The keto diet is currently receiving a lot of attention in medical and nutritional circles. You may have heard of the term ketogenic diet, or the words ketone bodies, but you’re not sure exactly what they are. What does it mean to be ketogenic and what does it take to get into nutritional ketosis?
Keto in a nutshell
A ketogenic diet is the severe restriction of carbohydrates in order teach the body to run on fat instead of glucose. During the transition period of becoming “fat adapted” the ketogenic diet will cause the body to go into nutritional ketosis. The body’s stores of glucose then become very low, causing the liver to produce ketone bodies from fat – dietary sources of fat and our own body’s fat stores.
During a ketogenic diet, carbohydrates in the diet are replaced by fats from fatty foods, such as coconut oil, avocados, oily fish and olive oil.
Protein consumption is monitored too during this diet being kept at a moderate level, as excessive protein intake can lead to a rise in blood sugar levels, as the liver can make glucose from protein during a process called gluconeogenesis.
Switching between fuel sources
Our bodies are very clever. They can run on either glucose (from starches and sugars), or ketone bodies (from fat). This served our ancestors extremely well as they roamed around in nature looking for their next meal. Food wasn’t abundant like it is today, so they spent plenty of time going without food. The sorts of foods available to them were limited – wild meat, wild fish, nuts, seeds, Autumn fruits, berries and green leafy vegetables.
The ability of our bodies to be able to switch between glucose and fat metabolism was a useful survival mechanism for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. When carbohydrates (fruits, berries, veg) were scarce they could switch to ketone bodies to fuel themselves from the fat they were eating, or from their own bodily fat stores. When they encountered carbohydrate foods, they could use the glucose to make their bodily energy.
Too many sugars all year round
In Autumn time in particular, when the trees were ripe with fruit, our ancestors would have eaten an abundance of carbohydrates, which would have spiked their insulin levels causing insulin resistance and fat storage (sugar turns to fat) ready for the winter ahead. During wintertime, it’s likely they switched to ketones as fuel, using their body fat from the Autumn fruit feasting as a nutritional back-up.
The problem with us today is that we are living in a perpetual state of Autumn, consuming carbohydrate-rich foods all year round. We currently have a pandemic of diabetes-related illnesses, insulin-resistance, obesity and other health conditions linked to a high glucose diet. We are simply not designed to be able to process all that sugar on a continuous basis all year round.
It’s thought that if we weren’t able to switch to using ketone bodies for energy in times of starvation or carbohydrate restriction, the human race wouldn’t exist anymore.
Benefits of the ketogenic diet:
- Elimination of cravings
- Better sleep
- Stable moods
- Weight loss (fat loss)
- Reduction of risk of many degenerative and inflammatory diseases, (much research has already been done on the benefits of this diet for cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases)
- All meat and fish, preferably grass-fed, non-medicated meat and wild fish
- Non-starchy vegetables that grow above ground, especially green leafy veg
- Small quantities of low sugar fruits – berries, lemons, limes, avocados
- Fats and oils from natural sources like animal fats, grass fed butter, avocados, coconut oil, coconut milk, olive oil, cacao butter, avocado oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Ideally macronutrient ratios should be 60-75% of calories from fat (or more depending on your target), 15-30% calories from protein and 5-10% calories from carbohydrates (net carbs).
- Starting off to get into ketosis, daily net carb intake (total carbs minus fibre) should be less than 50g, ideally 20-30g, then increased slowly until an optimal carb intake is reached. This may be different for individuals. Most people stay in ketosis at around 20-30 net carbs daily. Your aim is to find the carb limit that allows you to stay in ketosis.
- Protein intake should be moderate. The best way to calculate this is to use your body fat percentage to get an estimate of how much protein you should be consuming. You should be aiming for 1.3 to 2.2g of protein per kg of lean body mass. (Lean body mass = total weight minus body fat percentage, e.g. if you weigh 70kg and your body fat is 27%, your lean body mass is 70 – 18.9 = 51.1kg). Activity levels are also taken into consideration.
- The daily proportion of calories that come from healthy fats should be increased.
- If you’ve set your net carb limit very low (for weight loss or therapeutic reasons) at 20g a day and below, fruit and low-carb treats are best avoided.
- Sodium, potassium and magnesium may become deficient during ketosis, so consulting with a nutritional therapist is advised during transition into a ketogenic diet, as well as getting advice on using quality supplements. Sea salt or Himalayan salt should be used in cooking.
- You’ll learn to eat when you are hungry, not because the clock (or anyone else) tells you to.
- You’ll learn to stop eating when you feel full as the ketogenic diet has a natural appetite control effect, so you will begin to naturally eat less.
- It’s important to stay hydrated, being mindful of your water intake. Ideally drinking about 2l water daily.
- Starting out, it’s crucial to monitor your carb, fat and protein intake to get into ketosis and so that you don’t kick yourself out of ketosis once in. Macro counting apps, or specific keto apps that log your daily intakes are recommended.
My ketogenic journey
I’m personally at the beginning of embarking on a ketogenic diet to see for myself the benefits of drastically reducing glucose and switching to fat as fuel. I’m four weeks into my journey and feeling really great. As a nutritional therapist, I have been eating a very healthy diet for years with no sugar, no refined carbohydrates or processed foods. I do however enjoy good wine (my only sugar craving!). Since going ketogenic, my cravings for wine have completely disappeared. Literally just vanished.
My energy, sleep, moods, hormone balance etc were already pretty good as I live a healthy, mindful and non-toxic lifestyle, however since switching to ketosis I’ve noticed my energy levels have soared, my moods are more stable, I’ve better motivation and concentration, and my sleep is deeper than it’s been in years! And I have no cravings for wine, and as a result my “wine muffin top” is melting away. Amazing!
I plan to continue on for a few months at least to really experience for myself what it’s like to be fat adapted. I’ll start including more information on the keto diet as I progress through my own personal journey.
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To your good health,
Nutritional therapist and founder of Awakening Health.