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Why women need carbs


There has been a damaging smear campaign against carbohydrates. One that has not only affected their reputation but may also be to the detriment of your health, especially if you’re a woman.

Carbohydrates were viewed, for whatever reason, as being "bad" and the cause of all our weight loss woes. Women were hit hardest by this fear-mongering idea, which created hype around low-carb diets and villainized carbohydrates. All in the name of weight loss.

While it’s obvious in the world of dieting that the high-fat, sugary types of carbs are best avoided or enjoyed in moderation, there’s a real need to emphasize the importance of carbs as a macronutrient – especially for women.

In this article, we’ll explore why women need carbohydrates in their diet, the effect on their body if you remove them, and which types you should choose and which you should avoid.

What are carbohydrates and what’s their purpose?

When most people think of carbohydrates, they think of bread, pasta, pizza, and sweets. And while those are certainly some carb-based foods, carbohydrates are available in many forms, from green leafy vegetables to fruits, whole grain rice, and more. We’ve even ranked carbohydrates from best to worst in a useful guide if you’re looking to get the full rundown.

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrient groups in the human diet, alongside protein and fats. Their primary role is to provide your body with energy, but they also manage blood glucose levels, take part in the metabolism of fats, and support fermentation in the gut.1

What is considered a low-carb diet?

There is no official definition of a low-carb diet (shocking, we know), but some scientists consider eating less than 130 g of carbs a day to be low-carb. That’s equivalent to less than 26% of your daily diet.8 Current guidelines suggest that carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65% of a woman’s daily diet.9

Why do women need carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy and provide glucose to your brain and muscles, enabling them to function correctly. Whether you’re juggling multiple roles, trying to improve your fitness, or training for an endurance event, you’ll need a sustained amount of energy to keep functioning.

To perform at our best, both physically and mentally, we - or specifically women - need fuel. That means eating carbs, the preferred energy source for your brain.2 In addition to being a vital source of energy, carbohydrates are essential to active women for various reasons, such as cognitive function, hormone health, and recovery.

Let’s get into it.

Hormone health

Carbohydrates – specifically the types of carbohydrates – can play a vital role in hormonal balance, particularly insulin and cortisol. These hormones share an inverse relationship, so when insulin levels are high, cortisol levels are low.

A study published in 2019 looked at the stress response in overweight and obese women randomly assigned to whole-food diets based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and the typical American Diet (TAD). Cortisol, a hormone associated with stress response, was measured.

The researchers found no statistical difference in cortisol levels between the two diets. However, they found that those with an increased consumption of carbs from a whole-food diet experienced a reduction in salivary cortisol levels. Therefore, this suggests that substituting processed carbs for whole-food carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains could positively impact stress by lowering circulating cortisol levels.3

This underscores a crucial point we mentioned earlier: not all carbohydrates are equal.

Instead of eliminating this vital macronutrient altogether, prioritize replacing highly processed carbs with their complex counterparts.

Menstrual health and hormonal balance

The impact of low-carb diets on female hormones, menstruation, and fertility are mixed. Some research shows that low-carb diets, such as the Ketogenic Diet, can improve hormonal balances associated with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).10

Yet, some women who eat less carbohydrates, and calories in general, observe adverse changes to their menstrual cycle. Amenorrhoea, or the absence of a menstrual cycle for at least three months, is a reported adverse effect of the Ketogenic Diet.11

Overall, women’s hormones appear to be sensitive to energy intake, so dipping into the lower end of carb consumption may lead to hormone imbalances. Before cutting carbs, consult your healthcare provider and consider the hormonal implications of removing an entire macronutrient from your diet. While it may seem like a quick fix for weight loss, the potential long-term damage could outweigh the short-term benefits of shedding those few kilos.


Your brain needs glucose to function properly, and carbohydrates are key to this. But not all carbs are created equal, so it’s essential to eat ones that will give you that cognitive boost.

For example, simple sugars are associated with poor cognitive outcomes, whereas complex carbohydrates are linked to proper brain aging and improved memory in the short and long term.4 So, by eating sources of complex carbs like green leafy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, you’ll deliver the fuel your brain needs for cognitive function.

Carbohydrates and exercise

Active women generally need more carbs, but your requirements can change depending on your life situation.

If you exercise regularly or want to build muscle, you’ll need to consume carbohydrates. Exercise burns a lot of fuel, so it’s important to make sure you eat enough carbs to give your body the energy it needs to complete your session. If you’re finding it difficult to finish your workout session or feel a slump in energy, this can be a sign that you need to eat more carbs.

Muscle growth and recovery

Carbohydrates are not only fuel for your training sessions, but they’re also essential in bolstering recovery and fostering muscle growth.

During intense workouts, muscle glycogen (the stored form of glucose) gets used up. Eating carbohydrates helps replenish glycogen stores, providing energy for subsequent workouts and supporting muscle recovery.5

Research recommends that consuming at least 1.2 g of carbs per kilogram of body mass per hour - on average 30-60 g - for the first few hours post-exercise can aid recovery and replenish glycogen stores.6

If you regularly exercise and are skimping on the carbs, this can cause a spike in your cortisol levels. Cortisol, as well as being an important player in stress, is also a catabolic hormone. That means if cortisol levels are increased, it will prevent muscle growth, resulting in reduced muscle mass and strength.7 If you want the gains (and trust us, there are so many reasons why you do!), carbs are going to be your bread and butter – literally.

Let’s recap

Let’s not overcomplicate things – carbs are fuel. And we all perform better, both women and men alike, in a fed state. Beyond serving as a primary source of energy, carbohydrates are crucial for fueling the brain, central nervous system, and muscles during physical activity.

For women specifically, they also play a key role in maintaining a healthy reproductive system, regulating their mood, and influencing a stable hormonal system. It’s time to stop villainizing carbs, and hype them up for the hero they truly are.

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[1] Carbohydrates. (2024). The Nutrition Source. Available at: [Accessed 01 February 2024]

[2] Mergenthaler, P., Lindauer, U., Dienel, G. A., & Meisel, A. (2013). Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function. Trends in neurosciences, 36(10), 587–597.

[3] Soltani, H., Keim, N. L., & Laugero, K. D. (2019). Increasing Dietary Carbohydrates as Part of a Healthy Whole Food Diet Intervention Dampens Eight Week Changes in Salivary Cortisol and Cortisol Responsiveness. Nutrients, 11(11), 2563.

[4] Muth, A-K & Park, S, Q. (2021). The impact of dietary macronutrient intake on cognitive function and the brain. Clinical Nutrition: 40(6), pp 3999-4010.

[5] Alghannam, A. F., Gonzalez, J. T., & Betts, J. A. (2018). Restoration of Muscle Glycogen and Functional Capacity: Role of Post-Exercise Carbohydrate and Protein Co-Ingestion. Nutrients, 10(2), 253.

[6] Gonzalez, J. T., & Wallis, G. A. (2021). Carb-conscious: the role of carbohydrate intake in recovery from exercise. Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care, 24(4), 364–371.

[7] Katsuhara, S et al. (2021). Impact of Cortisol on Reduction in Muscle Strength and Mass: A Mendelian Randomization Study. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism: 107(4), pp e1477-e1487.

[8] Oh R, Gilani B, Uppaluri KR. Low-Carbohydrate Diet. [Updated 2023 Aug 17]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from:

[9] Appendix E-3.1.A4. nutritional goals for each age/sex group used in assessing adequacy of USDA food patterns at various calorie levels (no date) Appendix E-3.1.A4. Available at: (Accessed: 02 February 2024).

[10] Khalid, K et al. (2023). Effects of Ketogenic Diet on Reproductive Hormones in Women With Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Journal of the Endocrine Society: 7(10).

[11] Payne, N. E., Cross, J. H., Sander, J. W., & Sisodiya, S. M. (2011). The ketogenic and related diets in adolescents and adults--a review. Epilepsia, 52(11), 1941–1948.