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Could you actually need more carbs in your diet? Keep reading to find out!
Low carb diets like keto, and even “carnivore”, have become wildly popular these days. Proponents of these diets claim that a low carb diet will boost your energy, help you lose weight, support your immune system, and much more.
And for some people, eating a very low carbohydrate diet works great. But for many people, especially premenopausal women, the signs that you need more carbs in your diet may be too subtle to notice. At least not until significant health damage as been done.
And when it comes to supporting women’s health and fertility, the low-carb diet craze might do more harm than good.
Whether you’ve been toying with the idea of starting a low carb diet, or if you’ve been eating low carb for months and haven’t been feeling your best, this article is for you!
Keep reading to learn:
- Common red flags that you need more carbs in your diet
- How a low carb diet impacts women’s hormones
- How many carbs you should actually be eating
- Who might benefit from a lower carb approach
Signs You Need More Carbs in Your Diet
Low carb diets can be beneficial for some people. And most people feel great when they start out eating this way (minus the “low carb flu” that some people experience.)
When first embarking on a low-carb diet, you might notice an increase in energy, weight loss, and a boost in cognitive function. These benefits can feel very exciting, and results like this do last for some people.
But for others, the signs that they need to add back carbs in their diet can be almost too subtle to notice.
It may take months to see the long-term health impacts of eating too low carb. But the lack of carbs may start to affect your health, particularly your hormone health.
Here are some of the most common, yet overlooked, signs that you may need to add back carbs in your low carb diet.
- You’re tired all the time
- Your period is irregular or nonexistent
- You’re not sleeping well
- Your weight loss has stalled
- Your performance at the gym is suffering
- You get sick a lot
- Your body temperature is low
If this sounds like you, don’t worry. Sometimes all it takes to overcome these concerns is to start eating more carbs again!
And if you’re unsure how many carbs your body actually needs, keep reading. I’ll give you some tips for figuring out how to eat the right amount of carbs for YOU.
Low Carb Diets and Your Hormones
Before we dive into how many carbs are right for you, let’s look at the science behind how cutting carbs can affect your health.
Most of the ramifications of not eating enough carbs are due to the effects on your hormonal health.
Three major glands are responsible for regulating your hormones – the adrenals, the thyroid, and the gonads (ovaries in women and testes in men.) Our brains communicate with each of these hormone-producing glands through the hypothalamic-pituitary axis.
These glands respond to many internal and external factors. Things like stress, exercise levels, and calorie intake all affect how well these glands work to regulate our hormones.
Carbohydrates and healthy hormones, more often than not, go hand in hand. And as women, with hormones already in constant flux, making sure we do everything we can to support them is critical.
Here are a few examples of how a low carb diet can impact your hormones and make you feel less than your best.
Low Carb and Increased Cortisol
Our adrenal glands are small but mighty, and play a major role in our body’s response to stress. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is the main system for managing our stress response and keeping our stress hormones in an appropriate range.
One of the most overlooked factors to a healthy HPA axis is your carbohydrate intake.
Our main stress hormone cortisol increases when our body is under stress. That stress can look like strenuous exercise, getting stuck in traffic, or a difficult day at work.
And when it comes to the fuel your give your body, a low carb diet can definitely be a stressor.
Restricting carbohydrates is a stress response because of a process called gluconeogenesis.
There are several organs, the brain being the most important, that NEED glucose to function.
And when you’re not getting enough carbs in your diet, your body needs to figure out a way to make its own glucose. This occurs through the process of gluconeogenesis – the creation of new glucose.
And despite how great you’re feeling on a low carb diet, your cortisol levels are likely higher than they would be if you were eating a moderate amount of carbs.
High cortisol over time can lead to poor stress tolerance, anxiety, blood sugar dysregulation, metabolic syndrome, and a variety of other hormonal imbalances.
Increased cortisol can lead to a cascade of other hormonal imbalances. And this increased stress hormone is often one of the first signs that you need more carbs in your diet.
Low Carb and Decreased Thyroid Function
Your thyroid gland and the hormone it produces is a primary driver of many metabolic processes. And if it’s not functioning optimally you can experience a host of health issues.
When you don’t eat enough carbs, you can experience symptoms associated with decreased thyroid function (hypothyroidism). These symptoms can range from fatigue and dry skin, to constipation and weight gain.
Carb intake plays an important role in thyroid function. This is because insulin is needed for the conversion of the inactive thyroid hormone (T4) into the active form (T3).
One study showed that after two weeks on a no-carb diet, T3 levels dropped by 47% compared to people eating just 50 grams of carbohydrates. While this study looked at a drastic form of carb elimination, it goes to show how important carbs are to our thyroid function.
Too much inactive thyroid hormone (T4 or rT3) and/or not enough of the active form (T3) leads to the myriad symptoms associated with hypothyroidism.
And if you’re eating a diet low in carbs with these symptoms, increasing your intake of this important macronutrient might help.
Low Carb and Sex Hormone Irregularities
Menstrual irregularities are, unfortunately, becoming increasingly common.
The cause of these hormonal issues can be wide-ranging. But one I seem to come across frequently in younger women is a diet too low in carbohydrates.
When carb consumption is too low, it can suppress your leptin levels. This suppression often results in hormone imbalance and can contribute to a missing period.
Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells. Premenopausal women need to have a certain amount of leptin available to maintain a normal menstrual cycle.
One study looked at teenage girls who followed a low-carb ketogenic diet for one month. At the end of this short time frame, 45% of them experienced menstrual irregularities.
There isn’t a lot of research showing that a low carb diet causes reproductive issues. But adding carbs back into your diet might be necessary for your best hormonal health.
How Many Carbs Should You Eat?
Now that you know how low carb diets can impact your health, you might be wondering how many carbs you should be eating.
The optimal amount of carbohydrates you need to maintain healthy hormones is going to vary from woman to woman, and even from day to day.
Generally, I recommend about 30-50% of your total calories come from carbohydrates.
If you’re eating about 2,000 calories a day, this comes out to around 150-250 grams of carbs each day.
I know this may seem like a lot, even if you haven’t been dabbling in a low carb diet. Many women eating a real food diet, even if they’re not intentionally cutting carbs, aren’t even close to meeting this carb intake minimum.
This is because we cut many of the more common high-carb foods, like grains and sweets, when focusing on eating whole animal and plant foods.
Carbs on a Real Food Diet
This 30-50% recommendation is still much lower than the number of carbs – especially refined carbs – in a Standard American diet. But eating that many carbs can seem daunting if you’re primarily eating whole foods.
By being intentional about including higher carb plant-based foods into your diet, meeting these carbohydrate recommendations is totally doable. And once you put more focus on including carbs in your diet, you may start to notice big improvements in your health!
If you’re struggling with where to start when it comes to eating more carbs, I got you. Here are some of my favorite real food carbs:
- Sweet potatoes
- White potatoes
- Taro root
- Beans and legumes
- Winter squash
- All fruits
And if you don’t have any underlying health conditions that prevent the consumption of grains, there isn’t a very strong argument against keeping them out of your diet to help increase your carb intake.
I personally eat white rice and rice-based products, as well as gluten-free breads and pastas, all the time! And I don’t shy away from the occasional gluten-filled treat when eating out.
Who Might Benefit from a Lower Carb Approach
Most women do better including a good amount of carbohydrates in their diet. But there are some health situations that warrant a lower carb approach.
It’s no surprise that eating a diet full of plenty of carbohydrates impacts your blood sugar. And any health condition that is affected by insulin resistance or high blood sugar may need a diet that is a little lower in carbs.
If you’ve struggled with weight loss on other diets or experience any sort of insulin resistance, a low-carb approach could help.
Or if you’re one of the many women who have PCOS, a low carb diet could help keep your symptoms at bay and improve your fertility. (Assuming you really DO have PCOS, which is a whole other issue.)
And if you’ve been diagnosed with pre-diabetes or diabetes, cutting down on your carbohydrate consumption can be helpful in managing your blood sugar.
It’s also worth mentioning that certain high-level endurance athletes also may benefit from the long-lasting energy that a lower carb, higher fat diet provides. Of course, these athletes must eat way more total calories than the average person, so their overal grams of carbs may be similar to someone with a more typical activity level.
Whether you think you need more or less carbohydrates in your diet, it’s important to have your individual dietary needs evaluated before proceeding with a dietary change.
No one diet will work for everyone. And basing your dietary choices off what someone else is or isn’t doing is not a recipe for success.
Ideally, you should work with your own personal healthcare provider to establish your individualized needs. (I can help with that!)
And if you think you might be someone who could benefit from a lower carb approach, I have a FREE resource for you. Click here to download my Fed and Fearless Guide to the Ketogenic Diet.
So You Need to Eat More Carbs. Now What?
Figuring out if you actually do need more carbs in your diet isn’t always easy.
The first step is evaluating how you’re feeling. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms I’ve mentioned, it’s likely that a higher carb approach would work for you.
But realizing you need to eat more carbohydrates is often only the tip of the iceberg. If you’ve been restricting this macro for any amount of time, your body might not respond kindly to the rapid reintroduction of higher-carb foods.
Transitioning your diet back to one that includes more carbs might take some trial and error. And if this is the case for you, I’m here to help!
In my private practice, I’ve helped women like you overcome the negative effects of a low carb diet.
I’d love to work with you and help you find healing and a more well-rounded diet. Click here to sign up for a strategy session with me where we’ll come up with a game plan for improving your health with a higher carb diet!
Now you tell me, do you think you need more carbs in your diet? Have you benefitted from a higher carb diet yourself? Share your story in the comments below!