Gone are the days of fat-free diets ruling the mental—and marketing—airways. And thank goodness for that, as the fat-free craze ultimately resulted in a backlash of (no pun intended) enormous proportions: As NPR reports, “by cutting way back on fat, many experts we talked to agreed that the original dietary goals may have helped fuel other problems, like diabetes and obesity.”
Indeed, in recent years, the benefits of eating good fats—those found in, say, walnuts, olives, avocados and salmon—have been expounded by everyone from dietitians to physicians and celebrities.
There’s a solid reason behind it—and the growing interest in the high-fat ketogenic diet (or “keto diet”) underscores good fats’ advantages.
What is the keto diet?
“According to a study published in Behavioral Pharmacology,” U.S. News and World Report says, “the ketogenic diet has been in clinical use for 80 years. Originally developed in the 1920s to treat patients with epilepsy, the diet emphasizes a dependence on fat (from oils, butter or fattier cuts of meat) as the main sources of calories, with around 15 to 20 percent of calories coming from protein and only 5 to 10 percent from carbohydrates.”
Sound radical? Consider how carbohydrates operate. “Following a traditional Western diet means the body sources its fuel from glucose found in carbohydrates,” Shape reminds us. “The ketogenic diet takes an entirely different approach. You’re taking carbohydrates out of the equation, and the body kind of pauses and says, ‘Okay, I don’t have any sugar. What am I supposed to run off of?’ says Pamela Nisevich Bede, R.D., a dietitian with EAS Sports Nutrition.”
The answer to that is fat. Or, rather, ketone bodies—substances, produced in the liver, that are used as an energy source when glucose isn’t readily available. And when our bodies start relying on fat rather than carbs for energy, we end up burning off stored fat (as in that muffin top) instead of the calories we receive from starchy foods, fruits and sugar.
What are the potential benefits of following the keto diet?
The process described above is known as ketosis—a metabolic process that can result in myriad ways. By getting the lion’s share of your calories from proteins and fats—which are inherently more satiating than a can of soda—one of the biggest draws of the keto diet is weight loss.
“It takes more work to turn fat into energy than it takes to turn carbs into energy,”
Medical News Today reports. “Because of this, a ketogenic diet can help speed up weight loss. And since the diet is high in protein, it doesn’t leave you hungry like other diets do.”
While this alone may be enough to persuade many, following the keto diet might also lead to clearer, more radiant skin, encourage cardiac health and enhance cognitive function. Further, it may have the potential to bolster your workouts: As Designs for Health reports, “Ketones might play a role in boosting athletic performance. Much research remains to be done in this area; so far, it appears that exogenous ketones” (“outside-of-the-body” supplements like salts, esters and oils) “may be more beneficial in endurance athletics, rather than power sports requiring short bursts of high energy. Exogenous ketones might also help increase the rate of post-workout glycogen replenishment.”
In plain English? Following a keto diet could help you feel better faster after a grueling uphill run.
So: What do I get to eat on the keto diet?
Where we were once told to stay away from high-fat foods, the keto diet embraces them, big time—as in they comprise 80 percent of the meal plan.
“Due to the strict limitations on carbohydrates, keto dieters eat mostly meat, full-fat dairy and non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens,” Prevention writes. “Since they’re higher in carbs, cruciferous and root vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, and potatoes are typically avoided. All grains and many fruits are also skipped—just one apple has more than the average daily allowance of carbohydrates on the keto diet.” What’s more, serious keto dieters also “tend to stay away from less obvious sources of carbs like store-bought shredded cheese, which is coated in potato starch.”
To illustrate what a typical keto diet looks like, breakfast might be an egg-scramble skillet with vegetables or other paleo breakfast casserole recipes (cooked in coconut oil), lunch might be an avocado and fish salad and dinner might be lemon basil salmon baked in butter and served with sautéed spinach. In short, the keto diet prohibits all grains, milk (only small amounts of raw, full-fat milk are allowed), alcohol, starchy stuff like potatoes and yams, low-fat foods (which tend to contain more sugar) and high-sugar fruits such as bananas and oranges.
How to make the keto diet work for you
Sound alluring—or at least intriguing? Whether you’re on board or on the fence about the idea, the keto diet can work for you. Here’s how:
1. Stay hydrated
“Carbs hold fluids in your body (think of how bread soaks up water compared to a chicken breast),” says Prevention, “so when you cut back on the nutrient, extra water is excreted in your urine.” Translation? Keep that water bottle full. It’ll help you prevent dehydration and stave off constipation (more on that below). Additionally, Prevention goes on to say, “it can also lower the odds you’ll get the ‘keto flu,’ a period of fatigue, headaches, and pain often caused by dehydration and loss of electrolytes.”
2. Prep for an emotional and physical shift—at least at the beginning
The ‘keto flu’ isn’t just a myth: According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, following the keto diet may—despite those super-filling fats and proteins—result in exhaustion and hunger (and the irritability that arrives with it). Knowing this before going in ought to prompt you to do what you can to mitigate it—eating more frequently, exercising regularly, drinking lots of water and -- no fork necessary -- sleeping.
3. Keep an eye on digestion
You might shed water weight the first few weeks of the keto diet but you may also experience intestinal woes, primarily in the form of constipation. In addition to staying properly hydrated—which will help keep those bowels moving—you might also want to think about increasing your consumption of magnesium (through food and the addition of a constipation relief supplement), snacking on chia or flax seeds and eating more fibrous vegetables (such as artichokes and broccoli).
4. Take stock of your stash
Following the keto diet requires a major transition in thinking—and planning. Candies, sodas, breads, rice, pastas, muffins—all should be tossed out or donated to thwart temptation. Replace these items and others with keto diet foods such as eggs, certified organic chicken breast, olives, almonds and kale chips.
5. Talk to your doctor
Attempting any new eating regimen that precludes—or significantly reduces the consumption of—a whole food group necessitates an honest conversation with your physician; after all, you must ensure it’s safe and sustainable for you and your lifestyle. Should you get the green light, keep your expectations in check. Weight loss shouldn’t be the chief goal—feeling great and being healthy overall should.