Everybody’s talking about the Ketogenic diet and with good reason, considering obesity and inflammatory diseases have reached epidemic proportions. In this post, I’ll try and simplify (hence the name, “Keto for Dummies”) the ins and outs of why this way of eating is beneficial, the risk factors, and how it can be modified to make it user-friendly.
The ultimate goal of the keto diet is to induce ketosis, a metabolic state in which the liver breaks down fat to produce ketones. Ketones are made when the body breaks down fat for energy due to carbohydrate restriction, and in response to low insulin levels in the blood. Instead of using glucose, the body’s main energy source for fuel, fat is combusted for energy instead, putting the body into a desired state of ketosis. This state is where the magic happens.
Ketones are a super fuel for the brain. This is why people notice their brain fog diminishes, and their mental clarity skyrockets when the body utilizes ketones for energy. Evidence has shown that a well-designed keto diet is safe for the majority of people, and is a first-line defense against obesity, diabetes, and neurological diseases. Low-carb diets have an impressive history in clinical medicine, and have been found to be far more effective for weight loss and chronic disease than diets that are low in fat.
The Ketogenic Diet
The Ketogenic diet was originally designed in the 1920s, by the Mayo Clinic, for patients with epilepsy. Also called the long-chain triglyceride diet, the diet was tailored so that approximately 90% of a person’s daily caloric intake comes from fat. Macronutrients consist of moderate-protein, high-fat, and low-carb, with carbohydrate restriction being central.
Keeping carbs in check is what produces all the amazing benefits the keto diet has to offer, including reduced insulin levels, increased fat-burning, and a more-optimal fat-to-muscle ratio. Low carb/high fat diets produce positive changes in the ratio of neurotransmitters in the brain, namely glutamate and GABA. The goal for people with epilepsy is to increase GABA, the calming neurotransmitter, while reducing glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that is implicated in seizures.
The keto diet, sometimes referred to as the New Atkins diet, is similar to the Atkins eating plan, but is more effective because of its emphasis on food quality, increased vegetable intake, and limitations in protein consumption. Limiting protein is significant since amino acids can be converted into glucose, via a process in the liver, called gluconeogenesis. Weight loss is the result of ketone production, increased fat burning, and reduced insulin levels.
In society today, the focus of the keto diet is primarily centered around weight loss, improved insulin control, diabetes prevention, reduced cardiovascular risk, and better mental clarity. Obesity is a risk factor associated with many diseases and conditions, including fatty liver disease, atherosclerosis, hypertension, high triglycerides, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. The diet produces effects similar to fasting, yet is much more sustainable.
Fat Burner Vs. Sugar Burner
Today we are a population of sugar burners, with our main supply of calories coming from carbohydrates. This is why most people are ravenously hungry three or four hours after a meal. This scenario sets the stage for insulin-resistance to develop, and eventually full-blown diabetes, if the process isn’t curtailed.
The ultimate goal of the keto diet is to utilize body fat stores for energy instead of glucose from carbs. The effect is two fold: not only can weight loss be achieved, but you get to enjoy a superior form of energy that is far more efficient. Fat burns longer and cleaner than does glucose. This more-efficient burn stabilizes blood sugar levels to keep you energized and focused for longer periods of time.
In order for fat-burning to be initiated, glycogen stores in the liver and muscles must first be depleted. Glycogen is a storage form of glucose or carbohydrate. Humans store approximately 400 calories of glycogen in the liver, and around 1500 calories in skeletal muscle. That’s roughly 2000 calories give or take. This stored glycogen is what allows us to sleep through the night without experiencing blood sugar highs and lows. It’s also necessary to keep glucose levels stable between meals, during periods of fasting, and during times of stress.
Once glycogen levels are depleted, the body is forced to find another fuel source. Fat is the preferential energy source when carb-intake is kept low. The diet stimulates weight loss because body fat, along with the fat in the diet, is being burned for energy. The keto way of eating is a great tool for reducing inflammation, because it naturally eliminates inflammatory foods like gluten, high-glycemic snack foods, liquid calories, and grains. It also decreases inflammation by lowering insulin and minimizing blood sugar swings.
Keto Allowable Foods
Protein-rich foods: Grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, shellfish, free-range poultry, and high-quality protein powders. This is the one I use.
Dairy: Butter, cream, eggs, cheese, and yogurt.
Healthy fats: Nuts, seeds, oils, olives, and avocados.
Low-carb vegetables: Low-starch vegetables and salads are an important component of the diet due to their micronutrient and fiber content. Grains, starches, and root vegetables are eaten in moderation. Leafy-green smoothies are a delicious way to incorporate vegetables and berries.
Berries: Most fruit is not recommended due to its carbohydrate content. Berries, however are both low-carb and high in fiber and phytonutrients.
Unsweetened coffee and tea: Both are low-carb as long as they are not sweetened with sugar. Adding cream is fine.
Dark chocolate and cocoa powder: Dark unsweetened chocolate with a minimum of 70% cocoa solids is recommended. I like Lindt’s 85% chocolate bars.
Benefits Of The Ketogenic Diet
- Weight loss – low carb diets are effective at lowering insulin levels, which stimulates fat burning
- Better endurance and stamina – through the utilization of fat for energy
- Diabetes prevention – glucose and insulin are better regulated
- Reduced cancer risk – by depriving cancer cells of their primary fuel source, which is glucose
- Improved mental function – due to the brain’s ability to use ketones for energy
- Longevity – by lowering inflammation and improving mitochondrial function
- Reduced cravings and less hunger – by utilizing fat as the main fuel source
- May reduce symptoms of PCOS – due to lowered insulin levels and better hormonal balance
- Lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels – these markers improve as insulin levels are reduced
- Seizure disorders – as discussed above
Keto For Dummies / Troubleshooting
It can be easy to overeat protein when first implementing a low-carb diet. Remember that amino acids can be converted into glucose via gluconeogenesis, This can defeat the primary goal of the diet, which is to reduce glucose. Also, excess protein consumption can feed systemic infections and stress the kidneys.
Another potential issue when implementing a keto diet is that magnesium stores can become depleted. This is because foods that are keto-recommended are high in calcium. Since calcium and magnesium oppose each other, eating foods rich in calcium, in the face of already low magnesium levels, can further exacerbate a pre-existing magnesium deficiency.
Magnesium is a critical mineral that is involved in numerous functions in the body, one of which is directing calcium into the bones and teeth, and out of the soft tissues where it can cause calcification. This is my all-time favorite magnesium supplement.
Thyroid function may be adversely affected if too few carbs are consumed. This is counterintuitive as optimal thyroid function is necessary to stimulate and maintain weight loss, which is the goal of the keto diet. However, the storage form of thyroid hormone (T4) requires insulin in order to be converted to the active form of the hormone (T3). This conversion may not happen if glucose levels are too low, resulting in reduced thyroid function.
The human factor also needs to be taken into account when starting any new diet. Lifestyle modification requires self-control and willpower. Restricting comfort foods such as grains, starches and baked goods requires a paradigm shift. Keeping carbs under 50 grams is not for the faint of heart, and some people may quit in sheer frustration. Stress hormones like cortisol, can also rise if carb-intake is too low for a particular metabolism.
You may or may not notice the following symptoms when starting a keto diet. The good news is these symptoms are usually temporary:
- Mental fog
- Poor sleep
- Muscle weakness and cramping
- Irregular menstrual cycle
- Bad breath
There are different types of ketogenic diets based on macronutrient ratios and the amount of carbohydrates that are incorporated into the daily eating plan:
The Standard Ketogenic diet is the most widely used, and the most extensively researched form of the diet. This is a very low-carb diet that is moderate in protein and high in fat: 10% of total calories come from carbohydrate, 20% from protein, and 70% from fat.
The High-Protein Ketogenic diet includes more protein, coming in around 35%, with 60% of calories coming from fat, and 5% coming from carbs. It’s still considered a high-fat diet.
The Cyclical and Targeted Ketogenic diets cater to athletes and bodybuilders. The Targeted diet allows for more carbohydrates on days of intense physical exercise. True to its name, the Cyclical diet is cyclical, alternating between low-carb days and days where more carbs are consumed: for instance, five low-carb keto days followed by two days where more carbohydrate is allowed.
If you’re new to the Ketogenic diet, and dieting in general, begin my implementing a moderate-protein, high-fat, and moderate-carb eating plan. You can gradually lower your carbs over time as your body becomes more adept at burning fat. Some people, particularly women, may have uncomfortable hormonal swings if carb intake is too low initially.
Experiment and tweak your macronutrient ratios to see how low you can keep your carbs and still feel well. The ratio of macronutrients corresponds to how much ATP we make in our mitochondria. ATP is the energy currency of the body. When we make optimal amounts we feel well, when we don’t, our health suffers. We are all biochemically unique, and have different requirements in terms of the ratio of macronutrients are metabolisms require.
Here’s a great Ketogenic diet audiobook with over 125 easy-to-follow recipes
You can also cycle on and off the keto diet. Use if for a few weeks in order to lose weight, reduce insulin, and lower inflammation. You can then increase your carb intake to a more moderate level for a few weeks. The keto diet is highly effective when used in conjunction with intermittent fasting. Following this type of diet is not an exact science, but more of an experimental journey into more vibrant health. Don’t worry if your journey doesn’t look like someone else’s.
There are a variety of ways to check ketone levels, including urine, breath, and blood testing. Each has its own set of pros and cons:
1. Urine testing is the most convenient and least expensive method of ketone testing, however the results may not be as reliable as breath or blood testing.
2. Breath testing is another method used to check ketones. It is more accurate than urine testing. A ketone breath analyzer, although more expensive than urine strips, is a one-time purchase, and you can test as often as you like without the hassle of continually buying strips.
3. Blood testing is the most accurate, but also the most expensive way to measure ketones. Blood meters, like the Keto-Mojo Blood Ketone Kit, are convenient to use because you can instantly sync your ketone and glucose readings to an app on your phone, which will automatically calculate your GKI or Glucose Ketone Index. This measurement provides a peek into your metabolic health and state of ketosis. You will need to purchase strips periodically.
We all vary biochemically and metabolically. The exact diet that worked for your friend may not leave you feeling your best. Use your body as a laboratory, and listen closely to the signals it sends.
Are you or someone you know on a Ketogenic diet? Did you achieve the results you wanted? Let me know in the comments:)