The ketogenic diet gets rave reviews for its quick results, but it's also known to be pretty involved with very specific food rules. It's tempting to want to try to do "keto light" and find an easier spin on this popular diet, but is that possible?
The experts aren't so sure. "The ketogenic diet means that the body is relying on ketone bodies (rather than carbohydrates/glucose) for fuel," said Alix Turoff MS, RD, CDN, a CPT registered dietitian, nutrition consultant, and certified personal trainer.
That means that in order to truly be on the ketogenic diet, you have to be eating few enough carbohydrates that your body is forced to rely mainly on fat for fuel. You're either in ketosis or you're not. "There are definitely ways to make following a ketogenic diet easier (there are lots of places you can find keto-friendly options)," said Turoff, but if you're eating above a certain number of carbohydrates (this is somewhat different for everyone), you are not going to be in ketosis.
There is different talk in the research about what really constitutes a ketogenic diet, but typically carbohydrates comprise about five percent to 10 percent of the day. "That means someone following a 1,600-calorie diet would need to stay around 20-40 grams of carbohydrates per day," said Turoff. If they ate more than that, they wouldn't be on a ketogenic diet, they'd be on a low-carb diet.
"You also have to be aware of how much protein you're eating while following a ketogenic diet because certain amino acids can actually be converted into glucose through a cycle known as 'gluconeogenesis,' and in that case, even if carbs are low, if protein's too high, you can be out of ketosis," warned Turoff. "Personally, I recommend low-carb diets with much more frequency than I do ketogenic diets because of their more flexible nature," said Turoff.
"That said, the ketogenic diet does provide different benefits because of the physiological changes that take place when your body starts burning ketone bodies for fuel rather than carbohydrates," said Turoff.
"I'm not a fan of a strict keto diet — it's not for everyone and I believe carbs are not only delicious, but they provide energy and they are are an essential source of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber," said Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It — Taking You From Label to Table. "On a strict keto plan, people are expected to adhere to a diet that shakes out as 60 to 80 percent of their calories from fat, 15 to 30 percent of their calories from protein, and less than 5 to 10 percent of their calories from carbs," she said.
Percentages could be confusing though — especially if you don't know how many calories you really need to begin with. But to break that down in terms of carbs, if you need 2,000 calories a day (which is too much for people who are inactive or who may desire to lose weight, and it might be too few calories for those who are exercising and have no need to lose weight) — so 5 to 10 percent of your calories is equivalent to about 100-200 calories, or 25-50 grams of carbohydrate. That's about the amount of carb calories in about two fruits!
Protein is also something to watch. "Be sure to consume a minimum of 50 grams of quality protein daily!" said Dani Conway, a certified CHEK holistic lifestyle coach. Muscle mass is the most metabolically active tissue that we have. "The keto arenas tend to freak people out in regards to eating too much protein. However, when fat loss is the goal, we need protein to be able to support muscle and recovery as well as change body composition," said Conway. Protein also plays a significantly positive role with reducing cravings and improving overall mood and well-being!
It's also important to get your greens. A well-rounded low-carb eating plan does NOT mean eat all the meat and eat all the fat! "This is what I call a big fat keto lie," said Conway. You still want carbohydrates and especially those containing fiber. "Your best sources for carbohydrates are going to be greens, as well as all of your low-glycemic vegetables. Some examples here are: spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, romaine, arugula, endive, radishes, turnips, mushrooms, and more. We need these foods in our lives for long-term health," said Conway.
Don't be afraid to get creative, adding greens a smoothie is a great way to sneak them in. "Fiber tip: flaxseed meal and chia seeds are great for this as well!" said Conway.
When it comes to fat, which you're supposed to consume in fairly high amounts on a keto diet, you should eat until you're satiated. "This discussion of good fats is super important and an area with tons of keto lies as well when it comes to how much fat to consume with this way of eating," said Conway. So we must eat fat until we are satiated. Fats are great for balancing blood sugar and mood throughout the day; and they also do wonders for those little buggers we have called hormones!
If going out to eat is a trigger for you, you're definitely not alone! This is a huge challenge and tends to cause tons of anxiety for a lot of us. "Skip the bread and butter and order a protein-based appetizer . . . shrimp cocktail, ahi tuna, or chicken wings," said Conway. Protein first is going to create that feeling of satiety and help to avoid temptation later.
Most restaurants have the option to order a piece of fish or maybe a steak or rotisserie chicken. Add some steamed vegetables and butter on the side. "A meal that is delicious and keeps you on track to achieving and maintaining your goals," said Conway. But also plan treats into your life. "This is super important and something I whole-heartedly believe in to help avoid jumping off the deep end, if you know what I mean," says Conway. There are tons of options for low-carb treats made with nutrient-dense ingredients such as coconut oil, raw cacao, natural almond or peanut butter, and natural sweeteners such as stevia.