The Keto Diet (aka Ketogenetic or Ketosis Diet) is famously known across the fitness and health world for helping people reach their wellness goals. The Keto Diet is a highly effective tool for weight loss because it utilizes the body’s natural processes to break down fat faster.
Of course, this diet presents challenges and constructing a Keto diet plan can be difficult if you don’t understand how the body works. Being able to trigger ketosis is key to succeeding, but not many know what that means. We’re here to help you understand the Ketogenic Diet and its ins and outs so you can decide if it aligns best with your health goals!
Table of Contents
The Basics of the Keto Diet
The Keto Diet is a plan designed to put your body into a constant state of ketogenesis. In this state, your body burns fat for fuel rather than carbs! As you would expect, this means severely limiting carbohydrate intake and replacing them with other energy sources. It also prioritizes getting more daily caloric intake from fats than from protein, as high levels of protein can interfere with maintaining a ketogenic state.
In practice, the Keto Diet consists of consuming less than 50g of carbohydrates per day. For reference, a cup of cooked white rice has 44g of carbs. A “normal” diet might involve consuming around 225-325g of carbs per day, so this can be a big change from the way you usually eat.
With the Keto Diet, you will completely avoid foods you usually think of as “carby”, like bread, pasta, potatoes, or rice. Since you still obtain a certain amount of carbs from even low-carb foods, you won’t have room in your daily carb budget for higher, carb-heavy foods (that means passing on your Morning Muffin from Starbucks!)
Understanding Glucose and Its Role In Your Body
Glucose comes from almost all the foods you eat and provides the body with the energy it needs to function properly. Normally, you need about 10% of your daily calories to come from glucose. Your body gets its energy from what you eat each day and will usually hold that energy (in the short term) in the form of glucose.
If you think of energy as money that your body “spends” on activities like jumping or thinking, then glucose is like cash. Quick and easy to use. Carbohydrates are easily broken down into glucose molecules, which is why they are a fast source of energy (and why you crave carbs when you’re tired). When you have more energy than you need (excess calories), your body stores those calories by converting the glucose into fat. So, if glucose is cash in your wallet, then fat is money in the bank.
Low glucose levels in the body stimulate a state of Gluconeogenesis. This involves the liver generating glucose from non-carbohydrate sources like lactate or certain amino acids. However, this process makes it difficult for the body to keep up with its energy demands, especially if your diet is very low in carbohydrates. This is when the body turns to glucose’s close “energy-cousin,” ketones.
What Are Ketones?
Whereas glucose is created via the breakdown of carbohydrates, ketone bodies are generated via the breakdown of fat. This process is called ketogenesis. So now, instead of storing new fat, we are aggressively breaking down our existing fat stores to solve the fuel shortage created by not consuming carbohydrates.
Optimal levels for ketones while on the Ketogenic Diet are about 0.5 – 3 mg/dL in the blood. To reach these levels, a strict restriction of carbs is necessary. If you want to measure these levels accurately, there are blood ketone measurement devices available, as well as breath and urine tests, to test your body’s ketone levels. However, this isn’t necessary unless you want to keep a rigid regime.
The Benefits of The Keto Diet
Having more ketone bodies in your bloodstream instead of normal blood sugar (glucose), is associated with a number of beneficial health effects. Weight loss alone is an incredibly important health effect. In fact, by losing weight you are improving your ability to fight or prevent many of the most important chronic diseases and doing one of the best things you for preventive health and wellness.
Ketosis and Weight Loss
Ketogenic diets have been shown to be effective for weight loss. Unfortunately, it’s not well understood why it leads to weight loss. While it may seem obvious based on the fat-burning mechanism caused by ketogenesis, regardless of if your body is using fat or glucose for fuel; eating more calories than you burn will still cause weight gain.
There are several theories on how Ketogenic Diets lead to weight loss. The leading theory, based on available studies, is that it suppresses appetite. This may be because the Keto diet allows the consumption of more protein and fat than a normal diet does, and since protein and fat are more filling than carbohydrates, you feel hungry less often.
There also may be a direct appetite suppression effect by the ketone bodies themselves. Either way, it seems that people eat fewer calories per day when on the keto diet and this seems to contribute to weight loss.
There are other more complicated theories as to why ketogenesis causes weight loss. Some of the most popular notions are related to metabolic topics like resting energy expenditure, the balance of lipogenesis vs. lipolysis (or the creation of and burning of fat in storage, respectively), and the amount of energy bodies use to break down food over the amount of energy that food provides.
Each of these may provide some insight into the effectiveness of keto diet, but none have substantial clinical evidence to support them yet.
Being on a Ketogenic Diet can decrease the amount of cholesterol and lipids in your blood despite the high amounts of fat allowed. This is likely due to the decrease in blood sugar. High blood sugar would ordinarily stimulate the body to release more cholesterol and triglycerides into the bloodstream. These molecules are major sources of plaque which causes heart attacks and strokes.
Studies have shown that people following a Keto Diet are more likely to have lower levels of “bad cholesterol” (LDL) and high levels of “good cholesterol (HDL). This can reduce the chances of developing heart disease and other complications.
However, this also depends on how well you balance this diet, as it is easy to overdo fatty foods on the Keto Diet, which are known to lead to heart disease and other health issues.
Regulates Blood Sugar Levels
Speaking of blood sugar – consistently high levels of glucose in your blood stream can cause your pancreas to lose its ability to regulate your blood sugar which can lead to diabetes.
Diabetes is an incredibly destructive disease, and one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the United States. The Keto Diet has been shown to be effective at preventing and treating diabetes alongside medication for the disease.
Other Health Benefits
There are many other potential benefits that come with eating a keto-friendly diet. You can feel more energized and happier due to the increase in healthier foods and removal of processed foods. Other benefits that have been found can be found below.
- Manage hormonal disorders like Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Help prevent breakouts by lowering insulin levels which normally trigger the release of acne-causing hormones
- It may play a role as an adjuvant therapy for cancer (meaning, it may be useful alongside chemotherapy and other cancer treatments)
- Initially created as a treatment for epilepsy, the keto diet has long been known to be effective for reducing seizures
- Can protect the brain and nerve cells to help prevent dementia and protect against or manage Alzheimer’s
How To Follow a Keto Diet Plan
When you do keto, your diet will revolve around high fat foods like cheese or oils, as well as fatty proteins like red meat or fish. Ideally, you’ll utilize your 50g carb limit to make sure you’re getting plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Eating ONLY high fat meats and cheese all day will technically work for a keto diet, but it’ll mean you’re not getting a lot of necessary nutrients in your diet and it’s not recommended. Nuts are also an important component of a low carb diet since they’re high in fat, reasonably low in carbs, and packed with vitamins and minerals.
A sample Keto Diet plan might include:
Breakfast: Broccoli cheddar quiche made with coconut creamer, eggs, almond and coconut flour, and vegan cheddar cheese
Lunch: Mini eggplant pizza, replacing the traditional dough with sliced eggplants. Top with a big helping of arugula, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, shredded chicken breast, red onion, balsamic glaze, and low-fat mozzarella cheese and voila!
Dinner: Keto Big Mac sliders made with beyond beef and vegan cheddar cheese
Dessert: Chocolate chip cookies made with almond or coconut flour and monkfruit sugar instead of regular flour and brown sugar.
Snack: Cream cheese avocado dip with carrots, celery, and baked sweet potato veggie sticks for dipping
Potential Downsides to the Keto Diet
For many, maintaining a very low amount of carbohydrates can be difficult to maintain. Many people fall back into their old eating habits and gain back the weight they lost. In the end, rapid and significant weight loss does not matter if it is not maintained in the long term.
That being said, sustainability is a major challenge for every weight loss method. There is little data on whether a keto diet is any harder to maintain than other options like low calorie or low-fat diets. However, there are studies suggesting that keto diet can be a highly effective long term weight loss option when combined with Mediterranean Diet in the maintenance phase.
Some people may also experience other symptoms, such as muscle cramps, bad breath, changes in bowel habits, keto-flu, and loss of energy
The Keto Flu
It is unclear exactly why, but starting a Keto Diet may cause flu-like symptoms. About 2-3 days after starting a Ketogenic Diet symptoms like headache, brain fog, fatigue, nausea, constipation, difficulty sleeping, and body aches can appear.
Some health officials suggest this is due to a “withdrawal” from the lack of carbohydrates, an immunity reaction in the body, or simply a change in your gut’s microbiome. Whatever its cause, to avoid the keto flu or to reduce its effects, starting slow, staying hydrated, resting, and more can help.
Going through long-term periods with consuming low amounts of carbohydrates but very high fats has been shown to promote inflammation and advance biological aging. There have also been studies showing potential cardiovascular concerns with long term Keto Diet. As such, it is only recommended that this diet be followed short-term, or in tandem with another diet that can help you control your fat and carb intake.
The Keto Diet can lead to very high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, especially with the “bacon and cheese” version of the diet. Just because bacon and cheese are technically allowed on this diet, eating them every day can have serious health risks!
Even though people seem to have lower cholesterol as a result of Keto dieting, that may only be due to them losing weight or managing their diabetes. For an otherwise fit person, long term, it is possible that Keto could increase risk of heart disease or stroke.
Possible Nutrition Deficiency
As mentioned above, this diet tends to exclude foods which are important for good health like whole grains, fruits, and veggies. Studies on epileptic patients using the keto diet have shown that it can cause micronutrient deficiencies.
When you eat extremely low amounts of carbohydrates (about 50 grams or less a day), the body runs out of the blood sugar it needs to keep going. After a few days, your body will start breaking down proteins and fats for energy instead which can help you lose weight. This is usually only an ideal diet for short-term use!
If eating a very low carbohydrate diet is something you think you can handle, then it can absolutely improve your health via weight loss and better blood sugar control. However, long-term, we would encourage you to look into switching to a more sustainable choice like the Mediterranean Diet as your maintenance phase diet.