What Is a Ketogenic Diet?

what is a keto diet
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If you’ve been checking out potential diets, you’ve likely come across the keto diet. It’s wildly popular right now and has been leading to more and more accounts of weight loss from friends and family on social media.

On this website, we focus on a low-carb diet, which specifically limits the intake of carbohydrates in the pursuit of weight loss and improved health. A ketogenic diet is a form of low-carb diet, though it’s stricter with the guidelines.

In particular, a keto diet is a low carb, high fat, moderate protein diet. It limits your intake of carbs to around 20 grams a day.

For a ketogenic diet to be successful, you need to enter into ketosis, where the body begins to burn stored fat for energy instead of dietary carbs. Ketosis isn’t triggered unless you are eating under 50 grams of carbs per day, though more often you must eat less than 20 grams of carbs to enter into ketosis.

What Is Ketosis?

Ketosis is a metabolic process that uses your body’s fat stores for energy instead of dietary carbohydrates.

The body has three storage depots to use as fuel:

  • Carbohydrates from food
  • Protein that is converted to glucose in the liver and used for energy
  • Stored body fat and ketones

In a regular high carb diet, carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for the body.

This is how your body uses carbohydrates, when you are not limiting intake:

  1. Carbohydrates (starches and sugars) are broken down into glucose in the bloodstream, giving the body its default energy source.
  2. At this point, the hormone insulin steps in to remove glucose from the bloodstream.
  3. Insulin converts glucose into glycogen. Some glycogen is stored inside the liver as a fuel reserve for the brain, and the rest is stored in the muscles as fuel reserves for everything you do.
  4. When that muscle glycogen is not used through a lack of energy expenditure or exercise, it stays in the muscles.
  5. The human body can only store so much glycogen, about 1800 calories worth. When that reserve becomes full, both the muscles and the liver send a signal to stop insulin production, and excess glucose from dietary carbs begins to build up in the bloodstream, calling for more and more insulin to be released to remove it. So insulin levels surge (which can eventually lead to insulin resistance if it continues).
  6. At this point, the liver then sends any excess glucose in the blood to be stored as body fat.
  7. As high dietary carb intake continues, glucose floods the bloodstream, insulin levels increase, and so do the body’s fat stores.

Eventually this can lead to metabolic syndrome, a set of conditions caused by insulin resistance, which includes obesity, fatty liver, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other metabolic issues.

While this viscous carb cycle may not occur in everyone, for many who are obese, have a sensitivity to carbs, or who do not expend the required amount of stored energy, this is often the case and the main culprit behind obesity.

In the Keto equation however, once carbs are greatly limited and their sources controlled, the body has no other option than to turn to its own fat stores for energy and the metabolic process of ketosis begins.

When the intake of carbs is limited, and their sources controlled, meaning that starches and sugars are eliminated, the body goes into a state called lipolysis, a most efficient biochemical pathway to weight loss and a scientifically proven alternative to using glucose for energy.

  1. Lipolysis occurs when the body begins to burn fat stores for energy instead of carbohydrates that are obtained from the diet.
  2. The by-products of this fat burning process are ketones. When your body starts producing ketones, you are considered to be in “ketosis”.
  3. Ketones provide adequate fuel for cells, the brain, and other organs, just as glucose from carbs does, however ketosis does not store fat, and actually allows the body to burn stored fat for fuel.

There are other concrete scientific reasons as to why eating low carb promotes weight loss and other health benefits. When you eliminate sugar and starches your blood sugar stabilizes and insulin levels, the fat-storing hormone, drop, so you burn fat and feel naturally satisfied with less food.

Harvard Health explains how the keto diet trumps low fat diets in numerous studies when it comes to the amount of weight lost as well as its ability to lower triglyceride levels in the bloodstream to improve cholesterol profiles and reduce risk factors for heart disease.

More than 20 randomized controlled trials published since 2002 in respected, peer-reviewed journals have shown low carb diets to be effective for weight loss, stabilizing blood sugars, general health and are also noted to be safe for most.

Macronutrients on Ketogenic Diet

keto diet

The ratio of macronutrient intake in a standard ketogenic diet is typically 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbs.

You may not choose to stick with this typical range. You can choose for your own body type what percentage is ideal. However, a good starting point is the ratio above.

What you eat becomes very important on a keto diet. Your old unhealthy habits of snacking on chips, eating burgers and fries, and otherwise not keeping track of how many carbs you eat will have to be ditched.

One way to help your success is to find substitutes for your trigger foods. If you love french fries, replace them with these low-carb alternatives. If you crave sugary drinks, replace them with ice tea or coffee with sugar-free flavorings instead.

> Here are more ways you can make healthier food choices.

How to Calculate Your Macros

Every nutrient has a specific number of calories per gram.

  • Carbohydrates have four calories per gram
  • Proteins have four calories per gram
  • Fats have nine calories per gram

In order to calculate your macros, so you know how many grams of each macronutrient to eat, you will have to do a little math.

The first step is determining how many calories you want to eat per day. In order to lose a pound per week, you must eliminate 3500 calories from your calorie total. For two pounds, it’s 7000.

Generally, the recommended daily calorie intake is 2,000 calories a day for women and 2,500 for men. To determine your new calorie count, subtract your desired weight loss calories, like below.

For a woman: 2000 x 7 = 14000 – 3500 = 10500 / 7 = 1500 calories per day

  1. Multiply your total daily calories by the macronutrient percentages.
  2. Finally, divide your calorie amounts by its calorie-per-gram number.

Here’s how I would calculate my calories for each macronutrient:

  • Carbs: 1500 x 0.05 equals 75.
  • Protein: 1500 x 0.20 equals 300.
  • Fats: 1500 x 0.75 equals 1125.

To calculate the gram of each: 

  • Carbs (4 calories per gram): 75 divided by 4 equals 18.75 grams of carbs.
  • Protein (4 calories per gram): 300 divided by 4 equals 75 grams of protein
  • Fat (9 calories per gram): 1125 divided by 9 equals 125 grams of fat.

If you don’t like math, don’t fret. There are many macronutrient calculators that will do the math for you. I personally like the Calculo keto calculator because it also helps you determine the ideal number of calories you should eat based on your personal stats.

 

Carb Intake on a Ketogenic Diet

The use of carbs for fuel is what the ketogenic diet aims to avoid by limiting carbs to less than 20 grams per day and limiting their sources mostly to non-starchy vegetables.

keto macros

This is especially strict, but it’s important when you first start in order to trigger ketosis so the body can begin to burn fat for fuel.

While vegetables are simple carbs, they are not insulin triggers like other simple sugars, such as table sugar, fruit, and baked goods nor do they have the same insulin trigger effect in the body as complex carbs do, such as corn, potatoes, rice, pasta, and bread.

Non-starchy vegetables are very low in carbs, making them a nutrient dense food that carries a very low glycemic load that supports ketosis and weight loss.    

Eating foods with a low glycemic load means that your body will stop storing fat and begin to burn it instead, because both simple and complex carbs convert to glucose in the body, and any glucose not used for energy will be stored as fat.

However, once those sources of glucose (starch and sugar carbs) are eliminated, the body enters the metabolic process of ketosis and begins to burn its fat stores for energy so you can lose weight.

The Ketogenic Diet Eliminates:

  • Sugar, honey, syrups, and all foods made with it
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • Milk
  • Starchy vegetables
  • All starches
  • Any foods with a high glycemic load

Since you’re cutting out all of those foods, you will need to replace them with non-starchy vegetables, like the ones listed below. This list also shows you how many grams of carbs are in each serving.

  • Alfalfa Sprouts – .4 grams per cup
  • Daikon – 1 gram per ½ cup
  • Endive – >1 gram per ounce
  • Escarole – >1 gram per ounce
  • Arugula – .2 grams per ½ cup
  • Bok Choy – .8 grams per 1 cup/raw
  • Celery – .8 grams per 1 stalk
  • Chicory Greens – .6 grams per ½ cup
  • Green Onions – .1 per 1 tablespoon
  • Cucumber – 1 gram per ½ cup sliced
  • Fennel – 3.6 grams per 1 cup
  • Iceberg Lettuce – .1 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Parsley – >1 gram per ounce
  • Bell Peppers – 2.3 grams per ½ cup
  • Radicchio – .7 grams per ½ cup
  • Radishes – .9 grams per 10 pieces
  • Romaine Lettuce – .2 grams per ½ cup
  • Artichoke (1/4 Steamed) – 4 grams
  •  Artichoke Hearts In Water – 2 grams per 1 heart
  • Asparagus – 2.4 grams per 6 spears
  • Bamboo Shoots – 1.1 grams per 1 cup
  • Broccoli – 1 gram per 1/2 cup
  • Brussels sprouts – 2.4 grams per ¼ cup
  • Cabbage – 2 grams per ½ cup
  • Cauliflower – 2 grams per 1 cup
  • Chard – 1.8 grams per ½ cup
  • Collard Greens – 4.2 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Eggplant – 1.8 grams per ½ cup
  • Hearts of Palm – .7 grams per 1 heart
  • Kale – 2.4 grams per ½ cup
  • Mushrooms – 1 gram per ½ cup
  • Kohlrabi – 4.6 grams per ½ cup
  • Leeks – 1.7 grams per ¼ cup
  • Okra – 2.4 grams per ½ cup
  • Black Olives (10 small, 5 large, or 3 jumbo olives) – 1 gram
  • Onions – 2.8 grams per ¼ cup
  • Pumpkin – 2.4 grams per ¼ cup
  • Sauerkraut – 1.2 grams per ½ cup
  • Spinach – .2 grams per ½ cup
  • Summer Squash – 2 grams per ½ cup
  • Tomato (1 medium) – 4 grams
  • Cherry Tomatoes – 4 grams per cup
  • Turnips – 2.2 grams per ½ cup
  • Fresh herbs and spices

Some clean eaters suggest that all of your vegetables should be fresh, however frozen and canned may still be fine, just be sure to check the label to ensure there is no added salt, preservatives or sugar.

Another way to ensure that you eat clean and save money is by growing your own vegetables and fruits. Whether you have a large yard to plant as far as the eye can see, or you have a small area where you can garden in containers.

You have total control over pesticides, and it’s cheaper than having to purchase them. You can also grow your own herbs, and fruits.

Protein Intake

Low Carb Foods

Protein is both 46% ketogenic and 58% anti-ketogenic because some protein will convert to glucose in the bloodstream, therefore on a keto diet, protein intake should be enough to support muscle mass and prevent its loss, but not so much that will disrupt ketosis.

Use this formula to determine how much is right for you:

  • Sedentary lifestyle: from 0.69 – 0.8 grams per pound of lean body mass
  • Mild activity: from 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of lean body mass
  • Heavy strength training/bodybuilding and exercise: from 1 to 1.2 grams per pound of lean body mass

Lean body mass is total body weight minus total body fat. Lean body mass ranges between sixty to ninety percent of total body weight and men’s will be higher than women’s will.

You can use any of the online calculators to figure your lean body mass index. The Calculo one I linked to above is great for this.

The best protein sources are whole food choices eaten in their natural state without any coatings and include:

  • Steaks
  • Grilled chicken and turkey
  • Pork
  • Veal
  • Lamb
  • Organ Meats
  • Game Meats
  • Wild caught fish and seafood

Free range, grass fed, pasture raised, organic or those raised without hormones and not grain fed are all optimal protein choices when eating clean.

Fat Intake

avocado fries

In the Ketogenic diet, you eliminate carbs, but increase intake of healthy fats. While in the past 20 years fats have been demonized, the truth is that healthy fats are good for you and in keto they are key in burning body fat.

Many studies have shown low carb eating to be more effective in weight loss, including in the amount of actual weight lost and in reducing risk factors for heart disease than low fat diets.

This includes saturated fats from meat and butter that promote energy when eating low carb and lead to smart weight loss.

Daily Fat Intake Guidelines For A Ketogenic Diet

The daily intake of fats is typically set at 75%. Once you’ve figured your ideal calorie intake, you can break down the 75% of calories into grams of fat, using an online calculator.

 Get organic when possible to further eliminate unnatural additives.

  • Grass fed butter
  • Range free eggs
  • Avocados
  • Olives
  • Natural plant oils, like extra virgin olive and coconut oil
  • Range free or pasture raised eggs
  • Full fat cheeses – whole block and not shredded is best as shredded cheeses typically have preservatives. White cheeses have no coloring, yellow cheeses do. Organic or grass fed is best.
  • Heavy cream
  • Nuts

The Role of Fiber in a Ketogenic Diet

Fiber is naturally found in many carbohydrates, but fiber does not turn into glucose in the body as other sugar carbs do, so fiber helps to lower the glycemic load of carb-rich foods.

For this reason, the entire carb load of a food is not counted against your daily total of carbs.

The ketogenic diet only counts what are known as net barbs and the formula to figure out the net carbs of any food is simple.

Net Carb Formula

Total carbohydrate count – fiber = net carbs

The more fiber a food has, the less impact its carbohydrates will have on blood sugars.

This formula makes it easy to determine the actual impact carbs of any food by simply reading the food labels or looking at its nutritional value.

Fiber does not negate carbs, it just lowers the impact of carbs that naturally occur within that food. For example, an avocado has 17 grams of carbs, and 13 grams of fiber, yielding 4 grams of net carbs. 1 cup of ice cream has 32 grams of carbs, but mashing in an avocado to that ice cream will not reduce it by the 13 grams of fiber in the avocado.

There is no such thing as negative carbs, this happens with incorrect calculations and in some food tracking apps when fiber is subtracted from a food that has listed starches and sugars separately from fiber.

Testing For Ketones

There are various ketone-testing kits available. As you can test ketones in three different ways – breath, blood, and urine – there are various methods for testing.

One of the easiest, but often not as accurate are strips to test your urine for ketones, like Ketostix or Perfect Keto. All you need to do is pee on a strip and compare it to a color chart to determine your level of ketones.

Another method is an at-home blood monitor, like Keto-Mojo, that requires a prick of your finger on a test strip. You then put the strip into a monitor that will evaluate your ketone level. The monitor and testing strips are usually sold separately.

Your doctor can also test for ketones in your blood. If you are working with a doctor for weight loss, this is the best and most accurate options.

Testing can be a good way to ascertain if your body has reached a state of ketosis and can be psychologically comforting. However, it is important to note that ketosis can be present without showing ketones in the urine.

Typically, a carb intake of up to 100 grams will induce ketosis, but ketones are rarely present in urine at this level of carbs in the diet. Generally, ketones will show up in urine when intake is at 30 grams of carbs per day or less, though this too can vary.

One of the more important functions of ketone testing may be to allow the monitoring of the effects of carbs on ketosis as you progress. As you lose weight and progress towards your goal, you may begin to introduce more carbs to see the effect it has on your weight loss so you can find the right balance, and these test kits can be really helpful to that end.  

Additionally, if you workout and as a result can tolerate more carbs and still lose weight, this testing may also help evaluate those efforts since as long as trace ketosis is maintained, carbs can be gradually added to the diet.

Results Will Vary

Some people can never seem to get past trace showings on the ketosis tests, while others consistently get darker readings, and there is little explanation for this.

It is best to not obsess about the results if you show lower than expected readings, and remember that just as finding dark readings can give you mental comfort, their  absence can be distressing.

As long as you are losing weight, maintaining energy and feel good, that is all that matters.

Conclusion

If you’re looking into starting a keto diet, this guide contains a lot of information about the ketogenic diet and what will be expected of you. We hope you’ve been inspired to give it a try. We hope to see you again as you search fore more information and recipes.

Before you go, you might want to read our guide on the 10 most common low-carb diet mistakes that are made, so you are sure to avoid these pitfalls.

Read More About a Low-Carb Lifestyle

What Is a Ketogenic Diet?

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