Ketogenic is the term given to a low-carb diet. When we consider traditional dietary guidelines, for example the Eatwell Guide (below), we are advised that a third of our intake should be from carbohydrates: bread, potatoes, cereals, wheat, pasta, flour. Another third of our intake should consist of fruit and vegetables, and the final third being split between protein (fish, meat, eggs, beans, pulses and nuts), dairy, and the tiniest amount of fats.
The ketogenic lifestyle almost flips this idea upside down. This way of eating means get more calories from protein and fat and less from carbohydrates.
By consuming less than 50 grams of carbs a day, your body eventually runs out of the fuel (blood sugar) it can use quickly. This can take on average 3 to 4 days. Then you’ll start to break down protein and fat for energy, which can make you lose weight.
But why choose this lifestyle? Initially, my reasons for overhauling my eating habits were to lose weight. But the more I read about it, the more medical professionals I heard speaking about it, the more I learnt about the many health benefits; a ketogenic diet can help manage certain medical conditions, for example epilepsy. It also may help people with heart disease, certain brain diseases, and even acne, but there needs to be more research in those areas.
One of the most immediate benefits of a keto diet for me was weight loss. Within a couple of months, I had lost half a stone. What’s more, my weight stabilised and unlike other diets I had followed, I was easily able to maintain it. It was like my body had finally found its happy place. I wasn’t at the lightest I’ve ever been, but I looked so much better. I’ve been active in the past, so I cannot say this was down to exercise, but I began to notice how my body changed shape. I felt much stronger and looked far more toned than I had done, even at my lightest, with a much leaner muscle mass. I presume this was due to the fact I was eating more in the way of protein.
I made the decision to immediately cut sugar from my diet. The first few days were hard. Biscuits and cakes were still a temptation, but it was January and I was on a mission! I also decided to cut milk from my diet, due to the sugar in the lactose (-ose means hidden sugar!). I found myself eating freshly cooked fish, meat and certain lower carb vegetables often cooked in oils. I switched tea with milk for cream with coffee.
Within a week of cutting sugar, I found the ‘brain fog’ I had experienced since my surgery, wasn’t quite so noticeable. That in itself was enough motivation for me to continue.
Exercise-wise, well there were a few issues to start with. A couple of weeks after starting the keto regime, I went out for a hilly, somewhat challenging hike. I struggled! In fact, I felt awful. I realise now that my body was still adapting to this new way of eating and fuelling…
It was around this time when I introduced intermittent fasting which I will write about separately.
I persisted though and can honestly say I feel so much better for my new way of eating. I don’t feel hungry like I used to on a low fat, carbohydrate based diet; this is due to the fact eating higher levels of fats and proteins leaves you feeling more satiated. As a result, I don’t feel hungry between meals, and therefore there is no need to ‘graze’ on hungry snacks. Scrambled eggs with a little spinach or avocado, and a little bit of ham will satisfy me well beyond lunch time!
When we eat higher levels of carbs, blood sugar levels increase considerably. This causes your body to produce more insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that tells your cells to store the extra glucose as fat. Over time, this can lead to diabetes and other related health issues. I’ll list a few of them here…
Insulin causes us to use or store sugar as fuel. Ketogenic diets make you burn through this fuel quickly so there is no requirement to store it as fat. This means our bodies need less insulin, and therefore produce less insulin. Lower levels of this hormone may offer protection against certain cancers, and it is thought it can result in slower growth of cancer cells, but more research is needed on this.
It seems strange that a diet that calls for more fat can raise “good” cholesterol and lower “bad” cholesterol. Bizarrely, the keto diet, that requires eating higher levels of fat, are associated with an increase in good cholesterol, and a reduction in bad cholesterol. This can lead to lower risk of high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, heart failure, and other heart conditions. It’s unclear, however; how long these effects last.
Low carb diets seem to help keep your blood sugar lower and more predictable than other diets. Personally, I have noticed my moods are far more stable; I no longer swing from calm to angry to upset, much to the delight of my family!
However, when your body burns fat for energy, it makes compounds called ketones. If you have diabetes, particularly type 1, too many ketones in your blood can make you sick. So it’s very important to work with your doctor on any changes in your diet.
Ketogenic diets have also helped to control seizures caused by epilepsy since the 1920s. But again, it’s important to work with your doctor to figure out what’s right for you or your child.
It is also thought a number of other neurological conditions may be helped by a ketogenic diet, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and sleep disorders. Scientists aren’t sure why, but it may be that the ketones your body makes when it breaks down fat for energy help protect your brain cells from damage.
And an additional benefit I have found, a ketogenic diet may help endurance athletes (runners and cyclists for example) when they train. Over time, it helps your muscle-to-fat ratio and raises the amount of oxygen your body is able to use when it’s working hard.
Combined with intermittent fasting, I have found that I can perform far longer than I ever could, without having to refuel with carb gels and jelly babies, or having to carry them! Therefore, I also didn’t have the associated upset stomach afterwards! Recently, by way of experimentation, I ran a solo 55km trail race. It took me just over 11 hours (and 2 extra kilometres as I got myself lost!), but the only fuel I used was a home-made fat bomb, smaller than an ice cube (I make a batch and freeze them!) made from dessicated coconut, coconut oil, sliced almonds and 90% dark chocolate. I ate this about 8km from the finish. Other than that, I hydrated with water and a mouthful of diet coke.
So what can you eat?
This varies from person to person. A typical day for me looks something like this:
2 eggs scrambled, sometimes savoury with a little finely chopped onion and peppers, and a sprinkle of parmesan, accompanied with sliced ham, or a couple of rashers of bacon. Occasionally I might add some kale, or smashed avocado.
I often skip lunch as I’m just not hungry. Lunch is often a snack, a couple of slices of cheese, a little full fat greek yogurt with some low carb berries. If I’m on the go, I may take a tuna mayo salad with me.
Meat or poultry with low carb vegetables, for example bolognese served with spiralised courgette, or roast peppers.
With so many keto blogs and recipe books out there, experiment and get creative with real food!
Throughout the day, I drink lots of still or sparkling water, coffee – black or with heavy cream, and sweetened with stevia.
I must point out that I am not a medical professional, but I do like to investigate and experiment, so please, do your own research and speak with your doctor first to find out if it’s safe for you to try a ketogenic diet, especially if you have type 1 diabetes.
There are many social media groups that are great for recipe ideas, and sharing experiences, but here are some resources you might find useful:
Healthline article on the Ketogenic Diet
There are many, many YouTube videos about Keto, but I find Dr Ken Berry particularly interesting.
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