Seeing as it’s the first week of a new year, I’m sure many of you are already cleaning up your diet, getting to the gym and doing your best to harness the motivation that only early January can provide and make a significant change to your lifestyle and health.
I REALLY want it to work for you. I REALLY want you to not need me or any other health coach to help you make the permanent changes you want to make, but I know the sad reality of the statistics. After having worked in the health and fitness industry for close to twenty years, I can state with confidence that the deck is stacked against us when it comes to making big, dramatic changes in our lives, particularly when that change involves food and exercise habits. The reality can sound harsh, but we have to face this monster head on and realize that permanent changes to diet and lifestyle require MONUMENTAL preparation and education. This isn’t something that most people just “do”. Embracing different eating and exercise habits is something that often requires deep changes to our identity and our relationship with ourselves. My point is, it’s hard. It’s okay that it’s hard because it’s still do-able, but I think it’s really important to respect the challenge in order to rise up to it.
I have to start by looking at the word “diet” for a second. This word has two meanings and even in this article I’ll use the same word to describe both meanings. Meaning number one is when we think of a “diet” as something we do temporarily to achieve a goal, usually weight loss. The concept of “going on a diet” is bullshit. It doesn’t work. Sure, people may lose weight when they “go on a diet”, but if you’re not prepared to STAY on that diet for the rest of your life what do you think will happen? Of course, you’ll gain any weight you lost back again and possibly even more, and that’s just a nightmare. I’ll refer to this as a “weight loss diet” to help you sort it out.
The second meaning of the word “diet” describes what we eat in general. Sometimes I’ll refer to it as an “eating style” to alleviate confusion. Our “diet” is our daily food intake and everyone has one. I eat a diet of whole, unprocessed foods that are similar to what my great-great-grandmothers ate before the proliferation of added sugars, processed grains and processed oils became staples in the North American diet. Most North Americans eat the “Standard American Diet”, which is often referred to as the SAD diet. Get my drift? I know that can be confusing, but try to sort out which meaning of the word I’m intending from the context, this skill will serve you well as you learn more about nutrition in general.
Enter the “Keto” diet (temporary/weight loss). Keto is having a (another) moment in the sun right now and I’m willing to bet that if you’ve been within sniffing distance of the internet sometime in the past six months you’ve probably heard of it. If not, let me give you a VERY quick run-down.
A ketogenic diet (eating style) is a type of nutritional intake that maximizes your body’s output of ketone bodies and puts you in a state of ketosis. That’s not a bad thing and in fact, as a holistic nutritionist with a strong background in ancestral and paleo diets (eating styles), I believe a ketogenic diet (eating style) can be very appropriate for some populations and could even reverse serious diseases like diabetes and heart disease and keep other diseases like Parkinson’s, Epilepsy and MS at bay. I refer to that as a “therapeutic ketogenic diet” and it’s something very different from the ketogenic weight loss diet.
Now, that being said, let me get to the point of this post. I would hate to discourage anyone that’s 100% committed and excited to embrace a ketogenic diet (eating style), but I feel like it’s my duty, as your friendly, neighbourhood holistic nutritionist to tell you some things you NEED TO KNOW before embarking on a ketogenic diet (temporary/weight loss) and perhaps suggest a more realistic and sustainable approach as a starting place.
I see the difficulty and the learning curve that people face when moving to a paleo-inspired ancestral eating-style first hand in my practice. A paleo-inspired, ancestral eating-style is a diet that mimics that of our ancestors in the best way possible in our modern environment. It means eating meats, vegetables, nuts, seeds, a bit of fruit and not eating processed foods including most grains, dairy (although this depends on the person), refined sugars and processed oils like soy or corn oil. In some cases people have to learn or re-learn the fundamentals of nutrition. They may have to start with basics like learning about macronutrients, for example knowing how to identify which foods are considered fats, proteins or carbohydrates. They may have to learn how to read labels and how to identify hidden sugars in foods. They may have to completely overhaul their kitchen and their eating habits and figure out just what the hell they’re going to eat if they can’t eat grains, dairy, alcohol, processed oils, sugar or any food containing those things. It can really be a lot to take in and I encourage my clients to be easy about the process and give themselves a year or better to really master the basics of eating an ancestral/paleo eating style.
If you’re considering a ketogenic diet, take all of that and multiply it by about ten… because that’s the sort of time, effort and difficulty you can expect when embarking on a ketogenic diet without first having mastered a paleo/ancestral eating approach.
There’s more than one way to get your body into ketosis, but in the standard keto diet it’s due to consuming very little carbohydrate and forcing your body to burn ketone bodies for fuel. Basically, we’re talking about a high-fat and very low-carb diet; typically less than 25 grams of net carbs per day. If I just lost you, then I’m going to say you’re probably not ready for keto. To actually get into ketosis, it’s absolutely ESSENTIAL that you don’t consume more than 25 grams of net carbs per day, which means you HAVE to count your carbohydrate intake, which means using a tracking app or some other method. I counted the old-fashioned way with a note pad, calculator and nutrition databases in these things called BOOKS for YEARS. It was a horrible, time-sucking, deflating way to spend my twenties. Apps like Cronometer have actually made that process fun for me (but I’m a total nutrition geek), so that part might not be so bad if you’re the type that loves to plan like a diamond thief. So that’s job one, you have to count, and not just carbs. You have to count protein grams, fat grams and probably calories as well if weight loss or weight gain is a goal. That alone could take between 15-30 minutes per day and you’ll likely need to adjust it throughout the day if you have to deviate from your plan at all. One common mistake people make when trying to eat a keto diet is not tracking their macros and consuming a lot more fat than they typically would yet not reducing the carbs to the point where they enter ketosis. That’s a recipe for fat GAIN and metabolic stress that leads to a host of disease conditions. Carbs + fat = fat storage. Fat-carbs= fat burning. Over-consuming protein is a concern as well. We’re looking for .8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass (if this is Greek to you as well, keto may be a bit too much right now). That being said, many people without the slightest clue about nutrition can and do lose weight on something that kinda, sorta looks like keto simply by eating foods from an “approved” foods list and avoiding foods from the “off limits” list. In my experience, those people probably aren’t achieving ketosis with any regularity, which is fine and actually supports my point that you don’t need to live in ketosis to lose weight. The problem is, they rarely have lasting success with keto or any other weight loss attempts because they are approaching weight loss with a “diet” mentality instead of thinking of it as a complete lifestyle change. They could lose 20, 30 or even 100 pounds, but if they don’t invest the time and energy into learning about nutrition, eventually society and the pull of processed foods takes over and they gain all the weight back (and often more) and they end up feeling like a failure…a public failure, because everyone notices when someone loses and then re-gains a large amount of weight.
The second big hurdle to overcome is the reality of what 25 grams of net carbs looks like. Net carbs are calculated by subtracting the fiber from the total carb content. Let me break this down for you; one homemade oatmeal cookie contains about 10 grams of net carbs, one medium apple contains 20 grams of net carbs, one large sweet potato contains 31 grams of net carbs, one slice of whole wheat bread contains 13 grams of net carbs. So basically, you just can’t get away with anything made with grains, anything that contains any amount of sugar (including honey and maple syrup), VERY little if any fruit, definitely no dried fruit and very little, if any starchy vegetables such as potatoes, squash, sweet potato, beets or turnips. Is reality sinking in yet ? You can make or break this diet with a breath mint. That being said, people that exercise intensely may be able to consume more than 25 grams of net carbs and stay in ketosis, but that’s something each individual needs to experiment with to see how much is too much when it comes to carb re-fueling. Again, that requires diligence and discipline. You can’t just do a tough workout and assume that eating a large sweet potato afterwards will be okay..it may be, but it may not. Think you’ll be able to eat a burger or pizza? Not happening. Not if you want to stay in ketosis that is. Something important to add here is that ketone supplements are useless. The completely miss the point. You can’t eat extra carbs and then take ketone bodies to get you into ketosis, that’s not how the biochemistry works. The presence of ketone bodies aren’t what matters, so save your money. If you eat carbs and are knocked out of ketosis, okay, that’s life. Move on.
Next we have to talk about food prep. If steady ketosis is your goal, you’ll have to plan and prepare your meals in advance. If you think you can just “grab something” good luck. Even if you’re nutrition savvy enough to know that you COULD get a salad and a protein source somewhere, it’s still going to be pretty tough to find a salad dressing without added sugar and a meat that hasn’t had sugar of some sort added to it in the cooking process. Even smoked salmon and beef jerky often have added sugars. You’ll have to keep plenty of proteins on hand, have them cooked and ready for breakfasts, lunches and quick dinners and you’ll need to prepare a lot of fresh vegetables every day. Although it might be tempting to rely on protein powders and smoothies, there are very few options that would meet the criteria and provide the benefits you’re after with a keto diet. One way around the food prep issue is to use one of the meal services that are popping up in bigger cities. Obviously, that’s expensive and you never really learn how to prepare your own food and you can’t deviate from their plan at all without jeopardizing the entire endeavour. It could work, but it doesn’t seem too sustainable to me.
Another possible pitfall of a ketogenic diet is that eating such a low-carb diet may not be great for certain individuals (especially women) for any long period of time. Some people can eat a keto diet indefinitely without any negative health effects as long as they’re getting enough fiber and prebiotics from carefully selected vegetable foods, but others can suffer from hormonal imbalances, low energy and imbalanced gut microbes with an extended ketogenic diet. If you’re going to do keto, I recommend doing it for six weeks and then re-assessing, or moving into a paleo/ancestral maintenance diet and adding in some of those unprocessed, nutrient-dense carbs like sweet potatoes, beets, cooked and cooled rice and potatoes, fruit and other starchy vegetables. Once you learn how to eat “keto” you can cycle in and out of it on purpose and that’s a very effective way to manage blood sugar, body fat and cognitive function.
As someone that has personally struggled with what I refer to as “food hijacking” but others may call food addiction,I have to address that the ketogenic weight loss diet may set people up for big-time failure due to it’s restrictiveness and strict rules. Most of the clients I work with have suffered from some degree of food hijacking and I’ve found that anything longer than 40 days on a very restrictive eating plan isn’t feasible for those folks. There are good reasons to use a restrictive eating plan for a little while when someone is ready, but trying to take someone from eating junk food, drinking soda and a highly processed foods diet to strict keto is a BAD, BAD idea.
Lastly, we need to talk about electrolytes. I have to thank Robb Wolf for this tidbit of vital information. A keto diet shifts our metabolism away from sugar burning and toward fat burning, which is obviously a great thing, but if we don’t track our electrolyte intake in the same way that we track our macronutrients we’re setting ourselves up for failure in the form of muscle cramps, fatigue, constipation and bad breath. The standard recommendations are 5000-7000mg of sodium, 1000-3500mg of potassium and 300-500mg of magnesium and just salting your food and drinking homemade bone broth everyday likely won’t be enough (if you could even drink homemade bone broth everyday).
So, I hope I haven’t taken the wind out of your sails, but if I have, let me offer you this; if you’re ready to make a significant change to your eat habits and move towards an ancestral/paleo eating style then you can still lose unwanted body fat, improve your cognitive function and your mood, end digestive trouble and generally feel amazing without needing to track everything and make your new eating style a full-time job.
Removing sugar, grains, dairy, processed oils and processed foods from your diet is still challenging, don’t get me wrong. You’ll still need to learn how to read labels and learn the basics of nutrition and you’ll still be spending a bit more time (initially) preparing meals at home, but it’s certainly easier than trying to do all of that AND restrict carbs, count macros and count electrolytes. In a healthy ancestral eating style carbs aren’t restricted to the degree they are in keto, but they come from natural, unprocessed sources like fruit, beets, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots and other root vegetables. After an initial period of restriction to heal the gut lining, there’s even room for properly prepared grains like sprouted corn or soaked oats and cooked and cooled rice and white potatoes. This is why I recommend a 40-day paleo health reset as a great way to shift into a healthier eating style.
If you’ve been eating an ancestral/paleo diet for a while and have maximized the benefits of that eating style, or if you’re trying to treat a specific disease condition, THEN a six-week keto reset might be the next best step for you. If that’s the case, I highly recommend Robb Wolf’s Keto Masterclass or Mark Sisson’s Keto Reset.