Diets, like clothes, should be tailored to you.
In 2018, the ketogenic diet, colloquially known as “keto”, was the third most searched diet in the UK, according to Google Trends. In America, it was the fourth result, but, considering the first one was the TV show Shark Tank, I would say it still counts as a bronze medal among nutritional strategies.
In a similar vein to my previous post on the vegetarian diet, this article aims to offer a basic understanding of the ketogenic diet and to bust some myths, covering:
Where does the keto diet come from?
In the early 1920s, Russell Wilder came up with the ketogenic diet as a treatment for epilepsy in children. When other, more effective treatments were developed, the keto diet disappeared for a while.
More recently, research has demonstrated that keto can be an effective fat loss method (click, click). Furthermore, it is currently undergoing more studies as a potential addition to strategies to treat and prevent certain conditions, like diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, to name a few.
As of late, this type of diet experienced an explosion in popularity and was awarded the prestigious title of Diet of the Year by Shape in 2018. I joke, but keto sure isn’t pulling its punches, so let’s try to understand it a little bit more.
What happens if you go keto?
A ketogenic diet typically comprises high fat, moderate protein, and low carbohydrate.
Carbohydrate is the body’s preferred fuel source. After ingestion, carbs are broken down into glucose and sent through the bloodstream to tissues that require immediate energy.
The glucose that isn’t used up for this purpose is stored as glycogen, either in the liver or in the muscles. When our glycogen stores are full, the remaining glucose – if any – is converted to body fat.
This phenomenon usually occurs in a caloric surplus, often in the absence of an amount of physical activity that would justify such a high carbohydrate consumption for fuel and recovery.
If we restrict our carbohydrate intake as required for a ketogenic diet, the body starts chipping away at its glycogen stores to replace the energy previously coming from external carbohydrate sources.
Once glycogen stores are also depleted, the body resorts to a process called gluconeogenesis, which produces glucose in the liver from lactic acid, glycerol, and two amino acids, glutamine and alanine.
In a prolonged state of carbohydrate depletion, gluconeogenesis can’t keep up with the body’s demand for fuel, therefore the body starts relying more and more on an alternative source of energy to glucose: ketone bodies.
These are synthesised from fatty acids through a process known as ketogenesis. The brain could not run successfully on fatty acids unless this conversion occurred.
To be clear, we are always producing ketone bodies. When our carbohydrate supply is too low to fuel our daily activities, we simply need to make more of them to replace glucose.
Finally, when the number of ketone bodies is much higher than the average associated with a normal carbohydrate intake, it’s possible to enter a state called nutritional ketosis, which takes a few days to occur and will be sustained as long as carbohydrate consumption is low.
What can you eat on keto?
The majority of your daily calories should come from sources of dietary fat, primarily monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which also include the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. In other words, foods like avocado, nuts, olive oil, vegetable oils, and fatty fish should be preferred over options that are higher in saturated fat, although these can also be consumed in moderation.
Protein should also be kept moderate to high. Increased protein has been proven to be beneficial for general health, the ageing process, and athletic endeavours. Moreover, in the context of fat loss, maintaining a high consumption will help preserve muscle mass.
Lastly, the level of carbohydrate restriction necessary to achieve ketosis will depend on individual factors. For example, those who train frequently and for extended periods of time might be able to eat more carbs, clustering them around their training session, and achieve this metabolic state regardless.
However, this might not apply to the general population, who do not engage in such high levels of physical activity. Therefore, to elicit ketosis in the average individual, the most effective way would be to avoid all carbohydrate sources, except for vegetables and perhaps low-carb varieties of fruit.
Should you try a keto diet?
A common misconception is that, if you want to be a True Keto Dieter™, you must never touch a piece of bread again, or else Doom will be upon you.
This black-or-white approach does not only make a ketogenic diet an unnecessarily stressful endeavour. It also shifts the focus away from the true goal: to find a way of eating that suits you and yields the desired outcome, not to be a Master of Ketosis.
The truth is, you might find a low-carb diet beneficial and easier to stick to even in the absence of ketosis, or you might feel your best when you go super low-carb, and it isn’t a huge source of stress. The key is experimenting with small changes until you find what clicks for you.
So, if you gravitate towards dietary fat more than towards carbs, and you want to give low-carb eating a go, you could try to reduce your carbohydrate gradually to a point that is still sustainable in the context of your lifestyle.
Bear in mind any highly restrictive diet protocol should be approached with the help of a registered dietician. If keeping up with the diet becomes too difficult, then it would be better to consult with an appropriate health professional or to find a different nutritional strategy that still yields the desired results, but constitutes a better fit for your circumstances.
In Future Episodes:
Next week, Fitness Q&As Part 2 is coming to you! The topics covered will include volume and hypertrophy, how to choose exercises for your program, the effectiveness of BCAAs, and more.
Ever you ever considered keto as a viable way of eating for you?
An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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