry needlessly. At the very least, they are not harmful, and at their best, they are life saving.
This concept is central to my program Weight Loss Unlocked. If you are interested, it will help you figure out which path to weight loss is best for your unique body and metabolism.
Carbohydrates to eat:
-Starchy tubers such as sweet potatoes, batata, jerusalem artichoke, cassava, tarot, and bamboo. Regular potatoes are fine, too, but they contain fewer vitamins than their sweet counterparts. Of the sweet potatoes, Japanese sweet potatoes are the most delicious, in my opinion, followed by white sweet potatoes and then yams and regular orange sweet potatoes.
These starches are composed primarily of glucose.
–Fruits. All fruits! Berries and cherries tend to have more glucose than fructose, other fruits tend to have more fructose than glucose. This is not a huge point of difference but I have noticed that some women tend to do better on glucose-heavy or fructose-heavy carbs. I personally have an easier time with weight maintenance with fruits than with starches. I talk about this idea more in depth in that Weight Loss program for women I use with my clients.
-Rice Both white and brown rice are fine, but are fairly nutrient-poor.
Brown rice contains anti-nutrients in it’s shell, so white rice is more innocuous in terms of nutrient absorption. Wild rice is another option that I like. Pink rice is something that my friend Noelle from Coconuts and Kettlebells really loves and is a unique way to incorporate rice into the diet! (By the way, if you haven’t listened to The Paleo Women Podcast featuring myself and Noelle, you need to! We are the BEST and we will explain to you ALL THE THINGS. Find us here!)
-Vegetables of course are great, but they do not count for carbohydrate consumption. I know that most of the carbs in vegetables are glucose, but much of it them are also tied up in fiber, which is broken down and turned into short-chain fatty acids by gut bacteria. For this reason, vegetables alone cannot make up a woman’s carbohydrate consumption. Instead, starchy tubers and fruits work the best.
How much carbohydrate to eat for women:
For a woman recovering from stress, metabolic distress, and hypothalamic amenorrhea, I recommend eating between 100-200 g/day. That goes for athletes as well. And for pregnant women. At least 100 g/day.
I typically recommend that women start with 100 grams of dense carbohydrate like starches and fruits and experiment from there. You can definitely eat more than that – I know that I do. But you could also eat a bit less, especially if you prefer a lower carbohydrate appraoch to health.
Remember, you do not necessarily need to eat high carbohydrate. You can, but you don’t have to. It is only that a diet with at least some carbohydrates can really help with fertility, hormone balance, thyroid, and weight loss problems.
Carbohydrates elsewhere in the paleo blogosphere:
Chris Kresser and Chris Masterjohn: Cholesterol, mostly, also: Telltale signs you need more carbs
Jimmy Moore: Is there any such thing as a safe starch?
Jamie Scott: A Week of It
Paul Jaminet: Higher Carb Dieting Pros and Cons (includes a discussion of the “longevity trade-off”)
Cheeseslave: Why I ditched low carb
Beth Mazur: Why I don’t eat low carb
Julianne Taylor: Okay, People, Carb’s Don’t Kill
Melissa McEwen: What the bleep do we know about carbs
While you’re at it, go read Melissa’s post on Why Women Need Fat.
Don’t forget this is my favorite paleo cookbook full of good carbs.
And especially don’t forget to check out Weight Loss Unlocked if weight loss is one of your main goals right now, The Paleo Women Podcast, which is just so much fun, and my best-selling book Sexy By Nature, all great resources for all things women’s health, happiness, and fertility!