Low-carb diets have been in and out of vogue for decades. The Atkins’ Diet is probably the most famous, but there are many other popular variations like the Paleo Diet, and the Bulletproof Diet. While not a new diet, a ketogenic diet is another low-carb diet that has gained a lot of attention in recent years.
This low-carb, high-fat diet is one of the most misunderstood and debated diets in the medical field.
“Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson once said that ‘misunderstanding arising from ignorance breeds fear.’ Perhaps that is what happens when some people, even scientific experts, are asked about low-carb diets. But that is not the appropriate scientific reaction to a lack of knowledge… Using the standards of a court of law, the low-carb, high-fat, ketogenic diet should have been innocent until proven guilty. But instead, it was deemed guilty until proven innocent.”
—Dr. Eric C. Wistman, Keto Clarity
What Is Ketosis?
A ketogenic diet means you’re maintaining a nutritional state of ketosis. Co-author of Keto Clarity, Jimmy Moore, defines ketosis as “a metabolic state that happens when you consume a very low-carb, moderate-protein, high-fat diet that causes your body to switch from using glucose as its primary source of fuel to running on ketones. Ketones themselves are produced when the body burns fat, and they’re primarily used as an alternative fuel source when glucose isn’t available.”
You have to be serious about wanting to make a life change in order to make the ketogenic diet work. Cutting most carbs out of your diet isn’t the easiest diet in the world. It is definitely a lifestyle change, but it is one that may be worthwhile for you.
The most obvious benefit and reason for going into a ketosis state is rapid weight loss. Because you’re not eating carbs, your body turns to burning fat for energy. Since your body is using both dietary and body fat for fuel, you’re naturally going to deplete your body fat stores at an exorbitant rate. This can be one way for type 2 diabetics and obese patients to get into a safe weight zone and help repair the damage caused by high body fat levels.
There are many benefits from removing most of the carbs from our diets. Any processed carb or wheat is not needed. We can get plenty of good carbs from vegetables, beans, sweet potatoes, or quinoa if you’re looking for a healthy carb diet. We don’t need as many carbs as we are getting. A low-carb diet goes even further and says we don’t need any grains or starchy carbs.
When the body has carbs (glucose) it will use these sugars for energy. The excess will be stored as fat by the body incase of famine. It is your body’s way of saying it has more than enough. If you stop giving your body this supply of sugar, it will start burning fat for energy.
The diet came about after observing Inuit tribes survive on nothing but animal fat and protein for most of the year without any signs of scurvy. Not only were people surviving on this high-fat, low-carb diet, but they were thriving.
For further information watch this great lecture of Dr. Stephen Phinney, one of the leading experts on ketogenic diets. In this lecture he goes through a detailed history of ketogenic diets, how you enter a state of ketosis, and possible health risks.
An important point made by Dr. Phinney in the lecture is that you need to be in a state of ketosis to see the benefits of a high-fat diet. That doesn’t mean fat is bad for you, but you won’t see any of these ketosis health benefits from high-fat foods unless your body is using fat to make ketones for energy. This requires a low-carb diet. You can only enter a state of ketosis if your body can’t use carbs for energy.
Reaching excessive levels of ketones in the blood does lead to ketoacidosis. This is a serious, and possibly deadly health condition. However, ketoacidosis only occurs in type 1 diabetics. In Keto Clarity Moore says, “it would be impossible for [ketoacidosis] to happen to non-diabetics. If you can produce even a small amount of insulin in your body, ketones naturally remain at safe levels.”
My disclaimer: I went into writing this article very skeptical about the ketogenic diet. I am a type 1 diabetic and I had trouble seeing past diabetic ketoacidosis, and seeing nutritional ketosis as its own, very different metabolic state. It took a lot of research to get me to a place where I thought ketosis MIGHT be healthy, and even more research before I started to take ketosis seriously.
What You Can Eat On A Ketogenic Diet
To maintain a state of ketosis you need to reduce your daily carb intake below 50g. This can go up to 100g if you are not overly sensitive to carbohydrates and are physically active. Unlike many many low-carb diets, a ketogenic diet only requires a moderate protein intake. The rest of your food comes in the form of dietary fats. Eat to satiety (about 75% of your daily calorie intake). Everyone’s carb and protein thresholds vary to some degree. Through regularly checking your ketone levels you can increase or decrease your ratios to maintain a consistent state of ketosis.
While you can get many important nutrients from animal products, there are others that you can only get through plants or supplements. Vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K1, and many antioxidants are just some of the important nutrients you miss who you stop eating plants.
While some choose to supplement their diet to get the nutrients they need, there is no reason why you can’t get enough plants in your diet to get all of the nutrients you need.
Green leafy foods like kale, or bell peppers are great ways to get your vitamin C and vitamin K1 with minimal carbohydrate intake. Almonds and sunflower seeds are great options for getting vitamin E in your diet and are also good fatty options. All of these foods come with a variety of great antioxidants that’ll help fight oxidative stress and free radicals in the body.
Fat makes up the majority of the calorie intake in a ketogenic diet. That doesn’t mean that you’re just eating straight fat. The good protein you’ll be eating on this diet is also a good source of fat. You can get good fat from carbs like avocados, nuts, and seeds. You can also eat all of the grass-fed butter you want. Who would have ever thought that butter could be good for you?
There are also less natural ways to enter a state of ketosis. You still need to eliminate most carbs from your diet, but there are many supplements like KetoCal and MCT oil that will help get enough fat into your diet and satisfy your hunger. MCT oil and coconut oil aren’t bad for you, but there is nothing like good whole food for the body.
It is the fat in the diet that is going to satisfy your hunger. Carbs have a craving effect while fats have a satisfying effect. This is a significant difference for weight loss and makes the ketogenic diet, unlike other diet plans. You never have to feel hungry on a ketogenic diet.
Entering And Maintaining A State Of Ketosis
Normally it takes about a week to enter a state of ketosis. During this time you may feel negative side effects and may have trouble sleeping. This is to be expected to some degree because anytime you do something drastic to the body it is going to need time to adjust.
“Getting adequate sodium, potassium, magnesium, and water will help you avoid many of the short-term side effects of being in ketosis, including lightheadedness, headaches, muscle cramps, and constipation.”
– Dr. Keith Runyan Keto Clarity
Many people experience the “keto flu” when they try to go on a ketogenic diet. This isn’t because the diet is bad for you. It is an adjustment period. Maintaining a proper nutrient balance can reduce these symptoms. It is important to make sure the carbs you’re eating are supplying you with the vitamins and minerals your body needs.
One misconception of a ketogenic diet is that you won’t get enough fibre in your diet and you’ll become constipated. There are two big problems with this train of thought. The first is that you can’t get fibre from low carb foods. Fibre is often thought of as coming solely from grains, but dark green leafy vegetables are a great way of getting fibre in your diet. The other problem is the notion that fibre is the only way to relieve constipation. While fibre helps, there are plenty of other factors to maintain proper bowel movements. Staying hydrated is a large factor, and the augmented dietary fat will also help keep things from blocking up.
Here is another great lecture, given by the very intelligent Dr Phinney. This time, Dr Phinney looks at achieving and maintaining nutritional ketosis. If you are interested in learning more about how you can follow this diet, watch this lecture.
Advantages Of Ketosis
So what are the advantages of ketosis? An obvious benefit from this lifestyle is that it burns fat and helps reduce body fat. While this is a large benefit for many, it is not the only reason why people choose to enter a state of ketosis.
The reduction of carbs also helps improve insulin sensitivity and can help stable blood sugars. The fewer carbs you ingest, the less insulin your body will need. This can be very important for type 2 diabetics who are insulin resistant.
The use of ketones for energy has shown to improve cognitive function, and also protect the brain from neurodegeneration, helping with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. Because of the useful source of energy for the brain, research is finding a ketogenic diet may be beneficial for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses. It has also shown to help with sleeping disorders.
Another large benefit of a ketogenic diet is the boost in physical performance. Ketones are a more consistent and stable form of energy for the body, and because of this physical performance improves.
A ketogenic diet is not right for everyone. Anyone with type 1 diabetes or with gall bladder problems should be cautious about entering a state of ketosis.
Women can also have trouble staying in a state of ketosis. It can be a hard transition and you may experience a hormonal imbalance while the body adjusts. On top of this women may naturally leave a state of ketosis during their menstrual cycle.
For anyone looking for a more in-depth look at nutritional ketosis, I would highly recommend reading Keto Clarity by Jimmy Moore with Eric C. Westman, MD. It is a very easy read that explains ketosis and the health benefits. With words of clarity from many health professionals, the book addresses the common concerns of this diet and even takes a look at why many medical professionals do not recommend the diet. The book also includes a chapter of ketogenic recipes and meal plans.
Don’t be afraid of cutting most carbs from your diet. Also, don’t fear fat. Natural dietary fat isn’t your enemy. If you are interested in following a ketogenic diet be smart about it. Consult a medical professional and make sure you have the proper equipment to check ketone levels regularly.
Disclaimer: We are not medical professionals. Entering a state of ketosis can be dangerous for some individuals and you should discuss this with your doctor before trying it out yourself. Make sure to clarify to your doctor that you are referring to nutritional ketosis and not diabetic ketoacidosis. If they are unfamiliar with the concept offer them time to research it, or ask for a referral to a specialist.