There’s a ‘new’ diet around called a Ketogenic diet, or Keto. In actuality, it is not new at all – it has been around for about 100 years. But it is a new fad, so I feel like it is appropriate to discuss Ketogenic diet benefits and risks for a clearer perspective.
Never heard of Keto? Keto is a way of eating that was originally designed to treat seizures, and ongoing evidence continues to prove that it does indeed help seizure disorders.
Over the last several decades, it has actually been used to help with a number of neurologic disorders, including traumatic brain injury and dementia. It is used as an adjunct to cancer treatments. It is used for diabetes management, inflammatory conditions, as well as many other chronic medical disorders. The research in the nutritional and medical communities includes thousands of studies discussing the benefits of Ketogenic diet, but it never actually took off until it was used for weight loss. Many people find they can lose a great deal of weight quickly by eating this way, and this discovery has brought Keto out of the shadows and into mainstream culture. Below I will discuss what Keto is and try to address a few common concerns.
What is Keto?
Keto goes against pretty much everything you’ve been taught about healthy eating. Keto is a way of eating that has one goal: to allow your metabolism to switch from depending on carbohydrates for energy to using fat instead. Your liver converts fatty acids to something called ketones that nearly every cell in your body can use for energy. In fact, some organs (like your brain) PREFER to use ketones for energy instead of carbohydrates. But…the only way to make this metabolic change is by restricting carbohydrates. Really restricting them. In general, if someone is eating less than 20 grams of carbs a day, has a moderate protein intake (more on that later), and then eats fat to round out their daily calorie count, then they will be in ketosis – a metabolic fat burner. For this reason, it should not be considered a ‘diet’ – it is a lifelong way of eating.
Isn’t Keto just a new term for the Atkin’s diet?
Nope. Atkins was low carb too, but there are some key differences here that are critical to understand.
- Except for the induction phase of Atkins, it allows for more than 20grams of carbs a day. This is because the goal of Atkins was weight loss, not ketosis. Sure, some people can enter ketosis with 30 or so carbs a day, but not everyone.
- Atkins was high protein, not moderate protein. You see, protein must be moderated because high protein not only has the ability to strain the kidneys, but it can keep you out of ketosis. This is because your body can convert protein to glucose and use that for energy, keeping you from making use of ketones from fat. There is a lot of controversy in the Keto world on the proper amount of protein to get, but you should be fine if you get about 1 -1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. This will obviously be variable based on your own body composition, current metabolic state, activity level, etc. The goal is to eat enough protein to prevent loss of lean muscle mass and to obtain adequate amounts of dietary nutrients, but not so much that you don’t enter ketosis.
- Type of fats didn’t really matter with Atkins. Technically, you can enter ketosis with any type of fat, but it is not at all healthy. To truly make a ketogenic diet a way of eating, it is critical that you eat only healthy sources of fats – like avocados, red palm oil, olive oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, lard. You get the idea. Vegetable oils (all of them!), Crisco, and other highly processed oils are terrible for you and should be avoided at all costs.
I heard that all the weight I lose will be water and I will gain it back as soon as I go back to eating carbohydrates.
This is partially true. When you first begin a ketogenic diet, your body will use up its stored glycogen, and this causes a loss of water weight. The first part of your weight loss will definitely be from this release of water and will not be fat. So, if you eat enough carbs that your body can store it as glycogen, then you will end up gaining that water weight back. However, once the glycogen is depleted and your body becomes what we call ‘fat adapted’, you will begin to burn your fat stores. You will not regain the weight lost from fat unless you overeat.
But don’t I need carbohydrates?
Nope again. There is absolutely NO dietary requirement for carbohydrates in a human being. Most cells in your body do not even have a carbohydrate requirement at all, and they ones that do need them can produce more than enough by converting fat to carbohydrates. Once you are fat adapted, you will find that you do not have the fluctuations in blood sugar that you had when you were dependent on carbohydrates, so ‘low blood sugar’ should not be an issue.
Fats are bad! I can’t eat that much fat!
A typical ketogenic diet has about 70% of its calories from fat. That is a large proportion of calories from fat – but that does not necessarily translate into an actual large amount of fat. Someone following the current nutritional guidelines will eat up to 80 grams of fat a day. Someone eating a Standard American Diet will eat much more. Many people eating a ketogenic diet consume around that amount – sometimes more, sometimes less. When eating keto, fat is NOT A GOAL. Rather, you limit your carbs, eat the protein you need, and don’t worry about the fat. Eat fat to satiety – or until you get full. Most people who have been eating Keto for more than a few weeks find that they feel full for longer on less food, and actually end up eating less calories and fat overall than a sugar-burner.
And no, healthy fat is not bad for you. Eat the butter. Eat the ribeye. Avoid the vegetable oil, canola oil, safflower oil…the negative effects seen with fat are due to the highly processed, manufactured fats. Not the natural ones. There’s a reason you know an older person who ate bacon and eggs every day for 80 years and is still going strong.
The internet says it’s dangerous to be Keto for a long time.
The internet is wrong, sort of. A properly constructed ketogenic diet – the way it was meant to be before all of the hype and fad-iness, is very healthy and can absolutely be done long term. If you haven’t figured this out already, I am keto. And I stay in ketosis by eating a fatty protein (like salmon, ribeye, pork chops) and vegetables at every meal. Do you really think a diet that is almost exclusively meat and vegetables is unhealthy? Of course not. I do stick with ethically raised protein sources – heritage pork, fully pastured beef and poultry, wild caught fish. I avoid most processed foods. I avoid unnatural fats. And I can promise you, there is nothing unhealthy about this.
However – the problem is in the construction of the diet. Far too many people have used a ketogenic diet as an excuse to simply eat fast food burgers every day and toss the bun. Or continue to use oils that have been proven to be detrimental to their health. Or they are deceived into buying products that advertise themselves as ‘keto’ but are highly processed, have many ingredients that can be inflammatory, and contain high amounts of sugar alcohols, some of which can also be detrimental. Avoid these pitfalls. Stick with whole foods, and you’ll be fine.
Future articles will really delve in to more details related to carbohydrates, fats, sugar alcohols, myths and pitfalls of ketosis. But for now, if you would like to know more, please visit the RESOURCES tab for links to reliable information on a ketogenic way of eating.