A quick rundown of the ketogenic diet

Photo via Getty Images/a_namenko

A quick rundown of the ketogenic diet

Food

A quick rundown of the ketogenic diet

Keto, keto, keto! It seems like no matter where you turn these days, the trendy diet is a topic of conversation. This friend is starting a keto diet. That cousin has the keto flu. Charlie from the marketing department is counting his macros. What the heck does any of this even mean? Before you can decide if the keto diet is right for you, you’ve got to learn the lingo. Here’s what you need to know:

What is the ketogenic diet?

For starters, keto is short for ketogenic diet. It’s a fancy way of saying low carbohydrate, or low carb/high fat (LCHF) diet. On a keto diet, breads are bad, fats are fine, and strictly monitored amounts of protein are a part of each meal.

OK, but why are people on this diet?

The core science behind keto revolves around glucose – sugar in one of its simplest forms. When presented with glucose, your body is hardwired to focus its digestive capabilities on converting that sugar into energy. Critically, this means that other forms of potential energy – namely fat – are left untouched within your body. By avoiding carbs (and therefor simple sugars) almost entirely, keto aficionados manipulate their bodies into finding energy a few rungs down on their genetic wish lists instead. Thus, the body’s fat reserves are digested and converted into energy instead of stored on your midsection, thighs or other problem areas.

That genetic process of fat-burning manipulation is called ketosis, and it is essentially the goal of the whole experience. Ketosis is basically an entirely different operating system that your body gear-shifts into when food is sparse. During this alternate metabolic state, your body’s fat reserves are plundered and sent to the liver for digestion. As the liver breaks fat down, unique digestive molecules called ketones are produced, which are in turn burned off as energy.

Ketosis under normal circumstances is triggered by the stark absence of food in its entirety. But I keep using the word manipulated because it turns out that our brains are savvier than our bodies. Ketosis can be triggered without abstaining from food entirely by simply depriving the body of those simple glucose molecules, even as fats are still being ingested. That means it is possible to induce a fat-burning metabolic state by simply cutting out carbs, even as you’re chomping down on eggs and bacon.

That sounds kind of sketchy. Are there any side effects?

When your body is in ketosis, man oh man will you ever know it. For starters, you’ll stink. The byproducts of fat digestion, as it turns out, smell pretty awful compared to glucose burning. Your breath – ranging from rotting fruit to nail polish remover – will be the first giveaway, as acetone is produced in your mouth during ketosis. It will also be dry as sand. But why should your mouth get all the attention? New keto converts, brace yourself for the chemical scent of acetoacetate – another ketosis byproduct – in your urine. The transition from normal glucose-heavy digestion to ketosis can be so severe on the body that it triggers withdrawal symptoms akin to the flu in some people.

Keto dieting can also involve periods of fasting (basically skipping a meal) and starving (abstaining from food for more than 48 hours), and being mindful of blood glucose and insulin levels. Amateur keto dieters can potentially slip into ketoacidosis, a metabolic state much more severe than ketosis, in which life-threatening levels of blood acids and sugars are produced at rates in which natural insulin production cannot counter.

But the side effects aren’t all gnarly. You’ll also purportedly experience a surge in energy and a greatly depleted appetite. In addition to weight loss and maintenance, ketogenic diets have been proven to prevent seizures in children, as well as provide neuroprotective benefits. Harvard University Medical School suggests that keto may prevent or effectively treat neurological disorders ranging from Alzheimer’s and autism to brain cancer, though they cite a lack of clinical studies on the subject to date.

Note, however, that there’s no correlation between keto’s ability to help you lose weight and any sort of scientific confirmation of its benefit to your actual health (weight loss and health are not always related). And that should definitely give you pause before you upend your life by cutting out whole grains to accommodate endless fat consumption. Keto sounds kind of crazy when you think about it in those base terms, and only time will tell if the diet manages to stick around as a legitimate, empirically-based health movement or fades into the graveyard of trendy diets past.    

Anything else I need to know?

If your mind is made up about moving forward with a keto diet, brace yourself for some math. The process of keeping careful track of your nutritional intake to thereby induce ketosis is called “counting macros” in keto-speak. Counting macros is less about the breakdown of various vitamins and minerals necessary for a healthy diet, and instead focuses on the big three: carbohydrates, fats and protein. Individual foods each possess an inherent macro score. Carbs are 100% anti-ketogenic, as their very presence in the stomach prevents ketosis from occurring. Fats are scored 90% ketogenic, due to the small amount of glucose liberated into the body during digestion.

Various proteins, however, can range anywhere between 40% and 60% ketogenic, and inversely anti-ketogenic as well. With individual proteins varying by as much as 20%, counting macros is a critical part of maintaining the balance necessary for triggering the ketogenic metabolic state.

As with any diet this extreme, you should always check in with your doctor or nutritionist before making a full conversion. And lest you believe that a high fat diet (helloooooo bacon!) is going to be a breeze to stick to, social media and Reddit are littered with tales of how challenging the struggle can truly be.

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