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Hey guys! I’ve been sharing a bunch of keto recipes around here for the past several months, and I’ve shared my own journey to health while following a keto diet. But I realized I’ve never done a formal post outlining the very basics of the ketogenic diet to help anyone who wants to know what this diet is all about. So here’s my keto 101 lesson.
Before I begin, let me start with a disclaimer. I am not a medical professional. I cannot make medical recommendations to you. I can only pass on information I have gathered and share my own story. Please do your own research and speak to a medical professional before making a drastic change to your diet. I also cannot make any guarantee as to your personal success if you were to try this diet. Thank you for understanding.
Keto 101: What Is It?
In the simplest terms, a ketogenic diet is a diet that is:
- very low in carbs (20 grams of carbs per day)
- has a moderate amount of protein
- high in fat
This is what you generally want your “macros” to look like. “Macros” is short for “macronutrients,” which are your three basic food types: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
So there you have it. That’s the ketogenic diet.
Ok, ok. So you’re probably wondering…
Why eat this way? Isn’t fat bad? Isn’t a calorie a calorie?
It’s All About Insulin
The reason the ketogenic diet works is because of how insulin works. So let’s talk insulin for a bit.
What is Insulin?
Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas that is released in response to eating. It takes glucose from your blood and pushes it into your cells to be stored as fat for later use. Insulin is a fat storing hormone. This is a good thing, as elevated blood glucose levels are not good. When insulin levels rise, fat is stored. When they fall, fat is released. This is a system designed to make your body function well. In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin, which causes high levels of glucose to stay in the blood stream and it’s very dangerous. Insulin is important and necessary, which is why type 1 diabetics must take insulin to survive.
However, high levels of insulin are also dangerous. Your body is designed to have insulin levels rise and fall as you go through periods of eating and not eating. This provides balance in your insulin levels and everything works well. The problem comes when our way of eating disrupts this natural balance.
How Insulin Works
Insulin levels rise every time you eat, but they rise in greatest proportion to the amount of carbohydrates you eat. There are simple and complex carbohydrates, but in the end they are all broken down to glucose. So even high levels of complex carbohydrates will cause you to have lots of glucose in your blood, which leads to lots of insulin being released to deal with it. Protein also raises insulin levels, and protein eaten in excess is turned to glucose in our bodies. The only macronutrient that doesn’t raise our blood glucose levels at all is fat.
Back in the 1970’s, the advice started to be that we needed to eliminate fat from our diets to protect against heart disease. Of course, when one macronutrient is lowered, something has to take its place. Protein is self-limiting for the most part, so the extra calories were primarily made up of carbohydrates. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is one of high carbs. As we covered, high carbs = high blood glucose, and high blood glucose = high insulin levels.
Remember, insulin is a fat-storing hormone. So higher insulin = more fat storage.
The other problem with eating a low fat diet is that fat is much more satiating that carbohydrates, so you get hungry much sooner on a low fat diet. Which causes there to be recommendations that you eat multiple snacks between meals. This just keeps your insulin levels from ever being able to really drop and allow your body the balance it needs. In other words: If your insulin levels remain high, you will always stay in fat storage mode.
When we eat high carbs and also eat every couple of hours, we end up with a lot of glucose and a lot of insulin floating around in our bodies. The insulin stuffs our cells full of glucose to get it out of our blood stream. But we never allow the glucose or insulin levels to go down in order to use any of that stored glucose. We’re eating too much of it and then eating so often our bodies just have to keep shoving glucose into our cells. Until our cells become too full and won’t hold any more glucose. Then what?
Then we have glucose that stays in our blood stream. And our bodies create more and more insulin to try to get the glucose into our cells. But our cells can’t respond well to insulin anymore, we’ve become insulin resistant. So then our levels of blood glucose AND insulin get higher and higher. And eventually this becomes type 2 diabetes.
Everyone knows type 2 diabetes is bad. But did you know you can be in the early stages of insulin resistance for years before you get diagnosed with type 2 diabetes? It’s true. But the longer you have insulin resistance, the worse it becomes and the more insulin you have floating around in your body. And that puts you at greater risk for all kinds of nasty things.
Excess insulin leads not only to insulin resistance, but also insulin toxicity. Excess insulin is toxic. It puts you at a greater risk for atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, to name a few. Excess insulin is the reason why type 2 diabetics who keep their blood glucose under control are still at an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and even blindness because our medical system doesn’t treat the excess insulin. And sometimes they treat type 2 diabetes by giving more insulin, which is absurd. If excess insulin is the cause of the problem, giving more insulin is not going to help. The American Diabetes Association considers type 2 diabetes a progressive disease that will just continue to get worse and worse until it kills you. Because they only treat the symptom of elevated blood glucose rather than the cause, which is insulin resistance.
How Does the Ketogenic Diet Help?
Ok, so now we’ve covered the problem, which is insulin resistance. We’ve talked about how the SAD diet is actually the cause of insulin resistance. Now let’s talk about how the ketogenic diet fixes it.
Here’s an example of how your blood glucose levels might look if you eat a SAD diet. You eat low fat, high carb, and you snack several times during the day. Your blood glucose (and in turn, your insulin) spikes every time you eat, and at no point during the day do you let it fall low enough that your body gets out of fat storage mode.
Here is what your blood glucose (and in turn, insulin) levels might look like if you eat a ketogenic diet. Most of your calories are coming from fat, and fat is the only macronutrient that has no effect on blood glucose. So you’re never seeing high spikes. And because fat keeps you full for longer, you don’t need to snack. When you have a lot of time between meals, your insulin levels can dip down even more. When your insulin levels start low and stay low, you’re not in fat storage mode. And you’re eating a very small number of carbohydrates, so the amount of glucose in your system is very small. So instead of burning glucose for fuel, you become a fat burning machine.
When glucose supplies are low, your body breaks down fat into ketones, which is another energy source your body can use for fuel. This is why this diet is called a “ketogenic” diet– because it’s a diet that makes your body create and use ketones. When you are burning ketones for fuel, you are in ketosis.
Ketosis Vs. Ketoacidosis
Ketosis and ketoacidosis are two very different things. Ketosis is a natural state for your body that doesn’t cause it any harm. Ketoacidosis occurs primarily in type 1 diabetics who are not taking adequate insulin, but can also happen with certain medications for type 2 diabetes, and very very rarely if eating a ketogenic diet while breastfeeding. (Pregnant and breastfeeding women should be cautious when eating a ketogenic diet, and may need to modify the diet to be safe. Please always consult a doctor before major diet changes.)
The Benefits of A Ketogenic Diet
So now you know how and why a ketogenic diet works, but what results can you expect from following this diet?
- Weight Loss
- Stable Blood Sugar and Insulin Levels
- Decreased Hunger
- Increased Mental Focus
- More Energy
- Increased Physical Performance
- Calmer Stomach
Most people experience those, and many others have even more results like normalized blood pressure, decreased PCOS symptoms, clearer skin, fewer migraines, mood stability, less anxiety, fewer cravings, less pain, and less heartburn.
I have personally seen many of these benefits, and I can feel it if I’ve had too many carbs. This diet has changed my life for the better in so many ways. You can read more about my story here.
What Can You Eat?
On a keto diet, you can eat lots of delicious foods. Meat, fish, cheese, butter, cream, above-the-ground vegetables, nuts, berries (in moderation), dark chocolate– just to name a few.
But there are things you need to avoid. Things that are generally not allowed on a keto diet (because of their high carbohydrate nature) are grains of all kinds, beans, below-the-ground vegetables, most fruit, and sugar (including natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup.)
I know this paradigm might feel totally wrong because of what we’ve been told about nutrition for so long. And when you hear conflicting things it’s easy to tune out. But the big difference in this way of eating is that I feel drastically different eating this way. Drastically better. And it doesn’t take that long to find out. Commit to eating this way for two weeks and you’ll feel the difference, too.
I did my best to explain the ketogenic diet in a simple way, but there is a lot more science behind it so if you’re wanted to dig in a little more, here are some great resources.
Ketosis explained– for weight loss, health or performance
A New Paradigm of Insulin Resistance
Insulin resistance protects against…insulin!
Insulin Toxicity and Modern Diseases