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I started this year off with a bang by diving headfirst into the keto diet in order to get my weight under control, feel more energetic, and feel better in general. Some of you may have heard of the Keto Diet and it seems like it is one of those fad diets that may not last long, but the premise has actually been around for a very long time.
I actually tried this diet for a few months last year with great success. I lost about 20 lbs. in a three-month period. But life happened and I went back to my old ways thus stalling the weight loss. I didn’t gain it all back, though, so that’s a plus.
Since starting the diet again on January 1, I have lost 9 lbs. in a few weeks. Once I got past the dreaded “carb flu”, which I will speak more about further down, my energy and mental clarity skyrocketed. And, believe me, it was awful before. I suffer from an autoimmune condition so energy and mental clarity are nonexistent most days. The weight loss will eventually settle into a moderate pace, but the other effects should continue as long I stick to the diet.
What Is a Ketogenic Diet?
The Keto Diet is a high fat, moderate protein, extremely low carb diet. When starting out, it was quite hard to reconcile to the fact that I had to eat more fat than anything else. It ran, and still occasionally does run, counterintuitive to everything we have been taught about nutrition and health.
What this diet essentially does is train your body, which normally runs on glucose, to run on fat. We get our glucose stores from carbohydrates, therefore if we greatly reduce our carb intake and there is no glucose to use, our body must choose something else from which to get its energy. In this case, the body’s second choice is fat. This type of diet starts a process in your body known as ketosis.
However, you must be careful to keep an eye on your carb intake. If you eat too many carbs and there is enough glucose for your body to run on, then you will be kicked out of ketosis and all the fat you just consumed will be stored, instead of used, leading weight gain.
What is Ketosis?
Ketosis is the process by which your body runs on fat and produces ketones, a type of acid, that show up in your blood and can be used by your muscles and other tissues. This process is usually started by low carb diets like Keto, Atkins, and Paleo or by fasting.
Knowing when you are in ketosis can help you know if your macronutrients, or macros (fat, protein, carbs), ratio is working or if you need to adjust. One of the cheapest ways to test yourself is through the use of ketone test strips. They work by testing your urine for the presence of ketones and change from a light color (indicating a low number of ketones) to a dark color (indicating a high number of ketones).
However, this method of testing seems to be only mildly reliable and tends to be the most reliable in the first few weeks of being on the diet. There are a few other ways to test including a blood meter or breathalyzer, but these can be considerably more expensive and may not be worth it unless you have a medical condition that requires you to monitor your ketones.
Ketosis is not to be confused with ketoacidosis which is can be dangerous. As mentioned above, ketosis occurs when the body starts running on fat as opposed to glucose. Ketoacidosis occurs when the body is producing too high a level of ketones. This can be a complication of type 1 diabetes and can also occur when one is not eating enough.
What are Macros? What should your macros be for the keto diet?
Macros, short for macronutrients, refer to the grams of fat, protein, and carbohydrates you consume. For the Keto Diet, a standard macro ration would be as follows:
First, your fat intake should consume the majority of your calories preferably between 75% and 80%. Your body will be using fat as its primary fuel source so, therefore, you need to make sure you have plenty for your body to function. Further, a high fat, low carb diet has been proven to show great satiety leading to lower consumption of food which furthers weight loss efforts.
Secondly, protein is also important but should still be consumed in a much lower quantity than fat. Protein should take up about 15% to 25% of your daily caloric goal. However, the best way to find out how much protein you need is to use a keto calculator. There are people out there that believe that eating too much protein can kick you out of ketosis because the excess protein turns to sugar in your blood. However, there are a few sites out there I have seen, like this one, that debunk this line of though.
Lastly, they all agree that counting your carbs is the most important step when on the Keto Diet. While the amount of carbs that works the best for each person varies, it is mostly agreed upon that you must stay under 50 total carbs a day to reach ketosis. Further, it is mostly agreed upon that you need to stay under 20 net carbs a day to reach ketosis faster and, for some, this is the ideal amount and going higher could throw them out of ketosis.
Depending on your needs, activity levels, etc., you may need to adjust your intake to somewhere in between. I refer you back to the keto calculator to determine what your macros should be. It will ask you if you know your body fat percentage. If you aren’t sure, you can use the Navy Body Fat Calculator.
Total Carbs vs. Net Carbs
I mentioned above that you must stay under 50 total carbs or 20 net carbs a day, but I am sure you are wondering what the difference between total and net is. If you look at a nutritional label in the United States, you will notice that fiber is included in the carbohydrate section. Fiber, for the most part, is not absorbed by the body and, therefore, has no impact on our actual carbohydrate levels. Using the carb total on the nutritional label would be part of counting your total carbs. However, if you want to count your net carbs, then you would deduct fiber.
For example, broccoli has about 6 carbs per cup but has about 4 grams of fiber. Therefore, broccoli has a net carb total of 2. A lot of people don’t feel like counting that strictly which is why they will start with 50 total carbs a day because, most likely, they will automatically be consuming about 20 grams of fiber making their net carbs for the day around 30.
Those who want to be stricter and get into ketosis faster will count their net carbs and follow the rule of staying under 20 net carbs a day.
Just remember: Net Carbs = Total Carbs – Fiber
Types of Ketogenic Diets
While you will find a standard way of doing keto, there are some variations to be aware of. Everyone is different and you have to find what works for you. First, you need to understand there is a difference between the standard Keto Diet which has been used by doctors for people with neurological conditions, like epilepsy, and the keto diet that people are using to lose weight which we refer to as nutritional keto.
Therapeutic keto is the standard keto diet. Carbs stay low and fat stays high. It has been shown to be beneficial to several health conditions but, especially, in those with neurological conditions. Some other health conditions that have been helped by the keto diet include diabetes, metabolic syndrome, PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), MS (multiple sclerosis), and some cancers.
Nutritional keto is just about the same with one big difference. Your fat macro is adjusted to account for your body weight. By that, I mean, if your suggested fat macro is 100 grams, then you will reduce this to a lower amount, like, say, 80 grams, and let your body fat provide the other 20 grams it needs to function. You don’t want to go overboard reducing your fat macro as it is the fat in your diet that keeps you satiated and keeps the cravings at bay. But you do want to reduce it a little bit in order to use the fat on your body. Another part of nutritional keto is keeping to a calorie goal as well. While you use the fat on your body to supplement your fat macro, it is being in a calorie deficit that will provide for weight loss.
Nutritional keto is what I am doing and I will say that it is the only diet that has worked for me with my autoimmune condition.
Two Ways to Do The Keto Diet
Besides the 2 different types of keto, there are some differences in how people do this diet: clean keto and dirty keto.
This is strict keto. You stick to the approved foods list and tend to cook all your food at home.
With this version, you allow yourself to basically eat anything as long as it fits your macros. For example, clean keto says stay away from sugar while dirty keto says you can have some sugar, say, in your coffee, as long as you have the carbs available. People doing dirty keto also let themselves eat fast food if it fits their macros.
I have seen people who have succeeded on both so it really depends on what works for you. I, personally, tend to be halfway in between. I try to stay more strict and cook a lot at home, especially during the week, but I occasionally let myself have a teaspoon of sugar in some hot tea or, if things get hectic, I will find something quick to eat out. But I try not to go over my macros without some serious planning.
Potential Health Benefits
- Weight Loss
- Reduced Appetite and cravings
- Increased Energy
- Better focus, memory, cognition, and clarity
- Reduced anxiety and depression
- Improves Acne
- Lower inflammation
- Better sleep
- May Reduce Risk of Certain Cancers
- Protection against type 2 diabetes
- May Improve Heart Health
- Reduction in Triglycerides
- Increased levels of Good HDL Cholesterol
- Reduced Blood Sugar and Insulin Levels
- May lower blood pressure
- May Protect Brain Function
- Potentially Reduces Seizures
- Improves PCOS Symptoms
- Effective against metabolic syndrome
- Increased fertility and hormone stabilization
Potential Risks and Complications
- Kidney Stones
- Excess Protein in the Blood
- Mineral and Vitamin Deficiencies
- A Build Up of Fat in the Liver
The Keto Diet and Autoimmune Disease
I want to touch on this, specifically, since this is something that is close to me. I have suffered for years from an autoimmune condition. I went to every doctor imaginable and no one could pinpoint the problem. It always seems like a thyroid issue but my levels were in the “normal” range. However, what is “normal” for one person isn’t necessarily “normal” for another. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the line of thinking in the medical community.
I had the fortune to work for a holistic doctor for about year and, during that time, he allowed me to run my own blood tests. My antibodies have always been slightly high and this time was no different. He took one look and told me I have Hashimoto’s. I knew it was thyroid related! I finally had an explanation for my lack of energy, weight gain, and the myriad of other issues I was suffering from.
Out of all the things I have tried to lose the weight and manage my symptoms (as a doctor will not give me anything for it), reducing my carb intake is the only thing that has helped and keto, specifically, is the only diet that has allowed me to lose weight.
The keto diet can be a key ingredient to helping you manage the symptoms of autoimmune disease as it helps to lower inflammation which is responsible for a lot of the brain fog, anxiety, gastrointestinal flare-ups, fatigue that you experience. It may not cure you and you might still have occasional bad days but you will feel much better.
Just a word of advice, though, I am not a doctor. If you have an autoimmune issue, especially one that involves the thyroid, talk to your doctor and do some research. There is some research out there that says that a keto diet can put stress on your adrenals and decrease your thyroid function. So, tread carefully and, if you attempt this diet, don’t let the hope of weight loss blind you to the things your body is telling you. It will let you know if something is not right.
Who Should Not Do a Ketogenic Diet?
- People with diabetes or are insulin-dependent
- People who have eating disorders
- Those with kidney disease or pancreatitis
- Women during pregnancy and breastfeeding
How do you start a keto diet?
When you first start a keto diet, your main task is to figure out what you can and can’t eat. Then you must decide when to start. Some people find success going cold turkey on carbs and starting immediately while others need to go through an adjustment period and slowly cut their carbs down. If you are the latter, I recommend trying to reduce your carb intake to 100 grams (if your original amount is higher) and then reducing it to 50 grams a two weeks later. If you were already on a lower carb amount then start with the 50 and reduce to the 20 net carbs.
What Can You Eat on a Keto Diet?
A simple way to look at the keto diet is to choose one protein, one low-carb vegetable, and one fat and that makes up a meal. But most of us aren’t that simple and we get bored easily. So, here is a list of what you can eat. Remember, anything outside of this list may be ok, if you are doing dirty keto, as long as it fits your macros. Be aware, though, that just because a teaspoon of sugar may fit your macros doesn’t mean it will help you. I have found that some carbs can trigger major cravings that are hard to ignore and can cause you to binge more. When first starting out, it is probably best to avoid all carbs except what is on the approved foods list. Later, you can play a little (a very little) and see if you can handle small amounts here and there.
What Can You Not Eat on a the Keto Diet?
There are some foods you will want to avoid especially if you are being strict. Anything with a high carb count like sugar, grains, and fruit will hurt your efforts especially if your cravings are easily triggered. Here is a list of what to avoid while following a keto way of eating.
Tips for Eating Out
If you choose to eat out, my biggest piece of advice is to do some research beforehand. Most restaurants have nutrition information listed on their websites. Take a look at it and pick a meal that fits your macros. Planning ahead takes 90% out of the battle of eating out. The other 10% is sticking to it and not being tempted.
If a restaurant does not have nutrition info listed, and picking another restaurant is out of the question, then try to follow the list of approved foods. Steak is usually a safe option unless they marinate and smother it in something. And steamed veggies with a little butter are usually a good side. Or opt for a salad but stick with a little oil and vinegar as a dressing or get a little ranch on the side. In-house ranch dressings can sometimes have as much as 5-6 carbs per 2 oz. so be careful with this.
My last tip is to track high to account for unknowns. If you estimate that your meal has 10 carbs, put in 15 or 20. For this reason, I wouldn’t eat out too often without knowing the nutrition information. And I would limit the carbs I eat in my other meals that day.
One of the side effects of starting the Keto Diet is a condition known as the “carb flu” or “keto flu”. As you come down off of carbs and your body start transitioning to running on flat, a few things can happen. You may experience headaches, fatigue, brain fog, and irritability. Some even experience some nausea. This typically lasts for a few days, although, some have reported it as having lasted a few weeks. For me, personally, it lasted about 3 days and then I was amazed when I woke up one morning and felt fantastic.
Adding salt and electrolytes can help with the symptoms. There are some great resources out there for how to battle and lessen some of the symptoms of the “carb flu”. You can read one I found particularly useful here.
How long does it take to see results?
A lot of people tout keto as a way to lose weight fast. The truth is…it is and it isn’t. When you first start, you may see a significant weight loss the first week or two. However, the majority of that is going to be water weight. To see the number on the scale go down is encouraging and may keep you going but you must keep in mind that you may not see the scale go down that much every time. You can expect to lose 1-2 lbs. a week, maybe a bit more, depending on how much you have to lose. I have had weeks I lost only a pound and weeks that I lost a little over 3 lbs.
I think the reason people see this as a diet you can lose weight fast on is because it works. A lot of us, for various reasons, struggle to lose weight on other diets and this one seems to work, fairly effortlessly, making it easier for us to lose 10 pounds in month. However, if you are expecting to lose 20 pounds in one month you are in for disappointment. Very few people have that kind of weight loss on this diet and the ones that do had a significant amount of weight to lose to begin with. Keep your expectations realistic. It took time to put on the weight and it will take time for it to come off.
As a last point, I would recommend you take measurements, as well. Muscle weighs more than fat so you could be losing fat while gaining muscle especially if you exercise. Many people have had weeks where the scale didn’t budge but they lost inches. And, really, isn’t that the goal? To look good and feel healthy? It doesn’t matter what the scale says if you feel great in your body.
Facebook Support Groups
If you are looking for some support, there are a couple of Facebook groups that I have found to be very helpful.
Take all advice with a grain of salt, though.
The Keto Diet is Great, but It’s Different for Everyone
Everyone is different. What works for one person may not work for another. I, personally, have found I can have a carb-heavy meal every few weeks and it doesn’t affect my weight loss. But I have spoken to others that can’t cheat in any way or it throws them off for weeks or months.
And, it may not be the diet for you. Just because it works for others doesn’t mean it is sustainable for you. My husband can’t go that low in carbs without feeling completely off. He sticks to more of a lowish carb diet and that works for him. Just know that your perfect combination is out there. It just takes some experimentation. Don’t give up.
Somewhat Hard but Worth It
This diet can be hard for some people. For me, I think the hardest part has been not adding sugar to my coffee and tea (except a very rare once in a while). 1 tsp of sugar has 4 carbs. If I only get 20 net carbs a day, I can’t afford to waste them on sugar. The great thing about the Keto Diet, though, is that eventually these cravings disappear. I’m just starting to reach that point now and, believe me, eventually you will like your coffee with just a little cream. Surprising, I know.
Also, those first few days when the “carb flu” hit, I was questioning whether I could do it. I felt so tired, like walking through quicksand, I couldn’t think straight, and I was quite irritable. I warned my husband it could happen beforehand so, fortunately, he was prepared and dealt with it admirably. But, once it passed…oh my gosh, the energy! It has been amazing. I have spent the last 10 years in a fog with very low energy due to my autoimmune condition and, while I still have lower energy days, they are not nearly as bad. I feel great!
In the future, it may be harder to stick with at times but another good thing about this diet is that once your body learns to run on fat, you become fat adapted. Once this happens, you can easily jump in and out of ketosis which means allowing yourself to take a break once and a while and, perhaps, eat more carbs than you would otherwise. You should still be careful, though, not to trigger cravings by indulging too much.