For a variety of reasons, the ketogenic diet has gained a large amount of popularity in recent years. From Dr. Perlmutter’s best-selling Grain Brain, to Bulletproof Coffee, to the emergence of the bodybuilding community widely using ketogenic diets to help attain very low levels of body fat before physique competitions, the diet’s visibility has never been higher.
That being said, there are many misconceptions about this approach to eating, and many questions for which even scientific experts still do not have all the answers.
What Is It?
The ketogenic diet is quite simply the opposite of everything you’ve been told about nutrition (by “official” sources, at least). High in saturated fat, basically devoid of carbohydrates, and limitless in bacon, the ketogenic diet defies conventional wisdom. But interestingly, the ketogenic diet has shown many interesting scientific benefits, especially neurologically. Researchers have found that the ketogenic diet can provide disease-modifying effects in a large range of neurodegenerative disorders. This includes Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Those who have had brain injuries or strokes have also seen some benefits from adopting this approach to eating.
But what exactly is the ketogenic diet? To answer that question, we need to cover the basics of what a regular, standard American diet consists of. High in carbohydrates, the traditional Western diet provides lots of glucose, which your body uses as its go-to source of fuel. This type of approach to eating is high in carbohydrates, low to moderate in protein, and fairly low in fat. The ketogenic diet, in essence, flips this approach on its head.
By removing most (if not all) sources of glucose, the ketogenic approach teaches your body to run more effectively on fatty acids. The ketogenic diet is characterized by elevated circulating levels of the ketone bodies acetoacetate, β-hydroxybutyrate and acetone. These are produced largely by the liver. What is interesting is that the brain and some other tissues may run more efficiently on these sources, when compared to glucose. Many who undertake this style of eating report that they experience clearer thinking, more even moods, and better focus.
While the research is still underway, it is interesting that many with traumatic brain injuries or neurodegenerative diseases report improvements when they start following this diet. This, at least anecdotally, backs up the premise that cells (specifically your mitochondria) may prefer ketone bodies as opposed to glucose. The fact that the ketogenic approach was originally developed for those suffering from epilepsy should also be noted.
How To Do It
So if you are ready to try this approach, there are a few things you’ll want to consider before starting. The first thing being – it is a pretty big departure from what you are used to. You will be eating a large amount of meat and fat, and very little else. While this may seem easy at first, think about social situations, food shopping, and variety in your diet. The ketogenic diet is definitely not optimal for any of the aforementioned three things.
Secondly, it is important that you work with a qualified professional if looking to adopt this diet. There are many, many things which can go wrong with this approach, throwing your body into a very bad state as a result. Micronutrient deficiencies are one issue that is commonly cited, as well as trying to over-exercise and burning oneself out. It must be understood that endurance activities or glycogen-demanding exercise must be removed from one’s routine if you’re truly looking to utilize the ketogenic approach.
That being said, if you’re ready to begin (and remember to enlist the help of a qualified professional as you go) you’ll want to load up on a few items. The first being butter. Lots of butter. High-quality, grass-fed butter. The second would be coconut oil. Again, get the highest quality you can afford. If you are even more serious about the ketogenic approach, you’ll want to get some MCT oil, which has been shown to be even better for the ketogenic approach than coconut oil. After that, you’ll likely want to get some bacon and grass-fed beef.
Next in your shopping cart would be heavy cream and some green veggies (go for kale, spinach or broccoli, nothing too starchy). And that’s pretty much it! If this diet seems a little constricting and somewhat bland – you’re not entirely wrong. Since this approach was originally developed for those with epilepsy (typically those who were also in treatment centers) it isn’t the most imaginative of diets. That said, plenty of options exist for including more variety in this approach; you just have to seek them out.
Next, the adaptation period here is pretty steep. Depending on how many carbohydrates you were eating previously, and how many carbohydrates you drastically cut, you may not feel very energetic or happy for quite a few days. Depending on your profession and schedule – this could be bad news. So plan accordingly, and realize that a more realistic approach would be to moderately and slowly reduce your carbohydrate intake over a period of days or weeks. Ideally, you’ll want to be consuming between 30-80 total grams of carbohydrates per day. This can vary from person to person, so buying some Ketostix is one way to self-monitor what level of ketosis you may be in.
As we talked about earlier in this piece, there are numerous benefits to adopting the ketogenic diet. The best may be neurological effects, but there are also lots of reports of weight loss. This is why this diet has become popular within the bodybuilding community. By keeping your protein intake fairly high (but not too high, as you may go out of ketosis) you will also spare your muscles, meaning you will lose just fat – the holy grail of every diet.
Despite the positive benefits associated with the ketogenic diet, there are also numerous downsides which need to be discussed. For starters, it is fairly hard to stick to this approach for the long term. Because of the limited amount of foods which can be consumed, the lack of glucose and the social pressures of the world around us, compliance is much more difficult here than with any other diet.
Another big downside is the lack of endurance or glycogen-demanding workouts one can participate in. If adopting this approach, one should basically walk, lift heavy weights, and sleep. This can again be very limiting when attempting to be social or participate in group activities like being on a sports team. Depending on your stress level at your job and other lifestyle factors, you may feel low on energy compared with consuming even a moderate level of carbohydrates.
Another problem associated with the ketogenic diet is yo-yo dieting. Because sugar is so omnipresent in society, and because we have a predilection to consuming it, it can be very difficult to abstain from it completely. And when ketogenic dieters get a little taste, they tend to have a tough time not binging on the stuff completely. This gives credence to the fact that it may be better to go for a more moderate level of carbohydrate intake, occasionally dipping into ketosis, via intermittent fasting.
Then, there is the lack of available, reliable, long-term data on what kind of effect this approach to eating has on our body. It may not be so great to be pounding our bodies with saturated fat, all day, every day. Certainly, a Paleo approach, which is lower in saturated fat, seems much safer for the long term. That is not to say that the ketogenic diet could end up being totally safe; it just means that the jury (and scientific data) is still out on this particular point.
The Bottom Line
I hope I have provided an in-depth guide for you on exactly what the ketogenic diet is about, how to implement it and what pitfalls you’ll want to expect and avoid. As the scientific community rapidly gains more knowledge around nutrition, it’s interesting to see what data comes out. Ten or twenty years from now, we may find that the ketogenic diet is the optimal way to eat – we simply do not have all the data yet.
Conversely, we may find that this approach is less than ideal for most people. More than any other diet, the ketogenic blueprint is very individualistic, meaning that some may find it works great, while others feel dismal. You really won’t know if this approach is right for you until you try it for yourself. So if you are interested, make sure you enlist the help of a qualified professional, and get to work buying lots of butter and grass-fed meat!