A Dietary Expert Discusses the Important Aspects of Ketogenic Eating
To address some frequently asked questions about the keto diet, we talked to Jenn Newkirk, a Dietary Educator at Renown Health. Jenn provides valuable information on the keto diet and makes some additional dietary recommendations to keep you feeling as healthy as possible.
When reading the nutrition facts on a food or drink item, fat is one of the components that we are drawn to analyze because of the negative stigma that generally surrounds it. The keto diet, however, focuses on high-fat consumption combined with minimal carbohydrate intake.
What exactly is the keto diet?
The ketogenic diet is a dietary pattern very low in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and very high in fat. Most keto diets reduce carbohydrates to less than 50 grams a day and can be as low as 20 grams.
What types of foods and what amounts does the keto diet include?
There is no one standard ketogenic diet, but the breakdown is typically 70-80% fat, 10-20% protein, and 5-10% carbohydrates. This type of diet is very high in fat and therefore includes foods such as butter, cheese, heavy cream, oils, nuts, avocados, seeds; protein such as eggs, bacon and fish; and low carb green vegetables like spinach. The diet excludes carbohydrate foods like beans, rice, all grains and bread products, potatoes, milk, yogurt, cereals and fruit.
What is a “State of Ketosis?”
Our bodies like to use carbohydrates (glucose) to give us energy. When you do not provide your body with enough carbohydrates as in the case of ketogenic diet, it switches to an alternative fuel called ketones which is produced by the liver from stored fat. Ketosis is simply a state in which the body switches to the breakdown and burning of fat instead of carbohydrates to give you energy.
What are the benefits of the keto diet?
Well for starters, we have known for quite some time that the ketogenic diet is very effective at decreasing seizure activity in those with drug resistant epilepsy and we still advocate for this diet as medical nutrition therapy for patients.
There is also some evidence pointing towards the ketogenic diet’s use for weight loss and improving other health parameters such as insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol and triglycerides levels. As far as weight loss goes, there are a few ideas on why this diet may be helpful. Eating high fat foods improves satiety which may decrease cravings and help to control one’s calorie intake. It takes more energy for the body to turn fat and protein to glucose increasing one’s metabolism and some appetite hormones may be regulated decreasing hunger. These are some theories of why the keto diet may be successful in its use for weight loss although they have not been supported in research.
What risks does the keto diet pose?
One of the major safety concerns about the ketogenic diet is that there is a lack of research in humans on the effect and use long-term. Some negative side effects of using this diet include decreased kidney function and risk for kidney stones, osteoporosis, and increased uric acid levels (a risk factor for gout). Also, anytime a major food group is removed or severely restricted, there is potential for nutrient deficiencies. Lastly, adherence to such a strict diet may also be a cause for concern as maintaining a very high fat intake and avoiding enjoyable foods like fruit or sweet potatoes may not be realistic for many.
Is there a diet/way of eating that you recommend in place of the keto diet that may have fewer risks?
Unlike the ketogenic diet, the Mediterranean diet is one that has been studied for a long period of time and may also offer a host of other health benefits including improved brain health, lower risk for cancers, a decreased risk for heart disease, and diabetes prevention and control. The Mediterranean diet, when used in conjunction with calorie restriction, may also support healthy weight loss. If someone is still interested in following a lower carbohydrate diet pattern, I suggest they focus on avoiding processed and refined carbohydrates and work with a dietitian to fine tune the dietary pattern that fits best with their lifestyle and preferences because diets are not one size fits all.
Are there certain health conditions one might have where they should avoid the keto diet?
Individuals with diabetes taking certain medications should speak to their doctors prior to starting a ketogenic diet as there are some risks associated in this specific population. Those with kidney or liver diseases should also speak to their doctors before starting a keto diet as there is some concern if the diet is safe for people with these conditions.
Does the keto diet have an impact on the amount of physical activity one should be engaging in?
After starting a restricted carbohydrate diet, some individuals may experience what is called the “keto flu”; a group of symptoms including fatigue, irritability, headaches, constipation and hunger. If experiencing these symptoms it is likely best to limit strenuous physical activity, but once resolved exercise should be incorporated as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Anything else you would like to add?
When looking to start a diet or change your eating habits, it is important to find something sustainable. I am a firm believer in the “all foods can fit in moderation” diet plan, but it’s important you find what works best for yourself and your personal preferences. Lastly, if you choose to follow the ketogenic diet, remember that although it is high in fat, it is not an excuse to eat all the bacon, cheeseburgers and butter you’d like! You’ll need to include foods like olives, oils, avocados and nuts/nut butters for healthier fat options and to include a variety of foods allowed to ensure adequate intake of fiber, B vitamins, and minerals.