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The Ketogenic Diet Part 1: What is Keto?

You wouldn’t put diesel in a gasoline engine and expect it to run well, but that is exactly what Americans are doing every day. We fuel our bodies with processed, pre-packaged foods that evolutionary science has proven makes our bodies stop running efficiently. I was guilty of this for much of my life.

My Journey to the Ketogenic Diet

I remember sitting in the library at age 16 when I tried on my friend’s jacket. All of a sudden, I heard a boy sing, “fat girl in a little coat.”

That was the catalyst for change.

At that time in my life, I restricted fat and exercised constantly. This left me fat (ironically) and frustrated, and I decided to focus on dialing in nutrition and practice all the information I was about to preach to the world once I graduated. After decades of being told by marketing geniuses that “fat-free” was the way to lose weight, eating real fat was scary for me. Once I started adding fat to my diet, I slept deeper, felt calmer and better in that first week than I ever had. Now, I understand the biochemical reasons why restricting fat is not the answer to optimum health.

I had been taught that good-tasting foods made you fat. It was almost too much to imagine that you could thrive and have healthy body composition while enjoying butter, avocados, grass-fed cheeses and meats, and even sugar-free cheesecake. But it has been over five years of keto; five years of my body feeling amazing and never feeling deprived. I traded in a lifetime of over-exercising and restriction for nutrient-dense, fat-filled diet and lost weight in the process.

My weight loss was a hard goal to achieve, but once I found the right foods and ditched the fake foods, the weight loss I had struggled with became easy. I learned the secrets of the hormones insulin and leptin, that by evolving toward a very low-glycemic, high-fat (not just high-protein) diet, I had re-sensitized my biochemistry to these essential hormones, which turn off severe food cravings.

Best of all, my diet makeover required a lot less self-deprivation than what I was suffering from when I wasn’t losing weight. The nutrient-rich, relatively high-fat dietary approach I have developed for myself, exotic, little-known replacements for typical high-glycemic starchy foods and sugar are what finally gave me total peace with food, something I never imagined possible. 

What is the Ketogenic Diet?

Put simply: the ketogenic diet is a high fat, moderate protein, low carbohydrate diet that has amazing health benefits. Though developed in 1921, by Dr. R.M. Wilder at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to treat patients with seizures, it was forgotten about for close to 70 year when anti-seizure medications came onto the market. Then, in 1994, an episode of Dateline NBC documented Hollywood film director Jim Abrahams son Charlie and their treatment of Charlie’s seizures. Charlie didn’t respond to seizure medications so Jim, a frustrated father, went looking for other answers.  He found the ketogenic diet, and Charlie ws soon seizure-free. The Abrahams family then started the Charlie Foundation to raise awareness of the ketogenic diet as an option for manage intractable epilepsy. Since then, the diet has received increasing attention in the media for its profoundly beneficial impact on body-composition, cognition, hormone regulation, inflammation reduction and so much more.

By following the ketogenic lifestyle, you will understand how to eat to balance your hormones, sleep better and feel better. Keto-aligned foods will keep you satisfied as help you reach your body composition goals. You will even get to enjoy desserts again without stress; after all, we also need to enjoy the richness of life.

In the coming years, you can count on hearing more discussion around the dramatic impact that a ketogenic diet holds. The Eating Academy (a research group lead by Gary Taubes and Dr. Peter Attia) is researching the effects of true ketogenic diets – I write true ketogenic diets because in the past, low-carb diet studies really weren’t “low-carb” and were often times not well formulated. They might have been lower in carbohydrates than the RDA recommended 300 grams per day, but lowering to 150 grams a day is not low-carb, and it’s certainly not ketogenic. The diets used in these studies also contained too much protein, and far too little fat. Furthermore, many of the studies lasted two weeks or less, which is not nearly enough time for the subjects to achieve ketosis. Some people can achieve ketosis in that timeframe, but many can not. It varies from person to person.

What the Ketogenic is NOT

The ketogenic diet is not a high protein diet. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s true. When you eat too much, a process called gluconeogenesis occurs, which turns protein into sugars. So, basically, over-consuming protein is similar to eating lots of carbs.

The ketogenic diet is not simply a sugar elimination diet. It is a low-carb diet, and that is an important distinction. On that note, clarify what a “low-carb” diet is.

Everyone knows that sugar is bad for us, but most people have misconceptions about which foods turn into sugar. Foods that turn into sugar include the following:

  • Grains like wheat, oats, rice, and quinoa
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn
  • Fruits such as banana, mango, pineapple

Though I’ve been strict about my ketogenic diet, I have been historically more lenient with my nutrition clients. I thought, “of course they can eat spaghetti squash; they were eating white pasta, so changing to the squash is an improvement.” But in many cases, this did not clear up their insulin issues. My clients’ metabolisms were too damaged to handle that amount of starch, no matter what the source. Sure, our ancestors could eat root vegetables and more starch than the clients I see today, but our ancestors did not have the same damaged metabolisms that modern day humans have. After all our years of consuming “food” filled with fructose, food dye, MSG, pesticides, and all the other chemicals found in foods today, we need a stricter approach because our cells are so damaged.

Sure, there are people who can eat a whole foods diet filled with sweet potatoes and fruit and not be overweight, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are healthy. I have had a handful of clients who were 115 pound females (normal weight for their height) and had very high blood sugar levels – enough to necessitate being put on insulin! We are all, in an evolutionary sense, predisposed to becoming diabetic, which means we should all be restricting carbohydrates to some degree. 

That all said, keto is much simpler in theory than it is in execution! Over the next few installments in this series, we’ll dive deeper into the nuts and bolts of insulin resistance, and take a look at how you can transition to a ketogenic lifestyle.

The Ketogenic Diet Part 2: Sugar, Insulin, and Inflammation
The Ketogenic Diet Part 3: How to Become Fat Adapted
The Ketogenic Diet Part 4: Avoiding Common Side Effects of Ketosis

Avocado image licensed under the Creative Commons.

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Maria Emmerich

Maria Emmerich

Maria Emmerich is a wellness expert in nutrition and exercise physiology. She shares a passion for helping others reach their goals of optimal health. She struggled with her weight throughout childhood and decided enough was enough. She decided to study health and wellness so she could help others stop wasting their time being discouraged with […]

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