What is Keto?
Keto has been around for nearly a century. Keto was used for epilepsy dating as far back as the early 1920s but more recently the diet gained popularity as a weight loss diet. Keto is much more.
Three years ago I started studying the ketogenic diet for sports performance before switching over to researching the diet for therapeutic uses. Since then, I have seen an entire keto industry built and it has grown very quickly.
This comes with pros and cons. The pros are that this diet, which I truly believe is one of the keys to health and longevity, is now more accessible to more people. There are plenty of people educating about the diet and plenty of products made to support the diet. The con is that it’s hard to sift through the information and products and find which are right. Those that are actually supported by real science.
The purpose of this article is to break down what keto actually is and touch on some of the science along the way.
Why do you need to know the science? You don’t. But I find that when you have a better understanding of how this diet impacts your body, you will see greater short and long term success!
If you want to skip all of this and just start keto, that’s fine too. Enter your email below and I’ll send you all of the info you need to get started. Yes, I am collecting your email address and I take that very seriously. You have my word that I will only send you emails that you will find extremely valuable! If you disagree, you can unsubscribe at any point. I’m confident you wont.
If you want to keep learning, keep reading.
What is Keto?
The keto or ketogenic diet is a higher fat, protein and very low-carbohydrate diet. Instead of eating bread, pasta, and fruit; you eat meat, vegetables, nuts, eggs, some dairy, and a little low sugar fruit. Stick with me to understand why.
Low carb diets are becoming more popular as research continues to show that chronic high carbohydrate consumption is harmful to health.
Keto is a low-carb diet. But it’s different from other low-carb diets like Paleo and Atkins in how low carb it actually is. On a ketogenic diet, carbohydrate intake is so low that it transitions the body into a metabolic state called ketosis.
Ketosis is a scary word because most people, including doctors, mistake it with diabetic ketoacidosis. We are talking about something entirely different. Ketosis that occurs on a keto diet, also known as nutritional ketosis, is completely safe. Diabetic ketoacidosis or DKA is a much different and dangerous state that occurs in diabetics. They are not the same. One is completely safe, the other is dangerous. Learn more about the difference here.
Nutritional ketosis (which I am just going to refer to as just ketosis from here on) occurs when carb or calorie intake is very low. This causes low blood sugar, low insulin, more fat burning and ketone production and usage.
That’s a lot. Let’s break this down a little more.
There are 3 primary nutrients that make up the food you eat: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Yes, there are other very important micronutrients but these are the 3 primary compounds. These nutrients are also known as macronutrients.
Protein is used to help build things in the body. Fat and carbs, amongst other things, are the main energy sources from our food. Your whole body is made up of cells and they need energy to carry out functions like me writing this article or you sitting there reading it. Fat and carbs are the macronutrients from food that provide your cells with this energy.
This means the food you eat determines your body’s primary energy source. When you eat a diet containing carbohydrates, your primary energy source is glucose, which comes from the digestion of carbohydrates. When you don’t eat carbs, your body relies on a completely different source of energy. Fat and ketones. We will get to the ketones in a second.
Remember, keto is a higher fat diet. Fat from your diet can provide most of your cells with the energy they need without carbs. Even better is that your stored body fat can do the same. In fact, on a ketogenic diet, stored body fat becomes a primary energy source!
However, fat cannot provide energy to all of the cells in your body, most importantly brain cells. To make up for this, your liver takes stored body fat and uses it to make a new energy molecule called ketone bodies or ketones.
Ketones are released from the liver into the bloodstream and can travel to any cell in the body to be used for energy, but primary they are used by the brain. When this happens, you are said to be in ketosis and boy can you feel it!
When you are in ketosis you will notice more energy, a sharper brain, better mood, and without a doubt fat loss! Those are not the only benefits of keto but before we dive into more, let’s talk about why you should consider keto in the first place. Yes, you can use fat and ketones for energy instead of carbs, but does that mean you should? You’re question may be, “why is this important?”
Why is Keto Important?
Are you following a Standard American Diet? That is a diet consisting of burgers, french fries, pancakes, fried chicken, sandwiches, potatoes, etc. We also call this the SAD diet. Fitting right?
Or maybe you’re eating a “healthier diet” consisting of fruit, sweet potatoes, and rice.
Yes the latter is better than the former but regardless, these are both high carb diets. This means that your body’s primary fuel source is carbohydrates or to be more specific, glucose.
When you consume carbohydrates they are broken down into a simple sugar known as glucose, causing an increase in blood sugar. This increase stimulates your pancreas to secrete insulin. Insulin is a hormone that talks to your cells and tells them to open the door to let glucose in to be used for energy.
The issue with glucose being your primary energy source is that you have to rely on eating carbs to fuel your body. Chronic carb consumption and having constant elevated levels of insulin and blood glucose can lead to a lot of health issues, in particular, insulin resistance and inflammation.
Insulin resistance occurs when cells are overstimulated by insulin. Insulin loses its ability to talk to cells and let glucose in for energy. Now glucose from the carbs you are eating can’t get in the cell. Cells are starving for energy despite still having high blood sugar. So your body makes more insulin. This only makes the problem worse.
Besides insulin resistance causing weight gain, low energy, hunger, and poor mood, it also causes chronic inflammation.
Both insulin resistance and inflammation are primary contributors to the most common chronic diseases we are facing today (more on that in a second). They are also a huge cause of obesity or just plain being out of shape and not feeling well.
Carbohydrates are not necessarily bad. We just consume too many of them, especially processed carbohydrates, for too long and this causes insulin resistance.
Regardless, it appears that having carbohydrates as your primary energy source long term, is not ideal for optimal health.
The purpose of a ketogenic diet is to provide a different energy source. When you don’t eat carbs, like on a ketogenic diet, the body is very smart and is turns on ketogenesis or the production of ketones.
Continue not eating carbs and next thing you know you will be in ketosis. All of your energy demands will be met by fat and ketones and you will be feeling incredible!
Now let’s dive into the health benefits of keto.
Keto Diet Benefits
What most people don’t realize is that keto was first discovered as a treatment for epilepsy.
Brief history lesson. In the early 1900s, fasting was used for limiting seizures in children who had epilepsy resistant to medication. Ketosis, which also occurs when you you fast, was the reason why.
In the 1920s, doctors discovered that replacing carbohydrates with fat was able to mimic fasting. In other words, removing carbs also led to ketosis. Born was the ketogenic diet (1).
This was a monumental finding since asking children to not eat is an unsustainable treatment method. The keto diet allowed children to still manage their epilepsy symptoms while also getting to eat (2).
While keto is still used to treat some epilepsy patients today, the rise of better anti-seizure medication prevented keto from getting more popular since taking a pill is easier than following a diet. Sigh.
More recently keto has resurfaced because of how easy weight loss is on the diet. This has led to a boom in keto research that has uncovered a lot of other benefits of keto. Here is a quick list of the most popular benefits.
Better brain function
Plus much more. Just talk to anyone who has tried AND stuck to keto for longer than just a couple weeks. The reported benefits will impress you.
Why so many benefits? Remember, keto targets insulin resistance and inflammation. When your body is struggling with insulin resistance and inflammation, it is not healthy and not able to function correctly. On keto, your body is functioning in a much “cleaner” metabolic landscape. You will feel it.
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If you want to keep learning, keep reading.
Who is Keto Good For?
To be frank, keto is good for just about everyone. Especially those who have been eating a diet rich in carbohydrates for a long time.
If you feel like your energy is zapped, your mood sucks, your joints hurt, you have a foggy brain, these are all signs that a ketogenic diet is great for you. It will lead to better overall quality of life. Eating keto can also just improve overall health, another reason why it’s good for just about everyone.
Keto is also good for a couple specific situations, like people looking for:
Being in a state of ketosis means prime fat burning mode. Remember how we talked about ketosis causing low blood sugar and insulin? This signals the body to turn on fat burning.
Losing fat is not the most important thing when it comes to weight loss. Preserving muscle is also a key to health.
On most weight loss diets, preserving muscle while the body is losing fat is hard. Luckily, ketones can help preserve muscle (3) allowing keto to be a unique fat loss, muscle preserving diet.
If you want to learn more about keto and weight loss, check out this article.
Research from Dr. Jeff Volek from Ohio State University (he’s on my Mount Rushmore of keto scientists) has found that keto is the best diet for endurance athletes. Even elite ultra-endurance athletes (4).
The reason is pretty simple. When your body is in ketosis, it can tap into stored fat. This is a much larger energy sourced compared to the carbs you can eat or the little bit of carbs you can store as glycogen.
To put it simply, keto gives your body a bigger energy tank which is great for endurance exercise (5).
However, many people doubt that you can gain strength on keto. This is because most studies looking at keto and strength are too short. As we will get into soon, it takes a little time for your body to adjust to keto. This causes short term decreases in exercise performance, especially strength.
However, if you look at long term studies, you will see that you can maintain and improve strength on keto (7).
This makes keto good for athletes or just anyone who wants to feel and perform better while exercising.
Improve Brain Function
Ketones are the preferred fuel source for the brain. In fact, ketones are made for the brain. Remember, the brain can’t use fat. If we aren’t eating carbohydrates then our liver has to produce ketones to meet the crazy high energy demand of the brain.
As ketone levels in the blood rise, the brain prefers to switch to using ketones instead of glucose(7). This is due to the fact that ketones not only provide more energy to the brain, but they are also a cleaner source of energy meaning they don’t cause inflammation.
This more and better better energy from ketones will lead to noticeable improvements like:
Research has also found that ketosis is beneficial for those suffering from conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia (8). This is reason to think that keto is great for preventing these diseases as well.
Remember, keto targets insulin resistance and inflammation, two of the biggest contributors to our most common chronic diseases.
Since keto can target those factors, we are seeing more research coming out on how the diet can help prevent or manage symptoms of popular diseases like:
Certain Digestive Disorders
Research is also showing promise on keto for autism, multiple sclerosis, ALS, migraines, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, and many more. While some of these areas of interest have not been studied as in depth, we are hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence that is making a strong case for continued research.
To summarize, keto is great for anyone who wants to lose weight, improve quality of life, or just get healthy. It’s also great for certain diseases and may even help prevent some of those diseases. This is why I follow keto. This is why a lot of people follow keto.
We’ve talked a lot about what keto is. But we haven’t talked about what it really is or what foods you eat on a keto diet.
What Do I Eat on Keto?
Remember, keto is a low carb diet. But it is not the same as other low carb diets. Compared to Paleo, keto is much lower carbs. Compared to Atkins, keto encourages more fat intake.
The biggest difference between keto and other low carb diets is the presence of ketones in the blood, or ketosis. For ketosis to occur, carb intake must be low. That means not eating bread, pasta, grains, potatoes, and yes even most fruit. Instead it means eating a variety of:
Leafy green vegetables
Nuts and other vegetables
Some low sugar fruits
Maybe some dairy
We talked about macros earlier. Macros make up the foods you eat, and no doubt they play an important role in any diet, especially a ketogenic diet. Let’s dive into what the macros on a keto diet look like.
Carbohydrates: Carbs are not essential. Your body can produce all of the sugar it needs naturally and does not need dietary carbs for this. I believe it is safe to consume a 0-carb diet, like carnivore. But you don’t have to go 0-carb, you just need to make sure carbs are at most, a very small portion of your total calories. If you do have carbs it should come from vegetables, and should not come from foods like bread, pasta, fruit, or other sugars.
Interestingly, you can actually get all the nutrients you need from consuming high quality meat and organ meat, removing the need for vegetables. But that is a conversation for another time. Let’s keep going.
Fat: Fat has been misunderstood for decades. Fat has been mistaken as being bad for us. The reality is that fat consumed without carbohydrates is safe and actually very healthy. Fat provides energy and nutrients needed to carry out important body functions like hormone production and even generate new cells. On keto, it is good to get a mix of different types of fat including omega-3 and MCTs.
Protein: Protein has been a confusing topic when it comes to keto. Many people believe protein needs to be limited on keto. Unless for certain therapeutic reasons, I disagree. I think it is more important to make sure you are eating enough protein. Especially since studies have shown low protein on keto can lead to muscle loss (9). Be sure to get enough protein from a variety of sources like red meat, eggs, and fish.
If you hear that high protein should be feared because of gluconeogenesis or that protein will turn into sugar if you have too much, know that is not correct. Learn more about that here.
There is no one-size-fits all macronutrient recommendations for keto. Most websites and resources will recommend 70% of your total calories coming from fat, 25% from protein, and 5% from carbs. However, these recommendations stem from epilepsy treatment, a completely different goal.
The optimal macronutrient ratio will vary slightly from person to person based on goals and other health parameters like insulin sensitivity, current body composition, gender, and activity level.
If you are ready to figure out how to get rolling with the ketogenic diet, scroll to the bottom of this page and sign up!
If your next question is, “Is Keto Safe?”, keep reading.
Is Keto Safe?
The safety of keto is put into question primarily because of two reasons:
People confuse nutritional ketosis with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA)
People think fat is bad
As we discussed earlier, there is a huge difference between nutritional ketosis and diabetic ketoacidosis or DKA. When in nutritional ketosis, we see a controlled rise in blood ketones and low insulin and blood glucose levels. This is completely healthy and safe. DKA, which occurs in diabetics, is characterized by an uncontrolled dangerous rise in ketones with high blood glucose and insulin levels, a recipe for disaster. They are not the same thing. Not a concern.
Besides DKA, we have been programmed to believe that fat is bad for us. As stated earlier, fat isn’t the problem alone. A high fat AND high carb diet is the problem. The body loves to take the path of least resistance and it is easier for the body to burn carbs for fuel because it has been trained to do so. This means when we consume fat and carbs together, the fat we eat is more likely to be stored than used for energy. Removing the carbs fixes this problem!
In addition, much of our fear of fat has come from poorly conducted and manipulated research dating back as far as the 1950s that still shapes our society today. To learn more about this and the war on fat, be sure to check out the book: The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz.
The truth is that keto is not only safe but extremely healthy for the majority of people. There are certain conditions such as pyruvate carboxylase deficiency, porphyria, and other fat metabolism disorders that keto may not be recommended for. Additionally, other potential concerns for keto dieting that have not been well researched are pancreatitis, impaired liver function, gallbladder disease, gastric bypass surgery, and kidney failure.
The verdict is also not out on women who are pregnant or nursing. While it seems like the diet should be safe for these women, and has been reported as being safe and effective anecdotally, we need more research.
Finally, if you are taking medication for conditions like heart disease or diabetes, you will want to check with a doctor (one that knows keto) to see if keto is right for you and to make sure that your medications are being adjusted accordingly.
If you are interested in learning more about the safety of keto, check out my article Is Keto Safe?
This article was pretty long. If you made it this far, I think you are more well prepared to start keto. Having a fundamental understanding of what is going on in your body is powerful. Don’t forget it.
If you are ready to start a keto diet, sign up below. As I stated earlier, yes I am asking for your email and I will be taking that very seriously. Let me give you the resources you need to take control of your health through a ketogenic diet!