It claims to help you lose the pounds, balance out your moods, prevent disease and give you lasting energy. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know ‘keto’ is the latest diet trend. But what is it, and can it work for you? We look at the science behind a ketogenic diet.
What Is The ‘Keto’ Diet?
A ketogenic diet, or “keto” for short, is a low-carbohydrate dietary pattern. Generally, to be considered “keto”, protein should be kept at a moderate level, and fat intake is high. “Fat intake is high??” Read on …
On a ketogenic diet, the aim is to track and limit carbohydrate intake. Someone on a keto diet will consume less than 50g of net carbohydrate per day. Many will eat 30g or less per day.
A ketogenic diet can be adapted to many different styles of eating. It is possible to follow Paleo, vegetarianism, gluten-free, dairy-free and FODMAP diets. Even vegans can follow a ketogenic diet, although it is very restrictive for them.
How Does A Ketogenic Diet Work?
The purpose of a ketogenic diet is to switch the energy system the body uses. When eating a standard carbohydrate-rich diet, our bodies will use glucose as the major fuel source. But when carbohydrates are very low, the body looks for another way to source energy. This puts the body into a state known as ketosis.
In ketosis, the body creates an energy source known as ‘ketones’. These supply the body with the energy it needs.
What Are The Health Benefits Of A Ketogenic Diet?
Most people use a ketogenic diet to lose weight. But there’s actually plenty of evidence that it can help in other health conditions too. Ketosis affects the body in many ways, such as:
- Shifting the balance of neurotransmitters, boosting GABA
- Balancing blood sugar levels, aiding with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
- Optimizing cholesterol and blood lipid levels
- Reducing symptoms of neurological disorders such as epilepsy
Early research suggests it may be therapeutic in:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Some types of cancer
- Poly-cystic ovaries and PCOS
Research also supports it as a weight loss option, particularly for people with diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
Some people follow keto just because it gives them focus and plenty of energy. If you’re someone who feels better on a low-carbohydrate diet, keto might be a good choice for you.
What Are The Downsides Of A Keto Diet?
Any diet can have a downside. There are a few things that can happen on a ketogenic diet, particularly if it’s not done properly. These include:
- Nutritional deficiencies if unbalanced
- 2-4 weeks of ‘keto flu’—a temporary state caused by the switch from glucose to ketones as fuel where you may feel fatigued and unwell
- Hypoglycemia in vulnerable people
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Unintentional weight loss
A ketogenic diet would not be recommended for people with a history of eating disorders, or pregnant/breastfeeding women.
What Do You Eat On A Keto Diet?
It might seem like a low carbohydrate diet is very restrictive. But honestly, there’s plenty of food you can still enjoy! On a ketogenic diet, you can eat plenty of:
- Red meat
- Low carbohydrate nut and seed products such as flours
- Healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, butter, ghee
- Green leafy vegetables
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Other low starch vegetables
- Low sugar fruits like berries
If you like to include dairy, consider using goat’s milk.
You can have any low-sugar beverages, such as green juices, coffee, tea and herbal tea. Low sugar alcohol can be consumed. However, it’s important to make sure you use sugar-free mixers like sparkling water.
What Do You Avoid On A Keto Diet?
There are some key foods that you need to avoid for a ketogenic diet. These are generally high carbohydrate foods. You would limit or eliminate foods such as:
- Gluten-containing grains and grain products
- Gluten-free grains such as corn and rice
- High sugar fruits
- Any food sweetened with sugar
- Processed junk foods
- Legumes and beans
- Starchy vegetables like potatoes
Although artificial sweeteners are technically allowed on a keto diet, natural sugar-free sweeteners are preferable. Options like stevia and xylitol are less likely to cause spikes in blood sugar than artificial sweeteners.
A Typical Day On A Keto Diet
So how would you eat when on a keto diet? Would it be boring, or unhealthy? Not necessarily. Here’s a sample day for an omnivore following keto:
- 3-egg omelet with spinach and mushroom, cooked in coconut oil
- Avocado slices
- Cauliflower and bacon soup; or
- Creamy broccoli soup—use sweet potatoes (less starchy) instead of potatoes
- Lightly-fried in coconut oil, grilled chicken or salmon fillet coated with sesame seeds
- 1 cup steamed low carbohydrate vegetables—broccoli, cabbage, bok choy
- Chocolate mousse made with avocado or cream, cocoa powder and sugar-free sweetener
- Or Avocado-coconut milk ice cream
- Nuts & seeds mix
- Seaweed ‘chips’
- A handful of blueberries
- Other healthful snacks
It’s important to note that ketosis can reduce appetite. So as you continue it, you will notice you naturally consume less. Many people who follow a ketogenic diet only eat 2-3 times per day.
Is Keto Diet Difficult To Follow?
Like any diet, keto can be hard work to start with. The first week is always the most difficult, particularly if you experience ‘keto flu’.
It can take time to learn how to manage things such as eating out or snacking on the run. You might have to play around with different foods and meals to find what works for you. But with practice, it can be mastered and provide you with tremendous benefits.
How Do You Make Keto Beneficial For You?
Keto is like any other diet. It can be unhealthy if someone takes the principle and makes junk foods that suit the ‘rules’! So to make sure you get the most benefit out of ketosis, keep to these rules:
Make Plant Foods Your Main Focus
The keto diet should have lots of nutrient-dense vegetables, nuts and seeds on the menu. This is the best way to keep your diet balanced and full of fiber.
Stay Sufficiently Hydrated
When you stop consuming carbohydrates, you will be consuming less fluid overall through foods. That’s why hydration is essential. Many people notice an increase in thirst over the first few weeks. Read this guide on how much water you need to drink daily, according to your body size.
Remember Your Electrolytes
Another essential part of hydration is electrolytes. Early on in a ketogenic diet, many people may experience muscle cramps or fatigue due to low electrolytes. That is why you want to consume plenty of plant foods to get your magnesium, calcium and potassium in. You should also salt your foods to taste, so you are getting enough sodium.
Stick To The 80/20 Approach
Most of your meals should be focused on eating good whole-food options. But you can still have keto-friendly treats every now and then. Whether it’s a decadent dessert or some crunchy pork rinds, enjoy it thoroughly!
Don’t Get Hungry
The ketogenic diet is not a starvation diet! In fact, you should feel satiated most, if not all, of the time. If you are hungry, you have not consumed enough calories. The one time you might feel hungry is the 2-4 weeks of ‘keto flu’—many people have a fluctuating appetite during this time.
Inform Your Health Professional
Any time you make a major diet change, you should inform your health professional. You may even want to seek out a professional with keto experience to support you through the journey.
Is Ketogenic Diet For Life?
The choice is yours. Some people use it as a short-term tool to get healthier, and others see it as a lifestyle change. It has been used successfully as long-term diet with epileptics. So as long as you follow the rules for a healthy ketogenic diet, there’s no stopping you to practice it for life as a healthy diet!