If you’re a frequent dieter - meaning you’ve tried a lot of diets before - you probably encountered diets that are way too restrictive or impose impractical limitations to the types of foods you can eat. And trust me; I know exactly what you feel. There are far too many diets out there, each one claiming to be proven by science or used by celebrities to get fit for a role, and it’s all confusing.
One of the latest diets to be picked up by a lot of people recently is the ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet is commonly known as an extremely low-carb diet that relies on fat for energy which they say improves fat loss. However, the ketogenic diet is also popular for its restrictive menu.
With all the claims of health and weight loss benefits, is the ketogenic diet’s restrictiveness worth it? Let’s find out!
What is a ketogenic diet?
Before we dive in on what you can eat on a keto diet, let’s first define what a ketogenic diet is.
The ketogenic diet is defined as an ultra low-carb diet, with the bulk of its macros coming from fats. It’s recommended for a lot of things, but mostly for weight loss. What sets it apart from the usual diets out there is how it relies on a thing called ketosis. Ketosis is the process your body undergoes when it senses a lack of glucose in the system (1).
You see, glucose is our body’s preferred source of energy. It’s mainly converted from carbohydrates and is readily metabolized. The excess is, of course, converted into fat and stored for later use. When you’re low on glucose, the body tells the liver to start producing ketones, and ketones are produced by breaking down fat. Ketones function the same way as glucose, only that it comes from fat and not carbohydrates.
Ketones are your body’s “emergency” source of energy. We say emergency because, throughout human history, the body only goes to ketosis during times of famine or when food shortage occurs. Coincidentally, ketosis also only happens when you fast for a while, but we’ll talk about fasting and some of its benefits and ties to the ketogenic diet some other time.
From that, you can pretty much understand why people see the ketogenic diet as “the best diet,” a diet that actually utilizes a natural process has never been heard of until this diet came along. With ketosis, your body is forced to burn fat for fuel which instantly translates to improved weight loss efforts.
Benefits of a ketogenic diet
The most common reason for going on a ketogenic diet, or any other diet for that matter, is solely for weight loss. However, unlike other diets, the ketogenic diet does more for your body than helping you lose weight. Below are five scientifically proven benefits of going on a ketogenic diet.
1. Gives you more energy
When the body gets used to producing and utilizing ketones as the main fuel source, you will most likely have more energy than ever before. This is because ketones are much more efficient at what they do for the amount you produce. Not to mention you're no longer dependent on carbs, which mean you will no longer experience any form of crashing.
There is also this thing where you get a sense of euphoria when the high energy kicks in and eliminates what we call "brain fog.” No brain fog means clearer thought processes (2).
2. You will burn more fat as fuel
When you induce ketosis, you're helping your body get rid of excess fat by letting it directly convert fat to energy. This will tell your body to essentially burn more fat than it stores, making you technically become a human fat furnace.
3. Preserve more muscle mass
One of the common problems with diets is how people often worry about the loss of muscle mass. This is quite the issue especially in men who work out for hours a week and want to go through a cutting phase. They definitely don’t want to lose all their gains. The best way to lose weight is to burn fat and fat alone. Ideally, this happens, but we don’t live in an ideal world.
Sometimes people who try to lose weight end up losing more muscle than fat. There a lot of factors, but this often happens when they only cut out calories without supplying the body with a replacement source of energy. This lack of fuel source could lead to a process called gluconeogenesis.
Gluconeogenesis is yet another natural process wherein the body turns to non-carbohydrate sources as fuel. If you're not in a state of ketosis, or you’re not doing a low-carb diet in general, the natural choice would be to burn the protein in your muscle.
Being on a ketogenic diet tells your body to prioritize ketones over glucose when it comes to the energy source, and that's much better since ketones come from fat stores. This effectively saves your muscles from being cannibalized.
4. Keeps you full for longer
As mentioned, the ketogenic diet is best paired when doing a fast, specifically intermittent fasting. Not only will that promote fat burning more, the fact that you’re on a high-fat diet means you will be consuming foods known to keep the stomach from feeling hunger for extended periods.
Fat naturally keeps you from eating too frequently, and the ketogenic diet mainly uses fat as the food source. Put two and two together, and you get weight loss (3).
5. Can actually help you lower risks of Type 2 Diabetes
When we consume too much sugar, the body stores them as fat the aid of insulin, a hormone created by the pancreas. Insulin's main function is to control our blood sugar levels. Suffice to say, if our body is not able to produce enough insulin or if we’re consuming more sugar than the amount of insulin we’re producing, our risk of acquiring diabetes is significantly higher as our blood sugar rises uncontrollably.
In a ketogenic diet, you only consume the right amount of carbs which prevents spikes in blood sugar and insulin resistance, two symptoms that act as prerequisites to Type 2 Diabetes (4).
What can you eat on a ketogenic diet?
One of the many myths surrounding the ketogenic diet is how restrictive it is when it comes to what you can and can’t eat. However, we like to think that the myth is rather overstated and misunderstood. Here are some of the foods you can eat on a ketogenic diet.
Since the diet revolves around fat as a main source of energy, it goes without saying your daily menu needs to be quite high in fat. However, not all fats are created equal, and when it comes to fat sources, your best bet is to stick to whole foods and not artificial stuff like margarine or hydrogenated cooking oils.
Some of the healthy fats you can include are plant fats. Some of these include avocados, chia seeds, extra virgin coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and other nuts and seeds. These plants contain healthy oils that are liquid or in a liquid state at room temperature. These fats have been cited for numerous health benefits - improving blood cholesterol levels, reducing inflammation, and even cancer prevention - with a lot of researchers agreeing on how a plant is only beneficial thanks to its oils (5).
The other type of fat is animal fats, and yes, animal fat can indeed be healthy for you, contrary to what many people say. When people say animal fat, they usually refer to fish oil and its Omega-3 content. Omega-3 fatty acids are known for its brain and heart health benefits. It’s also considered essential as the body is unable to produce Omega-3 on its own.
Omega-3 has been cited to have cardioprotective and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also known to reduce risks of chronic illnesses that affect the heart, the eyes, and even the brain (6).
Other than fish oil, you can also source healthy fats from eggs and lean meat. Other than fat, eggs are also packed with lots of nutrients, essentially making it some sort of complete food. Lean meat on the hand also offers vitamins like B12, although you have to take care, not to overeat on meat as it is protein. When you have too much protein, the body converts that to glucose which can take you out of ketosis.
Coffee or Tea
Whether you’re into a good cup of Joe or prefer a calm yet soothing beverage, coffee and tea are excellent choices of beverages when you’re on a ketogenic diet. The key is to not add anything to the drinks. Preparing it as pure as possible, especially when omitting the sugar, will not ruin your diet or your ketosis.
More than delicious drinks, coffee and tea both offer their own health benefits for weight loss (7).
You probably heard you can’t eat fruit on a ketogenic diet. Well, whoever told you that doesn’t know what they’re talking about. While there is a bit of truth to it, generally speaking, the idea is to make sure the carbs you eat don’t exceed the ketogenic limit of around 50 g per day, as any more will kick you out of ketosis.
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are also famously low in terms of carbohydrate content. What’s more, berries have high amounts of fiber, which is great for proper digestion. They also contain boatloads of antioxidants and vitamins and minerals.
Admittedly, people on a ketogenic diet don’t have a lot of dessert options outside of fruits. However, dark chocolate might just be enough for most keto dieters.
Cocoa and dark chocolate contain a good amount of antioxidants, just like berries. What’s more, the flavanols in dark chocolate have been shown to have blood pressure benefits which help in maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system (8).
However, there’s one thing you need to consider before embracing dark chocolate as part of your keto diet. You should stick to buying only the kinds of dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids. These contain only around 10 grams of carbohydrates. Not only that, but you also have to mind the amount of dark chocolate you eat, as these can quickly eat up your carb limit for the day.
Look, salads are probably one of the healthiest foods known to modern man. However, if you douse it with a lot of “bad” dressing, you’re likely offsetting the health benefits. That doesn’t mean you’re stuck with plain, dry salad.
You can opt to use balsamic vinegar, but adding olive oil instead can make a simple salad healthier. Skip the fancy dressings that contain heaps of sugar and hydrogenated fat and go for olive oil, almond oil, sesame oil, or even coconut oil if you’re okay with the taste.
Trans fat: The fat you’re not supposed to eat
If there is one type of fat you should avoid, it's definitely trans fat. Trans Fat has been linked to a lot of diseases such as heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and obesity. It can even raise pregnancy risks. Of course, it also dramatically reduces the quality of life and longevity, particularly increasing chances of acquiring Alzheimer’s Disease and depression (9).
Certainly, something this bad can't be abundantly used in food, right?
Negative. Trans Fat is virtually in everything that makes use of hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Hydrogenation is a process that literally adds extra hydrogen in common vegetable oils to prolong their shelf life and give foods like cookies and fried chips that "crisp" texture. This process makes some of the foods we love much, much better than if they used typical vegetable oil. It’s also one of the reasons why some foods take a long time before they lose their texture.
Unfortunately, the price of a great palate is a compound designed to harm the body in just about as many ways as it can improve food palatability, such as how it can lower good cholesterol and increase bad cholesterol (10).
Some food sources include baked goods (cakes, pie crusts, crackers), snacks (potato, corn, and tortilla chips), fried food (french fries, doughnuts, and any fried food), refrigerator dough (pizza crusts), and creamers and margarine.
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(2) Gasior M, Rogawski MA, Hartman AL. Neuroprotective and disease-modifying effects of the ketogenic diet. Behav Pharmacol. 2006;17(5-6):431-9.
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(5) Souza PAL, Marcadenti A, Portal VL. Effects of Olive Oil Phenolic Compounds on Inflammation in the Prevention and Treatment of Coronary Artery Disease. Nutrients. 2017;9(10):1087. Published 2017 Sep 30. doi:10.3390/nu9101087
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(7) Vernarelli JA, Lambert JD. Tea consumption is inversely associated with weight status and other markers for metabolic syndrome in US adults. Eur J Nutr. 2012;52(3):1039-48.
(8) Yuan S, Li X, Jin Y, Lu J. Chocolate Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies. Nutrients. 2017;9(7):688. Published 2017 Jul 2. doi:10.3390/nu9070688
(9) Dhaka V, Gulia N, Ahlawat KS, Khatkar BS. Trans fats-sources, health risks and alternative approach - A review. J Food Sci Technol. 2011;48(5):534-41.
(10) Brouwer IA, Wanders AJ, Katan MB. Effect of animal and industrial trans fatty acids on HDL and LDL cholesterol levels in humans--a quantitative review. PLoS One. 2010;5(3):e9434. Published 2010 Mar 2. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009434