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.
Enter the “Keto” diet. 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 is a type of nutritional intake that maximizes your body’s output of ketone bodies. That’s not a bad thing and in fact, as a holistic nutritionist with a strong background in ancestral and paleo diets, I believe a ketogenic diet 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.
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, 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 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 diet first hand in my practice. 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 diet.
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 very low-carb diet; typically less than 25 grams of net carbs per day-if you don’t know what that means then I’m going to say you’re probably not ready for keto. 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 an extra fifteen 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).
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.
Next we have to talk about food prep. If ketosis is your goal you’ll be planning your meals in advance, which means you’ll also have to prepare most of 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 we’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.
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 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.
So, I hope I haven’t take 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 diet 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.