The keto diet has been around in one form or another for a very long time. Originally devised as a treatment for children with epilepsy in the 1920s, the keto diet has displayed potential for treating diabetes, improving mental clarity, physical performance, and weight loss. It's not for everybody, though, so read on to learn more about the keto diet and whether or not it's the right tool to help you achieve your health goals.
What is the Keto Diet?
Keto, short for ketogenic, refers to a diet high in fats and extremely low in carbohydrates. A typical day of eating keto style will include around 80% of calories from fats and less than 5% from carbohydrates.
A keto diet takes a significant detour from the usual distribution of macronutrients, which is around one-third protein, two-thirds in carbohydrates, and the rest in fats. So, why do keto diets emphasize consuming mostly fats?
The body does quite well getting most of its energy from glucose, which it can create by breaking down carbohydrates. It's a straightforward process that makes glucose the body's primary go-to source for energy production because carbohydrates are continuously replenished in the modern western diet.
When you deny your body its regular supply of carbs, it will look to other sources for its energy. The next most accessible store of energy is your body fat.
Blood sugar will drop when you don't replenish your body with carbohydrates. Low blood sugar triggers the release of fat cells into your bloodstream, which flow through the liver and are converted into ketones the body can use as an alternative energy source.
When ketone levels are raised in the body, it shifts into a state known as ketosis, which means it becomes extremely efficient at burning fat for energy. Because ketosis is associated with using fat stores as energy and significant drops in blood sugar and insulin, a keto diet can deliver various health benefits.
A Brief History of the Keto Diet
During the 1920s, medical professionals discovered that children with epilepsy responded well to fasting. However, Russell Wilder, a doctor from the Wilder Clinic, realized that fasting could be quite dangerous for children.
Dr. Wilder researched various diets to see if any could produce the same results as fasting, but without the risks. His research eventually revealed that limiting sugar and increasing the amount of fats produced similar positive results to fasting in people with epilepsy.
His continued efforts soon saw the low-carb, high-fat diet become the standard treatment for epilepsy, and the ketogenic diet was born.
Benefits of a Keto Diet
As a low-carb diet, keto provides similar advantages to many other carb limiting diets. However, because of the high-fat content, keto is often considered somewhat more powerful at delivering low-carb benefits than other low-carb diets, focusing more on limiting calories. Here are a few of the reported keto diet benefits.
More Control Over Appetite
Calorie reduction diets often create hunger pangs that make dieting difficult to sustain. However, low-carb diets which replace.
Keto dieters often report dramatic drops in feelings of hunger. Dieters who aren't feeling starved are more likely to exercise regularly, especially when they can eat whenever they are hungry. [*1]
Improved Mental Focus and Greater Energy Reserves
Hunger pangs cause you to lose focus at work and reducing your calories often leads to feeling lethargic and unmotivated.
Many diets typically treat food as the enemy, but the keto diet, it's a tool you can learn to use to your advantage. You don't have to starve yourself.
Instead, the food choices you make in a keto diet help transform your body into a fat burning furnace, making it a lot easier to lose stubborn fat and stay motivated.
Research reveals that low-carb diets that replace calories with meat and high-fat foods can reduce your appetite and prevent hunger pangs. [*1]
Improve Levels of HDL Cholesterol - The Good Kind
Higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the good kind of cholesterol, relative to low-density lipoprotein (LDL), reduce the risk of heart disease. LDL is commonly referred to as the bad kind cholesterol that sticks to the walls of your blood vessels.
Research shows that one of the best ways to increase HDL levels is to eat fats, which is a common strategy for low-carb diets like keto. [*2]
Reduced Insulin and Blood Sugar Levels
A low-carb diet like keto may benefit people with diabetes and insulin resistance.
According to some research, carb-cutting can significantly reduce levels of blood sugar and insulin.
Many people with diabetes starting a low-carb diet have had to cut their insulin dosage by up to half because of the dramatic drop in blood sugar levels. [*3]
How to Know if You are in Ketosis?
Once you start a ketogenic diet, it will take at least 2 or 3 days for your body to enter ketosis. Here are a few of the signs telling you that your body is burning fat and producing energy through ketosis.
You may experience an increase in mental clarity and energy levels, but there is a test you can perform to tell you for sure. Ketone test strips react to ketones in your urine, but you can also purchase a blood monitor for super-accurate results.
Ketosis will start at around day 3, but it usually takes a few weeks before your body fully adapts and transforms into a fat-burning machine.
Keto diets share many of the same benefits as low-carb diets, but the weight loss results, increased energy levels, and mental focus are often more intense.
What Foods Do You Eat on Keto?
A typical keto meal plan will limit carbohydrates to around 20 to 50 grams per day. It might seem a daunting number at first glance, but there is still a wide selection of foods you can eat. Look at what the average keto diet lets you put on your plate each day.
Vegetables (Low-carb varieties)
Technically a fruit, an avocado is an excellent source of healthy fats and contains around 9 grams of carbs per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) serving. Half an avocado will net around 9 grams of carbs, but seven of these are fibre, so you are left with a mere 2 grams. They are also a plentiful source of vitamins and minerals.
Here's a quick list of keto safe vegetables and the carbs per 100 grams serving:
- asparagus: 2 grams
- broccoli: 4 grams
- cabbage: 3 grams
- cauliflower: 3 grams
- cucumber: 3 grams
- green beans: 4 grams
- eggplant: 3 grams
- kale: 3 grams
- lettuce: 2 grams
- olives: 3 grams
- peppers: green 3, red 4
- spinach: 1 gram
- tomatoes: 3 grams
A simple rule you can use to tell you what you can and can't eat is above ground vegetables are typically lower in carbs, while root vegetables, or those that grow below ground like sweet potatoes and carrots, are loaded with them.
Fruits are one of the first foods keto dieters miss when going keto because most are chock full of carbohydrates. However, berries are the exception to the rule and contain almost equal amounts of digestible fibre relative to carbs.
Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries all contain less than 12 grams of net carbs per 100 grams.
You can keep fish and shellfish on the menu when switching to a keto diet. Fish like salmon are a virtually carb-free source of potassium, B vitamins, and selenium. Clams and other shellfish contain small amounts of carbs:
- Squid: 3 grams
- mussels: 4 grams
- octopus: 3 grams
- oysters: 3 grams
Cheese is a big no-no on most other types of diets, so you will be pleased to know that you can add it to your menu. And you don't even have to wait for a cheat day.
Before you start slicing off big chunks of cheese, you will need to make yourself aware of the keto-friendly cheeses because not all are compatible and eating too much of some can knock you out of ketogenesis. The following carb quantities are on a 2-ounce serving.
- Halloumi: 1 gram
- Gruyere Cheese: 0.1 grams
- Brie: 0.1 grams
- Cream Cheese: 0.8 grams per tablespoon
- Feta Cheese: 1.5 grams
- Romano: 0.1 grams
Cottage cheese is marketed as a low-fat option and contains 5 grams of carbs per serving (2 ounces).
It's hard to find a more versatile food than eggs, so it's a good thing they make it to this list. You will consume 1 gram of carb for every large egg, but you will also receive about 6 grams of protein.
Research also reveals that eggs may be responsible for triggering hormones that signal to the brain that you are full. [*4]
Meats and Poultry
These two meat groups are considered staple ingredients for a keto diet. They contain zero carbs and are loaded with B vitamins. They are also an excellent source of protein and an important macronutrient for ensuring you maintain your muscle mass during dieting without adding too many proteins.
Butter and Cream
Science has helped us move on from the misguided notion that butter, and cream are responsible for heart disease because of high levels of saturated fats. However, studies show that saturated fats have no links to heart disease and may reduce the risk when used in moderation. [*5]
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts like pistachios, walnuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, and almonds are high in healthy fats and low in carbs, making them the perfect snack for a keto diet. Seeds like chia, flaxseeds, sesame, and pumpkin seeds are another excellent snacking food that won't load you up with carbs.
Their high fibre content also helps produce a satisfying feeling of fullness. The number of carbs can vary, so check the nutrition labels when making your choice.
It can be surprising how many carbohydrates your usual vegetable can supply and using them in cooking can easily put you over your allotment. Fortunately, you can substitute vegetable oils with olive oil and coconut oil. Be careful with coconut oil, as too much can push up your levels of LDL cholesterol.
Foods to Avoid on Keto
All diets come with unfortunate compromises, which can make them difficult to sustain.
Keto isn't one of the most challenging diets out there but sacrifices still need to be made.
You can get through it by learning to substitute your foods with keto-friendly alternatives. Here are a few of the foods you will have to leave on the shelves and what you can safely substitute them with.
Peas are starchy and have a lot of carbs. Instead of peas as your vegetable side, try broccoli or zucchini.
Sweet potatoes are often listed as a healthier substitute for regular potatoes, but at 20 grams of carbs per spud, it won't take much to put you over your daily allotment. Cauliflower makes a great substitute for sweet potato and a lot of other starchy vegetables as well.
Cow’s milk is rich in fats, but it also contains around 11.7 grams of carb in every cup. If you can't go without your morning smoothie, try making it from almond milk instead. One cup of almond milk contains just 1 gram of carbs per cup.
Trail Mix contains many healthy seeds, nuts, and dried fruits, but it's not keto-friendly. A 1 oz (37.8 g) serving will contain more than 12g of carbs. You can substitute trail mix with plain or roasted nuts, and salt is okay as well.
Carrots are normally a healthy snack substitute, especially when compared to potato chips. However, one medium carrot has around 5 grams of carbohydrates. Try slicing up a bell pepper instead, which can taste almost as sweet but with fewer carbs, which is under 3 grams per bell pepper.
Dangers of Keto
As with any diet, you need to know what you are in for as existing health conditions may be exacerbated by a keto diet. Here are a few of the risks associated with keto.
Increased Risk of Kidney Stones
The Journal of Child Neurology observed 195 children on keto diets, 13 of which developed kidney stones. [*6] A supplement of potassium citrate seemed to decrease the risk.
The main culprit for kidney stones comes from keto dieters loading their plates with too many meats, especially processed meats. Consuming lots of animal proteins can increase calcium and uric acid levels in your urine and increase the risk of gout.
People with kidney disease are also not good candidates for the keto diet because they require a highly individualized diet prescribed by their doctor.
Low Blood Sugar and Diabetes
Carbohydrates play a critical role in balancing blood sugar and are important for people with diabetes.
Keto diets have been shown to help control HbA1C levels (two or three months average for blood sugar levels), but the diet can trigger hypoglycaemia (significant drop in blood sugar levels).
For this reason, people with type 1 diabetes should be careful when considering a keto diet.
Keto may also put people with type 2 diabetes at risk because it omits foods that benefit the disease. One food type of note is whole grains, a wholesome ingredient that helps with weight control for people with diabetes but not part of the ketogenic menu.
The Keto Flu
A sudden drop in carbohydrates forces the brain to adjust to ketones, which may not be as smooth a transition as you would like. Your kidneys could also start releasing more electrolytes in response to an insulin drop. As a result, your hydration levels drop, and you have what is known as the keto flu.
Symptoms include headaches, fatigue, constipation, cramps, and irritability. It's important to understand that the symptoms are short-lived and will dissipate once your body adapts to using ketones for energy.
The recommended treatment for keto flu is to drink lots of warm water to keep hydration levels up.
Can Everyone Do the Keto Diet?
Starting any diet should begin with a consultation with a health care professional. While a keto diet is safe for most people, it may not be compatible with everybody. The following groups may not benefit from a keto diet.
People with a history of eating disorders: The keto diet requires significant dietary adjustments, and any food restrictions may create extra challenges for people with an eating disorder.
People with kidney disease: The significant changes in the balance of potassium, sodium, and fluids mean that people experiencing issues with their kidneys would be safer looking elsewhere.
Healthy children: No healthy child should be put on a diet with extreme restrictions on foods.
Breastfeeding or pregnant women: Research is ongoing, but there are some indications that the keto diet may trigger metabolic disturbances that can impact the foetus. [*7] Pregnancy and breastfeeding is not the best time to make extreme diet changes and risk your unborn or newborn child missing out on vital nutrients.
People due for gastrointestinal or bariatric surgery: The keto diet's high-fat content can put a strain on the digestive system. Adding another variable to the mix may mean you should consider putting your keto plans on hold until you make a full recovery.
Athletes who need to build muscle mass: Some athletics fields require the athlete to build muscle mass to remain competitive. The keto diet focuses a lot on reducing carbs, but it also requires careful moderation of proteins. Protein can be converted into glucose, so eating too much can push your body out of ketosis.
The Keto Diet - Should You or Shouldn't You
The keto diet has been used successfully as a short-term treatment for diabetes and obesity.
Dieters who have struggled with severe calorie restriction in the past may benefit from a diet that does not treat food as the enemy.
While some adjustment is required due to the prevalence of carbohydrate-rich foods in the western diet, the keto diet is a significantly less challenging diet to sustain when weight loss is the goal.
The trick to being successful with keto is to recalibrate your relationship with fats. For example, grilled skinless chicken doesn't work on keto because its fats to protein ratio may kick your body out of ketosis.
Bear in mind that keto is not a long-term diet plan. When choosing keto, you should also have a plan for readjusting your diet once you reach your health goals.
Before starting any diet, we always recommend our customers to consult with health professionals as every situation is different.
Ultimately your personal health can be affected by factors such as:
- Access to health care
- Behaviours & Lifestyle
- Sleep Patterns