If you have picked up a health magazine or scrolled through facebook recently chances are you’ve heard the term Keto or Ketogenic Diet being thrown around. There is a lot buzz surrounding this diet recently because of its benefits such as weight loss, reducing type 2 diabetes and tons of mental clarity throughout the day. You might be wondering what does this style of eating entail and is this sustainable for your lifestyle. Let’s dive into what the ketogenic diet is, the pros, the cons and if this is the right health move for you.
What Is the Ketogenic Diet?
Let’s start with the basics.
Your body loves two sources of fuel to run on: glucose and ketones (made by burning stored body fat). Both give the body energy and help to it keep running all day long. However, both forms of fuel are not created equally. Glucose is made from eating sugar and carbohydrates while ketones are made when the body burns fat.
Glucose is your bodies favorite food because it gives it the quickest source of energy and is metabolized first in the body. Glucose gives you a short burst of energy but that energy is not sustainable long term. When glucose is present in the bloodstream the hormone insulin is released to bring down your blood sugar levels which is necessary but excess insulin also results in fat storage and a higher risk for Type 2 Diabetes. When your blood sugar begins to drop back down you experience cravings for more glucose (energy), fatigue, hunger and irritability. As you can see glucose may not be the best source of energy for your body.
The alternative? Ketones.
When your body has used up it’s stored glucose (glycogen) the body must burn fat, producing ketones which gives us energy. Fat intake elongates your blood sugar curve throughout the day and gives a steady energy flow without the ups and downs like glucose. Ketones are a cleaner fuel source for the body allowing you to have mental clarity and more stable emotions because you are not hindered by hunger and irritability aka “hanger.” (I think we have all been there!) This “fuel” comes from burning fat which is why it is such an effective form of weight loss. Your brain uses a lot of energy to keep running all day long and ketones give it a clean source of fuel.
So how do you get the body to switch from burning glucose to burning fat?
You must get rid of all stored glucose in the body and only intake a very small amount throughout the day. To burn through all stored glucose and for your body to tap into it’s stored fat to use as fuel, this can take anywhere from two days to two weeks as long as you are not replacing it by eating higher levels of carbohydrates. Once your body has used up its glucose it will then switch over to burn fat as energy. When fat is being burned Ketones are released into the bloodstream, these ketones are what give you the clean, stable energy source with mental clarity throughout the day. These ketones are where the name “Ketogenic Diet” comes from.
Unlike many fad diets that lack sustainability and limited success this style of eating has been around since the the 1920’s and is based upon nutritional science and physiology. It was first designed to help patients with epilepsy and researchers found a lot of beneficial information from those studies such as how the body reacts to diets involving low carb and windows of fasting. (Both are becoming popular again today!) The ketogenic diet may have been around for a century but the benefits have only just begun to get popular in recent years.
5 Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet
- Weight Loss
For most people weight loss is the driving factor and biggest motivator to start a diet. With the ketogenic diet your body essentially turns itself into a fat burning machine that goes beyond a fad diet. It can take a few days even a couple weeks to get into true ketosis but once this happens weight loss will happen at a steady pace and often times without the feeling of being hungry due do the high fat intake. Reaching a healthy weight will help balance hormones, improve joint pain and reduce the risk for the most common diseases.
Ketones also suppress ghrelin, which is your hunger hormone making it easier to go for longer periods without eating or simply eating less throughout the day. This will help you get from meal to meal without feeling like you are starving or being deprived.
One thing to keep in mind is that no matter what style of eating you are partaking in you have to remember the basic “weight loss” equation: calories in (eating) < calories out (burning) = weight loss. You can be eating a ketogenic diet (or paleo, or whole 30, etc.) but if you are still consuming more calories than you’re burning the scale will slowly be moving up. The ketogenic diet bio-hacks the body and creates a new route for weight loss using our own physiology only if we are giving it the proper nutrition.
This is an effective form of weight loss because it targets the underlying cause of why you gained weight in the first place. When your body releases ketones and is no longer using sugar as its main source of fuel you are able to tap into hormone imbalances like insulin resistance and bring balance back to your body.
While shedding pounds can be a big motivator, the ketogenic diet has a number of other benefits that could far outweigh the weight loss.
- Diabetes Management
When you reduce your intake of carbohydrates it balances your blood sugar spike reducing the amount of insulin in the blood stream. Insulin is a hormone released when glucose (sugar & carbohydrates) are present. Insulin is a “storage” hormone causing the body to hold on to unwanted fat and plays a big role in systemic inflammation and Type 2 diabetes. When you restrict carbs your body is able to reduce your blood sugar and balance insulin which is imperative for anyone who has insulin resistance or with type 2 diabetes. This is why eating too much sugar and carbohydrates can be harmful to your health and be hindering your wellness goals.
The ketogenic diet is beneficial for people who have both Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes because the need for insulin is much lower if you are not eating excess carbohydrates and sugar resulting in balanced hormones and normal blood sugar levels.
- Protect against Cancer
There are recent studies done to show that a ketogenic diet “starves” cancer cells. Cancer feeds on sugar and an inflammatory diet but when there is no sugar in the body the cancer cells don’t have anything to “eat.” When you are feeding your body excess processed foods, fast foods, and sugar you are creating a feeding frenzy for cancer cells. Regular healthy cells in the body are able to use fat for energy but the research is showing that cancer cells can’t use fat cells the same way. Cancer cells preferred choice of energy is from glucose, which is why the ketogenic diet can be beneficial here. This is becoming a popular topic of research in the wellness community and something that can easily be implemented into one’s lifestyle as a preventative measure for future disease.
- Improve health markers such as heart disease
Studies have shown that eating a low carb diet improves your cholesterol profile, blood pressure levels and all markers for heart disease. When following a keto food plan you are likely to lower your triglycerides, blood glucose and insulin thus improving your overall heart health. From the ketogenic diet you are likely to lose weight which improves overall heart health by reducing the stress and strain on it. You are likely to have more energy throughout the day that can be used to increase your physical activity levels resulting in improved heart health as well.
- Brain health & longevity
During the last century ketogenic diets have been used to treat and even reverse signs of neurological disorders such as epilepsy and alzheimer’s disease. When you cut off glucose and produce ketones this helps heal and protect the brain. There is more and more research coming out to show how beneficial a ketogenic diet could be on patients with other neurological disorders such as headaches, Parkinson’s Disease, sleep disorders, autism and brain damage.
Theres is even evidence to show that a low carb, high fat diet helps you live longer than those who ate a low fat diet. In a study done with more than 135,000 adults spanning 18 countries results showed that those who ate a high carbohydrate diet were at higher risk for mortality. A high fat diet improves brain function and reduces your risk for neurological decline, pair that with the reduction of mortality, you are looking at a longer, healthier life. There is still a long way to go with this research but it looks very promising.
Now that you are understand what the ketogenic diet is and its benefits let’s talk about how to get into ketosis.
How to get into Ketosis
- First you must cut down on all carbohydrates (even natural forms like bananas and potatoes). Ideally less than 10% of your daily calories or 20-30 grams of net carbs a day. (This is after subtracting the amount of fiber you’ve had that day). A good way to approach a ketogenic diet is to start slow and work your way towards this ideal number, you will most likely still see initial benefits from reducing the amount of carbs and sugars you intake.
- Eat fat. Your total fat consumption should be around 70% of your daily calories or 150-180 grams per day if you were eating a 2,000 calorie diet. These daily calories can differ from person to person depending on gender, activity level etc. Healthy fats are very filling and keep you satisfied for hours after eating whereas sugar gives you an immediate burst of energy but soon after an energy crash with hunger tied to it.
- Eat a moderate amount of protein. Unlike a lot of other weight loss or muscle gaining diets keto only calls for a moderate amount of protein a day (10-20% of your daily calories). The reason for this is because the body can change protein into glucose in small amounts, therefore if you eat too much protein you can be hindering weight loss.
- Testing level of ketosis. The best way to truly know if you are in Ketosis is to test it using urine test strips, you can easily find these an amazon.
There are some supplements that can help you transition into Ketosis and stay there. In our office we recommend certain supplements like:
MCT Oil or Exogenous Ketones but these are best used under the care and recommendations of a doctor. While under care at IWC your doctor can help guide you through the ketogenic diet in a safe an effective way with the correct supplementation, instead of trying to do it on your own.
What to eat on a Ketogenic Diet
- Carbs – 20-30 grams a day
- On a ketogenic diet your carbs will be very low which means the majority of your carbohydrates will be coming from non-starchy vegetables
- Green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, collards, arugula, fennel, romaine)
- Cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts)
- Celery, cucumber, zucchini, chives
- Asparagus, mushrooms, bell peppers, sugar snap peas, green beans, tomatoes. (These have a slightly higher carb content but still great to add variety to your meals
- Protein – Your protein intake should be between 1 and 1.5 grams per kilogram of your ideal body weight. (To convert pounds to kilograms, divide your ideal body weight by 2.2)
- Grass fed beef, lamb or venison
- Poultry like chicken and turkey
- Cage free eggs with the yolk
- Fish – tuna, trout, salmon, sardines
- Fat – Your total fat consumption should be around 70% of your daily calories or 150 grams per day if you were eating a 2000 calorie diet.Omega-3 fatty acids from salmon and sardines, tuna, trout
- Oils – MCT oil, coconut oil, olive oil, flaxseed oil, avocado oil
- Grass fed butter and ghee
- Avocados, coconuts
Foods to limit
- Dairy – dairy products should be limited and only eaten when they are organic and full fat. Opt for goats milk or full fat cows milk and hard cheeses.
- Nuts and Seeds – These are very easy to overeat and the carb count can add up quickly. These are a great snack and fiber enhancer just be sure to monitor your intake. (¼ cup a day)
- Fruit (berries)- Berries are fruit that have the least amount of sugar to them but should only be eaten on occasion.
Foods to avoid
- Legumes and Beans
- Fruit with large amount of sugar (bananas, oranges, watermelon, apples)
- Condiments – Avoid the hidden sugar found in most conventional dressings and marinades and opt for cleans versions such as Primal Kitchen or simply make your own!
- Processed foods – (chips, candy, bagged or boxed goods, oatmeals, pancakes, canned soups)
- Any and all grains – oats, rice, quinoa, popcorns, all flours, pastas
- Alcohol and sweetened beverages (soda, juice)
Cons to Keto
The ketogenic diet may seem almost too good to be true, what’s not to love about weight loss and mental clarity? But there is never a one size fits all style of eating, this may not be the right choice for you.
This style of eating can be too restrictive for some people. With the small amount of carbohydrates you’re allowed each day it leaves very little room for “slip ups” like those donuts in the break room. To make this transition easier until you get adjusted, people often start with a moderate form of the ketogenic diet. This means allowing 30-50 grams of carbs per day to start seeing the benefits but easing yourself slowly into a ketogenic lifestyle.
This is not suggested to be long term diet, there are very little downsides to being in ketosis but doctors suggest only following this diet for 3-6 month periods followed by periods of carbohydrate reintroductions. Some people will transition into ketosis for shorter periods of time until they reach their ideal body weight, reduce blood sugar or increase overall health. After those health goals are achieved then they will maintain health by eating a balanced diet of fat, protein and carbs, physical activity and only get into ketosis periodically.
When you are first transitioning into a ketogenic state your body can go through what people call the “keto flu” where you experience flu like symptoms: headaches, fatigue, poor sleep, muscle weakness, etc. To overcome this “flu” make sure you are getting enough electrolytes from foods such as nuts, avocados, salmon and spinach. Reduce the intensity of your workouts for a short period of time until you feel your strength has come back. Drink plenty of water, increase sodium for the time being and consume even more healthy fat if you are feeling hungry.
If you suffer from insomnia be aware that the ketogenic diet could make it worse for some people. This is not the case for everyone, some people sleep better when they eat a meal with healthy fats vs a high carb meal before bed time. If you suffer from anxiety and sleep issues be aware of these symptoms throughout your ketogenic journey.
Another con to keto diet are the people who focus too much on fat and lose sight of a balanced meal with greens and fiber! These dark leafy greens provide essential nutrients to detoxify your body and lack fiber that aids in digestion and feeds your good gut bacteria. A common meal for someone on a keto diet could be bacon, eggs with cheese, and butter “bulletproof” coffee which do fall under the keto umbrella but lack balance and nutrients. This focuses too much on dairy fat and the fat of some industrial meats instead of getting a balance of healthy fats like avocado and olives paired with a wild caught salmon over a bed of dark leafy greens. Ideally you are getting in enough fat at each meal but also balancing that with color from cruciferous vegetables and greens.
Keto meal also a keto meal
Sample day meal plan
Breakfast: Scrambled eggs, spinach with ½ avocado
Lunch: Asian beef salad (with avocado oil & coconut amino dressing)
Dinner: Ground turkey chilli
Breakfast: Chocolate coconut mint smoothie (coconut cream, mint, spinach, cacao powder, collagen protein)
Lunch: Salmon salad with olive oil dressing
Dinner: Cauliflower chicken casserole
I want to try the ketogenic diet- where do I start?
- Read your food labels- This is to make sure you know exactly how many grams of carbohydrates you are eating throughout the day. Make sure to eat clean foods with ingredients you know and can pronounce. It can also be helpful to track your carbs, fats and proteins for a week to know what the correct amount looks like.
- Start slow- Not ready to jump all in? Aim for a lower carb diet around 50-75 grams to start with and slowly work your way towards ketosis. This way you can get comfortable with the types of foods to make and still reap the initial benefits of eating healthier. People will often be very low carb for the majority of the week then allow themselves more carbs on one or two days a week.
- Plan your meals- Find what you’re in the mood to eat, how many meals and snacks you need for the week and go shopping with a plan. Pinterest “keto” recipes and you will find endless amounts of delicious recipes to try.
- Long term maintenance – The ketogenic diet is meant to be used for 3-6 months at a time until you’ve reached your health goals. During the times you are not in ketosis focus on protein, fat and fiber as your main sources of clean energy. You can have a balanced diet of deep greens, healthy fats, nuts & seeds, and good sources of protein while allowing a moderate amount of carbohydrates a day. This can be maintained long term and continue towards optimal health with shorter periods of ketosis.
- Seek support – At Integrative Wellness Centers we have the supplemental support to help you transition into ketosis as well as the Doctors to guide you down the path to ensure you are doing it correctly. Our Wellness Coach, Rachel has informational handouts and additional accountability that guarantees you feel confident and have the necessary tools to start a ketogenic diet.
Just like any diet, this may not be for you. In a previous blog post I wrote about why diets don’t work. They are often too restrictive and have very little long term benefits to them. The ketogenic diet differs from the common fad diet because of its health benefits that go beyond shedding a few pounds for summer such as reducing your risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease and increasing neurological functions.
Start this diet slowly and work your way up to a state of ketosis, that way you can determine if this is the right choice for you. Some people decide to commit and find being ketosis easy to maintain while others like to offset it with higher carb meals a couple times a week. Find what works best for you and your lifestyle! There is not one perfect way to eat that works for everyone. It can often take a couple weeks for your body to fully transition into fat burning mode, so be patient and focus on healing your body as your number one priority.
- Healthy fats are imperative to long term health
- Lower carb diets will reduce blood sugar levels and balance certain hormones
- Focus on eating a variety of foods (greens, color, healthy fats, clean protein sources, fiber)
- Make healing the body and long term health your top priority