“Keto” is the big buzzword in the health and wellness sector at the moment, and for good reason. But what is the keto diet and why would you want to go on it?
The “keto diet” is all the rage right now, with everyone from celebrities to health gurus touting the benefits of this strict eating regime. Essentially, it’s a low-carb diet that forces your body to use fat instead of glucose for energy; but unlike other popular diets like Atkins or Dukan, the keto diet requires high fat and moderate protein intakes.
The diet has been around for a while but has mostly been limited to medical uses. Now though, its myriad health benefits have made it mainstream with people using it to lose weight, improve their physical performance and manage their health.
What is “Keto”
Keto refers to ketosis, a metabolic state where the body burns fat instead of carbohydrates (read: sugars) for energy. When in ketosis, the body breaks fat down into small molecules called ketones which are used as an energy source when blood sugar (glucose) is in short supply.
To get your body into ketosis, you need to restrict the amount of glucose in your body. This means going on the “keto” diet. Think of this as an alternative eating plan rather than the kind of calorie-restricting diet that’s more common. While on the keto diet, you’ll need to slash your carb intake and limit your proteins; instead you’ll be eating lots of fat.
But don’t think this is an excuse to pig out on “fatty” food like fried chicken and processed meats. This is a diet, after all. Your aim is to up your intake of “healthy” fats – the ones referred to as unsaturated – while still restricting “unhealthy” saturated and trans fats (those are the ones that’ll clog your arteries and give you heart disease).
The Benefits of Keto
The keto diet has actually been around since the 1950s when doctors initially began prescribing it to control seizures in epileptic patients. These days, though, the diet has found favour with health fiends, weight-loss fanatics and the wellness community at large.
That’s because if you do it right, the keto diet can have some great benefits to your health. Studies have shown that low-carb diets – like keto – have been useful in improving health markers, especially those related to heart disease (a significant issue for men, especially). Many dieters report improved HDL (good cholesterol) and triglycerides levels, as well as lower blood pressure, insulin and blood sugar.
Drop That Weight
The obvious benefit – and, let’s be honest, the reason most people jump on the bandwagon – is weight loss. By restricting your body’s supply of glucose, you trick it into going into ketosis and force it to burn fat for survival. In optimal ketosis, your body will be an efficient fat-burning machine and – because most of us have a decent store of fat – this will reduce the gnaw of hunger pangs. You’ll feel like your appetite is reduced, meaning you won’t eat nearly as much as you normally would.
Since the keto diet controls blood sugar levels (and by extension, insulin levels), it’s been found useful for managing – and even reversing – type 2 diabetes. If you can combine this with intermittent fasting – another popular diet and weight control strategy – you’ll supercharge the effects of keto, which will kick your weight loss into high gear and speed up efforts to reverse type 2 diabetes.
Even if you’re not worried about your weight and health, the keto diet could be useful. In optimal ketosis, the steady flow of ketones to the brain results in improved focus and mental clarity. For some, the ketogenic diet can also improve physical endurance and performance because your fat stores – potentially – have enough ketones to keep you going for weeks. And we never say no to improved performance.
What to Eat
So what can you eat on the keto diet? Ideally, your meals will be built around good fats, vegetables and modest amounts of protein. Think cream (not milk) in your coffee, melted butter or olive oil over your veggies, and plenty of cheese and avocado.
Meats, fish, and eggs will be your saving grace on this diet, so indulge, but carefully. After all, this is not a high-protein diet, so you’ll need to limit yourself to about 1.5 grams of protein per kg of body weight, per day. For example, if you weigh 70 kilos, you’ll want about 100g of protein each day.
Vegetables are great so yes, you may find yourself eating a lot of salads. Go crazy on spinach, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus…any veggie that grows above the ground is fair game. Just remember to top it with butter, olive oil, cheese or seeds to increase the fat content.
What NOT to Eat
Obviously, the most important part of the keto diet is to restrict carbohydrates. For most people, this means limiting yourself to just 20 grams of carbs a day – some people can get away with more, but this requires a little trial and error to figure out. It’s a tough ask, but entirely doable. You’ll be bidding a bitter farewell to bread, pasta rice, candies, sodas and everything that even smells of sugar or starch. But there are plenty of other foods that are secret carb-bombs, so you’ll need to watch for those.
Fruit has a surprising amount of sugar – yes it’s natural, but it still can be enough to kick you out of ketosis – so stay clear (the occasional berry indulgence might be permitted if you’ve been good). Dairy is another hidden sugar source, so milk should be strictly verboten – if you must, use heavy cream or almond milk in your coffee. Even supposedly “healthy” yogurts have significant amounts of sugar, so you probably won’t be eating that, either.
Unfortunately, your drinks are going to be pretty boring on keto, and there’s not much wiggle room here. Your best friend will be water (which you’ll need more of anyway – more on this later), but you’ll also learn to love bulletproof coffee and black tea. Alcohol has tons of sugar so it’s also strictly limited on the keto diet. If you absolutely must drink, opt for Champagne or a dry white wine – both of which have about 3g of carbs per serving – and make sure you budget for this in your daily carb allowance.
Check Your State
Even if you think you’re following the keto diet right, it’s important to be sure that you’re actually in ketosis if you want to get all the benefits. For most people, the first sign will be a dry mouth and constant thirst – you’ll need to drink plenty of water, and possibly up your salt intake to keep your electrolytes in check. And yes, you will feel the urge to take a leak more than a few times a day to get rid of all that extra water.
Many people also experience “keto breath”. In ketosis, the body produces acetone, which can escape through your breath (or sweat). It’s been described as fruity, or sometimes, similar to nail polish remover. It’s usually temporary, so just keep plenty of breath mints handy while you ride it out.
If you really want to ensure you’re in ketosis though, the easiest thing to do is measure your body’s ketone levels. You can do this easily by using over-the-counter urine strips from the pharmacy, breathalysers (Amazon stocks these) and blood ketone meters (similar to at-home insulin tests, and just as expensive).
With the keto diet, you’re changing your body at a molecular level. That’s a big process, so you can expect to have some side effects. What these effects are – and their severity – varies from person to person. You may get lucky and experience only the mildest symptoms; or you may end up suffering (though it’s only temporary, so harden up, princess).
Most people experience some type of keto flu. As your body adjusts to using ketones instead of glucose for fuel, it can rebel a little. Usually, this starts two to five days after you begin the diet and includes issues like headaches, tiredness, and muscle fatigue. A lot of people find rebalancing their electrolytes help, so try drinking some broth or spiking your water with salt.
Some people experience more extreme side effects like constipation, heart palpitations, and muscle cramping, though again, these should go away pretty quickly – if they don’t, you’ll need to see a doctor quick-smart.
Unfortunately, after a little while on the keto diet, you’ll probably also find that your alcohol tolerance isn’t what it used to be. Sorry, there’s not really any way of getting around this one.
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