Ketogenic diets, sometimes referred to as “keto”, are currently riding a wave of popularity.
This low-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, high-fat approach to nutrition has been credited with substantial weight loss, increased cognitive ability and mental focus, decreased hunger, and the reduction and/or resolution of symptoms related to many types of serious diseases.
On most other nutritional plans, the body’s energy needs are fueled with carbohydrates. Fruits, starchy vegetables, grains, legumes and sugars are all sources of carbohydrates. Once consumed, these molecules – whether simple or complex – are broken down into individual molecules of glucose. The glucose enters the bloodstream and the hormone insulin shuttles it to cells requiring energy. This system works pretty well, until it stops working well. A variety of factors can break this system and lead to insulin resistance, metabolic dysfunction, pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes.
A keto diet is designed to override the entire glucose-fueling system. One interesting component of a keto diet is that – when done properly – there is a specific and measurable biochemical change that happens in the body. After one to three days of eating very low carb with sufficient fat, a simple urinalysis test that can be done at home will begin to reveal the production of ketones. Ketones are to fat as glucose is to carbohydrates – the energy unit that can be used by the body to perform its many functions. The production of ketones indicates the body is becoming efficient at burning fat for fuel. This not only includes fat from the diet, but also the body’s own fat stores.
Ketogenic diets are nothing new. Almost 100 years ago, the diet was used to effectively treat children with epilepsy – often reducing their seizures by half. Using diet to treat this condition was cast aside with the development of medications. Some ancestral nutrition advocates, including Nora Gedgaudes, propose that there is truly nothing novel about ketosis – the state of creating ketones for energy. Rather than being the newest fad diet, consuming carbs, protein, and fat in ratios that induce ketosis may actually be the way humans are meant to eat. Not to be confused with a modern gimmick, it should be considered the human default.
While weight loss is probably the most popular benefit of eating keto, some others have a much greater impact on overall quality of life. There is hardly a chronic condition that would not be improved with a ketogenic approach. Some of these conditions include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune conditions, mood disorders, and cognitive and memory-related issues. Ketogenic diets have even been used as complementary cancer treatment.
So what does it look like to eat keto? Despite the surprising changes that go on in your body by eating this way, the meals are probably not as strange as you might think. While “high-fat” certainly continues to strike fear in many hearts, you can rest assured, you will not be eating a whole stick of butter at every meal. Let’s take a look at each part:
The simplest way to achieve a low-carb intake is to eliminate grains and sugars. Skip the bread, rice, oatmeal and all flours, as well as anything sweetened. It is even a good idea to avoid fruit for a time. Replace these foods with as many crunchy vegetables as you can. Non-starchy vegetables add critical vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to each meal with very few grams of carbohydrate. Leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, chard and collards can find a regular place on your plate. You may also be generous in your servings of cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. More good choices include tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, onions and mushrooms.
No 20-ounce steaks here. Keep animal protein portions palm-sized at each meal. If you are just coming off of a carbohydrate-based diet, your body has been trained to run on glucose. Excessive protein can be turned into glucose through the process of gluconeogenesis, stalling your transition to burning ketones instead. Though protein portions may seem small, it is important to make them count. Choose the best quality organic and pastured meats and eggs possible.
Gram for gram, fat has far more calories than protein or carbohydrates. This means it will not appear that fat is your main source of calories on your plate, even when it is. Each meal will likely provide you with different types and sources of fats. Bone-in cuts of meat are a great start. The many forms of coconut can be a delicious contributor, including milk, shreds, butter or cream. Both the oils and the whole fruits of olive and avocado make tasty condiments. Heavy whipping cream in coffee is an extra decadent way to start the day if you tolerate dairy well. Ghee – a type of clarified butter – is stellar for stove-top cooking. The clarifying process removes all the sugars and proteins, leaving just oil which will not burn. Additional fats for high-heat cooking include the animal fats – beef tallow, pork lard and duck fat – but make sure you have a high quality source. And remember, never use vegetable oils!
Sample Keto Day
- Breakfast – 2-3 egg omelet with spinach and mushrooms, cooked in ghee and topped with avocado.
- Lunch – Large green salad with one shredded chicken thigh, cucumbers, celery, walnuts, olives, olive oil and vinegar.
- Dinner – 4-6 oz. shredded slow-cooked pork shoulder, mashed cauliflower with ghee, steamed green beans with coconut oil and chopped almonds.
Eating a ketogenic diet may not be for everyone, but the reported benefits certainly make it worth a look.
This is for informational purposes only and should not be used as medical advice. If you have a serious medical condition, please consult with a medical professional before embarking on a new nutritional plan.
Gedgaudes, N. (2017.) Primal Fat Burner: Live Longer, Slow Aging, Super-Power Your Brain, and Save Your Life With a High-Fat, Low-Carb Paleo Diet. Atria Books, New York.