What is keto diet?
The ketogenic diet—or more commonly known as the keto diet—is a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb diet that’s taking the world by storm. Multiple celebrities and the masses swear by its health benefits and the effectiveness of the diet itself.
Initially, the keto diet is used to treat people with epilepsy. It also helps lessen the symptoms for a wide range of diseases like cancer and neurological conditions. It’s also recommended to type-2 diabetes patients since weight gain seems to be the main reason for the onset of the disease. By effectively helping people who practice this diet to lose weight, it effectively helps cure the disease.
How does it work?
Typically, your brain and body are fuelled by glucose, which is derived from carbohydrates. Rice and grains that we eat help provide energy to the body. It worked really well in the old days because people were more active and the carbohydrates that they consume are able to be used fully.
But with our modern but mostly inactive lifestyle nowadays, the carbohydrates we consume can’t be fully depleted after a day. When we have an excess of glucose in our body, it gets converted into glycogen and it’s stored in our liver and muscles for emergency energy.
Think of our body as a petrol tank. There’s a finite amount of glycogen that we can store—two-days’ worth to be precise. Once the tank is full, our body rejects the unstored glucose and the glucose is left floating around in the bloodstream.
Insulin helps to regulate the blood level. Under normal circumstances, insulin helps push the glucose into the liver and muscles for storage. But when the stores are full, the surface cells of the liver and muscles put out a signal to stop the insulin from pushing the glucose in. As a result, we have to secrete more insulin than necessary to push the same amount of glucose into the muscles. But since the stores are full, there’s no space in the muscles and liver. So the liver converts the unused glucose into fats and stores them in the fatty tissues. Eventually, the fatty tissues multiply and we get fatter.
In the keto diet, we attempt to hack our body into burning an alternative source of fuel. Asides from glucose, only ketones, a by-product derived from fat, could fuel the body effectively. We start the keto diet by exhausting the existing glycogen stores in our body, forcing the body to burn fats for fuel instead of sugar. We do this by drastically reducing the intake of carbs so that the body wouldn’t have new carbs to convert into glucose. When that happens, the body would start using ketones for energy. If the fatty intake is not enough, the body takes the fats from our body. Simply put, we’re using fat to burn fat. This process is called ketosis, which is the primary goal of going into the keto diet.
Benefits of a keto diet
In some studies, the keto diet is used as a supplementary diet to patients undergoing chemotherapy. This is because it causes more oxidative stress in cancer cells than in normal ones.
It might even improve brain functioning. In one study, children who were treated with the keto diet shows improved brain functioning and cognitive abilities. In patients with epilepsy, going on the keto diet helps improve their sleep patterns which in turn reduced stress and anxiety. Being on a keto diet also increases a person’s memory. Ketones help make new mitochondria, which produces energy for the cells in your body. Your brain could do a lot more in it has an influx of energy.
Going on a keto diet might help in some cases of diabetes as well. This is mostly because of the weight loss which helps reduce blood sugar. When it’s done wrongly or without the supervision of a doctor, it could actually put the patients in a situation where their ketones are dangerously high.
Ketosis and intermittent fasting
Since going into ketosis is what helps lose weight, the main goal of going on a ketogenic diet is to go through ketosis. The fastest way to go into ketosis is by fasting. The theory here is that when you fast, you basically stop taking in calories. Intermittent fasting, which means you eat in specific time windows every day and fasting the rest of the hours away, is a popular way to do it. It sounds far-out and difficult to do, but most people do intermittent fasting by having an early dinner and skip breakfast in the morning, which is what most people who value sleep do anyway.
People who go on intermittent fasting are allowed to drink anything during the fast. A crucial thing to remember is to not consume any sugar. Sugar could be used as fuel and kick you out of ketosis as the body would prioritize glucose a fuel source over ketones. You don’t want to sabotage your fasting efforts because of a can of soda.
Another important thing about going into an intermittent fast is to ease your body into the diet. Ketosis is basically a defence mechanism against starvation, so it introduces a lot of stress to your body. Don’t force your body to take on more than it could. Coax it gently into the diet by gradually reducing carbs instead of going cold turkey—your body will thank you in the long run. Besides that, listen to your body. Some people have better metabolic adaptability, which is the ability to adapt to different fuel sources. It means that they’re able to adapt to the new diet a lot quicker. Don’t be frustrated if you can’t, the most important thing is to lose weight in a relatively healthy way and at your own pace.
Exercise also expedites ketosis. Glycogen bonds break down easier during exercise. It’s perfect since getting rid of the existing stores of glycogen is the main goal in the beginning. However, since your body is under so much stress when you’re doing the keto diet, light exercise is recommended regardless of how physically active you are before you start the diet. Opt for less strenuous exercises like light jogging or yoga. Since exercise helps reduce the cortisol level as well, it could make you feel happier and more likely to continue with the diet.
How do you know you’re in ketosis?
To tweak our diet to its maximum effect, we need to know that we’re in ketosis. A sure-fire way to determine if you’re in ketosis is to get a blood test done. You can use ketones blood strips to test the ketones level in your blood. Ideally, you should have 1.5 to 3 mmol/L of ketones in your body for the best effect.
You could also find out if you are in ketosis with a breath analyser or urine test. It’s important to keep in mind that a urine test can only give you an approximate estimation of the ketone levels in your body since you excrete so much waste from your body through urinating. That said, it’s still a good estimate to start with.
However, since most normal people don’t have blood or urine tests lying around, so a tell-tale sign would be weight loss. Many people experienced rapid weight loss in the beginning. This is due to the fact that glycogen is shed with water, so when glycogen leaves your body, water follows. It could also be due to the fact that you’d eat less because fats are so satiating to eat.
Another way to know if you’re in ketosis is to see if you get the keto flu. Since your body is so used to burning glucose for fuel, it gets confused when you decide to switch the main fuel source to fat. It goes through a period of adaptation. Your body would start feeling flu=like symptoms within the first 24 to 48 hours after you start limiting your carb intake.
Most people, if not all, reported feeling extra tired and fatigued after they start the keto diet. It’s like your body going into power-saving mode where it’s trying to conserve energy in fear of completely blacking out. Since there are no carbs to burn, it’s trying to learn to burn a different fuel source for energy. This period of adaptation can last anywhere from a couple of days to a month. Feeling fatigued is not the best motivator either, so your work performance is sure to suffer a dip.
One particularly annoying symptom is keto breath. When your body starts producing ketones in large quantities, it also produces a by-product called acetone. Acetone as a chemical is mostly used as a cleaning agent, such as nail polish remover and superglue remover. In small quantities, it tastes and smells fruity. However, in larger amounts, it could be smell really astringent and sterile. Most keto=veterans said that keto breath is more noticeable in the morning right after waking up, so brushing your teeth well should fix the problem. But you could also chew sugar-free gum throughout the day to keep your breath minty fresh.
Other than that, you could also experience insomnia and stomach problems and sugar cravings. These are mainly due to the fact that you cut out a huge amount of carbs from your diet. Carbs give you the little spike of energy you need throughout the day, but it can also cause you to have a carb crash.
Most people give up the keto diet during the keto flu because its symptoms are sometimes annoying to deal with, especially if it interferes with your bodily function like sleep and energy level. Therefore, it’s important to remember that the keto flu occurs when your body is trying to be keto-adapted. Once it gets used to the diet, the symptoms will all go away. If it becomes too unbearable to deal with, experts suggest adding a little bit of carb back into the diet. This is used to deal with the carb withdrawal effect.
How to get over the keto flu?
The most important thing is to stay hydrated. Water is the elixir of life. When you feel crappy, it’s always better to have more water in your system than not. When we start getting rid of the glycogen stores, the water stores get depleted as well. It puts you in a state of dehydration and a loss of electrolytes. Drinking water helps replenish the electrolytes in your system. It also helps reduce sugar-cravings and helps put less stress on your kidneys. So, drink up and rehydrate your temple!
You could also replenish your electrolytes by eating foods like leafy green veggies, avocado or mushrooms. Avoid sports drinks like an axe murderer. I know it’s basically made for athletes to replenish their electrolytes, but sports drinks contain truckloads of sugar. Bone broth or foods high in salt could help get your electrolyte levels balanced in your body again.
It’s another common sense solution, but sleep is super important at this stage. Sleeping allows your body to recover from the stress and fatigue the diet puts on your body. You might run into some problems sleeping early though since insomnia is also a side effect of the keto diet. Instead, try taking a power nap or two throughout the day.
If all that doesn’t work, maybe you need a little bit of a carb boost. I liken it to a drug habit. When your body’s used to a certain amount of carbs, you can’t get rid of that need just like that. Reintroducing a bit of carb into your diet and let your body rest for a while. Don’t think of it as giving up; you’re just making the process more enjoyable for yourself. Fact remains, if you want the keto diet to work best, you’d need to wean yourself off carbs eventually.
What to eat on a keto diet?
In a keto diet, a person should consume healthy fats as their main micronutrient paired with a fair amount of proteins with small carb portions as keto dieters are using fats as a primary fuel source. Certain meats and fruits serve as excellent keto diet foods as they provide the necessary nutrients for those undertaking the diet.
Macronutrients in a keto diet
Being the main fuel source for keto dieters, we are able to get away with 90% of the fats we eat because it is ketogenic. Don’t be too happy about this if you have KFC on hand right now. Not all fats are equal. Fats in fast foods, French fries and margarine raise your LDL (bad cholesterol) and lower your HDL (good cholesterol). These fats are unhealthy because they have undergone hydrogenation to keep the fat in packaged food from going bad. However, unsaturated fats such as omega-3, omega-6, oleic acid, and linoleic acids are the good fats that aid weight loss. Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K require fat to enable the body to properly absorb these nutrients.
Example of healthy oils and fats
Coconut oil provides multiple health benefits such as regulating blood sugar and hormone levels, fuelling the body’s metabolism and help heal the body’s organs. Believe it or not, eating coconut oil actually helps in belly fat reduction and boost brain function.
Unrefined extra virgin olive oil has the highest concentration of antioxidants, meaning that it’s the best version to incorporate into your meals. The vitamin E content provides minerals to the bone as well as reduces the risk of diabetes.
Nuts and seeds
Need a snack? Nuts and seeds are keto favourites as they are low carb and have high amounts of omega fatty acids. Not only that, they help curb hunger. They also boost immune health and help fight inflammation in the body.
We must be aware that all nuts and seeds have different net carbs that range from 0g to 8g per 28g. Flax seeds will be your best bet while the most high-carb nut is cashew nuts.
However, following the belief that one must fuel up post-workout, you should avoid consuming fats after a workout to prevent slowing down of the digestive process and protein absorption.
Protein’s role in a keto diet is as vital as in any other diet, but it’s a tricky nutrient to control. Excessive protein in your system is converted to glycogen, the last thing you want as it might put your body off ketosis. On the other side, too little protein causes muscle mass loss and increased appetite.
Protein is also one of the most sating macronutrients, meaning the more protein you eat, the longer the time you could go without feeling hungry. Besides that, protein raises your base metabolic rate, helping to build and preserve muscle tissue.
Examples of protein
Beef, pork, poultry and lamb
All kinds of meat can serve as a staple in a keto diet as most meat has no carbs and is rich in protein as well as vitamin B and several other kinds of minerals.
Compared with poultry, dark meat is fattier than white meat, hence a better protein choice. Grass-fed beef is recommended over normal meat because they led a more natural diet, making its meat richer in nutrients. Grass-fed beef also supports normal blood sugar levels and has ample electrolytes in them that may help improve keto flu symptoms. Eating grass-fed beef can also help minimize bacterial and hormone intake that’s associated with the rearing methods of grain fed cows.
Cured meat is also a quick fix option, but it is crucial to check if it was cured with sugar. Don’t worry if it’s cured with salt. Salt helps restore electrolyte levels in your body that tends to be low on when you’re on the keto diet.
Sardines, mackerel and other fatty fish contain high omega-3 which decrease levels of insulin in your blood and increase insulin sensitivity in heavier people.
Fool-proof choices include shrimps and most crabs as they don’t contain carb. Clams, mussels and oysters have small amounts of carb, so be aware if you’re serving them as a side. With that in mind, shellfish are good choices for keto diet as they are rich in minerals, vitamins and omega-3s with little to no carbs.
Eggs are your holy grail in a keto diet. They are highly versatile. Containing 6g of protein and less than 1g of carb, it is the ideal food in a ketogenic lifestyle that keeps you fuller for longer.
Despite the many benefits an egg can provide, be careful to not overdo it because it contains high levels of cholesterol. It is, however, concentrated with essential vitamins and minerals that are advantageous for the human body.
Just like dark meat, it’s recommended to choose free range eggs for the best effect.
The key thing about dairy is to pick full-fat ones instead of skimmed or low fat. Skimmed or low-fat dairy tend to have sugar content in order to make up for flavour loss due to the absence of fat.
Butter and heavy cream
Butter and heavy cream are high in fat with low carb content, making them ideal for a ketogenic diet. Butter, cream and other foods high in saturated fat are associated with increased heart diseases. New studies now, however, showed that it’s not the case. In fact, people who consume full-fat dairy products are less likely to be obese or overweight.
If you’re lactose intolerant, you could use ghee butter as a substitute since it contains no casein or lactose that could trigger the allergy.
Cheese and yoghurt
Although there are various types of cheese, all of them are relatively low in carbs but high in fat. 28g of cheddar, for example, contains only 1g of carb and 7g of protein.
Likewise for yoghurt that contains a bunch of bacteria that promotes a healthy gut. Take note that most store-bought yoghurts tend to have some sugar or additives.
Another great non-dairy source of healthy fats is coconut milk, which is perfect for lactose intolerant people who want to try the ketogenic diet. It helps to boost metabolism, energize your brain and balance the hormones. Besides that, it helps to satiate appetite, making it less likely for people to eat more. It could help you fight bacteria and viruses as well.
Low carb vegetables
Root vegetables like potatoes are starchier, which means it contains more carbohydrates. Vegetables that grow above ground are super low in calories, but high in nutrients. The amount of carbs for leafy greens ranges from 1g to 8g per cup.
Leafy vegetable provides many health benefits in addition to being great for a keto diet. They contain antioxidants that help fight against free radicals that could damage cells. Risk of cancer and heart diseases can also be reduced with cruciferous vegetables like kale and broccoli.
Many use low carb vegetables as a substitute for high carb food. For example, noodles or pasta can be replaced by thinly sliced zucchini to mimic the appearance. Some use cauliflower as a replacement for rice and mashed potatoes.
Sugar, or carbohydrate in general, is the most restricted macronutrient in the keto diet. Carbs have a direct effect on going into ketosis as if the glycogen, the stored form of glucose, from the body is not depleted, the body won’t be able to enter ketosis. However, carbohydrate is needed for some cells of the body to function, so it’s best to consume a minimal amount of it. As a general rule, a person on a ketogenic diet should eat more or less 5% of carbs in a day.
When people think of the keto diet, they think of cutting fruit out altogether. It’s not surprising, given that fruits are typically high in sugar. Berries, however, is low in carbs but high in fibre. In fact, certain berries like blackberries and raspberries contain as much as digestive carbs.
Berries could improve blood sugar and reduce insulin, which is what we’re going for when we’re trying the ketogenic diet. However, it’s important to note that overeating on berries could have the same effect on your craving as carbohydrate does. It’ll cause a spike in sugar levels, which will, in turn, cause a hunger craving. If you have berries in moderate amounts, you could still stay in ketosis after getting your fruit fix.
Fun fact, it’s a fruit!
Avocado is great for keto diet since 75% of it is fat and it’s pretty low-carb. Technically, a medium-sized avocado has 18g of carbs, but since 14g of them are fibre, it doesn’t get absorbed into the body like that. Basically, only 4g of carbs get absorbed into the body. It can also be used as a meat substitute since it’s super high in protein as well.
In addition, avocados are also high in potassium, which will make the transition to a keto diet easier since it restores the electrolyte levels in the body. In the long run, avocados improve cholesterol levels since it’s chocked full of good, HDL cholesterol. The fruit itself is also very satiating to eat, so you wouldn’t feel like eating a lot of crap later.
Other great stuff to eat
Seaweed is also a great source of vitamins B6 and C and a bunch of other minerals like potassium, zinc and iron. These minerals support the immune system, reduce blood pressure and balances hormones. It could also help curb cravings, which is incredibly helpful when you’re trying to lose weight.
Also, contrary to popular beliefs, there are different types of seaweed with different health benefits. So, you’d get to mix it up even though you’re eating the same thing.
People automatically assume that chocolates would be off-bounds since it’s so full of sugar. As a matter of fact, it depends on what kind of chocolate you eat. 28g of dark chocolate made with 100% cacao powder only contains about 3g of carbs. In supermarket terms, pick chocolates that have more than 70% cocoa solids.
Like all other food on this list, it’s rich in minerals and vitamins. Cocoa powder has been marketed as a superfood due to its high concentration of flavanols due to its antioxidants. It could also help to improve circulation. Dark chocolate also helps regular blood sugar.
There you go, the ultimate guide to starting keto diet for beginners. The ketogenic diet is a pretty overwhelming diet since there are so many food restrictions. But with perseverance and practice, you’d get a hang of it in no time!