Keto Diet: The Ultimate Guide to a High-Fat, Low-Carb Lifestyle
If you’ve hit a weight or fat loss plateau— despite eating clean and exercising— more fat could be just what your body is asking for. The ketogenic diet, or “keto diet”, is a high-fat, low-carb approach to eating that can help your body accelerate it’s fat burning abilities. Although best known for its weight loss benefits, research shows the keto diet can also help skyrocket your energy levels, improve blood sugar balance, boost cognitive function, and much more.
So, how exactly does the keto diet work? Is it as simple as just adding more fat to your meals? In this keto diet guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know, including:
- How the keto diet works
- How to follow a keto diet correctly
- The health benefits you can expect to experience from going keto
- Foods to eat and avoid on the keto diet
- How to tell if your body is in ketosis
- If the keto diet is right for you.
Eat Fat to Burn Fat: What is the Keto Diet and How Does it Work?
The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that allows your body to enter a fat-burning metabolic state called ketosis. When you enter ketosis, you burn fat for energy instead of glucose from carbohydrates— which are your body’s default energy source.
Now, your body will only start burning stored fat for fuel when glucose is not available— which is why carbs must be heavily restricted. We’re talking no more than five to ten percent of your diet. In this sense, heavily restricting carbs and increasing your dietary fat intake allows you to manipulate or “train” your body to burn fat for fuel. Let’s dive in a little deeper and look at the science behind how the keto diet works for fat loss.
As mentioned above, your body’s default source of energy comes from carbohydrates, which are broken down into glucose during digestion. From here, glucose is converted into glycogen and stored in your liver and muscle cells to be used for when you need energy later on. It’s said that you can store approximately 2,000 calories worth of carbohydrates, which is enough energy to last you around 24 hours. (1)
Since most of us get carbs at every meal from fruit, veggies, beans, grains, legumes (and perhaps the not-so healthy carbs, like chips, candy, and soda), we don’t need to be concerned about running low on glucose. However, let’s say there was a famine and you had absolutely no access to carbs. Do you just run out of energy? Heck no. As the highly intelligent system it is, your body has a backup “fuel tank” in place.
When glucose isn’t available, your body creates energy from it’s second preferred source: fatty acids (fat), from stored body fat and dietary fat. Through a process called ketogenesis, fatty acids get converted to ketones, which can then be released into the bloodstream and sent to the brain and muscle cells to be used for energy. When this occurs, you’ve entered what’s called a “ketotic state” or “ketosis”.
Unlike glucose stores that last a mere 24 hours, fat stores are plentiful. Your body can store enough fat for energy to last you several weeks. This is why people who practice intermittent fasting actually report increased energy levels despite not taking in any calories, and are able to safely go prolonged periods of time without eating. Of course, this also explains why the high fat keto diet can accelerate fat loss, as it “trains” your body to access stored fat and burn fatty acids for fuel, instead of relying on carbohydrates.
Although we’ve touched on weight loss, that’s certainly not the only health benefit of following the keto diet. In fact, if your body fat percentage is already low, the keto diet may not result in weight loss at all. So, why else is the keto diet worth trying? Let’s take a look.
4 Health Benefits of the Keto Diet (Aside From Fat Loss)
Interesting enough, the keto diet wasn’t initially intended to be a weight loss solution. It’s history goes back to the 1920’s, where doctors began using it to help control seizures in epilepsy patients who weren’t responding well to medication. It was thought that removing the body’s primary fuel source could signal “pseudo” starvation, and inhibit the neuron pathways in the brain that were triggering seizures.
Today, studies show that the keto diet may be have several other benefits, such as correcting hormonal imbalances and reversing type 2 diabetes.
1. Improved Blood Sugar Balance (And Conditions Such as Type 2 Diabetes)
Blood sugar imbalances such as hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia, and type 2 diabetes are typically caused by lifestyle factors— namely, having an excess of refined sugar and carbohydrates in your diet (donuts, we’re looking at you).
We won’t get into the full breakdown of how blood sugar works in this article, but to simplify, having a blood sugar imbalance means that your cells have become “desensitized” or have stopped responding to insulin— which is the hormone that’s responsible for transporting sugar out of your bloodstream and into your cells. This is also known as insulin resistance, which can be a precursor to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Since the keto diet almost completely removes the problematic foods (in this case, refined sugar and carbohydrates), it gives your body a chance to “reset”, which may help regain and improve insulin sensitivity over time. Furthermore, fat is an excellent blood sugar balancing nutrient, which makes up approximately 75% of calories on the keto diet.
If you have a blood sugar imbalance, I highly recommend consulting with a qualified healthcare practitioner before making any dietary changes to see if the keto diet could be an appropriate short or long term solution for you.
2. Improved Focus and Concentration
With today’s fast-paced lifestyle and the fact that we’ve become multi-tasking machines, we could probably all use an extra boost of focus and concentration in our lives. A high fat diet may be the best way to achieve this. Your brain runs only on two nutrients for fuel: glucose and ketones. Previously, glucose was thought to be the best fuel for the brain, but research shows some ketones may actually produce more ATP (energy) than glucose— which would actually make fatty acids a more beneficial energy source.
The keto diet is also being studied for its effect on all aspects of cognitive function, including improving symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
3. Reduced Appetite And Cravings for Sweets
As soon as you hear the word diet, what comes to mind? Starvation? Restriction? Misery? Yes, dieting is brutal, and can quickly send you into a downward chocolate cupcake spiral.
However, the keto diet is different from other diets for a few reasons. First, your appetite gets satisfied quickly. As the most dense macronutrient, fat offers nine calories per gram (whereas protein and carbohydrates come in at four calories per gram). Fat also take the longest to digest, and therefore keeps you full for longer periods of time. As mentioned, fats also promote blood sugar balance, which can also help curb cravings for sugar.
Let’s also not forget the flavor factor. Everything tastes better with butter, right? Fat is the ingredient used to add flavor food, so you can expect your keto recipes to still be tasty, flavorful, and satisfying, which may also curb cravings for junk food.
Also, there’s a huge variety of foods you can still eat on the keto diet, and probably some new ones (or at the very least, new delicious combinations) that you haven’t tried. Just do a quick “keto diet cookbook” search online and be prepared to wipe down some drool. Keto Avocado Benny’s and New York Keto Cheesecake are absolutely on the menu.
4. The Keto Diet May Improve Hormonal Balance
All of your hormones work so closely together, that when one hormone is negatively affected, the rest follow suit. Since the keto diet may help improve how insulin functions (the blood sugar regulating hormone), this can have a beneficial “domino” effect on all other hormones and simultaneously help correct other imbalances.Fats are also the building blocks of healthy hormones, and hormones control every aspect of your body’s functions, from mood to bowel movements. Low fat diets have been linked to symptoms in women such as hair loss, irregular menstrual periods, depression, anxiety, and nutrient deficiencies in the fat soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K, so for some women, increasing fat intake in general can be extremely beneficial.
How Much Fat Do You Need to Eat on the Keto Diet?
There are a few different variations of the keto diet, with the most common being the Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD). Here are the ratios for the SGK, as well as three other versions.
The standard ketogenic diet: 5% carbs, 20% protein, and 75% fat.
This is the most popular version of the keto diet, and if you’re new to keto, this is the route I’d recommend going.
The high protein ketogenic diet: 5% carbs, 35% protein, and 60% fat. The high protein keto diet is most suitable if you’re an athlete.
The cyclical ketogenic diet: 5 days of SKD (5% carbs, 20% protein, and 75% fat) followed by 2 days of 70% carbohydrates, 25% protein, and 5% calories from fat.
The targeted ketogenic diet: this diet combines the standard ketogenic diet and cyclical ketogenic diet in a way by incorporating 25-50 grams net carbs 30-60 min before exercise.
How to Tell if Your Body is in Ketosis
How can you tell if you’re well on your way to achieving desired results? There are a few different symptoms that may indicate that your body is in Ketosis. As mentioned above, a clear mental state and an increase in energy are two benefits of consuming healthy, high-fat foods. Another indicator is a lack of or decrease in hunger as your body is no longer relying on carbohydrate stores. If you want to be sure you’ve raised ketone levels, you can test ketosis through blood meters, breath testing, or urine tests. I’d recommend the at-home urine strip testing as it’s a common and easy way to test ketosis. (2, 3)
Foods to Eat on the Keto Diet
Almost every variation of this diet emphasizes high-fat foods. Some things you can incorporate into each meal/snack include cocoa butter, lard, poultry fat, and plant fats like olive and coconut oils. You’re also encouraged to eat foods like avocado, coconut meat, and certain nuts and seeds. In terms of meat consumption, you ideally limit yourself to grass-fed beef and free range poultry. Make sure to get your greens each day by consuming non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens.
Foods to Avoid on the Keto Diet
As we’ve seen above, the cyclical diet is the only ketogenic diet where you’ll be consuming more than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. That being said, whole/refined grains and flower products should be avoided as much as possible. Although some fruits like berries may be consumed in small portions, most fruits will not be approved for this diet and fruit juice should be avoided. Legumes like beans, lentils, and peanuts are also not allowed as a part of the ketogenic diet. (4)
Helpful Keto Diet Supplements
As you transition to this new lifestyle, it’s not uncommon to experience some unpleasant symptoms from your new high-fat diet. The keto diet can be hard on the digestive system; the most common complaint is digestion issues upon starting the diet. To avoid uncomfortable symptoms, digestive supplements are recommended.
Many foods that are rich in magnesium are carbs, making it even-harder for you to meet your magnesium needs. It’s recommended that you take a 200-400mg magnesium supplement each day. Magnesium can also help with some common symptoms from starting the ketogenic diet like muscle cramps or inability to sleep. In addition to magnesium, your body will likely be lacking sodium and potassium. It’s important to incorporate salt into your meals and dark, leafy greens can help with magnesium and potassium. There are also electrolyte supplements that contain magnesium, potassium, and sodium to help your body get the minerals it needs! (5)
Is the Keto Diet Safe for Everyone? Here’s Who Should Avoid the Keto Diet
If you’re diabetic and take insulin or oral hypoglycemic agents, it’s important you talk to your doctor first and have your medications properly adjusted before starting the ketogenic diet. Those who suffer from pancreatitis, liver failure, and disorders of fat metabolism should avoid the diet altogether. As always, if you think this diet could negatively impact your health, it’s important to speak to a healthcare professional before starting. (6)