Much to the delight of proponents of fat-based eating, the ketogenic diet has seen a noticeable surge in popularity lately. I am of course solidly in this "proponent" category--a large part of my methodology is based on it, and I believe that the right kind of fat consumption can literally transform people's lives and render many profound and lasting changes to their bodies. So I am very happy to see the amount of traction it is gaining, and to see even a small percentage of the public mindset starting to shift towards this approach, because I believe unequivocably in the positive power of it. But there are, of course, the inherent trappings that go along with any new type of diet gaining in popularity. The words "popular" and "diet" automatically evoke certain reactions when used together, and perhaps induce a groan or two, as all of us have seen so many trendy or popular diets come and go, seen the outlandish claims that they make and sometimes do not even begin to deliver on, seen the public fall in love with them only to drop them and move on within a couple years. When was the last time you or anyone has seen anything related to the South Beach Diet, or even Atkins for that matter?
As of today, the ketogenic diet is right at that particular stage. It is starting to make its presence known on social media, it is being featured on more magazine covers, and its popularity is most definitely on the rise. It is very much a "trend", or at very least it is becoming one. And as with any trend, there are many people out there promoting it, selling it, talking about it, practicing it, thinking about practicing it--and what will be the focus of the first half of this article--practicing it and selling it incorrectly. There is a large variety of ways that this diet can be implemented, because it is very broad approach and thus has many many options, but for the sake of argument I am going to exaggerate it and simplify it into two main categories: bad keto and good keto.
So let's start with the bad, because this is the more urgent matter of the two and requires perhaps a little more attention. Before the ketogenic diet became popular, anyone who was using it was most likely at least relatively informed, because it was not in the spotlight so it involved doing some actual research or seeking it out in some way, which also probably meant there was a level of seriousness about it. Now the landscape is different; a person can open up their instagram feed and instantly see a business hawking it or someone talking about it, and this can be a very bad thing--it can lead to someone impulsively entering into it and without much real design, and going about it in the completely wrong way. To use a very appropriate pun, this is a recipe for potential disaster. Here are the most common pitfalls to rushing into the diet without the proper preparation:
1. Reducing carb intake too drastically and too quickly.
If you are the average person coming off a history of standard carbohydrate and food consumption, you will most likely not be starting your ketogenic journey from a ready-made position. A regular pattern of carbohydrate consumption has trained the body--and the brain--to become dependent on carbs in a variety of ways, and neither of them are going to react well to the sudden and quick removal of their preferred fuel source. This can cause the system to perceive the change as a pretty intense threat, and generate a subsequent negative internal reaction to it--the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which will signal the body to retain fat rather than release it for energy, and that will work against any positive changes that you are trying to make.
If we look further at the hormonal environment present in the average carb-dependent person, the interaction between insulin (glucose and fat-storing hormone) and glucagon (glucose and fat-mobilizing hormone) has been heavily tilted in favor of the former; a history of excessive carbohydrate consumption has required the body to produce large amounts of insulin to manage the levels of glucose in the system. Conversely, the production of glucagon has been minimal, because the metabolism has been fueled by a constant supply of carbohydrates and thus has never needed to create more glucose to meet the body's requirements. Other hormones at play are adiponectin, which boosts the breakdown of stored of body fat and how efficiently our body uses the carbs that we do consume, and leptin, which signals satiety to the brain--both of these can be at sub-optimal levels in a person that has been stuck in a carb-dependent and overly frequent pattern of eating. All of these need to be in proper balance for the metabolism to fully and properly transition to the new environment presented by ketogenic eating.
And on the more conscious and psychological level, the whole process will simply be more difficult and less sustainable if it is not done in a progressive and tactful manner. If you feel like you are in constant deprivation and are not enjoying the process, the combined effect of this negativity and the adverse metabolic reactions you've created will almost inevitably lead to failure. Even if you do manage to lose weight, and you may initially, it will almost certainly be a result of the extreme caloric deficit you've created by removing a large portion of your diet; this will eventually backfire and cause any progress gained to be lost in the long run, so it is crucial that a solid and gradual baseline is established first, or the process can get very messy very quickly. I will go more into detail about how to do this in the second section of the article--"good keto".
2. Not balancing your intake with the right foods.
Even if you do manage to successfully remove the proper amount of carbs from your diet, of equal importance are the foods that you are putting into your diet; if you fail in this regard, you will again be setting up an improper foundation and planting the seeds of failure. It is not enough to take the one-dimensional approach of simply monitoring and limiting your carbohydrate intake, you must also be consuming foods that your system needs to function internally at its optimal levels. The ketogenic diet is based on production of ketone bodies by the liver, which is a byproduct of fat metabolism; so if your fat is not metabolizing properly, the whole process will stall. Lack of the proper amount of type of fat intake, replacing carbs with too much protein, and inadequate micronutrient intake, these are all mistakes that can cause your fat metabolism and subsequently cause the ketogenic approach to fail. More of this will be discussed in the "good keto" section.
It is unfortunate to see people who go about things in this ill-advised and poorly conceived way, because they are simply confirming the incorrect stereotypes that some people have of the diet. When people hear the term ketogenic, they conjure up images of plates covered in nothing but meat and cheese, often with no regard to the quality of either, or giant bacon salads that even as a legitimate carnivore I do not find appealing. In fact all of these pictures were found through a simple #keto search on Instagram, and two of them were taken from actual keto accounts. I have seen the terms "bro diet" and "bro science" used to describe the ketogenic approach many times, and even though this could not be further from the actual truth of the matter, I cannot entirely blame people when they are regularly exposed to these types of misrepresentations.
3. Not committing to the process or allowing the body time to adapt.
Even if you are going about everything in an intentional and informed manner and taking all of the right steps, the adaptation may be challenging. You are retraining your body metabolically to rely less on carbohydrates and more on fats, which can (but does not always) have a few downsides to it in the short term: lower energy, a decrease in athletic performance, increased hunger/cravings, and even poor mood. Some of this will be dictated by your preparation, some of it by how long and how deeply you've been entrenched in carbohydrate dependency, and some of it by how metabolically adaptive your body is in general.
But regardless, the worst possible thing you can do is to abandon or compromise the approach simply because it presents an initial challenge; having a "bad day" in this first phase and relapsing into carb consumption can derail your progress immediately, because you will be signaling the body to revert right back to its old and strongly held metabolic patterns. Becoming fat-adapted and entering the ketogenic state can have profound and amazing changes to the body--increased energy levels and performance, improvement to body composition, decreased inflammation and oxidation in the body--but this will require patience and trust in the process, and the ability to persist through initial difficulties and to stay committed. More to follow in "good keto".
So let's explore the upside to all of this, and how to use the right techniques and approaches to ensure that you get the absolute most out of this dietary path, both in terms of the effectiveness of the keto approach and also your general health and well-being (if that's something of importance to you). Speaking from personal experience and from what I've observed with both friends and clients, the power of ketosis is incredible and can eventually make life significantly easier. But as with any positive change, it must be done in an intentional, thoughtful, and positive way if you are to have any hope of succeeding. We have already discussed the pitfalls, so now let's take a look at how to counteract them:
1. Taking a patient, gradual, and intentional approach to carbohydrate reduction
To again relate it to my own experiences, I was already consuming a fairly low carb percentage by average standards (around 100g per day or less) when I made the commitment to adhere to ketogenic standards. I still found the change to be at least somewhat challenging initially. Some of my favorite carb sources were immediately removed from my diet, including sweet potatoes, which were to that point a staple food for me, and a wonderful brand of grain-free tortilla chips that I had recently discovered only to part ways with very soon after. So on the behavioral and psychological level, it certainly required some discipline, because I loved these foods and considered them among my favorites. But that is all in the past now, and I can happily say that I do not even think about them anymore.
So it is crucial for everyone, but particularly those who are coming a dietary space that is drastically different than that of the ketogenic diet, to make the the changes in a smart way. Carbohydrate reduction should be a gradual process, occurring over the course of at least 2-3 weeks, and aiming to ultimately bring your overall intake to 50g or less per day. It is very key that this process goes fluidly, because as previously mentioned there is the potential for it to be perceived as a stressor to the system if it is done too quickly or incorrectly. The system needs time to optimize the balance of hormones that drive the whole process. That is not to say that you do not need to maintain a certain level of rigidity and discipline, but if it ever feels overly forced or unpleasant that is a very clear sign that you should slow things down a bit or adjust some other part of the process. A good basic guide to follow would be:
Week 1: 150g per day - Pick your least favorite carb sources--anything you are not attached to--and eliminate them immediately
Week 2: 100g per day - Eliminate most fruit and ALL starchy snacks from your diet
Week 3: 50g per day - Eliminate all fruit and and non-essential carbs, and shift your carb intake exclusively to the following: vegetables, avocado, coconut, nuts and seeds
2. Including a balanced and complete profile of foods in your diet.
When entering into any kind of new routine or habit, whether it is setting aside time to meditate, committing to a new exercise program, or starting up a new diet, it is very easy to allow our perspective to get overly myopic and to get too focused on the small things, to let our view of the trees obscure our view of the forest. In the case of the ketogenic diet, what certainly typifies it is carb restriction, so it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this is all a person must do to be successful and to thus put the focus entirely on this. This may work on some levels, but in order for the process to be complete, there are other parts of the nutritional forest that we must consider.
Perhaps one of the most important: any and all carbs being removed from the diet should be replaced with fat, not protein. The average diet already includes sufficient protein, and oftentimes excessive amounts, so there is no benefit whatsoever to adding more of it into your food intake (.7 grams per pound of lean mass is all we need, and for most people even less is sufficient). For many reasons, replacing your carb calories with fat calories is going to serve the whole process much better. It will boost your body's ability to burn fat for energy, it will keep you more satiated, and it will ensure you are getting adequate caloric intake (fats are the most calorically dense of the macros); the body does not need the further stress of a caloric deficit in the initial adaptive phases of the ketogenic process. On top of that it will make your meals much more pleasurable and the experience much more enjoyable, which will help to keep any kind of stress reaction--both psychological and hormonal--in check.
Also of great important is sufficient micronutrient intake, primarily in the form of vegetables, partly in the form of supplements, and very occasionally in the form of fruits. The metabolism relies on certain vitamins and minerals to function properly, so the approach to ketogenic eating cannot rely simply on fats and proteins. And on a much more basic level, no diet that is devoid of proper micronutrient intake could ever be considered healthy; so do not let your view of the trees obscure the forest in this case, and to allow one of the basic tenets of healthy eating to be discarded in favor of a carb-restriction frenzy. Vegetables should represent a good portion of your carb intake, for a few reasons:
- they are the most micronutrient dense carbs (especially green vegetables)
- they are generally fibrous carbs (these have less of an impact on ketosis)
- they are a perfect vessel for healthy fat intake, whether it is a veggie mix sauteed in copious amounts of butter, or a delicious salad slathered generously in oil
3. Maintaining trust in the process, keeping a broad perspective, and being patient enough to give the changes time to take place. When I first made the switch to full ketogenic eating standards, I experienced a short-lived period of heart palpitations; this is a known side effect of low blood sugar, so while it was nothing to be overly worried about, it was certainly unpleasant and did cause a couple moments of concern. But I did not it let it phase me and I did not change a single thing that I was doing, because I knew my body was simply adjusting, and that the effect would be temporary. And this is exactly what happened--after about a week they disappeared entirely, and I was left with nothing but the positive and amazing changes to my system, which may have even been strengthened by the initial reaction that my body had.
The odds are low that you will experience this personally (it is by far the exception to the rule), but you will experience some milder effects, which is to be expected as your metabolism makes the transition from being carb-dependent to being fat- and ketone-dependent. And my main point, if we could extract a moral from the story of my ketogenic adaptation, is that there will be some obstacles and there will be some difficult moments; but if you maintain trust in the process, and fully embrace the potential for profound and lasting change, none of these obstacles will matter as much to you. If for a week or two you must sacrifice a couple of workouts because your body is not efficient enough at producing glucagon to mobilize your stored energy, then just roll with it and know you will soon have more energy than you could ever hope for. If you get a sudden carb craving because your brain is missing the opioid response that carbs generate, or maybe because you just miss them personally, take a few breaths and find something else to snack on, like some delicious Epic pork rinds.
Maintaining a positive, patient attitude is key. If you let the process overwhelm you, if you think of it in a negative and restrictive way, your body will react accordingly on the hormonal and metabolic level. A comparative example would be the experience of running a marathon; if a runner starts thinking they want to quit at mile #8 and goes into panic mode, they will drive the nervous into a more excited state than it needs to be and make every step of the race a worse experience for themselves. In order to keep the system in harmony, a positive attitude is key--just as the battle rages between insulin and glucagon, so does the battle between cortisol and its counteractive hormone oxytocin, an anti-stress hormone that relaxes the system (not to be confused with oxycontin).
So if you feel that you are truly ready and committed to making the change, to increasing your general feeling of physical well-being, to improving your body both on the inside and the outside, and to bettering your overall quality of life through this profound change to your nutrition and lifestyle, be sure that you commit to doing it correctly. This can be one of the most rewarding changes you will ever make in for yourself, so you should treat it accordingly. Just as with anything in life, the more thought, attention, and care you put into it, the more you will ultimately get out of it.