What used to be a word you only heard thrown around in biology class has now become a mainstream diet craze. Keto, otherwise known as the ketogenic diet, is all the rage among people hoping to drop a few pounds or train their bodies to burn fat more efficiently. Contrary to the low-fat frenzy of the 90's, the keto diet encourages eating most of your calories from fat. So, if you're trying to lose the last few pounds of baby weight or want to kick the habit of eating your kid's snack crackers, this might be the diet for you.
What Is Keto?
Although the word "keto" may be new, this style of eating has been around for many years. Normally prescribed to treat epilepsy, the ketogenic diet encourages eating mostly fat and very little carbohydrates--typically 75 percent of calories from fat, 20 percent from protein and 5 percent from carbs. In general, the body uses carbs as the primary fuel source for brain, muscle, and organ function. When you deprive the body of carbs for fuel, it starts to break down fat molecules, known as ketones, to feed those physiological processes. Hence the name, "keto".
When transitioning away from carbs and towards fat for fuel, many people experience the "keto flu", or feelings of nausea, fatigue, headaches, and just overall crappiness. Some refer to this as a carb withdrawal period. The body may adapt to using fat for fuel after two to five days, at which point the flu symptoms should subside, but that transition period is different for everyone. Another unfortunate side effect of going keto may be smelly breath. Ketones create acetone in the body, which results in a nasty odor on your breath. Lastly, giving up most of the grains, fruits and veggies in your diet may cause constipation. But if you can stick it out, research suggests the keto diet may make you feel less hungry and induce weight loss.
If you want to try it, here's what you should know…
Like any restrictive diet, there are downsides to going keto. Implementing a diet change in a safe and effective way requires proper planning and knowledge. We called on experts to provide a realistic picture of trying keto, and they stressed several important points.
The "f word" is key--fiber, that is. We've been told from a young age to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, but carb-heavy produce is limited on the keto diet. "Cutting out fruits, some vegetables, and grains means you might be missing out on fiber," says Shahzadi Devje RD, CDE, MSc, a dietitian and diabetes expert. "A diet low in fiber is associated with health risks, such as obesity, heart disease, and a higher risk of developing colon cancer," adds Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. Not to mention that "nasty bouts of constipation are often reported by those following the keto diet," according to Devje. If you're going to try the keto style of eating, make sure the carbs you do eat are full of fiber--that means lay off the brownies and add a salad to your meal--and opt for some fiber-filled fats, like nuts, seeds, and avocados. You may also want to ask your doctor about adding a fiber supplement to your daily routine.
Eating fat isn't a license to chow down on bacon. "Since the focus of the ketogenic diet is on an abundance of fat, it's likely that your intake of saturated and trans fats will increase," says Devje. While going keto may mean eating 70% of your calories from fat, the Dietary Guidelines still recommend no more than 10% of your calories come from saturated fat, i.e. red meat, butter, ice cream etc. "If you're someone who's already at an increased risk of heart disease, eating a ton of saturated and trans fat is not a wise move," says Devje. Instead, opt for foods that are primarily unsaturated fat, like olive oil, fish, nuts, seeds, and avocados.
Diabetics and pregnant moms need not apply. Anyone with diabetes needs to be aware of the types of food they put on their plate, and following a restrictive diet plan may not be the best idea. Palinski-Wade cautions, "If you are at risk for hypoglycemia, such as an individual taking certain medications for diabetes, you must take extra care to ensure your blood sugar levels do not drop too low," which may occur if you omit carbs. Pregnant moms also definitely should not put restrictions on their eating patterns. "Due to an increase in nutrient needs, I would not recommend following a ketogenic diet while pregnant," Palinski-Wade adds. As a matter of fact, if you have any serious health issues, talk to your doctor before starting any type of restrictive diet.
A healthy (and speedy) keto meal plan
Let's revisit that 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carb breakdown. To put that into perspective, for a woman eating 1,800 calories per day, that's 150 grams of fat, 90 grams of protein and 22 grams from carbs. That may sound crazy, but it's doable with some meal planning. Here are some of our favorite keto options that won't keep you in the kitchen all day.
Option 1: Devje recommends a smoothie, made with coconut milk, berries, nuts or nut butter and hemp seeds. The nuts and seeds provide plenty of unsaturated fat, and the berries help you start your day with fiber.
Option 2: A 3-egg mushroom and pepper frittata, made with olive oil and served with a side of avocado. Not only does this supply ample healthy fats, but 3 eggs offers 18 grams of protein.
Option 1: Palinski-Wade suggests a cauliflower pizza. To add more substance to the low-carb treat, top with grilled chicken and sliced tomatoes.
Option 2: Devje recommends low-carb zucchini noodles with pesto (don't skimp on the oil) and herbs, topped with fatty salmon.
Option 3: For those seeking a quicker option, try a fat-filled salad. Start with your favorite leafy greens and top with a seasonal fruit, nuts, cheese, and fresh herbs. For example, a spinach salad with strawberries, pistachios, feta cheese, chicken or canned tuna, and fresh basil fits the bill. Dress with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Option 1: Grilled flank steak with a side of charred broccoli. Flank steak is a leaner and cheaper cut of beef, and it grills up quickly on busy weeknights. Marinate the broccoli in olive oil, salt and pepper, and throw it on a grill pan, right next to the steak.
Option 2: This Coconut Shrimp Curry includes some extra fat from the coconut cream, but it's still light on calories.
Option 3: Chicken, cooked in butter or olive oil, served over herb-scented cauliflower rice. Pan searing chicken is a great way to create a crispy texture. To save time, buy pre-riced cauliflower and mix with your favorite fresh herb, like basil or parsley. Add a sprinkle of parmesan cheese for some extra flavor.
Option 1: Veggies dipped in mashed avocado. Opt for lower carb veggies, like celery, zucchini, mushrooms or red peppers, as your dipping vessel.
Option 2: Make a keto charcuterie plate with healthy fat snacks, like hard boiled eggs, olives, cheese, salami or salmon jerky, and veggies.