By now, most of you know that carbs, especially processed foods and sugar, not only help you put on unwanted pounds, they do little to nourish the body. A low-carb, plant-based diet however has the opposite effect, which is why it’s always the better choice. But over the past few years, the big news in food-as-medicine circles has become ‘ketogenic’ eating, which takes low-carb a few steps further, enabling your body to burn fat for fuel instead of carbs. Another reason to consider ‘going keto’? It can also help turn down the dial on a number of chronic health conditions – think hypertension, diabetes, obesity – no prescription necessary. Sound good? Here’s the skinny on why this fat-burning way to eat is so effective – and what to expect if you’re considering making the switch:
What’s ketogenic eating about?
Ketogenic eating involves following a customized super low-carb, moderate-protein, high-fat diet in order to switch on a metabolic state in which the body uses fat for energy. Instead of getting energy from breaking down starches and sugars (glucose), with a ‘keto’ approach, the body uses ketones and fatty acids to power up. When carbs are limited according to a keto protocol, your body goes into the normal metabolic state of ‘ketosis’ and is forced to start burning fat for fuel, instead of all the sugar it has probably been running on for years. To stay in ketosis, you have to maintain that keto diet pretty rigorously. But, after a few weeks of adaptation, the body is locked into this new energy pathway. It burns fat for energy, first the quality fats you’re consuming in your diet, and then the fat stored on your body. In order to get the effect, however, there’s no wiggle room for the occasional dietary detour. A sweet treat or carb-heavy snack will send you right back to the starting line.
What can a ketogenic diet do for you?
Since the 1920s, ketogenic diets have been known to reduce or prevent seizures in people with epilepsy. Today, however, keto is better known for the benefits it can provide people struggling with common “lifestyle” diseases, linked to insulin-boosting, pro-inflammatory diets. Weight problems, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, GERD and heartburn, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, these are just some of the conditions that should see improvement when you flip on your fat-burning keto powers. Emerging evidence suggests it improves mental performance and it may benefit a host of neurological conditions as well, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Is a ketogenic diet easy to do?
Yes and no. At first, in the early phases, it may feel like you need a will of steel to stick to this ‘no-cheating’ way of eating. However, keto fans report that the fast results reinforce and help establish the new eating pattern. Most notably, weight and stubborn body fat tend to decrease quickly, which is, for many people, inspiration enough to stay on the straight and narrow. People on keto also report enhanced mental clarity, more energy, decreased sugar cravings, and a greater feeling of satiety with considerably fewer hunger pangs during the day. Most heartening of all, keto eaters get better lab numbers for insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels.
What does a standard ketogenic diet look like?
The standard ketogenic diet, or SKD, consists of a fairly tight combo of low carb, high (good) fat and moderate protein, the three macronutrients, or ‘macros.’ The daily carb allotment is usually less than 50 grams, and usually less than 20-30 grams of ‘net’ carbs, meaning total carbs minus the fiber. When it comes to good fats, you’re allowed plenty of ‘em on keto! They’re what keep you feeling satiated and what stokes your fat-for-fuel fire. Taking in 60-75% of the day’s calories in the form of good fats does the trick. Rounding out the daily plan is protein, which, on a ketogenic diet, clocks in at about 20% of daily calories. Keep in mind though that one carb size doesn’t necessarily fit all. If yours is the type of body that clings to excess fat, maybe has hormonal imbalances or just doesn’t drop weight without a fight, you may need to experiment a bit more with your carb intake, adjusting down to 40, 30 or even as low as 20 grams a day to find your ketogenic sweet spot. Keep in mind, no matter how many carbs you consume, be sure to get them – and your proteins and fats – from the cleanest, highest-quality sources possible.
What about ‘dirty keto?’
If you’ve been considering a ketogenic diet, you’ve probably also heard of ‘dirty keto,’ which is essentially a bastardized version of the SKD – a very unhealthy hall pass. Though the macro allotment is the same, with dirty keto, little attention is paid to the quality of the macros. Its proponents encourage what by any measure would be considered a fairly crappy diet of processed foods, factory-farmed animals and assorted junk foods – just as long as they keep to their macros count. So, basically, dirty keto games the system – but at a huge cost to your health. Doing it dirty eliminates most essential vitamins and minerals, boosts inflammation, encourages cravings and triggers weight gain as soon as you go off the plan. My advice? Don’t even think about ‘going dirty.’
Where to learn more?
There are plenty of sources online, some reputable and others, not so much. If you’re just getting started on keto, I recommend the following articles to begin the journey:
A Ketogenic Diet for Beginners, where you’ll find visual guides, recipes, meal plans and a simple 2-week get started program, all you need to succeed on keto. And Myths and Mistakes of the Ketogenic Diet, where you’ll learn everything you need to know about going keto — separate facts from myth, and avoid common pitfalls.