Men occupy an interesting place in the health sphere. While there’s a disparity—albeit one that’s approaching parity—between men and women in the conventional medical literature, in the alternative health world, it’s flipped. Women are a “special interest” group, and their specific health issues and special considerations related to diet and exercise receive a lot of attention, often as a way to counteract the conventional imbalance—and because women tend to be higher consumers of health information. I have far more posts (including a post on Keto For Women) explicitly directed toward women and women’s issues (and the same can be said across many ancestral health sites).
Men are assumed to be “the default,” requiring no special consideration, but is that actually true?
Today, I’ll be talking about any special considerations men should make when following a Keto Reset plan.
Play At the Margins
Historically, anthropologically, and biologically speaking, men can tolerate great variations in environmental intensity. They’re usually (not always of course) the ones going to war, performing great feats of physical endurance and strength, willingly subjecting themselves to misery and pain, as well as being more violent and getting into the most trouble. (On the whole) carrying more muscle mass, secreting more testosterone, and being physically larger than the opposite sex will tend to make all that possible. We see this kind of sexual dimorphism play out across most mammals, and there’s no reason to think humans are any different.
Most of us don’t have these extreme situations foisted on us any more, but we still thrive doing them. Try a 2-day fast. Do one meal a day. Eat a 3-pound steak, then no meat at all the next day. Eat a dozen eggs for breakfast (whenever that happens). Try lots of seemingly extreme experiments to see what works. It may be that you thrive doing the occasional intense bout of keto bravado. Only one way to find out.
Whereas women tend to have a lower tolerance for perturbations in caloric intake for their potential impact on fertility status, men have far more leeway. Take advantage of that.
Be As Strict As Possible Early On
I’m not going to mince words. Get strict. Most of the men I encounter who are having problems with keto do better the stricter they are. For women, it’s often the opposite—they need to relax their keto adherence and just eat.
Don’t mess around with carb refeeds, pre-workout carbs, or “just one donut hole” until you have a good thing going. Get those fat-burning mitochondria built. Stay strong and stay strict.
Manage Your Stress Levels
This is good general advice for everyone on any diet, but it’s especially so for men eating keto.
A big part of traditional masculinity (for better and worse) is stoicism—the ability to soldier on through a difficult situation. This is, on balance, often a good yet misunderstood trait that gets a bad rap that it doesn’t always deserve. Stoicism isn’t unfeeling. At its healthiest, it’s the ability to address the feelings without being ruled by them. It’s feeling grief without letting your life fall to pieces. These are positive ways to respond to life’s slings and arrows. But this can lead to a denial of the physiological ramifications of stress and a failure to manage them with anti-stress behaviors.
Keto does not make you impervious to stress. Being a man does not make you impervious to stress. There are still limits to the amount of stress we can tolerate, physiological ones that no one should try to transcend. At those levels, “mind over matter” stops working. Stress will spike cortisol, blunt testosterone, and make all that decidedly non-keto junk food all the more attractive and alluring.
Monitor Your Testosterone Levels
For the most part, going keto tends to improve testosterone levels:
It reduces body fat. Researchers have known for decades that carrying extra body fat depresses testosterone levels, and that losing the extra fat restores them. In fact, a recent study found that a man’s body weight is such a fantastic predictor of low testosterone and poor sexual function that the authors recommend it should be used as a standard biomarker for evaluating testosterone levels. If keto is helping you lose body fat, it’s probably improving your T levels.
It increases saturated fat and cholesterol intake. Both nutrients (yes, nutrients) are important building blocks for the production of testosterone. Studies show that low-fat, high-fiber diets lower testosterone in men, while diets higher in saturated fat increase it.
Once the initial exodus of body fat is over, though, you have to be more vigilant. Calories can dip too low. Deficiencies of micronutrients you haven’t been thinking about may start to surface. And this can all impact your testosterone levels.
Make sure you’re not starving yourself. Men are built to handle and even prosper from acute boluses of extreme caloric restriction or expenditure (fasts, heavy training), but extended bouts can destroy our hormonal profile. Just look at what happens to a seasoned bodybuilder preparing for competition with caloric restriction and intense training—their testosterone tanks and their cortisol shoots up.
Make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of the pro-testosterone micronutrients. Zinc, vitamin D (either through sun exposure, vitamin D-rich foods like wild salmon, eggs, cod liver oil, or supplementation), saturated fat, cholesterol, magnesium. Using a tool like Cronometer can help you track them and get your diet in order.
Don’t Let Keto Take Over
Men tend to obsess over things that interest them. We scour the literature, try to optimize everything, spend every waking moment thinking about how to do something—in this case, keto—better. We can get a little iron-willed and myopic if we don’t watch ourselves.
Focus is all well and good, but not if it starts impeding your ability to handle other aspects of health that are no less important.
Don’t stay up ’til 2 A.M. arguing on keto forums and reading PubMed abstracts. Get your sleep.
Don’t become a recluse because none of your friends understand your “weird keto thing.” Maintain your social relationships, your community.
Don’t stop sprinting because you measured your blood glucose once after a hill session and it spiked. Exercise is equally important.
Make Sure You’re Lifting
Keto does not replace strength training.
I’m a firm proponent of weight lifting for everyone—man, woman, elderly, and sometimes child (depending on the child). The benefits are unassailable and vast. Carrying lean muscle mass is a wholly beneficial trait for everyone.
But you have to admit, it’s especially crucial for a man. There’s nothing more indicative of poor metabolic health than the male skinny fat look. I see far too many men on keto diets who carry around the skinny fat look, and it’s usually because they aren’t lifting anything heavy. Yeah, you’re burning a lot of fat. Yeah, you’ve got some nice-looking mitochondria. Yeah, keto is protein-sparing. But are you using those mitochondria? Are you taking advantage of that lost dead weight to do some extra pull-ups? Are you content with merely limiting the number of amino acids your ketogenic metabolic state extracts from your muscle tissue, or are you going to build brand new muscle tissue?
Get to it.
That’s what I’ve got. What about you? Can you folks recommend any special tips, tricks, or tactics for men doing a keto diet?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.