In the world of diets, the ketogenic diet has been hidden until recently. Now everyone thinks it’s the coolest kid on the block. But many prominent health experts are claiming that a ketogenic diet is harmful and unnecessarily restrictive. So which is it? Here’s my take on it.
What is a ketogenic diet?
Put simply, keto is a low-carb, high-fat eating pattern. Usually, protein is kept at a moderate level, as high protein can throw you out of ketosis.
To start off, most people will track their carb intake. The measurement to watch is net carbs, which is total carbs minus the fibre content. Different variations will have different carb recommendations, but usually it is less than 50g net carbs per day. Some of us prefer to aim for 30g net carbs per day.
What are the benefits of a ketogenic diet?
Why on earth would you subject yourself to this? Well, what we’re trying to do is switch the body’s primary energy system. When we eat carbs, we use glucose as our major fuel source. But when those are depleted, the body is forced to create another form of energy. So the body creates a different energy source called ‘ketones’. The state of producing ketones as the primary energy source is called ketosis.
The benefits that people experience during ketosis can include:
- Weight loss
- Steady energy levels
- Fewer food cravings
- Increased concentration
- Reduced appetite/ability to go hours without getting too hungry
- Balanced blood sugars
Can a ketogenic diet be healthy?
Yes! There are plenty of healthy foods that can be consumed on a ketogenic diet. If you follow a keto diet that is varied and based mostly on wholefoods, you’re more likely to see benefits.
A healthy ketogenic diet will have consist of foods like:
- Fish and seafood
- Other whole protein sources such as meat, poultry and eggs
- Low carbohydrate vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini and spinach
- Small amounts of moderate carbohydrate vegetables such as carrot
- Low carbohydrate fruits like berries
- Nuts and seeds
- Healthy oils such as avocado and olive oil
- Moderate servings of dairy products such as cheese and cream if tolerated
Can a ketogenic diet be unhealthy?
Absolutely. Like any food regime, you can go about it the wrong way. Unfortunately, when people start a keto diet, they focus too much on treating themselves to high-fat foods and forget the rest of their nutrient needs! We need to consume plenty of plant foods for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions.
An unhealthy ketogenic diet might contain:
- Artificial sweeteners
- Large doses of natural sweeteners such as stevia
- Daily low-carb ‘treats’ that are highly processed
- Minimal fresh produce
- Insufficient protein and fibre for a healthy body
If this is what your diet looks like, there’s no need to panic. Just focus on using your carbohydrate limit on fruit, veg, nuts and seeds instead of treat foods.
Who should follow a ketogenic diet?
Well, no one ‘should’ follow any diet unless they choose to. But there are a few groups of people who are more likely to experience benefits. They include:
- People with any kind of insulin resistance or family history of insulin resistance. So if you have a family history of type 2 diabetes, or your family would brawl over a bag of lollies or a packet of chips (like mine!), this might be you.
- People who could benefit from increasing GABA levels. GABA is a neurotransmitter in the brain which is associated with a lot of mental health conditions. This is why I first started using keto during winter – to balance my GABA and reduce my seasonal affective disorder.
- People with neurological disorders such as epilepsy
- People who have had issues balancing their blood lipids and cholesterol on a typical ‘healthy’ diet
Keto is also commonly used as a weight-loss tool. It can help many people with losing weight, but it needs to be balanced to avoid any nasty side effects.
Who should think twice?
As you (hopefully) know by now, I’m a massive advocate for personalising diets. For every person that keto works for, there is another person who will suffer on it. Here are some groups that might want to reconsider using keto:
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. If you are already following keto, you should be ok. But it’s not the time to try a new diet approach, especially as there is no evidence to support it as safe at this point in time.
- People who experience hypoglycaemia. This can be exacerbated in vulnerable people who follow keto.
- People who don’t have spare weight to lose. If you’re looking to use keto as a therapeutic tool and have a low body weight, make sure you work with a nutritionist to prevent unwanted weight loss.
Tips to optimise your ketogenic diet
If anyone knows how to make the most of keto, it’s a nutritionist who has done it! So here are my top tips for getting keto right.
- Be prepared for ‘keto flu’. This is a feeling of fatigue and general unwellness that can occur for the first couple of weeks of a ketogenic diet. To minimise the symptoms, make sure you’re getting plenty of electrolytes like sodium – salted bone broth is a great tonic during this time.
- Track your food using an app like MyFitnessPal for at least a couple of months. This way, you don’t have to do the math in your head before you order!
- Have a serve of fruit and/or veg at every meal. This is where most of your carb allowance should be spent if you want to stay healthy.
- Stay well hydrated. When you take out carbohydrates, you consume less water through your food. So up your water intake to make up the difference.
- Keep it balanced. An occasional low-carb treat doesn’t hurt (I highly recommend Noshu donuts!), but you won’t be very healthy if you live off daily treats.
- Eat enough food! After the initial phase, you should feel full after each meal. Keto is not meant to be severely calorie restrictive, so don’t cut yourself down to 1200 cal – you’ll just sabotage your efforts.
- If you’re still struggling after the first few week, seek professional help. A nutritionist with experience in ketosis can help you pinpoint if your diet is out of balance, or if keto just isn’t for you.