Ketogenic diets have only grown in popularity over the past five years, offering a tasty way to maintain a calorie deficit or simply keep your body composition in check. But can you eat a high-fat, low-carb diet and still be healthy? Our dietitian experts say it is possible – if you do it right.
What exactly is the keto diet?
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred fuel source, given how much easier they are to access than fats. Proponents of the ketogenic diet believe you can use this mechanism to your advantage. Ditch the carbs from your diet, they say, and your body has no choice but to dip into fat stores for fuel.
‘The ketogenic diet aims to restrict the number of carbohydrates consumed to less than 50 grams per day. Note that a large banana has about 30 grams of carbohydrates!’ explains Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) and Nutritionist, Selin Aydan (@fibroid.fertilitydietitian).
‘Essentially, ketone bodies are produced as a by-product of fat metabolism which is the origin of the name ‘ketogenic diet’. The body uses ketone bodies as an alternative energy source where there are reduced amounts of readily available carbohydrates or increased fatty acids from high-fat meals.’
Sticking to the ketogenic diet means eating a moderate amount of protein, higher amounts of fat, and very little carbs.
What goals does the ketogenic diet kick?
The most popular goal to kick with the ketogenic diet is weight loss or fat loss. Why? Because the high-fat content of the foods makes it a tasty way to eat. Fats are also very satiating, meaning you feel fuller for longer and can more easily stay in a calorie deficit.
‘Fats and proteins take longer to digest and fats providing a longer energy supply,’ explains Aydan. ‘Moving away from highly processed foods in an effort to restrict carbs also means people opt for more whole foods. Poor-quality, energy-dense foods such as pastries, biscuits, refined sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages are reduced.’
Despite its modern popularity as a fat-loss tool, the ketogenic diet was originally designed for children suffering from drug-resistant epilepsy.
‘In 1920, researchers found that following a ketogenic diet reduced the severity and frequency of seizures,’ explains Accredited Practising Dietitian, Dr Anika Rouf (@appetitebyanika).
‘It may also be good for anyone who has elevated cholesterol, blood sugar or triglycerides. While the long-term effects are unknown, studies have shown the keto diet to improve metabolic inflammatory markers such as lipids.’
How about keto for athletes? According to Rouf, dropping the carbs shouldn’t set you back.
‘Studies have indicated that those who follow keto show no difference in athletic performance. Those doing aerobic exercise – particularly ultra-endurance runners – may even develop some metabolic advantages over a period of three to 12 weeks,’ she says.
Our experts’ top tips for doing the ketogenic diet right
The ketogenic diet isn’t for everyone. People with kidney damage, type 1 diabetes or other major health conditions should avoid the diet.
‘Keto can be extremely dangerous for the wrong person, so checking in with your doctor, being aware of your conditions and risks, and getting regular blood tests and health checks is vital,’ warns Aydan.
That said, if you are going to give the keto diet a go or are currently following the ketogenic diet, here’s how to make sure you are doing it as healthily as possible:
- Drink plenty of water: When people first start the ketogenic diet, the number on the bathroom scales quickly drops. Rather than fat loss, this is water leaving the body. Without carbs, glycogen levels in the muscle dissipate, taking water with them. ‘People often see fast weight loss due to loss of glycogen stores in muscle, where each one gram of glycogen is accompanied by three grams of water,’ says Aydan. ‘Water stores are quickly depleted, so this means you will feel dehydrated very quickly.’ The takeaway? Keep a water bottle on you at all times.
- Pick the right fats: Keep saturated and trans fats to a minimum. Aydan recommends less than seven per cent of your total calorie intake come from these less-healthy choices. ‘As much as this is a high-fat diet, this doesn’t mean that you should go crazy on the bulletproof coffee and eat slabs of butter,’ says Aydan. ‘Saturated fats can quickly lead to high LDL-cholesterol and therefore a build-up of fatty plaque in your arteries. This makes way for heart disease, along with a myriad of other conditions – from kidney stones to inflammation.’
Opt for the healthy, unsaturated fats found in Extra Virgin Olive Oil, avocados, fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel, eggs, nuts, and seeds.
- Plan your meals: Like any diet that restricts or reduces whole food groups, the keto lifestyle can quickly become tiresome. ‘Preparation is key. A filling and nourishing meal will help to keep you on track with your goals; otherwise, you’ll over-eat, over-snack and end up frustrated,’ says Aydan.
- Eat your vegetables: Just because you’re ditching heavy carbs, doesn’t mean you should ditch the nutrients. ‘Vegetables contain essential vitamins and minerals that your organs need to function – so this is extremely important,’ says Aydan. ‘Make sure that you get your five serves of vegetables in! A keto diet is not a free pass to miss your veggies.’
Rouf agrees: ‘People also tend to forget the non-starchy vegetables such as beans, carrots, mushrooms, spinach and tomato are low in calories and carbohydrates.
- Have a healthcare professional guide you: Change is hard, so having the right guidance is vital. ‘A healthcare professional such as a dietitian can help to monitor your symptoms, track your protein, fat, and carbohydrate intake, and monitor your blood and urine tests for nutritional deficiencies before they become a problem, while also checking to see if you are doing the diet correctly,’ says Aydan.
Looking for a convenient way to up your healthy fat intake while following a keto diet? Wellgrove Health’s new Keto Super Powder is SFMA’s go-to. Ditch the slab of saturated fat in your morning coffee, and instead chuck one scoop of this Super Powder into your breakfast beverages. It’s full of monounsaturated fats, antioxidants and vitamin E. Read more about Keto Super Powder on the Wellgrove Health website.