What is a Ketogenic Diet?
At its core, a ketogenic diet is one that is high in fat, moderate in protein, and very low in carbohydrates. How low?
To put things in perspective, the modern American diet consists of a macronutrient breakdown of 60% carbs, 25% fat, and 15% protein. A typical keto diet, on the other hand, has a ratio of just 5% carbs, 20% protein, and 75% fat. So yes, a ketogenic diet is very low in carbs. However, calling it a low-carb diet is like calling the Sahara a low-moisture environment. Kinda undersells the extreme nature of it.
Eat Fat to Lose Fat
With so few carbohydrates available for normal glucose metabolism, a ketogenic diet pushes your body into a state of ketosis, where it switches from using carbs for energy to burning your body’s fat reserves for fuel. So you get rid of unwanted fat and in return get an energy boost! What’s not to like?
Total vs Net Carbs
Limiting your carbohydrate intake to just 5% of your daily calories is no easy task. For sure. That’s just 25 grams of carbs per day for the recommended average 2000 calorie diet for women (carbs have 4 calories per gram). And it’s just 31 grams for the average 2500 calorie diet for men. However, most people following a ketogenic diet don’t concern themselves with total carbs; they count net carbs instead. Why? Because dietary fiber represents the non-digestible carbohydrates in your food. Just like that coin that drops straight through to the change tray in the vending machine, it doesn’t register. And if it doesn’t register it doesn’t count! But what are you doing getting your food from a vending machine anyway?!
Calculating Net Carbs
So net carbs are simply the total carbs minus dietary fiber. So with this food label you would subtract the 4 grams of dietary fiber from the 37 grams of total carbohydrates for a net carb amount of 33 grams. And yes, that’s more than your daily 25g carb allowance under a 2000 calorie diet, so put this food item back on the shelf immediately!
Focus on Grams
While calories matter for any diet, you can argue that they matter slightly less on a ketogenic diet. Not because they aren’t important, but because it’s the total calories you need to focus on, based on your age, weight, activity level, sex and weight loss goal, which you can quickly calculate here. From there it’s all about calculating the actual number of grams you need to take in for fat, protein, and carbs following the 75/20/5 keto ratio. And to come up with those number you simply multiply your total daily calorie goal by the percentage for each macro. You then divide each of those numbers by the calories per gram below:
- Fat = 9 calories per gram
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Carbs = 4 calories per gram
How Does a Keto Diet Work?
To understand how the ketogenic diet works it’s helpful to take a quick look at how your body metabolizes food into energy under a typical carb-heavy diet.
When you eat foods loaded with carbs, your body breaks them down into glucose–a kind of sugar that your body uses for energy. If you produce more glucose than you need for your immediate energy needs–because maybe you finished off that bag of chips or couldn’t say no to that last slice of pizza–two things can happen:
First, through the process of glycogenisis, you convert the extra glucose you don’t immediately need into glycogen. The glycogen gets stored in your liver, muscles, and brain, where it’s held as a reserve for future energy needs. However, there’s a limit to how much glycogen your body can hold at any given time, and once it reaches it’s limit, lipogenisis occurs.
If lipogenisis seems rather unpleasant, it’s probably because you associate it with that other “lipo” word… you know, that procedure where a vacuum cleaner is attached to a long tube that’s rammed into your thighs to suck the fat out. Well, lipogenisis is the reason those fat deposits are there to begin with!
Back to the pizza example. Say the first slice you eat produces just enough glucose to meet your immediate energy needs. Perfect! Except you don’t stop at one slice. You keep going and eat another. No big deal, your body says, “I’ll just convert the glucose from that second slice into glycogen, and save it for fuel I’ll need later”.
But then you eat that third slice and your body says, “Hold on, cowboy, what the hell am I supposed to do with that?”, followed by, “Oh, I know, I’ll turn it into fat that I can distribute throughout the body in case I need it later”. But later never happens. You don’t go weeks without food while chasing wild game in the wilderness. You go to your desk job, come home, eat, sleep, and repeat. Welcome to lipogenisis. And the sad reality is that in our carb-infused, overweight society, lipogenisis is happening way too often to way too many people.
But what if your body were cut off from the carbohydrates needed to burn for your energy needs? Would you collapse from fatigue? Die of malnutrition? Actually, neither. You would keep on keep’n on as if nothing happened, because our primal ancestors evolved to rely on a completely different form of metabolism to deal with that very situation–ketosis.
Early humans didn’t have to worry about lipogenisis because carbs weren’t readily available. Aside from vegetables and fruits that were available only in certain seasons, there just weren’t a lot of carb-heavy foods that our primal ancestors had access to. So they relied more on protein and fat, and only when they were lucky enough to get it. And this diet required a different metabolic pathway in order to transform those macros into energy and cope with long periods between meals.
Enter ketosis… a second form of metabolism that your body automatically switches to when there’s a shortage of carbs to be broken down into glucose. Just like the backup generator that kicks on when the power goes out in our home, when there’s no glucose available for energy your body transitions to ketosis, where it burns fat instead, and in the process produces ketones to cover your energy needs. And it’s not just the dietary fat in the foods you recently ate that get converted through ketosis; it’s the fat you’re carrying around in your hips, butt, and gut as well!
What Are The Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet?
Many nutritionists–even those who don’t recommend going keto for the long haul–acknowledge the diet’s fat burning advantage. And that shouldn’t really come as a surprise. You’re essentially cutting out the single biggest contributor to obesity–carbs, and in doing so telling your body to burn it’s fat reserves to fuel your energy needs.
But the benefits of a ketogenic diet go well beyond weight loss. There’s growing body of research that suggests it can positively impact several key indicators of our overall health:
Triglycerides are the fat molecules in your blood, and too many of them elevate your risk for heart disease. Ironically, triglyceride levels are driven less by the dietary fat you eat and more by your carbohydrate consumption. So cut the carbs to taper your triglycerides.
Increased HDL Levels
High Density Lipoprotein, or HDL, is known as the good form of cholesterol. All that really means is that it’s the type of protein that carries bad cholesterol away from your body. So the higher your HDL the lower your risk for heart disease. And the best way to increase your HDL is by eating healthy fats.
Lower Blood Pressure
An Archives of Internal Medicine study found that a ketogenic diet outperformed the weight loss drug Orlistat in reducing blood pressure. Nearly half of the 146 overweight patients experienced lower blood pressure readings vs just 21% for those taking the drug. And although it’s common for blood pressure to drop along with someone’s weight, this study’s results indicated an additional blood pressure benefit due to following a keto diet.
Improved Insulin Sensitivity
Your body produces the hormone insulin to store and process glucose as fuel. A keto diet essentially cuts off the supply of glucose in your body by depriving it of a steady stream of carbohydrates. As a result you don’t need to produce as much insulin as before, which helps your body keep from building up a resistance to it. And that halts the downward spiral of insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, and diabetes.
What Are The Keto Diet Results for Weight Loss?
As a weight-loss strategy, it’s hard to imagine a more effective way to reduce body fat than the keto diet. When managed correctly, a ketogenic diet not only helps you lose weight, it also outperforms low-fat diets. As cited by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, numerous studies have confirmed the effectiveness of a keto diet in inducing weight loss, metabolic efficiency, and appetite reduction.
In all, more than twenty studies comparing a low-carb ketogenic diet to a low-fat diet have been conducted in some of the most authoritative medical journals in the world, including The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And in all of them, study participants following a keto diet lost more weight. In some cases they lost twice as much in the first three months and up to three times as much in a year!
Of course, the results of any diet will vary from one person to the next. If you have eighty pounds to lose, you’ll likely see more significant results than someone with twenty pounds to lose. However, this 60-person study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2014 gives you as good an indication as any of the results you might expect following a ketogenic diet. In it participants following a keto diet lost a whopping 12.6 pounds over the first three months. No, you’re not seeing things… that’s more than double the 5.7 pounds the low-fat crowd lost!
How Long Does it Take for Ketosis to Work?
Two days, roughly. Regardless of how carb heavy your diet is, your body can only store about two days of glycogen. That’s because all those extra carbs that weren’t converted to glycogen were converted to fat. And once they transformed to fat, they can never convert back to glycogen. So two days, that’s it! But how do you know for sure that you’re in dietary ketosis? Easy, you can purchase these inexpensive Smackfat Ketone Strips to accurately measure the ketone levels in your urine.
Is a Ketogenic Diet Safe?
That depends on who you ask. There are certainly experts who think that a ketogenic diet is too extreme for the general population to follow without the guidance of a physician. Some of them claim that various organs within the body prefer carb metabolism over fat metabolism.
Others dispute that claim and go further to point out that we evolved as a species to rely primarily on fat metabolism for energy. And they point out that the organs that do require glycogen rather than ketones are able to metabolize protein for that energy.
Overall, there appears to be growing support among experts–backed up by numerous studies–for using a keto diet as an reliable means of reducing body fat. Too many statistically significant experiments have demonstrated its fat burning effectiveness to ignore the results. The primary caution is making sure you’re eating the right carbs needed to get the nutrients your body needs. And that’s not an insignificant challenge. Many of the vitamins and minerals needed to keep you healthy come from carb-containing foods. So finding the ones that maximize those nutrients and minimize net carbs is your new mission… should you chose to accept it.
While it is recommended that everyone consult a professional before changing their diets, there are some individuals who should specifically speak to their physician before embarking on a keto diet. If you are taking medication for diabetes or blood pressure, or if you are breastfeeding, talk to your doctor about whether it’s safe for you to follow a keto diet, and under what level of supervision.
What Are the Side Effects of a Keto Diet?
Switching to a ketogenic diet can come with several side effects. Fortunately, most of the commons ones are as minor as they are short lived. Let’s take a look at them, what causes them, and what you can do about them:
When you first cut off your carbs and enter dietary ketosis you are likely to experience flu-like symptoms: headache, fatigue, nausea, and irritability. However, your symptoms aren’t caused by a virus; they’re caused by a combination of carbohydrate withdraw, dehydration, and your body adjusting to burning fat for fuel. These symptoms should go away within a week. And increasing your water intake above the normally recommended eight cups a day may help speed things up.
Okay, if you’re not kissing someone while you become keto adapted, maybe this one isn’t such a big deal. But you (and those around you) may notice your breath smelling like overly ripe apples as you adjust to ketosis. This is caused by a type of ketone called acetone that’s excreted in your breath and urine. The smell tends to dissipate on its own in time, and again, water can help.
Early on in your transition to a keto diet most of the weight you lose is water weight. As this happens you also lose electrolytes and this can lead to a few choice words in the middle of the night as you jump out of bed in pain! To help prevent that make sure you’re getting plenty of magnesium, calcium, and potassium. If you find it difficult to get them in the foods you eat on a keto diet, not to worry. You can get all three together in one pill with Country Life Target Mins Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium.
If a high percentage of your pre-keto calories came from carbs, it make take some time for your digestive system to adapt to the extra fat and protein it’s being asked to process. Add to that dehydration and a tendency to inadvertently avoid fiber in an effort to cut carb-rich foods, and you’ve got a recipe for constipation. To get back to regular you, drink lots of water and get plenty of high fiber, low net carb foods. One cup of cooked collard greens, for example, has 11 grams of carbs, but 8 of them are fiber grams. So the 3 grams of net carbs will fit nicely into your daily carb limit.
Heart Palpitations or Racing Heart
Some people experience an increase in the frequency and intensity of their heart beat when becoming keto adapted. Like the other common side effects, this one is normally short lived and subsides on its own, but there are things you can do to help. First, this particular side effect has multiple causes. One, like with so many of the others, is dehydration that results in an electrolyte imbalance. To fix, take in more calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
However, you may have a more general nutrient deficiency due to becoming too reliant on too few foods. A good multivitamin can help with that as you increase your knowledge of what you can eat on a keto diet. Finally, some people find that ingesting too many medium chain triglyceride (MCT) foods such as coconut oil or palm kernel oil can cause their heart to race. If that’s you, just be sure to mix up your oil sources and don’t become too reliant on any one.
If you experience any of these side effects for more than a few weeks, or if you experience any other side effects that concern you, be sure to communicate them to your physician.
Can I Be on a Ketogenic Diet Long Term?
The answer to this one is similar to the “Is it Safe?” question… depends on who you ask. General studies on the long term effectiveness and problems associated with a keto diet have been favorable. But most have been 12 to 24-week studies. And longer term ketogenic diet studies have been aimed at special populations, such as epilepsy patients. So it may be some time before we have large, general-population long-term studies to guide us.
In the meantime, if you’re seeing positive results in the weight loss arena–and you should!–and your regular checkups indicate that you’re otherwise healthy, you are your own long-term study. So you tell us!
What Are The Keto Diet Types?
There are three main variations of the keto diet:
- Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD)
- Cyclic Ketogenic Diet (CKD)
- Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TCD)
The differences between them mainly have to do with the timing and amount of carb intake, based on your activity type and level as well as your individual weight loss goals. Let’s take a closer look.
Standard Ketogenic Diet
Who’s it for?
SKD is for those who care about weight loss above all else and aren’t concerned with gaining muscle mass. It’s also appropriate for those whose exercise focuses on steady state cardio, like jogging or cycling, over high intensity, like sprinting and HIIT programs.
What is it?
It’s the primary version of the diet we’ve been describing up to this point, with a 75/20/5% fat/protein/carb breakdown. Under SKD you’re in a continual state of ketosis, burning ketones for energy instead of glucose. And ketones provide a slower burning fuel for your body, so it’s ideal if your supporting your dieting efforts with endurance exercise such as jogging or cycling.
Targeted Ketogenic Diet
Who’s it for?
TKD is for those who care equally about burning fat and gaining muscle mass. It tends to work well for those who engage in intense exercise where fast-burning carbs are needed to supply the necessary energy for sprinting, intense strength training, and high intensity interval training.
What is it?
The Goldilocks of the keto diets. It allows you to stay in a state of ketosis most of the time, reaping its fat burning benefits, with brief periods of carb loading prior to exercise to get the most out of your training. The amount of carbs you take in prior to exercise is naturally above your daily SKD 5%, but otherwise varies based on the length and intensity of your workouts. Most people take in up to 50 grams of highly digestible carbs 30 minutes before they exercise. The idea is to take in only the carbs you need to fuel your high intensity energy needs, and no more since those leftover carbs only delay your return to ketosis. This variation requires some trial and error, but it’s worth it for those looking to maximize their fat loss and muscle gain.
Cyclic Ketogenic Diet
Who’s it for?
CKD is for serious bodybuilders. Specifically, it’s for those who want to pack on lean muscle without taking on unnecessary fat during their bulking phase, and then lose fat without losing muscle during their cutting phase.
What is it?
A version of the keto diet where you are following a high fat, high protein, low carb diet 5-6 days a week and a low fat, high protein, high carb diet 1-2 days a week. These low fat/high protein/high carb days are called “refeeds” where your increase in carb consumptions replenishes your depleted muscle glycogen levels. This refeeding of 400-600 carbs enables you to work out more intensely to maximize muscle gains. And for those who find it hard to cut carbs out of their lives, it provides a real break from their carb restriction that may help them stick with the diet longer. Like with TKD, it takes trial and error to get the timing and amount of carbs right.
How is the Keto Diet Different Than a Low-Carb Diet?
You might think that a keto diet is just a more extreme version of a low-carb diet, and you’d be right. Sort of. A keto diet is definitel low in carbohydrates… extremely low. And if carbs were the only variable in comparing the two diets, you could loosely say that carb intake under a low-carb diet is relative (as in lower than whatever you were taking in before), and under a keto diet it’s absolute (as in 5% of your daily calories). But if you really want a numbers comparison, here’s how daily carb intake compares under a typical Western diet, a low-carb diet, and a ketogenic diet:
But the distinctions go beyond carb intake. A keto diet’s aim is to put your body in a continual state of nutritional ketosis, where you’re burning fat instead of carbs for your energy needs. And not just dietary fat; the extra fat you’re carrying around as well. With a low-carb diet, the goal is a less ambitious one to take your carbs down to a level required to fuel your energy needs, and no more. The idea is that you’re still primarily relying on carbohydrate metabolism rather than ketosis. You’re just avoiding taking in unnecessary carbs that risk getting stored as body fat through lipogenisis.
You can lose weight under both diets. But with a low-carb diet the weight is coming off through a difference in calories in and calories out. Fewer carbs without increases in your protein and fat intake equals fewer calories, and that leads to weight loss. With a keto diet, you are literally burning your body’s fat for fuel, so the weight loss is more dramatic.
How Important is Protein in a Ketogenic Diet?
Very! And that’s one of the common misconceptions about following a ketogenic diet. Some people think that as long as they are maintaining their 5% daily carb intake they can mix and match the remaining 95% of their calories between protein and fat however they see fit. But they won’t see fit; they’ll see fat! Because the 20% protein and 75% fat ratios are every bit as important as the 5% carb percentage.
Consistently going above your 5% daily carbs will bring ketosis to a halt. And consistently going above your 20% protein will do the same. Why? Because just like with carbs, your body can break down protein into glucose. And even if your carb levels are low enough to otherwise induce ketosis, your body will first look for protein it can metabolize into glucose before switching its metabolism pathway.
How is a Keto Diet Different From a Paleo Diet?
It’s a little tricky comparing the keto and paleo diets, mainly because it’s a bit of an apples to oranges comparison. Or maybe “apples-to-low-carb-nuts-and-seeds” comparison is more accurate. The point is they have very different goals. A keto diet is all about maintaining precise control over the specific macro percentages for the carbs, fat, and protein in the foods you eat. Paleo, on the other hand, is more concerned with the foods themselves–both what you should eat and what you should avoid.
However, the following infographic gives you a general comparison between the two diets in terms of where they overlap and where the differ:
The paleo diet imagines a modern nutrition revolution that brings us closer to the eating habits of our paleolithic ancestors. You know, before farming, GMO’s, and high-fructose corn syrup. The premise is a simple one: how many cave paintings of our forebears show obese hunter-gatherers chasing wild game? That’s right, not too many. It’s generally agreed that those who lived before technology gave us refined sugar were healthy. Much more likely to die from starvation than obesity. So we should just eat what they ate… lots of meat, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
The ketogenic diet, on the other hand, acknowledges the technology of our times and encourages people to use it to precisely adhere to the macronutrient ratios proven to maximize fat loss in a carb-laden world. It’s not easy to maintain the 75/20/5 macro ratios the standard diet calls for, and it’s even more challenging timing the carb intake in the targeted and cyclic versions. But thankfully there are a host of keto products now available to help you stop guessing and start losing.
Which Keto Foods Should I Eat?
Think about the layout of your typical American grocery store, with its perimeter of fresh foods and its vast interior of simple carbs, and it’s easy to appreciate how difficult it is to follow a diet that limits your carb intake to 5% of your daily calories! Based on our shopping habits and our corresponding obesity rate, grocery stores have effectively become a nutritional wasteland. Or maybe waistland is more appropriate.
But it is possible to stay within your keto diet macro ratios AND get the nutrition your body needs. You just need a plan. And that plan starts with looking at your local grocery store through the lens of a ketogenic diet.
Below is a color-coded chart that simplifies looking at common foods in terms of both their fat and carb content. This will give you a visual perspective of some of the keto foods you may want to incorporate more into your diet. For a more complete food list, with foods ranked within their category, head over to the keto foods tab.
Know Your Fats
One note of caution about fat. Obviously a keto diet calls for a lot of it… 70% of your calories, or 208 grams if you’re on a 2500 calorie diet. So you want to make sure you’re getting the right kind of fat. Some of the keto foods themselves are naturally high in fat, but much of the fat in foods that are available to us come from how they are prepared. And all fats fall in to one of three categories: trans fats, unsaturated fats, and saturated fats.
You’ll want to stay away from trans fats–basically any ingredients you see with “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the description (snacks and processed foods). On the flip side, you’ll want to get plenty of unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated fats (avocados, nuts), polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils), and Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids (fish, shellfish, and vegetable oils). Saturated fats are the third category, and they’re the solid fats you think of and mostly come from animal based foods (meat, milk, and cheese). You’ll have plenty of these on a keto diet as well. And don’t worry about trying to find an exact ratio between optimal saturated vs. unsaturated. Just make sure you’re balancing the two.
What Are Keto Fat Bombs?
Don’t worry, they don’t explode. Keto fat bombs are bite-sized energy balls that are high in fat and low in carbs. They are made with the ketogenic diet macro ratios in mind and are often used as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack. People following a keto diet love them because they’re convenient, easy to make, and quite tasty. And they help fill in the daily required fat intake without worrying about taking in extra carbs.
What Does a Ketogenic Meal Plan Look Like?
Well, that depends. Two different people can follow the same 70/25/5 percent fat/protein/carb ratio and still need very different meal plans to meet their weight loss goals. A 250 pound man who lifts heavy five days a week and does HIIT routines the other two is going to need more total calories than a 160 pound woman who is completely inactive.
So how about three meal plans? To keep things simple but still give you some flexibility in meeting your weight loss goals based on your weight and activity level, here are three 4-week ketogenic meals plans for total daily calories of 1700, 2000, and 2300.
Remember, if your weight is currently stable, meaning you haven’t lost or gained weight in the past month, just switching to the keto diet macros without lowering your daily calorie intake should still result in weight loss. So know what your daily calories are, but don’t think you need to necessarily cut your calories down to a lower band in order to achieve your weight loss goals.
What Are some Keto Diet Recipes I Can Try?
You can sift through the foods in the keto food tab and find things you can incorporate into your diet to ease your way into a ketogenic lifestyle. And you should. But if you want to commit fully to becoming and staying keto adapted, you’re going to want to move beyond grilled steaks, hard-boiled eggs, and other obvious ways of preparing the keto foods on the list. You’ll need variety and flavor to stay the course, and that’s just what you’ll get with full-color Deliciously Keto Cookbook.
In it you’ll get 150 keto recipes covering breakfasts, snacks, salads, sides, soups & stews, beef, poultry, pork, seafood, and yes, even keto desserts! And all of the recipes come with nutrition information to help you keep track of your macros.
Can I Follow a Keto Diet While Eating Out?
Absolutely! Granted, it’s not something you’ll want to do all the time, as the vast majority of food offerings at most restaurants won’t work for the diet. But you’d be surprised what you find if you look hard enough. But who wants to do that, right. Well, you don’t have to. Here’s a quick and easy infographic with a keto-friendly pick at some of the most popular fast food restaurants.
Not all of these follow the keto diet ratios for fat, protein, and carbs exactly, so be aware of that. But what they do is give you some very low carb options at these restaurants–options that keep you from blowing up your daily carb limit when you’re stuck without better options.
Also, keep in mind that most fast food restaurants are fairly flexible in helping you meet your dietary needs, so don’t be afraid to ask for items that you know they have even if they’re not on the menu. Take McDonalds for example. You know those round eggs that come on their Egg McMuffin? Guess what, they’re called Round Eggs and most McDonalds locations will sell them to you ala carte.
Is a Keto Diet Good For Bodybuilding?
Although the ketogenic was originally developed as a treatment for pediatric epilepsy, in recent years it has really caught on with bodybuilders. And for good reason. Bodybuilders need to build their muscles, but they also need for them to be seen. And that means getting their bodies as lean as possible prior to competition.
The keto diet, especially the cyclic keto diet (CKD) variation, has proven to be effective in both the bulking and cutting phases. It enables you to build muscle without taking on a lot of unwanted fat during the bulking phase. Then, when you’re ready to get as lean as possible prior to competition, it enables you to cut those last hard-to-lose pounds with minimal muscle loss.
What Keto Diet Supplements and Other Products Are Available?
There are several items that can greatly simplify your transition to a ketogenic lifestyle. From ketone strips to help you know when you’ve reached ketosis, to recipes and supplements to help you get and stay there, you’ll find everything you need for your keto journey on our keto products tab.