Few carbohydrates, more protein, and lots of fat. This is what is meant by the ketogenic diet. But how exactly does this diet work? Here you will find advantages and disadvantages, as well as delicious recipes.
Olives with bacon, coffee with butter, peanut butter cups, or mascarpone and avocado as far as the eye can see – if you’re on a ketogenic diet, you can’t be afraid of dietary fats.
The good news: is you don’t have to be. Because the extreme form of low-carb nutrition programs the body to draw energy from its own fat reserves.
However, until the body switches to the fat burner mode, ketosis, a few uncomfortable detox days pass. After that, more energy, hardly any hunger, and rapid weight loss beckon.
In this article, you’ll learn how the keto diet works, what the pros and cons are, and what foods you should focus on.
The ketogenic diet – what is it?
The ketogenic diet is practically a very strict version of the low-carb diet. In a normal diet, the body uses the supplied carbohydrates as energy sources.
In the keto diet, on the other hand, the body is switched to fat metabolism.
What is the goal of the ketogenic diet?
In order to maintain blood sugar levels and energy supply, the body normally constantly metabolizes carbohydrates to glucose.
If carbohydrates are now no longer added to the body, the body converts its own fat stores in the liver into so-called ketones (or ketone bodies).
The organism is in a state of fasting and is forced to break down fat.
Treating epilepsy with a ketogenic diet?
There are always controversial discussions about the high-fat diet. In diseases such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease, abstaining from carbohydrates has been shown to be beneficial.
In particular, in children suffering from epilepsy for whom drug therapy was unsuccessful, a low-carbohydrate diet was able to reduce both the number and severity of epileptic seizures.
Although the pathophysiological background is not yet clear, scientists suspect the following hypothesis: hypoglycemia of the brain, which causes seizures, occurs less frequently on the low-carbohydrate diet.
The ketogenic diet – this is how it works
“Fight fat with fat” is the motto of all keto followers. The proportion of carbohydrates in the diet is radically reduced – the proportion of fat, on the other hand, is significantly increased.
In a “normal” diet, as recommended by the German Nutrition Society, the macronutrient distribution should be about 50 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent fat, and 20 percent protein.
The ketogenic diet is different: carbohydrates make up only 5 percent, protein 20 percent – and fat a full 75 percent.
The body is thus trained to convert so-called ketone bodies for energy production, which then serve as “substitute glucose”.
5 percent carbohydrates – that is quite little. To be more precise: very little. However, the amount cannot be generalized because it varies from individual to individual.
It is recommended to consume no more than 20-30 grams of carbohydrates at the beginning of a ketogenic diet to get into the ketogenic metabolism.
For young, athletic people with a good metabolism, this limit can also be 50 grams a day.
You not only have to pay close attention to the number of carbohydrates, but also to the amount of protein you eat during the day.
If you eat too much protein, the amino acids contained are converted into glucose – which in turn inhibits the formation of ketone bodies.
Are you already in the ketogenic metabolism?
Whether the body is in the ketogenic metabolism, you can check using various methods:
- Blood test
A ketone meter can be used to measure the ketone body content in the blood. It works similarly to a blood sugar test.
This method is very accurate, but after some time it also costs money, as the measuring device and the measuring strips are expensive.
- Urine sample
Ketone bodies can also be detected via urine. With the help of the so-called ketosis, it is easy to determine when the body is producing ketones. However, the method is somewhat less accurate than the blood test.
- Breath test
The content of acetone (a ketone body that the body cannot process and exhales via the breath) in the breath can be measured with a breathing apparatus.
Alternative: breathe into your cupped hand and smell your own breath. If you are in ketosis, it smells very sweet.
Also, when switching from glucose to fat metabolism, there is often a metallic aftertaste in the mouth.
Feeling full of energy, less hungry, sleeping well, and focused? Congratulations, and welcome to ketosis.
Ketogenic diet and snacking, is it possible?
That depends on your energy consumption and the associated calorie requirement. If you want to lose weight on the ketogenic diet, you should aim for a calorie deficit of about 15 percent.
So for a person with a total requirement of 2000 calories a day, for example, 1700 kilocalories is possible.
How long should you follow a ketogenic diet?
On the keto diet, the body changes its metabolism. However, it takes about three to four days for it to switch to ketosis.
Once the body is in ketosis, the diet can theoretically continue as a lifestyle for as long as desired.
Various long-term studies show that the ketogenic diet can also be used in the long term. Even after one year, the risk of cardiovascular disease did not increase in subjects.
On the contrary, the results suggest that the keto diet is particularly suitable for overweight people to promote weight loss and improve blood fat and blood sugar levels.
However, there are also voices that warn against following the keto diet forever. They recommend taking breaks in between so that the body does not “unlearn” to metabolize glucose as well.
Anyone planning to eat a ketogenic diet for a long time should pay close attention to the quality of their food. Fried bacon and the like may be ketogenic, but they do not provide valuable fats and nutrients.
In a ketogenic diet, only 5 percent of your energy needs should be met by carbohydrates, 25 percent by proteins, and 75 percent by fats.
In principle, you can eat any food as long as the correct nutrient distribution is maintained. However, some foods are more suitable for the keto diet than others.
Vegetables should be the main source of carbohydrates, as they are low in calories and carbohydrates, but rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Seeds, nuts, tofu, dairy products, or low-carbohydrate fruits and chocolate with a bitter content of more than 85 percent provide the remaining carbohydrates.
The focus of the ketogenic diet is, of course, on fats. Preference should be given to healthy fats.
Trans fatty acids, highly processed fatty foods, and oils with an unfavorable fatty acid profile such as sunflower oil, peanut oil, or margarine should be avoided – they promote inflammation.
Cold-pressed olive oil, linseed, walnut oil, hemp oil, avocado, cocoa butter, chia seeds, or flax seeds are recommended, as well as coconut oil, butter, ghee, and MCT oil.
Suitable sources of protein are fatty fish, meat, eggs, Whey protein, soy, and low-carbohydrate dairy products.
Fruit in the context of a ketogenic diet can only be considered if it contains little fructose. This includes lemons, blackberries, guava, raspberries, and blueberries – but only in moderation.
Bananas, strawberries, plums, and apples contain more carbohydrates and are therefore not very suitable.
Also not allowed in a ketogenic diet are foods high in carbohydrates: sugar, pasta, bread, and rice. But you should also avoid legumes, starchy vegetables, potatoes, and grains like oatmeal because of their macronutrients.
Soft drinks, fruit juices, and other sugared drinks such as energy drinks are also unsuitable.
The sugar alcohol erythritol is a popular sweetener among keto followers because it has a similar sweetening power to sugar, yet has hardly any calories and is carbohydrate-free.
Net carbohydrates: how to count carbohydrates correctly
If you’re on the keto diet, you’ve probably come across the term “net carbs.” It describes the carbohydrates that have an impact on blood sugar levels – these include sugars and starches.
Fiber and sugar alcohols are also carbohydrates but have no effect on blood sugar levels. That’s why only net carbs are ever counted in the ketogenic diet.
You can calculate net carbs by subtracting the fiber or sugar alcohol content from the total carbohydrate content of a food. This means that if a food has 10 grams of total carbohydrates, but 5 grams of that is fiber, it also only hit the keto daily calculation with 5 grams of carbohydrates.
In the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico, you’ll always already find the net carbohydrate information on all ingredient lists – even if they’re “only” labeled as carbohydrates. In the U.S. or Canada, on the other hand, net carbohydrates have yet to be calculated.
Assuming a fitness bar contains 17 grams of carbohydrates (total carbohydrates), 9 grams of fiber, and 6 grams of sugar alcohol, you would only value two grams of carbohydrates for your daily carbohydrate allowance.
Is the keto diet suitable for you?
You can try the keto diet if you want to “retrain” your metabolism and see for yourself the benefits of ketosis.
When it comes to losing weight, the keto diet can also help. Rigorous renunciation of carbohydrates and minimization of protein intake reprogram the metabolism to use fats as the main source of energy, for example from dietary fats and from fat pads on the belly, buttocks, and co.
This works, but it requires a great deal of discipline and, initially, an enormous amount of effort. Meal planning, weighing food, and adhering to macro distribution exactly – this is not for everyone.
Build muscle with a ketogenic diet
Some triathletes and marathon runners use the effects of the ketogenic diet to prepare even better and more effectively for their competitions.
During preparation, they completely change their diet and train their body to obtain energy from fat stores.
During the competition, athletes then return to a high-carbohydrate diet. This provides the body with quick energy in the form of sugar, but it continues to run on fat metabolism and can therefore withstand long periods of stress. Various studies have been able to prove this effect.
In a phase of hard competition preparation, the keto diet can therefore have a performance-enhancing effect.
Vegan or vegetarian and still ketogenic
If you want to eat a ketogenic diet, you don’t necessarily have to go for bacon, steak, and eggs. However, this diet does make it somewhat easier because you have more food choices.
Vegetarians can still go for fatty dairy products, cream, ghee, and butter.
The keto diet is also possible for vegans. Proteins are then sourced mainly from protein-rich vegetables, nuts, seeds, and soy or lupins, cream is replaced with coconut milk and milk is replaced with unsweetened almond or hemp milk.
Can the ketogenic diet help cancer patients?
For several years, the elimination of carbohydrates and sugar has provided the hypothesis that a ketogenic diet could also help cancer patients heal.
The basis for the assumption is that cancer cells obtain their energy mainly by fermenting sugars.
The ketogenic diet would deprive the cells of any nutritional basis and let them “starve out”, so to speak – the body would then fall back on fat reserves for energy production.
This would reduce inflammatory processes in the body that drive cancer tumors.
Initial studies on this theory raise hope, but there is a lack of high-quality, evidence-based studies on this. The research published to date relates to experiments in mice – it is questionable to what extent these results can be transferred to humans.
The German Cancer Society is therefore cautious: “Based on the current data, low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diets cannot be recommended as a complementary therapy and in general for people with cancer.”
It continues, “At this time, there are no human studies that demonstrate that a ketogenic or low-carbohydrate diet can prevent or repress tumor growth or metastasis in humans or improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.”
Advantages and disadvantages of the ketogenic diet.
A ketogenic diet can bring many positive effects if it is done properly and you focus on the right foods. However, it also comes with some disadvantages.
The advantages of the ketogenic diet
- fewer fluctuations in concentration, as the insulin level remains constant due to the low carbohydrate intake as well as the increased protein intake
- good, saturated fatty acids, e.g. from nuts and fatty fish, improve endurance performance
- fewer cravings due to low insulin secretion. a general feeling of hunger will also decrease
- improved blood sugar levels due to the carbohydrate deficit from simple sugars
- the ketogenic diet has an anti-inflammatory effect and thus favors, among other things, an improvement in the appearance of the skin and other complaints
Disadvantages of the ketogenic diet
- Especially during the changeover phase, you may experience severe fatigue, headaches, poor concentration, and digestive problems. This is referred to as the so-called keto flu or keto flu. However, this phase is over after a few days.
In ketosis, i.e. fat metabolism, the body excretes more ketone bodies through the mouth. These smell like overripe fruit and cause unpleasant bad breath.
- Carried out incorrectly, it can lead to an undersupply of micronutrients and vitamins, as many types of fruit and vegetables are avoided.
- The diet requires, especially in the beginning, that you meticulously track your food intake so that you do not exceed the specified amount of carbohydrates. This is quite strenuous and is especially difficult if you eat out.
Ketogenic diet: Three sample days and recipes
The following sample days will give you an idea of how you might design meals on a keto diet. Many keto followers additionally combine their diet with interval fasting to achieve even greater success.
Example day for the keto diet with meat and fish
- Breakfast: Bulletproof Coffee – coffee whipped with coconut milk, butter, and MCT oil.
- Lunch: Big salad of green leaf lettuce, avocado, turkey strips, eggs, and flax oil dressing
- Snack: Fat Bomb made with cocoa butter, coconut oil, and baking cocoa
- Evening: Salmon fillet with steamed spinach, pak choi, and sesame seeds
Example day for the keto diet – vegetarian
- Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with avocado
- Lunch: Warm kale salad with feta cheese
- Snack: A handful of almonds and some cheddar cheese
- Dinner: Vegetable goulash with zucchini, peppers, and smoked tofu or broccoli rice risotto with parmesan, cream cheese, and chopped Brazil nuts
Example day for the keto diet – vegan
- Breakfast: Chia pudding with unsweetened almond milk and cinnamon, topped with a tablespoon of raspberries and 2 tablespoons of almond paste.
- Lunch: Green Keto Bowl with cooked cauliflower, spinach, broccoli, half an avocado, tahini dressing, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds, or a creamy cauliflower soup with hemp seeds, yeast flakes, and fresh spring onion
- Snack: A handful of macadamia nuts and olives
- Dinner: Either zucchini noodles with a creamy hemp coconut sauce and spinach or a Bolognese sauce with tempeh and tomatoes. Alternative: Thai curry with green vegetables and coconut milk.