#keto, Bulletproof products (coffee and fat anyone?) and the Ketogenic Diet has gained huge traction in recent years. The fans of the diet are pretty obsessed and promote how ketosis can curb appetite, enhance performance, and cure nearly any health problem that ails you – but does it live up to the hype? This one, I tried and tested for you…
In a nutshell, a keto diet is well known for being a very low carb, where the body produces ketones in the liver to be used as energy instead of it’s usual energy source, glucose – which comes from carbs. It’s referred to as loads of different names – ketogenic diet, low carb diet, low carb high fat (LCHF), but to help us understand how ketogenic diet gained such popularity we need to take a trip back in time… (I’m feeling Bill and Ted vibes here)
It all began with Epilepsy – around 400 BC, Hippocrates observed a man having seizures – but when he stopped eating, the seizures stopped too. Leap forward around 1,400 years later, Avicenna speculated that “overfeeding” might be a risk factor for epilepsy. Skip to 1911 (air guitar), a pair of Parisian doctors were trying fasting as a treatment for children with epilepsy with good results.
However, the problem is that the body isn’t great at starvation (funny that. I thought hangry was bad.) and it has many mechanisms to help prevent this and protect itself. So the idea of ‘fasting without fasting’ came about in 1921. Dr. Russell Wilder experimented with what he called the “ketogenic diet”. Not only did children with epilepsy seem to improve their symptoms overall, they seemed to think and behave better as well.
To this day the ketogenic diet is still used as a treatment for childhood epilepsy & has many other uses in medicine e.g. people with neurodegenerative disorders (such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s). If you haven’t seen it, watch The Magic Pill on Netflix – it’ll give you a further insight. Keto as we know it gained popularity with people outside the medical world during 1980s and 90s: bodybuilders and athletes became curious – but they weren’t concerned about brain health or longevity. They were only concerned with #gains
So…today, what’s old is new again
The results people are claiming now are everything from enhanced brain health, weight loss, hunger control, blood sugar management for metabolic syndrome and overall wellbeing. This has seen a surge in current research and the diet has gained huge popularity on social media & podcasts.
Now we’ve had the history lesson, lets look at the science….
When you eat something with carbs, your body will naturally produce glucose and insulin. Since the glucose is being used as a primary energy source, your fats are not needed and are therefore generally stored. If you give your body more than it needs though then quite simply it stores it. By lowering the intake of carbs, the body is induced into a state known as ketosis. Ketosis is a natural process the body initiates to help us survive when food intake is low. During this state, we produce ketones. The body can use these ketones as its new energy source and the cool thing is the brain works super well on this fuel.
The end goal of a properly maintained keto diet is to force your body into this metabolic state. We don’t do this through starvation of calories, but starvation of carbohydrates. Our bodies are incredibly adaptive to what you put into it – when you overload it with fats and take away carbohydrates, it will begin to burn ketones as the primary energy source. You are a fat burning machine. Optimal ketone levels seem to offer many health, weight loss, physical and mental performance benefits.
Sounds too good to be true? Well yes and no. Here I go again with the official nutritional therapy answer “it depends”
This diet is restrictive so it’s not for everyone.
If I could encapsulate my experience into 2 images it would be from this…
It all started well, I did the big shop (although I was pretty grossed out by how many animal based products were now in my fridge) and downloaded loads of recipes. Physically this diet did everything it promised it would and my body took to it well. I even loved the creaminess of the bulletproof coffees. I managed to exercise daily – it took a little more effort but nothing too serious – and I barely got the dreaded ‘keto flu’. It got better; I lost weight (which was probably water) and didn’t feel the need to snack AT ALL. I’d also cut down on anything sweet which I’ve always found hard to do.
The real toll it took was mentally – first of all the planning I found frustrating and time-consuming. I love to cook, but for that week cooking became a real ball ache – mainly because I felt like I had to stick rigidly to the recipes where I’m more of a ‘throw in some more garlic’ kind of gal – but if I did that during the keto diet I might get knocked out of ketosis! Bear in mind however if YOU do keto then you’d get used to the recipes and amounts so this feeling won’t last forever.
Secondly was the sheer amount of animal produce I consumed – not only is this expensive if you buy organic/locally sourced, but ethically it didn’t sit well with me. I really don’t like a lot of dairy – too many reasons to go into for this post – and loads of the keto recipes were dairy heavy.
More seriously though was the macro counting misery – inputting my macros and getting a weird sense of achievement or guilt started to ring alarm bells in my head. Having had some disordered eating in my past, I could feel the old ways of obsessing over numbers creeping back in. That’s why even with the all the physical goodness, I called it a day.
But that’s just me. It works brilliantly for loads of people and can be the answer to your health woes if you can stick to it. If only Will Cole’s Ketotarian book was out when I was doing this as I would probably have found the diet more beneficial and might even have stuck to it. He delivers a plant-based program that provides all the health and weight-loss benefits of keto diets – and welcomes vegetarian, vegan and pescatarians to the table. Check it out here.
Tips to follow the diet
- Counting macros: Essential at first. Remember its about going ‘HEALTHY FAT’ heavy (not bacon heavy) and also moderate protein. So many #keto pics have a shit ton of meat on their plate and think because they’ve forgone the bread bun their doing it right. Dude, you’re not doing keto. You can get a keto app which tells you how many carbs, proteins and fats you’ve had that day.
- Carb limit: Every person has a different carb limit that they should stick to so that they can trigger ketone production. This “carb limit” also changes depending on the day! Some people may be able to get into ketosis with a slightly higher carb intake while others need to restrict their carbs below 35 grams per day. Although everyone may need to restrict slightly different amounts of carbs to get into and stay in ketosis, there is a carb limit that almost anyone can use to achieve results. This keto carb limit is 35 grams of total carbs and 25 grams of net carbs. (Net carbs are found by subtracting the grams of the fiber from the total grams of carbs.
- Exercise: By increasing your activity levels and doing the right types of exercise at the right times, you can achieve ketosis more quickly, burn more fat, and improve your health in a variety of ways. As a side bonus, you can increase your daily carb limit without lowering your ketone levels as well. High Intensity activity when trying to get into ketosis then lower intensity one glycogen is depleted. Be careful with too much H.I however as stress can shut down ketone production.
- Measure ketones – I used ketone sticks (you basically pee on them and they say what stage of ketosis you’re in). It’s not the ultimate predictor (as ketones fluctuate throughout the day) but its the cheapest, easiest way.
- Beware Keto Flu – Keto flu is a very common but it often goes away after just a few days – keto flu can include fatigue, headache, nausea, cramps. This is for a couple of reasons; Keto is a diuretic. You tend to go to the bathroom more to pee, which attributes to a loss of both electrolytes and water in your body. You can usually help combat this by either drinking bouillon cube and increasing your water intake. Mainly, you want to replenish your depleted electrolytes. Also during the transitional period, the brain may run low on energy through lack of glucose which can lead to grogginess, nausea, and headaches. It’s gross but it passes.
- MCTs – medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) skip the slow process of fat digestion and go straight to the liver where they can be converted into ketone bodies right away. MCTs are naturally found in coconuts, coconut milk, and coconut oil or MCT oil.
- Check out these lists of what you can include and what you need to avoid on Dr Axe’s Website here