This week’s blog posts are a little different than usual and I’m going to take the time to go through some of the most common and frequently asked questions that I get about the keto diet.
As the keto diet has grown in popularity in recent years – and for good reason, as there continues to be more and more research supporting its benefits – there has also been a growing amount of confusion. There are many versions of keto online and in books and many keto experts who may differ in their approach or perspective.
What’s important to keep in mind is that we are all unique in our bodies, biochemistry, genetics, and environment. Just because one version of keto works for your friend, a keto influencer or even a doctor, doesn’t mean that the exact same version will work for you. You might need something different for your individual body and to fit into your lifestyle.
Let’s dive into some of your burning keto questions!
What is the keto diet?
First, let’s start with the basics. The ketogenic diet, or keto for short, was developed in the 1920s as a therapeutic diet for children with epilepsy. It is a high fat, moderate protein, and very low carbohydrate diet. The restriction of carbohydrates allows the metabolism to shift from primarily using carbohydrates (as glucose) for fuel to using fat for fuel. This includes body fat!
Fat is a much more efficient fuel source and a well-executed keto diet can leave you feeling energetic without the constant need to snack or extreme hunger pangs. The keto diet has also been found in the research to support the healing from metabolic syndrome, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders (such as Alzheimer’s) and certain cancers (1, 2, 3). The keto diet is also very promising as an approach for weight loss (4).
How does the keto diet work?
To get a little bit clearer on the science explaining why keto is successful let’s first look at the baseline American diet or SAD (Standard American Diet). The SAD is high in carbohydrates, especially processed ones like refined flour and sugar. The body responds to the excess carbs in this diet by increasing insulin. Insulin is a storage hormone and helps the body move the carbs from the blood into cells, turn excess into fat and even store some glucose as glycogen in the liver and muscles.
Over time, the increased level of carbs, along with the increased insulin levels, can lead to the situation of insulin resistance where the system is simply overloaded. Since most conventional healthcare providers don’t screen for markers of insulin resistance (hint: ask for a fasting insulin level at your next check-up), we typically only know that our blood sugar is too high when we have passed the threshold of diagnosable glucose ranges for diabetes (>126 mg/dL). But cells don’t become resistant to blood sugar overnight; this is usually a long process that occurs as a result of a lifestyle of eating processed, highly refined foods. It’s what happens on a daily basis in our everyday life that slowly leads to losing cellular sensitivity to insulin.
After working so hard for so long to process excess sugar and get it out of the blood (sugar in the blood is highly inflammatory) the body’s cells start to become resistant to the hormonal signals that allow for insulin to shuttle glucose out of the blood and into the cell. This is the metabolic state known as insulin resistance (IR). It’s a hallmark of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Not to mention that this type of diet can lead to being on a blood sugar roller coaster that leaves you feeling fatigued, constantly craving sugar and having low satisfaction with food (ever feel like you just can’t stop eating?).
The keto diet works by creating the exact opposite milieu in the body. If the SAD lifestyle sets the stage for diabetes and fat gain, then the keto lifestyle turns the lights off on that scary show. Keto works by lowering blood sugar and insulin levels so that the insulin signaling can be restored. How? Because of the low levels of carbohydrate in the diet, along with the high levels of nutrient-dense fats allow the body to use fat for fuel, in the form of ketones. Ketones are not only helpful and more efficient than relying on glucose, but they are anti-inflammatory as well.
Stay tuned for the next blog post where I discuss more FAQs about why the keto diet truly works, and how to get started on the ketogenic diet.