What is the Keto diet, anyway?
Breaking down everything you need to know about living a Keto lifestyle
At this point you’ve likely heard the term ‘keto'. Maybe through a friend or family member, or you read an article online or saw it pop up on social media. Either way, it’s clearly very popular right now, which made me want to dig deeper into what a keto lifestyle is all about.
Side note: I am neither pro or con-keto. I wrote this post as a result of my own research about the topic. This is purely an educational post. While I do not follow a keto lifestyle, I hope that this post provides you with some knowledge in case you are thinking of making the change.
While the word ‘keto’ is not new to me (I originally learned about ketosis back during my Kinesiology undergrad), the concept of a ketogenic lifestyle is. So, here I have broken it down for you so that you too can become educated on what this new diet phenomenon is all about.
While it may seem like the keto diet is a brand new way to live, in medicine, the ketogenic diet has been used for almost 100 years to treat drug-resistant epilepsy, especially in children. More recently, in the 1970's, an American physician and cardiologist popularized a very-low-carbohydrate diet for weight loss that began with a very strict two-week ketogenic phase. This is also known as the Atkin's diet. (Sound familiar?)
So, What Does ‘Keto’ Mean?
Ketogenic, or keto for short, is to describe a specific state of the body when small fuel molecules called ‘ketones’ or 'ketone bodies' are produced. Ketones are produced when glucose levels (blood sugar) is in short supply. The body produces ketones when it receives very few carbohydrates, and only moderate amounts of protein. When the body does not receive a certain level of those two types of foods, it triggers the liver to turn fat into ketones. These ketones are then used as fuel throughout the body, including for the most glucose consuming organ – the brain.
After a few days following a strict ketogenic diet, the body adapts by switching its fuel supply to run almost entirely on fat. This then causes insulin levels – the fat storing hormone – to lower, and fat burning to increase dramatically. When the body produces ketones, it’s said to be in ‘ketosis’. The goal of a properly maintained keto diet is to force the body into this metabolic state. This is achieved through starvation of carbohydrates, not through the starvation of calories, which is important to note.
What is Eaten on a Keto Diet
What is eaten depends on how fast you want the body to reach a ketogenic state. The more restrictive you are on carbohydrates, the faster the body will enter ketosis. In order to reach this state, carbohydrate levels should be low, therefore most coming from vegetables, nuts and dairy. Avoiding refined carbohydrates like wheat, starchy vegetables or fruit is important here. What you can eat is meats, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, above ground vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, low-glycemic fruits like raspberries and blackberries, fats from avocado and coconut oil, and high fat dairy.
Other than keeping your carbohydrate levels very low (around 20-50g a day), and protein intake moderate (general rule is 1g of protein per kg of body weight), there are no restrictions with the amount of other foods you can eat while on a keto diet. In order to maintain a state of ketosis, foods to avoid are grains (wheat, rice, corn), most dairy (except high-fat items like butter, ghee or cream), sugar (all refined sugars, honey, maple syrup, agave), high sugar fruits (apple, banana, oranges), beans and legumes, tubers (potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips), and most processed foods.
"The ketogenic diet shoots for near-zero carbs. Most estimates suggest around 10-15 grams of carbs a day. To give you an idea of what this looks like, that’s about one fist-sized portion of cooked carrots, or about 10-15 grapes. For the whole day."
Research shows that the benefits of maintaining a keto diet includes weight loss, appetite control, increased energy and cognitive performance, decreased inflammation and controlled blood sugar levels. It is also said that the keto diet could reverse Type 2 Diabetes, treat Epilepsy and even help control Type 1 Diabetes. Because of its neuroprotective effects, questions have also been raised about the possible benefits for other brain disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, MS, Autism and even brain cancer.
Of course weight loss is the primary reason that people turn to the ketogenic diet. Previous research shows good evidence of a faster weight loss when patients go on a ketogenic or very low carbohydrate diet compared to participants on a more traditional low-fat diet, or even a Mediterranean diet. However, that difference in weight loss seems to disappear over time. (Harvard Medical School)
As you can imagine, the keto diet does not include much flexibility, if any. In order to keep the body in a state of ketosis, the amount of carbohydrates and protein being consumed must not increase. Doing so will force the body out of ketosis, which will then start storing those foods as fat. In addition, it is very challenging to maintain, and although it can produce very effective and rapid weight loss, it is difficult (albeit, not impossible) to continue to keep the weight off.
In addition, research shows that long-term reliance on ketones for energy could be harmful on the body. "Those ketones are emergency fuel sources, and we’re not meant to run on them long-term. Ketones are negatively-charged molecules, which means they’re acidic. When you build up ketone bodies in your system, you’re building up acid. One of the ways your body buffers acid is by pulling calcium from your bones." (Kristen Kizer, registered dietitian at Houston Methodist Hospital). Experts also warn that as the keto diet is not very balanced, and because it involves a higher intake of animal proteins, it offers little protection against cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.
Like I mentioned, while I do not feel the keto diet is right for me and I personally don’t believe it promotes a healthy relationship with food and is near impossible to sustain, I cannot argue that it is clearly right for some people. My only advice is to do your research. If you are seriously contemplating a keto lifestyle, please take the time to look into it as thoroughly as possible, consider seeing a naturopath or dietitian to discuss your options, or talk to people who have tried it or are currently following a keto lifestyle. And lastly, make sure to be realistic with what works for your lifestyle. As you can imagine, living this way takes some serious commitment, time and dedication, so make sure you are prepared for that before going into it.
"Instead of engaging in the next popular diet that would last only a few weeks to months (for most people that includes a ketogenic diet), try to embrace change that is sustainable over the long term. A balanced, unprocessed diet, rich in very colorful fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and lots of water seems to have the best evidence for a long, healthier, vibrant life." - Harvard Medical School
If you are looking for more information regarding the Ketogenic Diet, here is a fantastic - and very detailed - resource from Precision Nutrition. This article goes into the Keto Diet at a much more granular level then what I have discussed here.
Are you currently following the Keto Diet? If so, I’d love to hear from you and learn about your experience. Comment below or connect with me on social media.