One enduring buzzword to hit the diet world seems to be “keto” — referring to the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet. With claims that you can eat all the fat you want, never feel hungry again, and even boost your athletic performance, the diet promises something for everyone.
But what exactly is the ketogenic diet, and is the weight loss program right for you? Let’s take a closer look before you attempt to make over your eating habits and lifestyle.
What Is the Ketogenic Diet?
As the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explains, the ketogenic diet is based on the principle that by depleting the body of carbohydrates, which are its primary source of energy, you can force the body to burn fat for fuel, thereby maximizing weight loss. When you consume foods that contain carbohydrates, the body converts those carbohydrates into glucose, or blood sugar, which it then uses for energy.
Because glucose is the simplest form of energy for the body to use, it’s always used for energy before your body turns to stored fat for fuel.
On a ketogenic diet, the goal is to restrict carbohydrate intake so that the body must break down fat for energy. When this occurs, fat is broken down in the liver, producing ketones, which are by-products of your metabolism. These ketones are then used to fuel the body in the absence of glucose.
What Is the Keto Diet?
How to Follow the Ketogenic Diet
But in the classic ketogenic diet, which was developed a century ago to manage seizure disorders, carbohydrates and protein combined make up less than 20 percent of your daily calories, while 80 to 90 percent of calories come from fat. That’s according to the Epilepsy Foundation.
Today’s versions of the keto diet allow you to eat protein more liberally — about 20 percent of your total calories — but keep carbohydrates restricted to 10 percent or less. Northwestern Medicine indicates some of the aims of the modern ketogenic diet are weight loss, weight management, and improved athletic performance.
What Is Ketosis?
How Do You Know if You’re in Ketosis?
According to MedlinePlus, you can figure out whether you’re in a state of ketosis by checking your urine for ketones. You can purchase ketone strips online or from a retail pharmacy. A strip that tests positive for ketones will indicate you have reached a state of ketosis.
Many people associate elevated ketones with a diabetic medical emergency known as ketoacidosis, but nutritional ketosis associated with a ketogenic diet and diabetic ketoacidosis are very different conditions.
Ketosis vs. Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA)
For people with diabetes, rapidly rising ketone levels can signal a health crisis that requires immediate medical attention. When there is an absence or not enough of the hormone insulin (or the body is too resistant to insulin to allow it to drive glucose into the cells for energy), the body cannot use glucose for fuel. Insulin helps ferry glucose to our cells and muscles for energy. Instead, in this case, the body resorts to burning stored fat for energy through the process of ketosis, leading to a buildup of ketones in the body.As ketones accumulate in the bloodstream of a person with diabetes, they cause the blood to become more acidic, which can lead to the condition known as ketoacidosis. This condition can be fatal and should be treated immediately, as a 2021 article points out.
Potential Health Benefits and Risks of the Keto Diet
If you search online for the term “keto diet,” you’ll find a lot of health claims associated with the ketogenic diet. But before you give this approach a try, it’s important to know what the science suggests about how it may affect your health. Namely, you’ll want to know about potential keto diet dangers.
Risk: You May Suffer Fatigue and Other Symptoms as a Result of the Keto Flu
Symptoms of the keto flu include headache, fatigue, dizziness, sleep problems, heart palpitations, cramps, and diarrhea. According to Harvard Health Publishing, these side effects usually diminish and resolve in a week or so.
But to lessen the effects of any discomfort, simply consider slowly transitioning onto a ketogenic diet rather than rushing to change your eating habits. By gradually lowering your carbohydrate intake and gradually increasing your intake of dietary fat, you can transition with less negative impact and potentially prevent the keto flu altogether.
Risk: You May Experience Constipation if You Don’t Eat Enough Fruits and Veggies
Risk: You Could Develop Dangerous Nutrient Deficiencies
Eliminating food groups can be problematic. “Ketogenic diets are often low in calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, and folic acid, which over time can lead to nutrient deficiencies if the diet is not planned carefully,” adds Marie Spano, RD, a sports performance nutritionist in Atlanta.
Risk: You May Harm Your Heart With the Diet’s Emphasis on Animal Fat and Protein
Risk: You May Experience Dangerous Low Blood Sugar if You Have Diabetes
Risk: You May Experience Weight Cycling and Negative Effects on Your Metabolism
Outside of physical health changes, one of the biggest concerns of the ketogenic diet may be in long-term adherence. “It’s a very difficult diet to stick to and maintain. Compliance is a challenge because it is so restrictive,” explains Dr. Mohr.
Benefit: You May See Improvements in Your Athletic Performance
Benefit: You Could Lose Weight Fast — but Not Necessarily More Than You’d Lose on Other Diets
If you’re looking to lose weight, one benefit the ketogenic diet may offer is appetite suppression. A review of this form of eating shows that while dieting usually increases levels of a hormone that makes you feel hungry, that isn’t the case with keto. But exactly why needs to be studied further.
But when it comes to weight loss — one of the biggest keto selling points for many individuals — the benefits of the ketogenic diet may not be much different from any other diet plan. “There is no magical weight loss benefit that can be achieved from this diet,” says Spano. “The ketogenic diet may help weight loss in the same way other diets help — by restricting food choices so you eat fewer calories.”
Benefit: You May See Better Blood Glucose Control if You Have Type 2 Diabetes
For individuals with diabetes, adopting a very-low-carbohydrate diet, such as the ketogenic diet, may offer some benefits when it comes to glucose management. A 2021 review looked at more than a dozen studies on keto diets and found that they can lower blood sugar levels and reduce the need for medication in people with type 2 diabetes.
Common Questions & Answers
Is the Keto Diet Right for People With Diabetes?
Because the main tenet of the keto diet is counting and cutting carbs — a commonly used way to control blood sugar — this eating approach has become increasingly popular among people with type 2 diabetes who are looking to lower their A1C, which is the two- to three-month average measurement of blood sugar levels. Indeed, some research suggests this diet may lead to fast weight loss and potentially lower blood sugar for people with the disease.
But as a 2021 review points out, the keto diet also comes with risks that are specific to people managing diabetes, including possible drug interactions and potentially dangerous low blood sugar if you’re on medication, as well as kidney damage in people whose kidneys are dysfunctional because of elevated ketones in the blood.
Plus, because keto hasn’t been studied long term, researchers don’t know if the diet will result in nutrient deficiencies for those with or without diabetes.
If you’re considering trying the keto diet and you have diabetes, it’s crucial to consult your diabetes-care team before doing so to make sure it’s a safe and effective eating approach for you.
How to Get Started on the Ketogenic Diet
Here are some other things to know before you try this restrictive eating plan.
Can You Stick With the Carb Restrictions?
It’s important to remember that the goal of any dietary change is to promote a healthy lifestyle, so make sure to select a meal plan you can envision yourself following long term. If you know you will not be able to comply with such stringent carbohydrate restrictions for years to come, the ketogenic diet is most likely not the right choice for you.
What Are the Different Types of Keto Diets?
There are various modifications of the ketogenic diet. The majority of individuals following a ketogenic diet follow the so-called standard ketogenic diet plan, which provides about 10 percent of your total calories from carbohydrates.
Other forms of ketogenic diets include cyclic ketogenic diets, also known as carb cycling, and targeted ketogenic diets, which allow for adjustments to carbohydrate intake around exercise. These modifications are typically implemented by athletes looking to use the ketogenic diet to enhance performance and endurance and not by individuals specifically focused on weight loss.
Generally speaking, if you plan to follow a ketogenic diet, you should aim to consume less than 10 percent of your total calories from carbohydrates per day. The remaining calories should come from 20 to 30 percent protein and 60 to 80 percent fat. That means if you follow a daily 2,000-calorie diet, no more than 200 of your calories (or 50 grams) should come from carbs, while 400 to 600 calories should come from protein and 1,200 to 1,600 should come from fat. (There’s a reason this plan is also called a high-fat, low-carb diet!)
Is Exercise Involved in the Standard Ketogenic Diet?
Although the ketogenic diet does not explicitly require incorporating fitness into your routine, increasing your physical activity is always important when you want to reduce to or maintain a healthy body weight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For endurance athletes, the transition to a ketogenic diet may cut recovery time after training, but for casual exercisers, the transition to the ketogenic diet may make sticking with your fitness routine a challenge at first. If you feel your energy levels drop too much when starting the ketogenic diet, slow down your reduction of carbohydrates, and make sure to do it gradually rather than all at once.
What Side Effects Should You Expect?
To prevent side effects such as the keto flu, begin transitioning your meal plan gradually. Start by understanding how many carbohydrates you consume most days. Then begin slowly reducing your carbohydrate intake over a period of a few weeks while gradually increasing your intake of dietary fat to keep your calories the same. You should also make sure to seek guidance from a professional to make sure this plan works for you and your health goals. “See a dietitian and adapt the diet to fit your long-term needs,” Spano recommends.
What to Eat on the Standard Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet is not a commercial meal plan, so there are no costs or membership fees associated with starting this diet. But, depending on your current eating habits, this eating approach may increase your food bill.
Because many processed foods are not considered ketogenic diet friendly, a switch to buying more whole, unprocessed foods may seem expensive, especially with the emphasis on high-fat and protein-rich foods.
In-season, fresh produce, along with frozen vegetables, which can be just as healthy as their fresh counterparts, will help reduce your costs. Although nuts, seeds, and animal proteins such as beef can drive up the grocery bill, bulk buying can help you save on these items as well.
Adding fat-rich foods such as avocado, nuts, and seeds can all make for healthful options that will provide you with unsaturated fats along with beneficial fiber. Most fruits are restricted on this plan — there are exceptions, including avocado — but nonstarchy vegetables such as leafy greens should become a staple of your diet.
Lean proteins such as fish, poultry, and grass-fed beef can be included as a source of protein on this diet.
You can find grocery lists and recipes from myriad sources, including the Cleveland Clinic, but the basics are similar.
A List of Acceptable Foods for the Standard Ketogenic Diet
- Nonstarchy vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, mushrooms, onions, and rhubarb
- Dairy, including eggs and cheese
- Protein like beef, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish, and soybeans
- Nuts and seeds, including walnuts, almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds
- Fats like plant-based oils and butter
- Fruits like avocado, berries (in moderation), and tomatoes
Foods You Should Avoid or Limit on the Ketogenic Diet
- Processed foods like crackers, corn chips, and potato chips
- Sweets, including candy, cookies, brownies, and cake
- Grains of all kinds, including bread, pasta, rice, and quinoa
- High-carb fruits like melons and tropical fruits
A Sample 3-Day Menu for the Standard Ketogenic Diet
- Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with sliced avocado
- Snack: Almond butter on celery
- Lunch: Spinach salad topped with canned tuna, olive oil, and vinegar
- Snack: 1 ounce (oz) string cheese and 1 oz pistachios
- Dinner: Sirloin steak paired with sautéed mushrooms, onions, and cauliflower rice
- Breakfast: Mushroom and cheese omelet with sliced bacon
- Snack: ½ avocado
- Lunch: Chicken stir-fry with peppers, onions, and peanuts sautéed in peanut oil
- Snack: 1 oz Brie cheese with 1 oz walnuts
- Dinner: Salmon fillet with oven-roasted Brussels sprouts
- Breakfast: Keto smoothie made with avocado, full-fat coconut milk, chia seeds, and nut butter
- Snack: Hard-boiled egg
- Lunch: Cheeseburger (without bun) over a bed of lettuce paired with string beans
- Snack: 1 oz almonds
- Dinner: Chicken breast paired with sautéed broccoli
What to Expect if You Try the Keto Diet
While the keto diet can lead to rapid weight loss through ketosis, the plan carries some health risks, including:
Because of the health risks involved, experts advise some individuals against trying the keto diet. The Cleveland Clinic says it isn’t appropriate if you have heart disease or are at risk for it, if you have kidney disease, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you have a history of an eating disorder. People with type 2 diabetes should consult their doctor before attempting the keto (or any new) diet.
If you are planning to try the keto diet, be sure to consult your healthcare team and, if possible, a registered dietitian to make sure you meet your nutritional needs on the plan. Working with a professional can help you determine whether you should make adjustments or if you’d be better off avoiding the diet entirely.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
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