A Beginner’s Guide to the Keto Diet

Originally created for people who suffer from seizures, the ketogenic diet, also known as the keto diet, is a high-fat, moderate-protein and low-carb diet that promotes putting your body in a state of “ketosis”. But what exactly is ketosis and why is the keto diet gaining popularity so quickly, and most of all, does it actually work?

Ketosis is a metabolic state in which your body is forced to burn fats rather than carbohydrates, which our bodies normally use for energy. Your body then starts making ketones (hence the name), which are organic compounds that are byproducts of the body breaking down fat for energy when carbohydrate intake is low. These ketones are then eliminated from the body through urination. When your body burns carbohydrates, it also spikes insulin levels in your body which keeps your body from burning excess stored fat until all of the carbs in your system have been burned through.

When your body is in ketosis, it turns to burning fat for energy and in return also lowers your insulin levels because your body doesn’t need insulin to burn fat. By replacing your carb intake with healthy fats, your body will not only burn the fat you’re consuming but it will continue to burn the fat your body has stored away since there is no insulin telling it to stop.

While there are several versions of the ketogenic diet, the most popular versions are the standard and high-protein diets. The standard ketogenic diet is very low-carb with moderate amounts of protein and, of course, is high-fat. Common ratios typically are 75 percent fat, 20 percent lean protein and 5 percent of carbs.

The high-protein ketogenic diet is similar to the standard diet but includes more protein. The ratio consists of 60 percent fat, 35 percent lean protein and 5 percent carbs.

While the diet makes sense from a consumer standpoint, Brittney Bearden, a registered dietitian and sports nutrition manager at Texas Health Sports Medicine, warns that its restrictive qualities mixed with its high-fat intake can make it unhealthy if you choose the wrong food options.

“The diet is composed of 70 to 80 percent fat, which leaves little room for healthy food items like fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes,” Bearden explains. “It also doesn’t solely promote heart-healthy fats, but allows for all types of fat, including foods high in saturated fat, like bacon and butter.”

If the keto diet is something you’d be interested in trying, choosing your fats wisely can help keep this diet as heart healthy, and weight reducing, as possible. Opt for foods such as:

On the other hand, there are foods you need to avoid while following the keto diet, and it’s not just carbs. These can include but are not entirely limited to:

  • Sugary foods – soda, juice, cake, ice cream, etc.
  • Grains or starches – rice, pasta, cereal, etc.
  • Root vegetables – potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc.
  • Fruit – except small portions of berries
  • Beans or legumes – peas, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.
  • Low-fat or diet products
  • Unhealthy fats – mayonnaise, processed vegetable oils, lard, etc.
  • Alcohol – except for a few pure liquors such as vodka, whiskey or tequila

No article about the keto diet would be complete without talking about the notorious “keto flu” that many people experience almost instantly after starting the diet. The keto flu includes fatigue, reduced mental function, increased hunger, insomnia, nausea, digestive discomfort, diarrhea and decreased exercise performance, but usually subsides within a few days. This “flu” is your body’s reaction to the complete drop in carbs. To minimize side effects, you can try a regular low-carb diet for a few weeks then transition fully to the keto diet.

A ketogenic diet can also change the water and mineral balance of your body, so it’s important to stay hydrated and add some extra salt to your meals to keep your electrolytes in balance. Supplementing with potassium and magnesium supplements can help keep your body balanced as well.

Bearden warns that despite its popularity, the initial weight loss that occurs is usually attributable to water, because our bodies retain fluid in order to store carbohydrates for energy use. This is also why she doesn’t recommend the diet long-term. If you’re an athlete or weekend warrior, Bearden also suggests staying away from the keto diet since carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source for high-intensity exercise. But if you’re still intrigued by it and its mass following of supporters, talking to your physician first can help highlight any possible risks that may be unique to you and your health.

Need more guidance? The dietitians at Texas Health Sports Medicine and Texas Health meet with athletes and individuals of all ages and activity levels to help them maximize their health and/or athletic performance through proper nutrition. Visit TexasHealth.org/Sports-Medicine or TexasHealth.org to learn more about the nutrition services available at a Texas Health facility near you and to schedule an individualized nutrition consult.

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