The keto diet is a diet that places prime focus on high-fat foods instead of carbohydrates. This enables the body to burn more fat which in turn leads to weight loss, among its many other benefits. Whilst there are some restrictions on what can and cannot be eaten, food supplements such as MCT oil makes the transition easier, and is a great source of healthy fats.
But what exactly is this low carb diet everyone keeps talking about? We have prepared a complete guide with everything you need to know to get started and succeed with this popular lifestyle.
What is the keto diet?
Keto - or ketogenic - is a type of diet that replaces carbohydrates intake with fat. Generally speaking, it's a high fat, very low-carb diet with a moderate protein intake that leads the body into a metabolic state called ketosis. Nutritional ketosis means that the ketone levels in the blood is elevated and is a sign that the body is using fat for fuel.
Where do we get the energy we need to live and do things like think, run, and breathe? Our bodies are dynamic environments that is fueled by two types of energy systems: glucose and ketones. Glucose are converted from carbohydrates and ketones from fats.
Glucose is our primary fuel system because carbohydrates can be converted to glucose faster than fats can be converted to ketones so it’s the most available energy source (with the exception of MCT fats that can be converted to ketones just as quickly as carbohydrates and used as energy immediately.) This means that as long as there is glucose in our bodies the body will use that for energy first.
This is where the keto diet comes in! What a keto diet does, essentially, is to eliminate the carbohydrates so that the body is forced to use fat for fuel. There are many benefits to this strategy including weight loss and increased energy levels, to name but a few. Reducing the intake of carbohydrates and replacing them with fat helps to reduce and stabilize both blood sugar and insulin levels which means that you don’t experience the same crash in energy levels that we normally do on a high carb diet when the blood sugar drops. Ever felt lethargic after a heavy carb lunch? Exactly.
What are the health benefits of the keto diet?
There are numerous health benefits of switching to a keto diet such as increased energy levels, weight loss, mental clarity and not to forget, the glowing skin. The keto diet is great for overall health also because you avoid a lot of processed foods filled with additives since they often contain both carbs and sugars. Most of the things you eat whilst on a keto diet will be the farm to table variety making it a very clean food diet. Below we’ll go through the main health benefits making this keto lifestyle so popular.
Lower blood sugar and insulin levels
A huge benefit of the keto diet is the massive reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels because of the carbohydrate restriction. This also means a reduction of inflammation in the body because burning sugar, or glucose, for fuel causes by-products that in turn causes cell damages and inflammation when in excess. This is not the case when burning fat for fuel and is a reason why the ketogenic diet is often recommended to people with diabetes as it has been shown to effectively lower blood sugar and control insulin levels to reverse type 2 diabetes. (1)
Easier weight loss & fat burn
There are many reasons to why people are loosing a lot of fat on keto. But the fast explanation is that the body is constantly using fat for energy when you’re in ketosis which means that you become a fat burning machine, easily burning off that stored fat on our bodies for energy.
Because fat is also very satisfying compared to carbs you will feel a lot more satisfied by the food you eat and you won’t feel like you’re on a restricted diet, constantly craving for something to eat. This is why many people feel that the keto diet is a sustainable lifestyle long term because you don’t feel deprived or constantly a little bit hungry. It's easier to eat a low calorie diet focused on fat compared to the same amount of calories from carbs because fat keeps you full for longer. Many studies show that the ketogenic diet is much more effective for weight loss compared to the often recommended low-fat, low calorie diets (2, 3, 4)
Also, when you're running on fat you won’t get any crazy hunger pangs when the blood sugar drops where you normally would need to add more glucose, because you’re not running on glucose, and instead the blood sugar is stable. Since we always have fat stored on our bodies this means that the body constantly will have easy access to energy and this in turn means you won’t crash which normally might make you turn to that sugary snack in the afternoon to pick you up.
Increased energy and better brain function
Burning sugar for fuel creates a form of damaging bi-products called reactive oxygen species in the process and these cause damage, inflammation, and cell death when they accumulate. This is why consuming too much sugar is known to impair brain function and cause plaque build up in the brain. You’ve probably experienced that you’re not your sharpest version when you’re consuming sugary food and junk in excess for a period of time.
Ketones on the other hand are an effective energy source for our brain and instead help protect neuron cells in the brain and reduce oxidative stress. To make a long story short, one reason for this is because in the process of burning fat for fuel, the damaging bi-products (reactive oxygen species) created from burning sugar instead decreases and therefore causes less oxidative stress in the brain. (5)
So bottom line, expect concentration and focus to improve, whilst the lethargic afternoons will become a thing of the past. If you practice any kind of sports, you should expect to feel lighter and more energetic which will, in turn, increase your performance. These added benefits will continue to increase as your body adapts to effectively convert fat for fuel and starts to make better use of the nutrients and energy provided, thus achieving exponential results as time goes by.
What foods to eat on the keto diet?
In a standard keto diet the calories you eat in a day should normally be coming from 75% fat, 15% protein and 5% from carbohydrates. It may sound like the keto diet is super restricted and complicated but the only rule is basically that high-carb foods will need to take the back seat in favour of foods which are high in healthy fats, which means that you can still eat lots of delicious food. Healthy fats are typically found in such things as avocados, nuts, natural fat sauces and eggs.
When it comes to vegetables you should be aiming to eat only those that grow above ground like kale or spinach. You can also have fish - like salmon or mackerel - and seafood, including shrimp or crabs. Cheese is also a go-to option, as it’s high in fat and low in carbs. And don't forget meat and poultry, the absolute staple food on any keto diet. If possible choose grass-fed meat, due to its higher amounts of omega 3 fats and less antibiotics.
As with everything else, the beginning is the most difficult bit and then it gets easier from there on when you learn more about great keto alternatives to your favorite carbohydrate foods. The high levels of energy, concentration, and chiseled abdominals will more than make up for not being able to eat french fries and cup cakes. Trust me, I've been there and I never felt as good in my life.
What is healthy fats?
All fats are not created equal. The molecular configuration of fat determines whether fats will be healthy or unhealthy. There are three different types of fat, saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Usually the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are what most people refer to as “healthy fats”, for example fat from olive oil, avocados, nuts and fish.
There are also some forms of saturated fats with many health benefits such as MCT fats derived from coconut. A more easily explained definition of “healthy fats” would be “relatively unprocessed fats from whole foods”. Unhealthy fats are typically those that are industrially produced such as trans fatty acids and hydrogenated fats such as margarine.
Food list for the keto diet
Meat: Any kind you prefer. Beef, pork, wild caught meat, poultry. Don’t remove the fatty parts from the meat or the skin on the chicken, that’s where all the good stuff is. Choose organic and grass fed as much as you can.
Fish & Seafood: Any kind is great but preferably fatty fish such as salmon or mackarel as they contain lots of healthy Omega-3. Avoid breaded fish, the kind you see in fish & chips.
Egg: In any form and shape. Omelettes are perfect. Choose organic.
Natural fat & fatty sauces: Use butter, olive oil, coconut oil, coconut cream and full fat dairy products when cooking. It will make the food delicious and increase the feeling of fullness. Fatty sauces like bearnaise and mayonnaise are more than welcome here. And of course MCT-oil is a great source of healthy fats.
Vegetables (above ground): Vegetables are great but be sure to choose those who grows above ground because these have less carbs. Example of such are all kinds of kale, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, asparagus, zucchini, aubergine, olives, spinach. mushrooms, cucumber, salad, peppers, tomato and of course avocado.
Dairy: Always choose the full fat version. Real butter, cream, crème fraiche, greek yoghurt and fatty cheeses. Be careful with regular milk as it may contain some sugars. Unsweetened almond or coconut milk are great options.
Nuts: Nuts are great asnthey contain lots of fat but be careful, all nuts are not the same and they’re easy to overeat. The most keto friendly nuts are macadamias, pecans ans brazil nuts. Do not eat cashew nuts and pistacchios as they contain lots of carbs.
Berries: Ok in smaller amounts every now and then. Choose raspberries or blueberries as they contain less carbs than other berries.
Potential side effects of the keto diet and how to avoid them
The keto diet was first developed as a treatment for children with epilepsy with great success and are often prescribed as a treatment for various health conditions. But as with everything there are some potential down sides when it comes to following the keto diet. The most common is what is known as the keto flu which includes a range of symptoms like nausea, cramps, headache or irritability. This is normal to happen when the body starts to transition to burning fat instead of glucose and only lasts during the transition phase. But luckily there are ways to avoid or reduce the symptoms, you just gotta know the secrets.
How to avoid the keto flu
Drink lots of water
When the body starts to burn fat for fuel instead of glucose new things are happening in the body. When you’re running on fat the body doesn’t bind water as much as before which means more water goes down the toilet. This means that it’s easy to get dehydrated if you don’t compensate with drinking more water. That’s why many people can get headaches when starting keto because they don’t realize that they have to increase their water intake quite a lot.
Balance your Electrolytes
When the body is binding less water this also means that the balance of electrolytes can get out of order since they as well goes along with the urine. The right balance of electrolytes are really important and to feel your best on the keto diet you should supplement with magnesium, potassium and sodium (salt). This is also the case for people who work out intensely and sweat a lot, because the minerals goes out with the sweat as well. A great way to start your day is by drinking a glass of electrolyte water, which is easily prepared by adding lemon, and sea salt to a glass of water.
Is keto diet beneficial for everyone?
The short answer is no. Nutrition is important and it affects everything from how you look to how you feel, but everyone is different and what works for someone might not work for you. If you are suffering from any medical condition you should seek the help of a medical professional before switching to a keto diet. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding do consult your GP before switching diets.
Practical tips to succeed on the keto diet
What gets measured gets improved and this is also true for the keto diet. To learn what foods and habits are working for you a great way is to measure your ketone levels to make sure you are staying in ketosis.
How to measure your ketone levels
You can either buy a ketone meter or urine strips to make sure your levels are where they’re supposed to be and be able to adjust accordingly if they are not. Each body is different and whilst eating some amount of carbs is inevitable, the amount to keep you in ketosis differs from one person to another, making it important to check how different foods are affecting your personal ketone levels.
Supplement with MCT-oil
MCT fatty acids takes a shortcut in your body compared to other fats and goes straight to the liver where they are converted to ketones instantly. This means that the transition to ketosis will go faster if you supplement with MCT oil because it increases the ketone levels in your body. Also, if you’ve happened to eat a little too many carbs MCT-oil will help balance the blood sugar levels by increasing ketones in your blood, reducing insulin levels and get you faster back to ketosis.
As we said earlier, the beginning is always the hardest bit; this is true for almost everything in life. Eventually you’ll learn what works for you and not but give it at least a try for 4 weeks straight. If you stick with it, it will get much easier over time and the rewards of increased energy levels, mental focus and weight loss will definitely make up for any initial sacrifices. The most important thing is to never give up - stick with it and you will get there. Those abs are waiting for you!
Written by Camilla Henriksen