What Is A Ketogenic Lifestyle?

I decided to write an “all about keto” post should anyone be curious about the science behind this “diet.” I use the word diet loosely as, for me, this is not about losing the weight and returning to old habits; this is a lifestyle change. I can’t say for certain in this moment if I’ll stick to keto forever, of course, but I do see myself eating a low carb lifestyle for the rest of my life. This is mostly due to having PCOS and the way my body reacts to certain foods; if I go back to over-eating bread and pasta once I lose the weight, I’ll go back to being overweight – it’s as simple as that. This post will explain how I started following keto, hopefully answer a lot of questions about ketogenic living and provide some great resources for those interested in low carb, high fat eating.

I do want to stress I am not promoting this as the answer for everyone. Every body is different and what works for me may not work for you and vice versa. Also, if you have any of these medical conditions, you should not follow a ketogenic diet – speak with your doctor if you are unsure whether or not you should start. It can be very beneficial for anyone with PCOS, type 2 diabetes, hormone irregularities and even Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and epilepsy. With that said, educating oneself is providing yourself with the necessary tools to tackle anything in life, so consider this a presentation of information you may not otherwise have learned, if nothing else.

How Did I Hear About Keto?

In late February and early March I started doing some research into losing weight without taking into consideration the struggles I’d face from PCOS. I first heard about keto from my friend Piper. I knew I wanted to change my way of living, but the first time Piper mentioned it to me, I didn’t pay attention like I should have when she explained it. For two weeks I followed generic healthy guidelines and suggestions: oatmeal for breakfast, fruit smoothies, more vegetables and whole grains, etc. Then Piper mentioned keto again, and when I looked it up, I realized it could be the answer I have been looking for for many years. I soaked up as much information as I could before buying my first keto-friendly groceries and I haven’t looked back since.

What is Low Carb, High Fat Eating?

The basic premise of ketogenic eating is low carb, high fat, moderate protein. Most people on the Standard American Diet eat macro-nutrients, or macros, which are 50% carbs, 30% protein and 20% fat. Comparatively, my target macros for keto are set at 5% carbs, 25% protein, 70% fat, which currently work out to 18g total carbs, 88g protein and 109g fat every day. Macros are calculated based on total calories, so 18g of carbs are 5% of my daily calories. Macros can vary person-to-person, with some people eating 65% fat and others eating 80% fat. Fat is more satiable that carbohydrates, so I never feel deprived or even very hungry; eating more fat keeps you fuller longer. It may take some trial and error to determine what macros work best for you and your body. I use MyFitnessPal to track my daily calories and macros; it is a great community of knowledgeable people and I highly recommend the website for anyone.

Many people following keto use “net carbs” rather than “total carbs” when trying to hit their targets; net carbs are calculated by taking the total carbs and subtracting fiber and sugar alcohols. Our bodies do not digest these like other carbohydrates and they do not affect our blood sugar like fruit or candy does, so many people subtract them from their total carbs to stay under their goal. To date I have been strict about staying under 18g total carbs and not subtracting my fiber, but I do plan on experimenting in the future with eating foods that are higher in carbs and fiber to see their effect.

What is Ketosis?

After several days (3-5, sometimes more) of eating very low carb, high fat (lchf) your body is thrown into ketosis. Ketosis occurs when there are elevated ketones in the body while limiting the amount of sugar and carbohydrates, also known as glucose, in your system. Instead of ingesting and burning primarily carbohydrates for energy, people on keto eat and burn fat and use these ketones for energy. In order to stay in ketosis you have to remove excess glucose in your blood stream by cutting out nearly all glucose-producing foods (carbohydrates) and replace it with ketones made in your liver. Our brains can use either glucose or ketones for energy, so this is perfectly safe, even long term, and is a natural process in our bodies to avoid starvation.

It can be easy to slip out of ketosis by over-eating carbohydrates and it will take several days again to restore proper ketone levels – it is recommended to stay under 20g of carbs per day at the beginning to get into ketosis, and some people report they are able to maintain ketosis while eating as many as 50g of carbs a day. It is important to know that nutritional ketosis is not the same as ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis may be found in people with untreated Type 1 diabetes due to their compromised insulin levels and is not the same as being in nutritional ketosis.

How Do I Know I’m In Ketosis?

This is the big question that many ask as they begin their ketogenic journey. When starting keto, you might experience what ketoers call “keto flu.” This is flu-like symptoms while detoxing from the glucose in your system and often includes headache, nausea and fatigue. I was fortunate to avoid keto flu as I spent 2 weeks reducing my carb intake each day rather than cutting down to 5% cold turkey – this may or may not work for you, too. Other early signs some report are a fruity breath scent or metallic taste in your mouth, but I did not experience these either. Additionally, there are ketostix you can buy for $10 at the drug store which test ketone levels in your urine. There is some controversy around these sticks, as many think they are unreliable; dehydration, for example, can turn the stick dark purple and does not necessarily mean you are in ketosis. Ketostix test excess ketones expelled in your urine and not ketones being used for energy. I did buy a box for peace of mind early on and now test only after higher carb meals, which is maybe once or twice a month. Finally, there are blood ketone meters which test for ketones the same way a diabetic would test their blood sugar. These are a little pricey but if you are uncertain if you’re in ketosis, it may be worth the investment.

The biggest changes I noticed when I switched to ketogenic eating was a surge in energy all day every day and the reversal of nearly 4 years of insomnia. I used to wake up every 30-45 minutes every night for years, never getting a full night’s sleep. I think a lot of it had to do with anxiety about what time it was, but I know my body had become trained to wake up that often. After a week on keto I started sleeping much more soundly and now only wake up once a night. I also quit drinking Diet Coke (I was at one time a self-proclaimed addict) and I think the lack of caffeine and other chemicals has also helped my sleep schedule. It has made a huge difference in my ability to focus at work and have enough energy to get through the day. Plus, I no longer have the dreaded 2pm crash at my desk after a carb-filled lunch.

What Should I Eat On Keto?

Surprisingly, for me the hardest part of transitioning to lchf eating was not cutting down the carbs, it was adding enough fat to reach my 70% goal. I had to learn what kind of healthy fats to incorporate and how to consume enough to keep my body in ketosis. Most of my daily carbohydrates come from vegetables and I cook almost everything in butter or oil to raise the fat content. I thought it was easiest to list the foods I might buy at the grocery store to give you an idea what to consume.

Organic chicken breasts/thighs (skin-on has a higher fat content, but I prefer skinless), grassfed 85% lean ground beef, sausage & kielbasa, bacon, pepperoni, soppresata, turkey, roast beef, salmon, tuna, tilapia, shrimp, crab, lobster

Eggs, grassfed or pasture-raised butter or ghee, full fat cheeses (cheddar, mozzarella, pepperjack, provolone, parmesan), full fat cream cheese, full fat sour cream, heavy cream

Leafy greens (spinach, kale, romaine, bib lettuce, iceberg), bell peppers, cucumbers, jalapenos, zucchini, celery, mushrooms, onions, broccoli, asparagus, brussels sprouts, green beans, cauliflower, garlic, avocados. In very limited quantities: raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries.

Tuna, mayo, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, natural (preferably no sugar added) peanut butter, tomato sauce/paste, almond flour, coconut flour, baking powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, vanilla, almond milk, pickles, stevia (natural sweetener), apple cider vinegar, chia seeds, hot sauce, full fat ranch dressing, pork rinds, seaweed, chicken and beef broth, raw macadamia nuts or almonds, red pepper flakes

Foods to Avoid
Bread, pasta, rice, quinoa, candy, pizza, ice cream, oatmeal, most pre-made sauces (check the label first), margarine, bakery foods, potatoes, corn, beans and other starchy vegetables, most processed food, beers and dessert wines. Luckily there are websites that suggest replacements for some of these foods, and hopefully Butter Is Not a Carb will also be one. With a little creativity you can enjoy bread, pizza, mashed “fauxtatoes” and other typical comfort foods.

Fruit is high in carbs and sugar, unfortunately. 1/2 cup of berries can usually be consumed without issue, but other fruits are typically off limits on keto. I used to really enjoy apples, grapes, pineapple and peaches on a regular basis and do wish I could incorporate them into my diet, but any nutrients found in fruit can also be found in vegetables without the sugar and carbohydrates.

Above is my cart this morning at Whole Foods – veggies, meat, eggs, cheese, condiments and olive oil.

External Resources/Recommended Reading

I have come across many excellent articles full of information about low carb and ketogenic eating.  Click any of the links for more information.

The Beginner’s Guide to Ketosis
10 Health Benefits to Low Carb and Ketogenic Eating
Keto FAQs
It Ain’t the Fat!
How Do Ketogenic Diets Work?
Wheat Belly
Grain Brain

It is possible to follow a ketogenic lifestyle if you are a vegetarian.  I recommend reading thisthis and this for some basic information, if you’re interested.

Diabetes Specific Resources: The ketogenic lifestyle has been proven to aid those who struggle with Type 2 diabetes.  The organization Public Health Corps has provided my readers the following links with more information about diabetes:

Diabetes Public Health Resource
Health Library: Diabetes
Diabetes Self-Management Patient Education Materials
Seniors and Diabetes
National Diabetes Education Program – Teens

Do you have any specific questions I may not have covered?  Leave them below or send me an e-mail!

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