Despite a rocky road for the nearly 100-year-old ketogenic diet, this plan has become the modern star of the nutrition world. And it’s just begun to rise.
Meat, healthful fats and non-starchy plants are the cornerstones of the ketogenic diet, an approach that mimics our caveman ancestors’ sparse dietary patterns and has shown through studies over the last few decades to be beneficial for a host of human conditions.
While there is compelling research marking the benefits of the ketogenic diet, it’s important to examine the pros and cons to find out if it’s right for you.
The Modern Version of the Caveman Diet
After being introduced in the 1920’s by American physicians as a treatment for childhood epilepsy, the ketogenic diet was revived—quite controversially—for weight loss in 1972 by Dr. Robert Atkins, an American cardiologist.
The Atkins Diet became popular because it initially allowed nearly unlimited bacon, meat and cheeses. At the same time, it barred starchy carbohydrates like bread and grains. Some found it a dream to indulge in bacon and cheese, but many suffered undesirable side effects like constipation, light-headedness, and fatigue.
The diet was scorned for its high-fat basis when many countries were recommending that up to 60-percent of one’s daily calories should come from bready carbohydrates, and fats were a big no-no.
But it was hard to ignore Atkins’ reported case studies that showed drastic improvements in conditions like heart disease and type-2 diabetes, and reductions in disease markers like high cholesterol and blood sugar.
Can’t Argue with Success
So research continued, and findings for the health-promoting benefits of the approach ushered in a new era of ketogenic diet, which today is headlined by the likes of the super-popular Paleolithic (Paleo) and Primal Blueprint diets (to name only two—dozens more variations exist today, including a nicely updated Atkins program, with leaner meats and more veg).
Today, studies find that a ketogenic plan can increase HDL (good) cholesterol and decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol, decrease triglycerides, and decrease blood glucose—all factors that can greatly improve a number of disease processes or retain good health for the average adult.
What is Ketosis
A strict ketogenic diet is intended to put the body in what is called ketosis—a metabolic state in which the body is using fat (not glucose, or sugar) for fuel. As a result of the fat breakdown, ketone bodies are released into the blood. The appearance of these ketone bodies in urine, as indicated by test-strip results, signals that one is in ketosis.
Ketosis is achieved by eliminating the intake of sugar and strictly limiting carbohydrate to vegetables. When sugar, or glucose, is not available in the blood for use as fuel, and glycogen, the stores of sugar in the liver and muscles, are also depleted, the body will turn to metabolizing dietary fat, as well as stored body fat, for energy.
It is important to note that most keto diets for weight loss and general health (like Paleo and Primal) are not intended to keep the body in ketosis constantly; they are moderated after an initial phase to allow more carbohydrates to make them a more realistic long-term lifestyle eating approach.
Keto Diet Basics
A modern ketogenic diet is an eating style that focuses on healthy fats, animal protein and vegetables, often recommended in proportions such as 65-percent fat, 25-percent protein and 10-percent carbohydrates (derived from non-starchy vegetables).
Followers shun grains and legumes in their many forms (flours, refined grains and even whole grains, plus dried beans) because, they say, grains and legumes promote inflammation in the body. Inflammation is known to be at the root of the disease process for a great majority of diseases and also plays a part in weight gain and premature aging.
How To Get Started
Different ketogenic approaches differ in specific food guidelines but here are some fairly universal recommendations that should produce ketosis for most individuals.
What to Eat
- Fats: avocados, olives, nuts (except peanuts, which are legumes, not nuts) coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, grass-fed butter (an exception to the no-dairy policy below)
- Whole Dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese
- Protein: most meats and fish, with care to not ingest too much pork, which can be pro-inflammatory
- Vegetables: non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli and other low sugar vegetables
- Fruits: apples, pears and other low-sugar fruits (during a strict keto phase, eliminate fruits)
What Not to Eat
- Processed foods. Cook your food at home to ensure the purity of the ingredients that go into it; limit processed options considerably or entirely
- Sugar and other sweeteners, including sugary beverages like sodas and juices, plus honey, maple syrup, molasses and other sweeteners
- Grains or legumes of any kind (e.g. rice, wheat, lentils, garbanzo and similar beans)
- Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and higher-sugar varieties like carrots, corn, peas
- Trans fats (a.k.a. hydrogenated fats) and oils high in omega-6 fatty acids, like safflower, grapeseed and more
- Excessive protein, usually a 3-6-oz portion is recommended per meal since excess protein can be converted to glucose by the body
Is It Really That Easy?
In a word, yes. However, there are many nuances to this diet that make it complicated and sometimes uncomfortable to follow.
Complication number one: the world is made of donuts. Or so it seems.
Bread and starchy carbohydrates are absolutely everywhere, and it’s difficult to navigate social situations and restaurants without bringing your own healthy high-fat, low-carb food. This is the most common factor causing people to discontinue a ketogenic plan.
Physical side effects also cause fall-off from the plan. Constipation can be an issue if one does not eat a high volume of fiber-rich vegetables and drink large quantities of water.
Other common side effects include headaches, fatigue, bad breath, weakness, muscle cramping and sleep disturbances.
The Upside For You And Your Health
As you can imagine, when body fat is burned as your body’s prime energy source, you can lose weight and inches quickly. But it’s not all about weight loss.
Forgoing sugar burning can also stabilize blood sugar levels, a plus for patients with insulin resistance or type-2 diabetes, who often can be removed from medications after their doctors deem their levels stable enough.
And because the plan can reduce inflammation in all body tissues, including blood vessels, it can be influential in reducing heart and vascular diseases.
Research is ongoing on the diet’s effect on nervous-system diseases, acne, cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and many other diseases, all where benefits have been noted from patients undertaking a ketogenic diet.
As for its long-term effects, 2004 research done by the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. concluded that long-term ketosis had so many benefits and so few detriments that it saw no reason not to recommend long-term adoption of the diet for obese patients.
Can Ketosis Be Bad For You
On the other side, some criticize the ketogenic approach saying that too many ketones could lead to dehydration and changes in blood chemistry. And because the ketones must be filtered by the kidneys, they could cause kidney strain long-term.
Ketoacidosis is a condition that is often linked with ketogenic diets but the concern has been downplayed because modern keto plans are better balanced. Ketoacidosis occurs when excessive amounts of ketones and glucose are present in the blood. With normal or controlled blood-sugar regulation, this condition is unlikely.
Ketoacidosis is, however, a concern for those with unregulated blood sugar, which is why diabetics and other such individuals should be under strict monitoring of a health professional when trying a ketogenic diet.
Body Support During The Diet
If you’re doing the keto diet correctly, you’ll likely be eating higher-quality, more nutrient-rich foods than usual, and you shouldn’t need a wide range of supplemental vitamins and minerals. However, a few support elements could help reduce possible side effects.
Psyllium husk powder: this fibre supplement can keep you fuller longer and curb hunger between meals. Psyllium husk is an indigestible fibre that adds bulk in the digestive tract and also helps to keep waste moving through the system. This can help in preventing or alleviating constipation.
Magnesium: eating a higher fat diet reduces the absorption of this key mineral, which already happens to be one of the most deficient nutrients in the modern diet. A good supplement of about 400-800mg can protect against further deficiency during the diet, and can be an additional aid for constipation.
Potassium & Sodium: along with Magnesium, these electrolytes work in unison to reduce some side effects of keto diets, like headaches, achiness and fatigue, which are together termed “keto flu.” Keeping up your intake by eating foods high in these minerals, or supplementing them, should ease these symptoms. Estimated daily minimum for Potassium is 2,000mg per day. Sodium is typically kept to a daily maximum of about one teaspoon (especially for patients with related medical conditions) but with increased need during a low-carb diet, you can add up to another teaspoon per day (preferably in food form such as a quality broth) if you have muscle cramping.
B-vitamins: these vitamins are abundant in the outer coatings of whole grains and in legumes, which are missing in a ketogenic diet. Among many functions, they power the body’s processes for converting foods to energy, so it is important to ensure you have enough of them for your body to use during a keto diet. A well balanced B-vitamin supplement can help.
Is Keto Right for You?
Individual results on this diet will vary, of course, because human bodies vary in their metabolism of all substances.
Some keto dieters receive ideal benefits:
- Increased energy
- Greater mental clarity
- Smoother digestion
- Improved medical conditions
- Improved blood markers for disease
Others have opposite results and don’t tolerate the approach well.
The only way to find out is to try it and see how your own body reacts. You might find a new lifestyle plan that changes your health forever.
As always, check with your doctor before beginning any eating program, especially if you are taking prescriptions for blood pressure, blood sugar and any number of other conditions.