“What is the ketogenic diet?” is a question I keep getting asked. People see me crushing my goals with a smile on my face and want to know what the secret is! A huge part of it is eating ketogenically, and you, my friend, are about to get schooled in the delicious basics!
What is the Ketogenic Diet?
The Ketogenic diet, generally referred to as “Keto”, is a low-carbohydrate, moderate protein, higher fat diet that turns the human body into a fat-burning machine as opposed to the glucose-burning default setting!
It is called “Ketogenic” because when carbohydrates are restricted in the diet, fat cells are broken down in the liver into fatty acids and ketone bodies. These ketone bodies, aka “ketones”, pass into the brain and replace the glucose as the brain’s preferred fuel source. Ketogenic literally means “ketone generation”.
How do I get into Ketosis?
Ketosis, the metabolic process that gives the ketogenic diet its name, happens when the body is no longer using glucose, or sugar, as its primary source of fuel. Instead, the body turns to stored glucose derived from breaking down triglycerides stored in the fat cells. Ketones are a byproduct of that marvelous metabolic breakdown.
Getting into ketosis is a pretty simple process:
- We take sugar almost entirely out of our diet.
- Our bodies burn up what we have left stored for easy access in our liver and muscles.
- Once we run out, the body turns to the fat we have stored or fat we consume and uses it as energy. When it breaks down, ketones are formed.
- We are in ketosis!
To go into more detail, we must drastically reduce your carb intake by choosing low carbohydrate foods. The Standard American Diet (SAD) recommends getting 50% of your calories per day from carbohydrates. That is 250g of carbohydrates if we are looking at a 2,000 calorie diet! Think about that 6 – 11 servings of bread, grains, and cereals in the SAD food pyramid we are all so familiar with. That level of carbohydrates – which is a fraction of what many people eat – is excessive and unecessary. It is creating the blood glucose levels and insulin sensitivity that are driving the American obesity and diabetes epidemics.
The Ketogenic diet, on the other hand, recommends getting 5% of your daily calories from carbohydrates. This gives us the 25g reference point that you will see across Ketogenic forums on the internet. It might seem like a really low number, but a) it is plenty to efficiently run all of the glucose-dependent metabolic processes that our body has, and b) there’s a little bit of wiggle room when we factor in “net carbs”.
“Net carbs” are the total carbohydrate grams in a given food once you subtract out fiber (both soluble and insoluble) and sugar alcohols*.
*(Note on sugar alcohols: sugar alcohols are naturally-derived artificial sweeteners and are common ingredients in many “low carbohydrate” foods. With the exception of erythritol, they can still have an effect on both blood sugar and insulin production. We will go into greater detail in a section devoted to all things sweet, but the takeaway here is : HANDLE WITH CARE. These should be making infrequent guest appearances as opposed to being stars of your nutritional roster!)
The majority of these 25 net grams should be coming from non-starchy vegetables and low carbohydrate berries to get the biggest nutritional bang – and the highest volume of food – for your bite. You will also consume a moderate amount of protein (about 20 – 25% of your calories as opposed to the SAD 15%) and increase your fat intake from the SAD-recommended 35% to the yummy and satiating Ketogenic 65 – 75%!
The protein and fat will help you feel satisfied while your body starts to get rid of your accessible carbohydrate stores, primarily held as glycogen in the liver and muscles. After only a couple of days, your glucose reserves will be gone and ketone production will amp up. You will therefore be in ketosis!
(The term “nutritional ketosis” is one often bandied about in the Keto world. “Nutritional ketosis”, which I will refer to simply as ketosis because it’s what I want to focus on, is a state in which your blood is consistently registering a 0.5mmol – 5mmol ketone level. This can be tested with special equipment similar to blood glucose testing monitors.)
As I mentioned, this initial jump into ketosis can take as little as a few days with committed adherence to the ketogenic way of eating. With a little planning, this is not a chore, no matter how carbohydrate-reliant you have been in the past. If you start with some of the delicious meals I recommend, it is more likely that you will feel like you are on an indulgent vacation – but instead of coming home 10lbs heavier, weight will start melting off of your body!
This is the first phase, when your body gets used ot the idea of using fat as fuel. Think of it like starting a new job or going back to school – it will likely take a few days to get used to the new schedule, and a few weeks for both you and your body to get into the full swing of things. Be gentle with yourself!
Next Level Ketosis – Keto-Adaptation
Once you have been in ketosis for an extended period of time, you achieve the next level and your body starts to prefer using fat as fuel. To carry on the new job metaphor, you have totally gotten the job requirements down, you no longer feel like the new guy, and you actually look forward to going in every day. This is called being keto-adapted, or fat adapted, and during THIS 6 – 8 week period your hormones “up-regulate” to accommodate all of the new ways of processing nutritional input. It’s pretty rad!
At this point, your cravings have all but disappeared along with your former carb addiction. If you do on rare occasion go over your new normal carbohydrate limit, your body will burn up that glucose and joyfully return to burning fat as soon as that excess is gone.
How the Ketogenic Diet Burns Fat – #Science
When you restrict carbohydrate levels to a ketogenic level, there are enormous reductions in insulin and blood sugar levels. Reducing these dietarily flips a switch and tells your body to use the fuel it has already stored within your fat cells, which are like the acorns a squirrel has saved throughout the summer for the cold, harsh winter when fresh food (or fuel, in this case) is less available!
When you “go Keto”, your body taps into the “acorns” (fat!) you have already “squirreled” away, and BOOM! Your fat breaks down to provide you with energy. This process is called “lipolysis”.
At first your body will access your triglycerides, the most easily accessible “fat fuel” to break apart. Enzymes called lipases start by breaking the triglycerides into diglycerides, then monoglycerides, and then finally into glycerol and fatty acids which are sent to the liver. In the liver, the glycerol is metabolized into glucose and the magical ketones, which are sent to the brain for fuel. Pretty cool, right?
What can I eat to get into Ketosis?
This is the FUN part! So many of the things that you were previously told were off limits are now going to be top choices. Bring on the full-fat cheeses, bacon, and extra avocado, please! The following is a very basic guide; we will go into a COMPLETE list in another section. I recommend minimally processed meats, organic and grassfed everything if possible, but use what fits your budget. You will still be doing yourself a world of good by eating ketogenically!
- MEATS – poultry (chicken, turkey, duck, etc), beef, pork, wild game, offal – you name it! Do read lables or pre-marinated and processed deli meats – these can have hidden added sugars. Eat more bacon!
- FISH & SEAFOOD – fish, shellfish, crustaceans, octopus, squid – these are all amazing choices. I especially like fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines.
- EGGS – the incredible, edible egg! Eggs are the perfect food. Scrambled, poached, fried, as an omelet, hard-boiled – whatever cooking option you prefer, go for it!
- NON-STARCHY VEGETABLES – these are primarily the above-ground and green vegetables like broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, celery, spinach, lettuces. If it’s green, it’s pretty much a green light! Colorful above-ground choices like red cabbage, yellow squash, eggplant, red peppers and tomatoes (in smaller amounts) are also excellent nutrient-packed choices. There are even a few below-ground veggies that fit the bill, like radishes, turnips, and kohlrabi. Think of the root vegetables that taste more “watery”.
- DAIRY – the full fat kind! Cheese, butter, heavy cream, full-fat yogurt. There ARE very low levels of carbohydrates, so make sure you add these to your food diary, and avoid milk.
- NUTS & SEEDS – Nuts are wonderful little vegetarian packages of fat and protein with relatively low carbohydrates and often fiber, to boot. Measure and track these guys, too, but feel free to make a handful of nuts a halthy part of your day. They are also fantastic car & purse snacks to keep on hand for hunger emergencies, especially when you buy or make your own pre-portioned packages.
- FATS & OILS – You WANT more fat on this diet, but we still want to choose the healthiest fats for us. Olive oil, ghee, coconut oil, unrefined nut-oils, coconut milk, coconut cream, avocadoes, avocado oil – YUM YUM YUM! Also, saturated animal fats like bacon grease, pork lard, beef tallow, and rendered poultry fat (like duck & chicken, aka schmaltz in some circles!) are all also perfectly acceptable.
- CONDIMENTS & DRESSINGS – Mayonnaise, mustards, blue cheese dressing, full-fat ranch, vinegars (exceptions are excessive balsamic or reduced vinegars), hot sauces, sambals, and more are on the menu! Check the labels and avoid sugary choices, like Thai sweet chili sauce and ketchup unless it is reduced sugar or sugar-free.
- SPICES & SEASONINGS – fresh herbs and dried spices are amazing ways to please your palate when you are eating ketogenically. There ARE small amounts of carbohydrates in them, but not enough in the amounts normally used in any given recipe to have a significant effect on your overall count.
- ***ORGANIC & GMO-FREE VEGAN SOY-BASED PROTEIN SOURCES*** – There are a LOT of sources that will dispute this, but because I want you to know that vegans can eat Ketogenically, too, I fully support the consumption of organic & gmo-free tempeh, tofu, and edamame. They are fantastic plant-based sources of protein. They also are shown to reduce the inflammation marker C-reactive protein, and the ties to negative estrogenic activity have all but been disproven at this point. Because these are made from legumes, which are generally a no-no in the Keto world, you must be conscious of the significantly higher carbohydrate count. But don’t let living a plant-based lifestyle restrict you from reaping the rewards of eating ketogenically.
TL;DR – Eat real food made from not-sweet-tasting whole food ingredients.
What foods will keep me OUT of ketosis?
Yep, this is the beginner’s “Avoid” list. Take a deep breath, read on, and remember – YOU CAN DO IT! Also remember, once you are keto-adapted, your cravings for the following items will be gone.
- SUGAR – It’s EVERYWHERE! If you’re buying a prepared food product or drink and not making it from scratch, there is a good chance that there is going to be sugar in it. Get used to reading labels. Skip the candy, soda, and sweet treats in general, and even be sparing with your reduced or sugar-free choices.
- BREAD, PASTRY, GRAINS, CEREALS – The average plain bagel has 60g of carbohydrates. Two slices of whole wheat bread have 25. Pastries generally have even more, with the added pure sugar of glazes and frostings. Rice, barley, spelt, corn, oats – they ALL have carbohydrate levels that will hijack your ketosis, even if they are high fiber.
- STARCHY VEGETABLES – Potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, pumpkin, peas, corn. Even if they’re vegetables, if they have a slightly sweet taste, they’re likely higher in carbohydrates than you want.
- FRUIT – This was actually the hardest for me because I love fruit and it is so packed full of vitamins and nutrients. Unfortunately, it is also loaded with fructose, natural sugar, and especially tropical fruits like mango and pineapple. Apart from berries in limited amounts, fruit will keep you out of ketosis.
- LOW-FAT ANYTHING – Oftentimes, that yummy, satiating fat is replaced with sugar or chemicals to make it more appealing to the tastebuds. YUCK!
Just the basics!
All the things we have just covered are just the basics. We will be going MUCH more in depth in the very near future, but you should now have a fundamental understanding what the ketogenic diet is, how your body gets into ketosis, and what foods will help or hinder your process!
Is there anything else that you need further explanation of? Let me know in the comments, and stay tuned for complete food lists and what to expect when you start eating ketogenically!