When you first start to learn about the ketogenic diet, it can appear so daunting. There is information coming out of every nook and cranny of the internet. Some information is helpful, some information is confusing, and some information is downright incorrect. In this post, you will find a very simple to follow and basic explanation of the ketogenic diet and an easy way to start and follow your new way of eating.
What is a ketogenic diet?
Put simply, a ketogenic diet is one in which your body is put into a state of nutritional ketosis. It is a very healthy state for the body to be in, as ketones are scientifically proven to have a variety of benefits on all aspects of one’s physical health, from improved brain function to treatment of cancer cells. This state of nutritional ketosis should not be confused with ketoacidosis (a dangerous condition for Type 1 Diabetics), or the starvation ketosis that occurs when the body is being deprived food (i.e. starvation mode), as evident in calorie restricted diet plans.
When you follow a ketogenic way of eating, your body will re-vamp itself to use fat for fuel, rather than carbohydrates for fuel. This is done by eliminating almost all carbohydrates from your diet and replacing it with fat and some protein. Ketogenic eating requires you to consume a LOW carbohydrate, HIGH fat, and moderate protein diet. This generally means that of your total caloric intake, 5% comes from carbs, 70-75% comes from fat, and 20-25% comes from protein.
When on a ketogenic way of eating, calories do not matter. The notion that a calorie in equals a calorie out has been dunked many times within the scientific community, and has no bearing on weight gain if the correct foods are being consumed. Our bodies are not simple machines. We are complex beings, and following the notion that calories in equal calories out ignores the entire thermodynamic function of the human body. It is the quality of the calorie that matters, rather than the quantity.
What do I eat?
Put simply, you can eat anything except carbohydrates. The usual bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, and beans goes without saying. But many do not realize that carbohydrates are present in many other foods we eat, including all fruits and vegetables. Not all fruits and veggies are created equal, and some contain loads more carbs than others. Most fruits are not keto approved, however, limited quantities of berries are permitted. In contrast, most veggies are keto approved, however some are off the table, such as carrots and corn.
Making smart choices when it comes to food is important, but when it comes to carbs, the reality is that a carb is a carb and will be used by the body the same way, regardless of the source. Meaning, it doesn’t really matter whether you eat a piece of chocolate or a sweet potato. Your body does not differentiate between the two. Yes, the sweet potato has additional nutrients (i.e. Vitamin A) and fiber, but it still causes the exact same negative reaction in the body, as it is converted into glucose in the exact same way as the piece of chocolate is. Insulin is spiked, and nothing is changed.
There are a few keto food lists floating around, but I have found this one to be the most informative and comprehensive of them all:
What are macros and how do I know the macro make up of the foods I am eating?
Macronutrients, deemed macros for short, simply refer to fat, protein and carbohydrates. These 3 macros make up every food we eat. When you follow a ketogenic diet, it is immensely helpful to track the foods you eat to ensure that your macros are on point. Ideally, you want to keep carbs under 20g. So the general rule of thumb as it relates to macros is that carbs are a limit, protein is a goal, and fat is eaten until satiety.
Tracking your macros can be done easily using a food tracking app, that allows you to input all the foods you eat, and provide you with the total macros present in those foods, as well as your daily totals. I personally find My Fitness Pal to be the best at this because of the enormous database of foods, the ability to create your own recipes, and the macro breakdown it provides.
For help on downloading, setting up and tracking macros, see my blog posts here:
You do not have to track if you find it too daunting. However, I find it is incredibly helpful when first beginning your keto journey because it gives you an understanding of the macro-nutrient make up of each food and helps you make better choices. You can be successful doing either way, so find your balance and do whats works best for you.
Counting Total vs Net
There are 2 ways to track your carbohydrate intake: total vs. net. Counting total carbs means that you are aiming for 20g of carbs in TOTAL per day. Counting net means that you are subtracting the fiber content of foods to stay within your 20g daily goal. As an example, a medium sized avocado has 12g of carbs in it, 8g of that being fiber. If you’re counting total carbs, this would account for over 50% of your total carbohydrate intake. If you’re counting net carbs, it would be 4g towards your daily limit. Counting total carbs is obviously more restrictive, but also more effective for weight loss. From a perspective of reaping the keto health benefits, regardless of weight loss, either way is fine. Many people have success doing it one way or another. You know your body best. You can always start out counting net, and if you find your results are slower than you’d like, switch to total. Similarly, you can start counting total and when you reach your goal, which over to net in order to maintain.
Electrolytes: Feeling good and full of energy
Managing your electrolytes while on a ketogenic way of eating is key to feeling fantastic and being zapped with a surge of energy on a daily basis. You need a good balance of salt, magnesium, and potassium. See below post for a detailed account of electrolytes. While eating a high carbohydrate diet, our bodies retain too much sodium, so we are told to always be mindful of how much salt we eat. On a ketogenic diet, carbs are eliminated and therefore, there isn’t much to hold on to the sodium. Sodium serves an important function in our bodies, and particularly, aids in the absorption of magnesium and potassium. So, if you feel low energy, add some salt to your meals or your water, eat keto-approved foods high in potassium (e.g. avocado, leafy greens, or mushrooms), and take a magnesium supplement if you are getting muscle cramps often (especially if you are also exercising).
What is the Keto Flu and will I get it?
Keto flu refers to the detox your body goes through in the first week of starting keto. You are ridding your body of carbohydrates, sugar and the toxins those bring. This detox brings with it a variety of unpleasant symptoms, such as nausea, frequent trips to the bathroom (#2), headaches, low energy, and mood swings. Everyone gets varying degrees of the keto flu, from no keto flu at all to “I need to call in sick, I can’t move”. It all depends on your eating habits before you began keto. Specifically, the amount of processed foods you were consuming. These are the WORST and cleansing your body of these toxins will likely cause a nastier version of keto flu. Although keto flu can be very unpleasant, remember that you are literally breaking an addiction to carbs and sugar, and your body is detoxing and healing from it. Give it a break. It needs some time to recover.
Why not carbs?
What is it about a carbohydrate that makes it so dangerous for our bodies? Put simply, it is the effect on our insulin levels. Eating a meal high in carbohydrates spikes your insulin to an alarming degree, and insulin can be a dangerous hormone if not adequately controlled. Especially for those of us who have some degree of insulin resistance. It is insulin resistance that causes diabetes. It is insulin resistance that contributes to the onset of Alzheimer’s (dubbed Type 3 Diabetes by the medical community). It is insulin levels and glucose that cause inflammation in the arteries that traps cholesterol, preventing it from moving freely as its supposed to. It is this spike and subsequent crash of insulin, that goes straight to the brain, that makes us addicted to sugar. It makes us want more and more and more. There is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate. If there was, the human race would have perished a long time ago.
We have been bombarded with messages telling us how bad fat is. A diet high in
saturated fat will lead to high cholesterol and thus, heart disease, or so they said. The
thing is, fat is a wonderfully healthy food for us to eat. It should go without saying that fat here does not include the fat found in processed foods, namely trans-fat. This type of
commercially developed fat contained in packaged and fast foods are terrible for your
health and should always be avoided. Fat here means avocados, nuts, egg yolks,
animal fats (preferably grass-fed), coconut oil, olive oil, etc. Fat plays a critical function
in our bodies (paired with low carb eating), helping us with brain function, improved
glycemic control, lowered triglycerides (which contribute to the risk of heart disease),
and increased HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). In fact, a recent article published
in the British Medical Journal, states that prescribing statin drugs are problematic
because they artificially lower cholesterol and that a diet high in saturated fats would be
300% more effective. Moreover, fat helps keep you full longer, is very satiating and
satisfying, controls cravings, and regulates blood sugar.
A piece of advice
Many people that follow keto will tell you it is a lifestyle change. Yes, it is. BUT, starting
keto can seem overwhelming enough. It is more important to make sure you are
learning what to eat and what not to eat, understanding macros, and giving up foods
you thought you loved. Don’t look at it as a long term in the beginning. Look at it on
more of a short term basis. Take it day by day. If you really hate it, you’re an adult and
can stop anytime. If you think of it this way, you will succeed. If you start by thinking
about the fact that you will never eat bread or pasta again, you will fail because it’s too
scary of a thought for you right now. It will all seem so much less daunting if you think of
it on a short term, day-by-day basis. I promise you that once you eat keto for 1-2 weeks,
the benefits will become strikingly apparent, and you will begin to view it as a lifestyle
change. And remember, it is not a diet, it is a way of eating.
5 steps to get started:
- Ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Set a goal, write it down, and read it at least once a day. Remind yourself constantly why you are changing your habits.
- Familiarize yourself with the keto-approved food list, linked above, and make sure to note what foods are NOT allowed.
- Rid your house of all the bad and replace it with the good. The more items on your grocery list that need to be refrigerated, the better. Your pantry should consist of as little boxed items as possible.
- Download My Fitness Pal (or other food tracking app), set it up for your macros, and familiarize yourself with how to track meals, look at your daily totals, etc.
- Keep it simple. There are TONS of keto recipes out there, from appetizers to desserts and everything in between. Most of these recipes are amazing, and you’d never know you were changing your lifestyle. However, in the first couple weeks, keeping it simple will allow you to gain a better grasp of keto eating. The simplicity will allow you to focus on eating right. Once you feel you’ve jumped over the cravings and carbs hurdle, feel free to try out all the fun stuff out there.
Good luck with your keto lifestyle change and feel free to contact me with any questions!