It seems like these days, everyone’s going keto. But what exactly is a keto diet? And is it really healthy to eat so much fat?
The high-fat ketogenic diet was originally designed for epilepsy, however studies now show that this way of eating can be beneficial for those suffering from obesity, cancer, type-2 diabetes, as well as people looking to increase energy, lose excess body fat and enhance cognitive function. Although keto is not for everybody, it’s certainly interesting and deserves at least some of the attention it’s getting.
Nutritional ketosis refers to a metabolic state in which your body burns ketones instead of glucose for energy. Ketones are an energy source made in the liver when there are not enough carbohydrates to be burned for energy. The body enters ketosis when blood sugar levels are below a certain level and glycogen (the storage form of glucose) is no longer available to produce glucose for energy.
(Just to be crystal clear–what we’re talking about here is nutritional ketosis. This is not the same as diabetic ketoacidosis, which is a life-threatening complication of type 1 diabetes, when high levels of ketones build up because there is not enough insulin to metabolize blood glucose. For healthy people without type 1 diabetes who engage in nutritional ketosis, ketones are regulated and controlled, and blood pH remains buffered within normal limits.)
What’s the point of nutritional ketosis?
The goal of the keto diet is to shift the body’s metabolism in favor of burning fat instead of sugar for fuel. When you’re adhering to nutritional ketosis, your cells burn fat to produce ketones. Ketones burn efficiently and quickly in the body, so they are a great source of energy, especially for the brain. Being in ketosis fosters metabolic efficiency and flexibility, which means that the body is trained to readily switch into fat-burning mode instead of relying on a hit of sugar (glucose) every couple hours from a snack or meal. A healthy metabolism should be able to shift easily between fat and sugar as a primary fuel source.
The keto diet is in complete contrast to the Standard American Diet (SAD) which is full of sugar and carbohydrates and lacks adequate healthy fat. High-carb diets cause metabolic inefficiency because the body relies on burning glucose (sugar) for fuel. People who are sugar-burners are constantly hungry and craving foods. They struggle to get from one meal to the next without a snack and are often on a blood sugar roller coaster all day. The metabolic process of burning glucose produces a lot of free radicals which are the driving force behind inflammation and accelerated aging.
What are the specific benefits of keto?
- Lower blood sugar and increase insulin sensitivity
- Reduced excess body fat – dietary fat is very satiating and demolishes sugar cravings, therefore a high-fat diet controls hunger and regulates appetite
- Enhanced cognitive function
- Reduced inflammation and oxidative damage
- Freedom from carb and sugar cravings
What are the potential downsides of a keto diet?
- Difficult to follow – every meal must be planned and calculated, at least for the first 4-6 weeks when you’re re-training your metabolism. It’s incredibly restrictive, requiring elimination of many vegetables such as beets, carrots, and sweet potatoes because they’re higher in carbs.
- Chronic low-grade acidosis – eating too many acidic foods can deplete the body of minerals which has adverse consequences such as increased inflammation and potential bone loss. Solution: include lots of alkaline foods (like veggies!)
- Constipation – some people don’t include enough nutrient-dense, low-carb vegetables in their keto diet and don’t get enough dietary fiber to keep things movin’!
- Stress on hormones – men seem to do better on a ketogenic diet than women. This is likely due to the fact that carb-restricted diets can negatively affect reproductive health and fertility in women.
How to Start a Keto Diet
If you’re interested in trying the ketogenic diet, I recommend doing so under doctor or nutritionist supervision, at least at first. If you decide to do it on your own, pick up a book like The Keto Reset Diet by Mark Sisson and figure out your macronutrient guidelines (amount of fats, proteins and carbs) using a keto calculator. A good keto cookbook helps too. Below is the general keto macronutrient breakdown:
Carbohydrates – 5-10%
Protein – max of 20%
Healthy fats – 70-80%
In order to get into nutritional ketosis, it’s super important that you don’t just increase your consumption of healthy fat. You MUST also dramatically decrease your consumption of sugar and carbs. Keto also restricts protein because excess dietary protein can get converted to glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis.
First step in moving towards ketosis is ditching sugar, flour, grains and refined vegetable oils and replacing them with nutrient-dense low-carb veggies and healthy fats. Emphasize healthy fats as your main calorie source. You’ll be eating heaps of extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, MCT oil, nuts and seeds, olives, avocados and coconut, while decreasing carb consumption to less than 50 grams per day. For weight loss, it may need to be even lower–more like 20-25 grams each day.
Figuring out the right amount of dietary carbs that gets you into ketosis may take some trial and error at first. For this reason, it can be helpful use urine keto test strips to check your level of ketones. For more accuracy, check your blood ketones using a ketone meter.
I recommend getting your carbohydrates from vegetables, especially leafy greens like kale, spinach, chard, beet greens, romaine lettuce, arugula, etc. You can eat them raw and cooked, added to smoothies, or made into soups. While you’re training your metabolism to burn fat for fuel, you’ll likely need to avoid fruit, at least until you’re keto-adapted (meaning: consistently in ketosis and burning fat as your primary fuel).
The amount of protein you can eat to maintain ketosis will depend on your activity level so use the keto calculator to help you figure out what will be best for you based on your goals. Best sources include wild fish, grass-fed meat, eggs, organic poultry, nuts and seeds.
You want to maintain nutritional ketosis for at least six weeks, at which time your body becomes fat-adapted and you’ll have the metabolic flexibility to experiment with other foods that aren’t on the keto plan. For example, you could try adding more carbs (in the form of veggies) to figure out your threshold.
Here’s a keto breakfast shake to get you started:
- 1 scoop collagen peptides
- 2 tablespoons almond butter
- 2 tablespoons ground flax seeds
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
- 5 drops of liquid monk fruit sweetener
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- Tiny pinch of salt
- 1 ½ cups of unsweetened coconut or almond milk
Not ready for keto just yet?
Start with intermittent fasting. I recommend starting with a 12-hour fast each night between dinner and breakfast. Once that feels comfortable and easy, try going a little longer–experiment with finding your fasting sweet spot between 13 and 16 hours. For instance, finish dinner by 6pm and eat breakfast at 10am. You’ll experience many of the same healthy benefits without as much work!