Take a look at your social media or speak to anyone on a diet these days and you're probably going to hear about this fabulous new way of eating called the keto diet. But keto isn't exactly new and it hasn't always been used as a way to promote fast weight loss either.
The ketogenic diet was originally created in the 1920’s primarily with the intent to treat epilepsy in children. So how the heck did it become the latest diet craze?
Keto Diet Plan 101
After the introduction of the Atkin's diet in early 2000's, the low-carb eating trend has not lost any steam. We've seen a variety of lower carb styles of eating hit the market like south beach diet, paleo and Dukan diet.
But why cut carbs?
The theory behind low carb eating for weight loss, has to do with how your body naturally uses and stores energy from food.
Carbohydrates provide glucose, the preferred source of fuel for your body. Other "macros" or macronutrients – protein and fat – need to be digested and broken down into a usable form of fuel and building blocks, but this takes more time and energy compared to carbs. Because of the lengthier process, it is thought that restricting your intake of carbs will force your body to rely on other sources for fuel, and in theory, this would mean you burn more calories trying to get usable energy from your food and/or you start to burn more fat stores for energy.
However, “burning” or using fat for fuel does not necessarily equal the same thing as losing body fat. The type of fat you are burning for energy is primarily coming from dietary fat or fatty acids stored in your muscles, not always fatty tissue like belly fat – unless you cut calories. Even though there is some argument for ketosis in promoting weight loss alone, this theory has not been proven (1,2). So if you are using a ketogenic diet to promote fat loss, your best bet is through calorie restriction.
Low carb diet enthusiasts also commonly point to the insulin-carbohydrate hypothesis, claiming that cutting carbs will help you store less body fat. This theory is based off the fact that higher carb intake increases insulin secretion, and insulin plays an important role in distributing and storing energy by promoting glucose uptake into your body's cells - including your muscle, liver and fat cells. Because of this, insulin technically promotes fat storage. However, it is more complex than that. Insulin is not the only hormone that promote fat storage and research continues to suggest that fat storage primarily occurs when you eat too many calories, not carbs in particular (3).
In addition, carbs are easy to come by in any diet - they tend to be found in the form of sugar and refined grains in just about any processed or junk food option you can think of. They are also found in just about anything that grows out of the ground and many dairy products. And because of this, it's easy to get too many. And when you eat more carbs and calories than your body needs, the remaining are often stored as body fat. By cutting down on your carbs, your body is less likely to store them as fat.
But the thing is there is no one single food or type of food that will make you lose or gain weight, only too many calories can do that. So while your macro diet balance can support better body composition, weight loss ultimately comes down to calorie control.
What is a Keto Diet?
The keto diet is a high fat and very low carb eating plan - with carb intake typically restricted to less than 20 grams a day. Compared to other low carb diets, a ketogenic diet is comprised of almost all fat with only moderate protein - 70-80% fat from total daily calories, 5-10% carbohydrate, and 10-20% protein, compared to the 30 to 40% of calories from protein and 30% of your calories or less from fat, that most other low carbohydrate diets recommend.
Remember how carbs are the primary source of fuel for your body? Well this also includes your brain cells - in fact, fatty acids cannot be absorbed into the brain for fuel. So after a certain amount of time without readily available carbs, your brain must rely on an alternative source that can be used.
Through a process called ketogenesis, the liver can convert fats into something called ketone bodies, that the brain and other cells in the body can use for energy. This is what is commonly referred to as going into a state of ketosis. And ketosis is what the keto diet is built on - restricting carbs to a drastic level that forces your body to rely primarily on fat for energy.
And protein is kept moderate on this diet because proteins can also supply a small amount of glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis - when protein in your muscles is broken down. When this occurs at too high of a rate, it can pull your body out of ketosis.
How to Start a Keto Diet
If you are interested in trying a keto diet, there are a few things you'll need to grasp before you get started. In order to utilize fat for energy (ketosis), you will need to restrict carb intake and keep it low for the duration of the diet. Getting to know your keto macros and keeping track of your daily intake is key.
The amount of time it takes and the number of carbs you need to switch your source of fuel to fat can differ from one person to the next. The only way to know for sure if your body is going into ketosis is to test your ketone levels regularly using keto test strips. And you will need to be extremely strict with your diet, as any "cheats" or fluctuations will pull you out of ketosis.
Luckily ketosis isn't required for you to lose weight, simply cutting your calories is enough! So you should also track your calorie intake if you are looking to lose weight on a keto diet.
What to Eat on a Keto Diet?
When it comes to keto food choices, choosing nutrient dense foods is key to maintaining good health - it's not all bacon and butter! What you eat matters and can directly affect your overall health, wellbeing and how successful you are on any type of diet.
What Foods are Keto?
Foods that fit into a keto diet are typically high fat low carb foods, and non-starchy veggies. Protein sources can also be included. Here is a rough list of the most nutritious foods that fit into a keto meal plan.
Healthy Keto Fats
- Nuts and nut butters made without added sugar
- Plant-based oils
Low Carb Fruits and Vegetables
- Non-starchy veggies: leafy greens, radishes, cauliflower, broccoli, tomato, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, peppers, green beans, celery, bok choy, jicama, mushrooms, artichokes, cabbage, beets, onions and carrots.
- Melon and strawberries (1 serving provides half of the recommended 20g of carbs).
- All fresh herbs
- Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and herring
- Bison, beef, pork, goat and lamb
- Chicken with skin
- Cottage cheese, cheese and unsweetened yogurt
- Organ Meats
- Monk Fruit
- Other artificial sweeteners
What Foods are not Keto?
Since a keto meal plan is all about hitting your macros, just about any food can fit into this eating plan except carb containing foods. Many carb sources will put you over your daily limit in a single serving or less. Here some of the top foods/types of foods that you'll want to avoid on a keto diet.
High Carb Foods
- All Grains, pastas and breads
- Beans, Lentils and other legumes
- Most fruits and dried fruits
- Juice and soda
- Breaded meats and other breaded fried foods
- Sugars: maple. honey, agave, table sugar, etc.
Many beverages are loaded with added sugar or made from juice blends that are naturally higher in carbs. When look at drinks that fit into a keto plan, it's always best to check the nutrition facts label.
- Sparkling water/club soda
- Tea and coffee, unsweetened
- Flavored water with no added sugar
- Wheat grass or other green vegetable juices made without fruit
- Artificially sweetened beverages
Low Carb Alcohol
- Clear Liquor: vodka, gin, rum
- Scotch and bourbon
- Light beers
- Champagne and some wine
Keto Meal Plan Ideas
Even though a keto meal plan is very restrictive - eliminating many food groups higher in carbs, keeping calories low on a high fat diet can still be a challenge. Fat provides twice as many calories per gram than protein and carbs, so you portion sizes may actually be smaller on a keto eating plan.
In addition, it can be hard to get enough of certain nutrients commonly found in higher carb options - like vitamin D from milk and B vitamins from grains.
Here are a few tips you can use to make your keto meals work to your advantage:
- Choose more nutrient dense foods and balance higher fat options with large portions of non-starchy vegetables is a great way to ensure you get more nutrition and stay on track without going hungry.
- Calculate your keto diet macros.
- Learn how to keto meal prep. Meal prepping can be a huge time saver and helps ensure you are always hitting your keto macros - since you control the menu and the portions.
- Track your calories and your nutrition intake. If you are noticing a lack of certain nutrients, consider working with a dietitian for recommendations or take a multivitamin supplement each day.
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