Because carbohydrates can play a role in balancing hormones, losing weight, exercise recovery, thyroid support and energy maintenance, a woman's need for this nutrient may differ from a man's. Some women adopt a moderately low-carb plan that includes 100 to 150 grams of carbs per day; some hover between 50 and 100 grams; and others restrict intake to a very low 50 grams or fewer daily. The plan you choose determines what your menu looks like on any average day.
A Low-Carb Intake for a Woman
The number of carbs in a low-carb diet varies. Moderately low-carb diets have you consume 100 to 150 grams per day, allowing you about 1/2 cup of grains or a cup of dairy at most meals, as well as one to two pieces of fruit daily. More restrictive low-carb diets limit you to 50 grams of carbs or fewer per day. Usually you count net carbs on these plans. Net carbs are those that are digestible and affect your blood sugar. To figure net carbs, subtract a food's fiber grams from its total carb grams.
As a woman, determining how many carbs constitutes an effective, low-carb diet isn't simple. While low-carb diets can help you lose weight and stabilize blood sugar, women's needs vary. Consider how active you are. Highly active women who regularly do high-intensity workouts may need slightly more carbohydrates. If you find you recover slowly from workouts, or if your thyroid is underactive even though you're medicated and eat well, a moderately low-carb intake might be best. If your menstrual cycle is irregular, or you're pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your doctor before trying a low-carb diet.
Moderately Low-Carb Diet Plans
On any low-carb plan, you'll eat mostly animal-based proteins and leafy green vegetables. A woman restricting her intake to 100 to 150 grams of net carbs daily can afford 1/2 cup of whole grains at meals, including brown rice, quinoa and barley. You may also include milk and an occasional piece of fruit at some meals.
For breakfast, eat eggs scrambled with cheddar cheese and spinach along with 1 cup of fresh raspberries for a meal with just 9 net carbs. A lunch of raw vegetables with roasted chicken and an apple costs about 20 grams of carbs. A dinner of stir-fried steak with 1 cup of steamed broccoli and 1 cup of brown rice amounts to 46 net carb grams. Have a snack of celery with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter for another 7 grams of carbs and 24 roasted almonds with a glass of low-fat milk for 14 grams to round out your day.
If you're aiming for 150 grams per day, add even more carbs -- such as 1 cup of cooked, rolled oats with breakfast and another piece of fruit. For a 50- to 100-gram carbohydrate-per-day diet, limit carbs more. Skip 1/2 cup of the raspberries at breakfast to save 3 grams of net carbs, eliminate the milk at snack time to save 12 grams and stick to just 1/2 cup of brown rice at dinner to save 23 grams.
More Restrictive Low-Carb Diet Plans
Very restrictive low-carb diet plans limit you to 50 grams of net carbs a day, with some programs going as low as 20 grams daily. The intention is to put your body into a state of ketosis, where your body becomes more efficient at burning fat and produces chemicals called ketones to fuel the brain. A ketogenic diet may accelerate weight loss, improve sports performance and improve health, but isn't necessarily right for every woman -- especially endurance athletes or those looking to gain weight.
A strict low-carb meal plan will feature more fat than you might be accustomed to eating. A typical breakfast consists of bacon and scrambled eggs. At lunch, have a ground beef patty with cheddar cheese and a lettuce salad. For dinner, enjoy stir-fried chicken with watery, fibrous vegetables. Snacks could include avocado, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and deli meat.
Specific Needs for Women on Low-Carb Diets
Women need ample amounts of calcium and iron to support good health. Major sources of bone-building calcium include milk, with 12 grams of carbs per cup, and flavored yogurt with about 20 grams of carbs per cup. These foods are largely off-limits on a low-carb plan, so be sure to eat plenty of lower-carb options that provide calcium, such as almonds, cheese, kale and canned salmon with bones. Given the limited amount of calcium in a low-carb diet, it's important to talk to your doctor about the need for a calcium supplement.
Iron helps support energy and healthy red blood cells. A low-carb diet that includes lots of red meat likely provides enough of this important mineral, which is helpful, because pre-menopausal women are at particular risk of being iron deficient. Steamed spinach and canned sardines are other low-carb sources of iron.
Because they may interfere with hormone production, extremely low-carb diets can be problematic for some women. Eating too few carbs can interrupt your menstrual cycle, leading to amenorrhea. Being on a very low-carb diet can also disrupt your production of thyroid hormones over time, particularly T3 and reverse T3. Low-carb diets can make T3 too low and rT3 too high, possibly resulting in a slowing of metabolism, fatigue, poor concentration and irritability.
Listen to your body as you lower your carb intake. If you start to experience negative side effects, consider revising your diet slightly.
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Low-Carbohydrate Nutrition and Metabolism
- Atkins: Carb Counter
- Authority Nutrition: The Ketogenic Diet 101: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Calcium
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Iron
- Authority Nutrition: Do Very Low-Carb Diets Mess Up Some Women’s Hormones?