The Keto diet has seen a huge rise in popularity recently, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Today, we’re going to bust through all that misinformation and provide you with a definitive beginner’s guide to the Keto diet. This will include:
- What it is
- How to do it
- When it’s beneficial
- When it’s a bad idea, and
- How to get the most from it.
All buckled in? Great. Let’s get moving.
What is the Keto diet?
The Keto diet is a low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diet that aims to improve your efficiency at burning fat for fuel rather than carbohydrates. By restricting carbs, this diet aims to reduce your reliance on them as a fuel source and increase your ability to use existing body fat and dietary fats as your priority fuel source. Making this transition can sometimes take a while, but it’s definitely possible and can make significant differences to your body and weight-loss results.
Where did the Keto diet come from?
The Keto diet is the latest in a long line of diets that focus on carbohydrate restriction. There’s almost a tradition of these diets throughout the English-speaking world, with Atkins being the seminal approach to carb-restricted dieting.
There are some significant differences between Keto and Atkins, however, and the way the ways in which they differ are very important. The Keto diet can almost be looked at as an “updated” approach, as it incorporates scientific advances that have occurred in nutrition since the Atkins diet was first suggested back in the 1960s.
One of the reasons Keto has become so popular is the state of our nutritional health. We consume too many refined carbohydrates as a society, and as a result, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases have become some of the greatest modern killers. Keto, paleo, and intermittent fasting diets have all become popular in response to these problems.
Keto is arguably the most popular of these diets and has the greatest, most-unique benefits – which is why we’re discussing it at length.
Keto, carbs and metabolism: what is ketosis?
Ketosis is the state your body enters when it is carb-depleted. When in ketosis, the body starts relying on fats for energy. Due to our high-carb diets in the English-speaking world, we tend to be very poor at metabolizing fats for energy.
The Keto diet attempts to address this by reducing overall carb intake and forcing the body to “Keto-adapt.” This is the process of getting more efficient at using fats, and it occurs gradually over a period of time that averages somewhere around 3 months. However, it is important to note that there are two types of ketosis:
- Exercise-induced Ketosis: the short-term carb depletion version of ketosis that can occur during and after exercise
- Dietary ketosis: long-term reliance on fats as a fuel source due to a consistent lack of dietary carbohydrates
These are both important. The former will happen to us all at some point, while the latter will usually only occur with an intentional diet strategy. Let’s take a quick look at each of these two types of ketosis.
Exercise-induced ketosis: Keto to boost endurance-fuel
Keto-adaptation is key to battling exercise-induced ketosis and the associated drop in performance that usually accompanies it.
If you’re very efficient at using fats for energy, then exercise-induced ketosis likely won’t be a problem. In fact, it’s the entire point of the Keto diet! Your body stores dozens – if not hundreds – of thousands of calories as fat. Relying on these stores during endurance exercise is one of the main reasons for using a Keto diet.
Dietary ketosis: health goals for Keto diets
Dietary ketosis – the basis for the ketogenic diet – comes with a few other changes.
One of these is insulin sensitivity. Due to the reduced intake of carbohydrates, the body’s insulin response to food is reduced, and the release of sugar into the blood is usually far more regular. With a diet that is primarily made up of protein, fats, and fiber, digestive transit and absorption becomes slower. This is crucial for those who are monitoring blood sugar for medical reasons.
This is another reason why we’ve seen a spike in the popularity of the keto diet: carb restriction is popular for dealing with the risks and symptoms of type 2 diabetes.
Benefits of a keto diet: who and when is it the best choice?
The keto diet offers several benefits to those who make use of it. Here’s a look at a few of them.
This is, arguably, the main benefit of a keto diet. During extended bouts of endurance exercise, you’ll become severely carb-depleted. While one option is to fight this by consuming carbs during exercise, it’s actually not a problem if you’re sufficiently keto-adapted. Glycogen depletion is only a real concern for performance if you’re not good at metabolizing fat.
Keto adaptation is a great way to improve body fat mobilization for energy in endurance athletes. This is a good way to boost your calorie reserves for endurance exercise, improve endurance, and increase overall fitness by improving weak areas.
Females are built for LCHF diets, as they’re typically less effective at metabolizing carbs, more effective at burning fat for energy, and more effective during endurance exercise. This indicates that females will benefit massively from a diet that capitalizes on the effective use of fat.
Although the keto diet is not necessarily beneficial for boosting strength or power, women in endurance sports or who train primarily with cardio will be perfectly-suited to a keto diet. The more endurance you do during ketosis, the more body fat you’ll be able to metabolize. This is how it indirectly improves weight and fat loss.
Behavioral improvements: keto can improve dietary quality
Keto is also great for improving habits as well as health. To start with, the keto diet is often associated with an increase in dietary quality. This is because it cuts out common pitfalls like sugary junk foods. The focus on lean meats, nuts, seeds, and fibrous vegetables is a proxy for better dietary health all by itself.
Second, the removal of carbs – and thus sugars – from the typical diet can reduce the psychological dependence and frustrating cravings we all feel when dieting. Abstinence from refined carbohydrates is a great way to get over cravings and build better long-term dietary habits.
Insulin resistance and blood sugar control
As we’ve already mentioned, ketogenic diets are great at breaking through existing carbohydrate problems and dealing with insulin resistance.
The ketogenic diet also decreases insulin release when eating and softens the overall glycemic load on the body. While you can still overeat on the keto diet (a calorie is a calorie, yeah?), you’re still likely to have a lower impact on your blood sugar and avoid diabetes risk specifically.
This one is very interesting: keto diets actually become more and more beneficial to our bodies as we age.
The capacity for converting carbohydrates into energy – and thus using them in crucial areas like the brain – decreases with age. However, ketone use doesn’t seem to drop off nearly as quickly. This is one of the reasons why the Mediterranean diet is so effective with older populations, and it’s a great reason to tend toward an LCHF diet as you age.
If you can slowly reduce carbohydrate intake over time, resulting in a dependence on dietary proteins, fats, and fibrous plant foods, you’ll set yourself up for a healthier overall aging process. This applies specifically to degenerative brain disease like Alzheimer’s, which has been associated with poor glucose energy in the brain.
The choice of a low-carb or high-carb diet has very little bearing on your body’s ability to lose weight. The suggestion that it’s easier to lose weight with is often one of its selling points, but the reality is that they’re pretty comparable. In fact, some studies have shown a non-significant benefit to high-carb diets for weight loss.
The net number of calories your body retains (“eaten” minus “used”) is the key determining factor for weight loss – keto has very little effect on this for most people. Rather, keto is a way of controlling eating behaviors and reducing calorie intake in a way that doesn’t feel awful and boosting endurance.
As mentioned above, there are ways that keto can indirectly improve weight and fat loss through increasing endurance performance.
The keto diet may well benefit your focus, but there’s a lot of poor-quality literature out there discussing these benefits. Many times, there’s a greater correlation with proper dietary regularity and nutrient intake more than with keto specifically.
The use of ketones for brain-energy is not a huge change for the body because it’s mediated by glycogen production anyway. You’re still providing the brain with glycogen energy, and ketones don’t supercharge your brain. Improving your diet is great for mental focus, as is controlling any spikes in blood sugar, but you’re not going to add 50 points to your IQ or boost productivity solely because you adhere to the keto diet.
If you’re trying to deal with your blood lipids – cholesterol and triglyceride levels that are often associated with heart and artery health – keto is not a magic bullet. It has shown some positive benefits in studies on these effects, but the adherence rate over time was actually lower. Meaning that those who didn’t see improvements often dropped out (which can confuse study results).
This is a claim we often see associated with keto, but it is not specific to this diet. There are many other diets that use the same mechanisms – increased dietary quality and body fat reduction – that are great for reducing cholesterol levels and improving heart health.
If you’re on a diet that is reducing excess body fat, increasing the quality of your fat intake, and providing plenty of nutrients, you’ll improve your heart health. Nice and simple. However, these benefits also apply to “mixed” diets and other low-carb-non-keto diets – which outperform keto and Atkins diets for blood lipids and heart health in some studies.
This is still a great benefit of a keto diet, but it’s roughly equivalent to the benefits seen in other diets when we control for nutrient-quality, the balance of ingested macros (protein, carbs, and fats), and the specific fats your body uses as fuel while on a keto diet.
Myths about the keto diet
While the keto diet comes with some fantastic benefits, it also comes with a lot of hype and misunderstandings. Dispelling these myths is just as important as enumerating the benefits. You don’t need to exaggerate the benefits of a ketogenic diet: it has plenty of legitimate ones that are worth paying attention to.