Ketogenic Diet 101
The keto diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet that offers a variety of health benefits, from fast weight loss to a healthier heart. It takes advantage of the natural process of ketosis to help the body burn more fat. Read on to learn everything you need to know about following a ketogenic diet with this keto guide.
What is Keto?
Also known as the low carb high fat (LCHF) diet, the keto diet cuts out carbs in favor of healthy fats and proteins. It encourages the body to burn fats instead of carbohydrates by stimulating ketone production in the liver.
There are a variety of health conditions that may benefit from the keto diet, ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s disease. The most common medical reason for doctors to recommend a strict keto diet, however, is epilepsy.
Nowadays, the keto diet has gained mainstream popularity as a fast and healthy weight loss solution. Because it forces the body to burn fat instead of carbs, dieters can see a reduction in fat in a matter of months.
Beyond weight loss, following the keto diet can also help control blood sugar, insulin resistance, cholesterol, and blood pressure. It may even improve mental focus. Some teens and adults dealing with acne have also reported that the keto diet helps to reduce outbreaks.
What is Ketosis?
The keto diet is based around ketosis, a natural process within the body. Ketosis is an adaptation that helps us to deal with famine conditions. Instead of relying on nutrients from food, such as carbohydrates, it allows us to break down our fat stores.
Our body normally prefers glucose molecules, or sugar, as its main fuel supply. When we eat carbohydrates, our bodies break them down into simpler components, including glucose. The pancreas produces insulin, which regulates glucose levels in the bloodstream. It allows cells to absorb molecules to break down and use them for energy.
When the body stops getting carbohydrates, it’s no longer able to produce glucose. Levels in the bloodstream lower and insulin production stops. Cells can no longer take up glucose molecules to break down for energy.
Fortunately, the body has a backup plan to help weather periods of food insecurity and famine. We store excess fat in adipose cells, which tend to accumulate in areas such as the hips, stomach, and thighs. This fat serves as an energy reserve for when carbohydrates are scarce.
Ketosis occurs when the liver breaks down fat stores into ketones. These simpler components can then function as an alternative to glucose. Cells can take up ketones, break them down, and convert them into the same type of energy that powers every bodily function.
The ultimate goal of the keto diet is to encourage a state of ketosis in the body. Unlike most diets, which deny the body calories altogether, the keto diet changes its primary energy source. It encourages the body to break down fat reserves, helping to reduce deposits and help people reach a healthier weight.
What are Ketones?
Ketones are the result of ketosis, where the liver breaks fatty acid chains. They’re a reaction to starvation, though they also occur during periods where insulin levels are naturally low. This includes any time a person spends more than a few hours without eating, such as during sleep, during fasting, or when cutting calories.
Cells can use ketones for energy instead of glucose, helping to reduce fat reserves in the body. Healthy levels of ketones in the bloodstream can help to encourage weight loss and physical performance. Because they can cross the blood-brain barrier, ketones also supply energy to the brain for improved mental performance.
When ketone levels in the blood become too high, it can result in a condition known as ketoacidosis. This lowers the blood pH to dangerous levels and requires immediate medical attention. Ketoacidosis is generally associated with Type I and Type II diabetes, though high levels of alcohol consumption can also be a cause.
Types of Ketogenic Diets
There are a couple of variations on the keto diet that all offer their own benefits and drawbacks. Having several diet options helps make the keto plan more flexible and more accessible for better long-term success.
The classic keto diet sticks to a low-carb, high-fat formula. It calls for around 70% fat and 20% protein daily, with only 10% carb consumption. This means around 150 grams of fat a day, 90 grams of protein, and around just 50 grams or less of carbohydrates. Most research on the keto diet pertains to the standard version.
- Plenty of research on the benefits and effects
- Doctor-recommended for medical issues such as epilepsy
- Fast and effective weight loss
- Hard on the kidneys
- Potentially unsafe for those with Type I diabetes
As the name suggests, the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet allows for brief periods of carb consumption. This can help people to achieve a more balanced diet. It’s also popular with serious athletes who need to carbo-load before training. Usually, the CKD plan involves five or six days per week of strict keto with one to two high carb days.
- Less risk of nutrient deficiency
- Allows for carbo-loading
- Good for high-performance athletes
- Slower weight loss
- More fluctuation in blood sugar
The Targeted Keto Diet is designed for athletes and active individuals. People need protein for an effective workout, and so this variation allows for 20 to 30 grams more protein than the Standard Keto Diet. Most people choose to incorporate extra carbs around their workouts to improve and speed up recovery.
- Good choice for an active lifestyle
- Promotes healthy recovery after workouts
- Encourages muscle growth
- Not ideal for people with medical conditions
- More complicated than other plans
The High Protein Keto Diet includes less fat and more protein than the standard plan. Daily, it calls for around 60% fat, 35% protein, and just 5% or fewer carbs. Dieters eat around 120 grams of protein and 130 grams of fat. The high protein plan is more similar to most people’s daily diet than the standard plan, and so it can be easier to follow. However, it’s not as effective at inducing ketosis as other diet variations.
- Easier to follow than other keto plans
- Allows for plenty of protein with each meal
- Low risk of nutrient deficiency
- May not result in ketosis
- Less efficient weight loss
Foods to Eat
As with any new diet, it’s best to go into the keto plan with a meal schedule in mind. Knowing what you’re allowed to eat can make it easier to design and create delicious and keto-friendly meals throughout the day.
The keto diet calls for large amounts of healthy fats such as those found in seeds, nuts, and certain fatty fish. Using oils such as vegetable oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil can also introduce healthy fats into meals.
Whole dairy and unprocessed cheese are good sources of both healthy fats and protein. They also contain essential nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D in fortified products. High-fat milk and cream, real butter, and hard cheeses all make good additions to any keto meal plan.
Dieters should try to limit protein intake with the keto plan, but it’s still fine to consume meat for certain meals. The healthiest meats include lean proteins such as chicken and fish. Seafood offers the added benefit of containing high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are crucial for proper development and brain function.
While many fruits and vegetables work with the keto diet, it’s important to be careful with greens. Some, such as bananas and oranges, contain high levels of carbohydrates. It’s best to stick to leafy greens and vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, tomato, onions, and pepper.
While the keto plan cuts most carbs, some are acceptable in small amounts. Avocado, berries, and star fruit are all good sources of carbohydrates for keto diets. They also provide a wide range of other vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats.
Foods to Avoid
Perhaps the most important consideration when it comes to the keto diet is carbohydrates. The more drastically a person restricts their carb intake, the more quickly they’ll enter a state of ketosis. While it’s not necessary to cut carbs completely, it’s best to avoid refined carbohydrates such as bread, cereals, and pasta. The keto diet also prohibits starchy foods such as potatoes and beans.
Many alcoholic beverages are high in carbohydrates, including beer and certain mixed drinks. It’s best to avoid alcohol completely when dieting as it can affect digestion and weight loss. For those who do enjoy a cocktail now and then, it’s a good idea to stick to something low in carbs such as wine or spirits.
Most fruit contains high levels of sugars and carbohydrates. The keto diet cuts out foods such as apples, bananas, and oranges. Some vegetables such as carrots also contain too much sugar and starch for the keto diet.
While healthy fats are a cornerstone of the keto plan, unhealthy trans and saturated fats can do more harm than good. It’s best to avoid processed foods, as these often contain high levels of unhealthy fats.
Eating too much sugar can cause a spike in blood glucose levels, which impacts the process of ketosis in the body. It’s best to avoid as many sugary foods as possible when following a keto diet. This includes everything from soda and candy to condiments such as ketchup.
Tips on Reaching Ketosis
The goal of the keto diet is to reach ketosis, which is easier than it might sound. With the right dietary and lifestyle choices, just about anyone can induce ketosis for weight loss and more. Here are some tips on how to safely reach ketosis.
Eat Fewer Carbohydrates
The keto diet requires that you restrict carbs to lower glucose levels in the bloodstream. Only by doing this can you force your body to enter a state of ketosis and burn fat deposits. It’s best to limit your carb intake to fewer than 50 grams per day. The carbs you include in your diet should come from fruits, vegetables, and healthy whole grains.
Limit Protein Intake
Too many people make the mistake of thinking that carbs are the only thing they should limit. Including too much protein in your meal plan will disrupt ketosis, since amino acids can break down into glucose molecules. You should restrict protein to fewer than 90 grams per day for optimal weight loss results.
Eat Plenty of Healthy Fats
While most traditional diets cut out fats, the keto diet embraces them as a primary fuel source. Replacing carbs with healthy fats helps to ensure that you reach a state of ketosis and not only burn fats from food, but also deposits within the body. Try to avoid processed saturated and trans fats in favor of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
In any diet, what you drink is just as important as what you eat. You need to stay hydrated to help regulate body functions such as ketosis. Drinking plenty of water can also help curb hunger when fasting. It’s best to avoid sugary drinks and alcoholic beverages and instead stick to filtered water. Experts recommend that adults drink around eight 8-ounce glasses per day.
Stick to Three Staple Meals
Snacking can cause spikes in insulin levels. Not only does this cause irritability and lethargy, but it can cause even more hunger. Instead of snacking, it’s best to stick to three healthy, balanced meals per day. This is especially true of anyone trying to lose weight with the keto diet.
Fasting is one of the best ways to reach ketosis and boost ketone levels. You can improve your success on the keto diet by adding intermittent fasting to your dieting schedule. You can include a small fast daily, or opt for longer fasts throughout the week.
Maintain a Workout Schedule
With any diet plan, it’s important to include exercise as well to achieve optimal results. Working out helps to regulate blood sugar levels, making it easier to achieve and maintain ketosis. Most experts recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity for high-performance athletes.
It can be a challenge to follow a strict keto diet without risking a nutrient deficiency. It cuts out many of the foods that most people are used to eating, including certain fruits and vegetables. Adding supplements to your keto plan can help you to get all of the nutrients you need without having to cheat on your diet. Some supplements such as MCT oil work to actively increase ketone levels and boost energy.
Always Check the Label
If you’re eating ready-made snacks or meals, always read the label carefully. You should check how many grams of fat, carbs, and protein are in each serving to make sure that it’s appropriate for your diet. If you have the time, it may be easier to make your own meals than to buy ready-made ones. Doing so is healthier, tastier, and often cheaper than opting for store-bought.
Measuring Ketones to See if You’re in Ketosis
Measuring ketone levels in the body is one of the easiest ways to tell if a person has reached a state of ketosis. It’s also a good idea for anyone on the keto diet to keep tabs on ketone levels to lower the risk of developing ketoacidosis, especially those with diabetes.
Several common symptoms can tell a person if they’ve achieved ketosis. Because ketones are diuretics, increased urination is often the first sign that the body is switching fuel sources. This also leads to a dry mouth and increased thirst in many people.
Bad breath is another unfortunate sign of ketosis. Acetone is a volatile ketone that leaves our body through the breath, and so many people report an odor much like nail polish remover after starting the keto diet. Fortunately, this is usually temporary.
There are much more accurate ways of measuring ketone levels for dieters who want a more definitive idea of how they’re doing. Testing options are available for anyone who wants to confirm that they’ve achieved ketosis.
A blood ketone meter or blood testing strips are the most accurate way to test ketone levels, but they can be expensive and difficult to access. Breath meters are cheaper than blood meters, but low-end models don’t offer the same accuracy.
Most people use urine sticks to test ketone levels, as this is the most cost-effective solution. While they’re less accurate than blood and breath meters, they can tell a person whether or not they’re in ketosis. It’s best to test first thing in the morning when urine is at its most concentrated.
Dangers and Side Effects of Keto Diet
Switching over from a regular diet to a keto plan can lead to some uncomfortable short-term symptoms in what’s known as the “keto flu.” Fortunately, the effects only last for a couple of days. Once the body gets accustomed to ketosis, most people return to feeling normal.
A sudden lack of carbohydrates not only means lower blood glucose levels but also less glycogen in the muscles. This is the molecule used to power movement, and without it, listlessness and lethargy can set in quickly.
Ketosis also has a strong diuretic effect, causing dieters to lose more water than normal through urination. This flushes out important electrolytes as well, which can leave people feeling weak and tired.
The Keto Flu is characterized by dizziness and confusion, aggravation, and even aggression. People report suffering from headaches and nausea as well as insomnia. In rare cases, symptoms can be severe enough to merit a trip to the doctor.
The best way to offset the effects of the “Keto Flu” is by acting preemptively. In the early days of starting a keto diet, it’s important to drink plenty of fluids to combat the diuretic nature of ketosis. Drinking sports drinks or stock can help to replenish electrolytes to increase energy and alertness.
Sometimes, discomfort can persist even after the body has acclimated to a keto diet. Many people get muscle cramps as they lose electrolytes, but again, there are easy ways to offset these effects by supplementing electrolytes. Heart palpitations are also common and easy to treat with plenty of hydration and enough sodium.
Diuretic processes such as ketosis are taxing on the kidneys. In rare cases, ketosis can lead to kidney stones and other renal issues. People with kidney issues should speak to their doctor before attempting a keto diet plan.
Some people report digestive issues and constipation as a result of the keto diet. It’s important to get plenty of fiber by eating low-carb fruits and vegetables. Gallstones are a more rare side effect that can occur when ketosis sets in too quickly.
Less common reactions to the keto diet include hair loss in both men and women. Ketosis can also cause what’s known as a “keto rash” in sensitive individuals. This includes red, blotchy, or irritated skin, most likely due to acetone ketone bodies in the sweat. Antiperspirant or sweat-wicking fabrics may help to alleviate the issue.
Summary of Keto Diet
The keto diet offers more than just a way to manage certain medical problems. It’s a fast and effective way to lose weight by denying your body its primary fuel source. A high-fat, low-carb meal plan helps to drive the body to ketosis, where it breaks down fat stores in problem areas such as the hips and thighs.
With dedication and persistence, the keto diet can yield results in a matter of months. There are several different variations covered in this keto guide that can help active adults to improve mental and physical performance. By eating healthy fats, cutting carbs, and lowering protein intake, you can work towards becoming your best self. Talk to your doctor to find out how you can safely make the switch to a ketogenic diet.