There is a mountain of cultural buzz surround all things Keto. Since the Atkin’s Diet craze of the early 00s, the term “low carb” has been a household phrase. More recently with the Paleo Diet popularity, there has been a resurgence of the love and appreciation of the health benefits of saturated fats including butter, coconut oil and animal fats. But a mystery (and for some, anxiety) continues to cloud the ideal way to use the keto diet for weight loss. Even attaching the suffix “diet” to a term implies that its sole purpose is to shed as many pounds as possible and the same stigma has occurred with this high fat / low carb approach to nutrition, causing a massive schism in the health and fitness industry about carbohydrates. Okay, are carbs evil or not?
In an attempt to clarify this mystery of the effectiveness of Keto, I want to bring as unbiased as possible of an exploration of the subject strictly in the frame of fat loss. For now, I will lay aside the numerous therapeutic benefits of becoming fat-adapted, including decreased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and autoimmune conditions, because I feel that deserves its own separate discussion, one which does not necessarily affect the subject of fat loss.
When discussing any approach to nutrition, it is important to note that every individual is different, both physiologically and emotionally, and that we may as well address the point that some people just don’t enjoy eating high fat/low carb diets, just as some people don’t gravitate towards low fat/high carb foods. So if you find yourself in the former category, the idea of eating Keto may terrify you or stress you out. I may as well mention that I, as your humble author, identify in the fat-loving group and currently adhere to a Ketogenic lifestyle myself, however I have experienced success with fat loss in a variety of strategies, the success due mainly to my dedication and consistency to the process.
If you are content with your nutrition habits and your body composition, then we can end the conversation right here because the enjoyment of your daily habits is a huge factor in diet adherence and success in your health pursuits. Eating Keto is certainly not the only way to reach your physique goals, and it is most-definitely not a quick-fix. Oops, there I said it and sorry to burst your bubble. In my experience, the primary reason people turn against the Keto Diet is because they came to it believing it was a magic cure to their lifelong struggle with weight only to find out that, as with any nutrition protocol, it took lots of hard work in order to achieve success. So if you are reading this now and find yourself disappointed because you were hoping to read about a magic weight loss solution, I would recommend taking a good hard look at why you expect to achieve amazing results without putting in amazingly hard work.
Now that we have sorted that out, let’s dive into the ways in which a Ketogenic lifestyle can work for you... and work well.
Intermittent Fasting refers to when you split your day into a period of fed and a period of fasted. Different variations of this can look like a 16:8 fasted:fed window, 20:4 or even OMAD or “One Meal A Day.” In my opinion, this is where Keto truly shines. By Intermittent fasting, not only are you freeing yourself from the hassle of needing to eat every few hours or needing to snack on carbs during a long workout, but you are going through periods of time where your body can really get into burning fat stores for energy once all of your food has been metabolized.
An amazing benefit of being in Ketosis is that you don’t experience hunger as readily as when on a carb-based diet. Due to the steady supply of ketones for energy versus the ups and downs that happen to your blood sugar when insulin spikes after eating carbs. This makes intermittent fasting fairly easy while in Ketosis whereas the hunger cues and brain fog can be an unfortunate side effect of intermittent fasting while on a carb-based diet.
There is a major debate about whether or not training or doing cardio fasted can promote muscle wasting in the absence of calories. Let me address that now. When in ketosis, a ketone called Beta-Hydroxybutyrate is produced in the liver. This Ketone slows the breakdown of the amino acid leucine. Leucine is a major component of muscle tissue and this is why your body spares the breakdown of proteins even in the absence of carbs. Similarly, when in a fasted state, there is a surge of Growth Hormone produced in the body which supports muscle growth as well as mobilizing fatty acids for energy, thus muscle sparing as well.
If you are eating Keto and find yourself stalling on fat loss, this could be a beneficial solution to speed through that plateau. As with anything, however, it is important to listen to the body and approach any diet protocol by easing into it gradually.
Calories still count even when you are burning fat for energy. Your body will still store excess fat as body fat just as it stores excess glucose (from carbs) as body fat. If you aren’t in some sort of calorie deficit, you may stall out with your fat loss. I so often see people signing up for the Keto diet thinking it is a free pass to drink their coffee with a cup of heavy cream and half a stick of butter. Yum.
One reason Keto works so well for fat loss is that it makes it easier to maintain that calorie deficit because you simply aren’t as hungry. The satiating nature of fats and the regulated blood sugar make hunger almost non-existent. So, utilize that and allow your body to use its own stored fat for energy...hence fat loss. If you are very overweight or even a little overweight, you have all the energy you could possibly need. While a very active and very lean individual may need to eat in excess of 150 grams of fat in a day, someone who carries more fat stores may only want to eat half that in order to see fat loss results. Of course, this all depends on your body composition, your level of activity, your goals, your history with dieting. Again, come back to the concept of what feels best in your lifestyle.
Despite how much body fat you may carry, you still need to be eating some amount of fat to effectively use Ketosis. Particularly when you are adapting to Ketosis, your body needs to be told what it is using for energy. In the absence of carbohydrates, your energy must come from somewhere and turning this into a low carb and low fat diet will just tell your body that it needs to use proteins for energy (yikes!). While in a pinch, your body will break down protein for energy (such as in gluconeogenesis to send glucose to the brain), you don’t want it thinking that protein is its ideal energy source otherwise it may end up breaking down your precious muscle tissue when it gets hungry.
Just because bacon is on the list of approved Keto foods does not mean that it should make up 90% of your nutrition. Trust me, eat enough bacon and your sweat will start to smell smokey and cured. And just because you find some fast food items where the macros squeak by onto the approved Keto tagets, your best option for living a healthy Keto lifestyle is by consuming a variety of minimally processed, fresh foods. Red meat is full of fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins as well as important amino acids like taurine, creatine and glutamine. The more processed your food, the more likely those glorious nutrients have been squashed out.
To get the most out of Keto, try bringing variety into your nutrition by way of things like fresh vegetables (mushrooms, bell peppers, romaine lettuce), a variety of saturated fats (coconut oil, olive oil, butter and ghee) as well as nutrient packed cuts of meat like liver or other organs. Transitioning to Keto will get you to shop out of your comfort zone and you may find yourself feeling adventurous enough to try sardines canned in olive oil, quail eggs or even salmon roe.
Whether you are eating Keto or on a carb-based diet, your body has a baseline of key nutrients it needs to thrive. Don’t fill your belly with vegetable oils and processed meats, but get creative with new foods. More protein and fat-source diversity is a good guideline for better nutrition.
The quickest way to derail from success on Keto is by cramming yourself full of sugar free Jello and diet soda. Artificial sweeteners might seem like a good replacement for sugar, but aside from their potentially toxic effects, you will never be able to free yourself from cravings for sweet things if you are always consuming artificially sweet things. In my opinion, success on Keto comes from accepting the lack of desserts and sugar in your life and allowing the natural flavors of food to shine. Avocados and heavy cream will taste sweet to you after a while and things like dark chocolate and the occasional berries will be a decadent treat.
I often see recipes for “keto waffles” or “keto brownies” as a replacement for the real thing. I want to save you the trouble and let you know that there is no truly satisfying replacement for the real thing and that you will do yourself a massive favor by sticking with nutrient dense, naturally low carb foods to satisfy your taste buds. Look for foods that, rather than being a “cheat”, are actually just great for you in reasonable amounts. For example, macadamia nuts or coconut milk are incredibly delicious things that are A-OK on Keto, but that doesn’t mean you should gorge yourself on them.
The occasional diet soda isn’t a big deal, but if you find yourself in constant need of getting a fix for your sweet tooth, you may want to look the deeper reasons for why. Are you following the basic principles of a healthy relationship with food? Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full and if you find yourself snacking, ask yourself if it is because you are actually hungry, or possibly because you are anxious or stressed? Oftentimes, our need for a dessert or snack is much more emotionally charged than we realize. Even with the low levels of hunger that occur with Ketosis, it is still ideal to follow these concepts:
Ah, the dreaded subject of alcohol consumption. Alcohol is possibly the single-most anti-diet, anti-progress, anti-fat loss item out there and a weakness for so many on their path to nutritional success. Aside from the obvious, that drinks with sugary mixers are a no-no on keto, certain alcoholic beverages may contain carbohydrates and will be broken down as glucose. If you are drinking, there are a few types of alcohol that are better choices than others to keep you in Ketosis. Hard liquor like vodka, whiskey and tequila are not metabolized as carbs and will not spike your blood sugar and are more ideal choices than beer and wine. Hard liquor may not actually affect your ketone production whereas beer and wine most certainly will.
Although we get energy from breaking down alcohol (7 calories per gram) our body cannot store it like it can store carbs, fats and proteins. Therefore the body works hard to get rid of it as soon as possible and prioritizes the breakdown of alcohol before the nutrients that we can use.
Even if a vodka and seltzer may not kick you out of Ketosis, if your goal is fat loss then there’s no getting around it: alcohol is full of completely empty calories. If your goal is to be in Keto for health reasons more than fat loss reasons, then it may not be the end of the world to indulge. It’s helpful to come back to the idea of building your nutrition on nutrient dense foods and aside from the health benefits of the antioxidant resveratrol found in red wine, alcohol really has no nutrition.
Another super-important thing to note about drinking in Ketosis is being aware of your electrolyte and fluid balance. On my own initial adaptation to Ketosis, I decided to have a couple glasses of wine to celebrate a wedding and woke up the next morning with a hangover as bad as if I had been on a weekend-long tequila binge. No, I promise I didn’t lose track of how many drinks I had consumed. Part of what is uncomfortable about adapting to Ketosis is the imbalance of electrolytes that can easily occur. Eating carbohydrates signals your kidneys to store more water and when you are no longer eating carbs, the kidneys will flush that water along with electrolytes like sodium, chloride, potassium and magnesium that are absolutely essential for regulating fluid retention, your muscular and nervous system as well as your heart beat. Muscle cramping, spasms, dizziness and symptoms of severe dehydration. These are all things that can occur when you have lost a lot of electrolytes and are exacerbated by the diuretic effects of drinking alcohol.
So, if you’re going to drink, stick to liquor. If you’re going to drink liquor, be sure to not only drink water throughout the night, but add some minerals to your water or at the very least, add a pinch of Himalayan Pink salt to each 8 ounce glass of water you drink. You’ll thank yourself in the morning.
After you have gone through the initial Keto adaptation period which is usually about six weeks, your body will be a fat-burning machine, efficient at using ketones and using your stored body fat for fuel while in a caloric deficit. But part of what seems insurmountable to outsiders looking in on Keto is…”what, no bread for the rest of my like?” My advice to you is this...allow for an occasional carb-day. Take a day to enjoy one or two foods you love and have given up, but do not, and I repeat, do not take this as a cheat day to binge on all the carboliciouos foods you can get your hands on. Maintain the principles of healthy and mindful eating habits.
A successful carb-day is one in which you wake up the next morning feeling energetic and ready for a good workout, not one in which you regret all the decisions of your previous day and spend the day sluggish and bloated. Allowing for this once a week or once a month enjoyment will help your adherence to your nutrition program and make you feel less like you are on a diet. Additionally, if you are an athlete, this glycogen replenishing day can improve your training.
If you find yourself in the midst of a tug-of-war where one side is trying to drag you onto the Keto wagon and another side is trying to convince you that Keto is morally wrong, take a step back and figure out your reasons for why you may want to try it. Have an honest chat with yourself about your goals, your lifestyle and what illusions you may or may not have about the process of dieting in general. As with absolutely any diet, sticking to a strict nutrition protocol is tough work and there is no magic pill for fat loss and in the end, you always have to come back to what feels right for your life.