The “keto” in a ketogenic diet comes from the fact that it allows the body to produce small fuel molecules called “ketones”.
This is an alternative fuel source for the body, used when blood sugar (glucose) is in short supply.
Ketones are produced if you eat very few carbs (that are quickly broken down into blood sugar) and only moderate amounts of protein (excess protein can also be converted to blood sugar).
The liver produces ketones from fat. These ketones then serve as a fuel source throughout the body, especially for the brain.
The brain is a hungry organ that consumes lots of energy every day, and it can’t run on fat directly. It can only run on glucose… or ketones.
On a ketogenic diet, your entire body switches its fuel supply to run mostly on fat, burning fat 24-7. When insulin levels become very low, fat burning can increase dramatically. It becomes easier to access your fat stores to burn them off.
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This is great if you’re trying to lose weight, but there are also other less obvious benefits, such as less hunger and a steady supply of energy. This may help keep you alert and focused.
When the body produces ketones, it enters a metabolic state called ketosis. The fastest way to get there is by fasting – not eating anything – but nobody can fast forever.
A keto diet, on the other hand, can be eaten indefinitely and also results in ketosis. It has many of the benefits of fasting – including weight loss – without having to fast.
Who should NOT do a ketogenic diet?
There are controversies and myths about a keto diet, but for most people it appears to be very safe.
There are, however, three groups that often require special consideration:
• Do you take medication for diabetes, e.g. insulin? More
• Do you take medication for high blood pressure? More
• Do you breastfeed? More
Are you a doctor or do you need your doctor to help you with medications on a keto diet? Have a look at our low carb for doctors guide.
2. What to eat on a keto diet
Here are typical foods to enjoy on a ketogenic diet. The numbers are net carbs, i.e. digestible carbs, per 100 grams.
dairy free keto meal plan
To remain in ketosis, lower is generally better:
The most important thing for reaching ketosis is to avoid eating too many carbs. You’ll probably need to keep carb intake under 50 grams per day of net carbs, ideally below 20 grams. The fewer carbs, the more effective it appears to be for reaching ketosis, losing weight or reversing type 2 diabetes.
Counting carbs can be helpful at first. But if you stick to our recommended foods and recipes you can stay keto even without counting.
Detailed list of what to eat on a keto diet
Try to avoid
Here’s what you should avoid on a keto diet – carb foods containing a lot of sugar and starch. This includes starchy foods like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. These foods are very high in carbs.
The numbers are grams of net carbs per 100 grams, unless otherwise noted.
This means that on a keto diet you’ll basically need to avoid sugary foods completely, as well as starchy foods like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. Also avoid processed foods, and instead follow our keto diet advice.
Furthermore, the food should primarily be high in fat, and only moderately high in protein, as excess protein can be converted to blood sugar in the body. Avoid low-fat diet products. A rough guideline is about 5% energy from carbohydrates (the fewer carbs, the more effective), 15-25% from protein, and around 75% from fat.
More specific advice on what to eat – and what not to eat
What to drink
So what do you drink on a ketogenic diet? Water is the perfect drink, and coffee or tea are fine too. Ideally, use no sweeteners, especially not sugar.
A small amount of milk or cream in your coffee or tea is OK (but beware of caffe latte!). The occasional glass of wine is fine too.
The benefits of a ketogenic diet are similar to those of other low-carb and high-fat diets, but it appears to be more powerful than liberal low-carb diets.
Think of keto as a super-charged low-carb diet, maximizing the benefits. However, it can also be harder to do, and it may increase the risk of side effects a bit.
keto budget meal plan
Turning your body into a fat-burning machine can be beneficial for weight loss. Fat burning is significantly increased, while insulin – the fat-storing hormone – levels drop greatly.
This appears to make it far easier for body fat loss to occur, without hunger.
More than 30 high-quality scientific studies show that, compared to other diets, low-carb and keto diets result in more effective weight loss.
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On a keto diet you’re likely to gain a new control over your appetite. When your body burns fat 24-7, it has constant access to weeks or months of stored energy, significantly reducing feelings of hunger. It’s a very common experience, and studies prove it.
This makes it easy to eat less and lose excess weight – just wait until you’re hungry before you eat.
It also makes intermittent fasting easier, something that can super-charge efforts to reverse type 2 diabetes and speed up weight loss, beyond the effect of keto only.
Plus, you’ll save tons of time and money by not having to snack all the time. Many people only feel the need to eat twice a day on a keto diet (often skipping breakfast), and some just once a day.
Not having to fight feelings of hunger could also potentially help with problems like sugar or food addiction.
At least feeling satisfied can be part of the solution. Food can stop being an enemy and become your friend – or simply fuel, whatever you prefer.
Control blood sugar and reverse type 2 diabetes
Studies prove that a ketogenic diet is excellent for managing type 2 diabetes, sometimes even leading to complete reversal of the disease.
It makes perfect sense since keto lowers blood-sugar levels, reduces the need for medications and reduces the potentially negative impact of high insulin levels.
As a keto diet may reverse existing type 2 diabetes, it’s likely to be effective at preventing it as well as reversing pre-diabetes.
Improved health markers
There are many studies showing that low-carb diets improve several important risk factors for heart disease, including the cholesterol profile (HDL, triglycerides), while total and LDL cholesterol levels are usually impacted fairly modestly.
It’s also typical to see improved blood sugar levels, insulin levels and blood pressure.
These commonly improved markers are connected to something called “metabolic syndrome”, and improvements in weight, waist circumference, diabetes type 2 reversal etc.
My health markers after 10 years on a keto diet
Energy and mental performance
Some people use ketogenic diets specifically for increased mental performance. Also, it’s common for people to experience an increase in energy when in ketosis.
On keto, the brain doesn’t need dietary carbs. It’s fueled 24-7 by ketones, an effective brain fuel.
Therefore, ketosis results in a steady flow of fuel (ketones) to the brain, thus avoiding problems experienced with big blood sugar swings.
This may sometimes result in improved focus and concentration, and resolution of brain fog, with an improved mental clarity.
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A calmer stomach
A keto diet can result in a calmer stomach, less gas, less cramps and pains, often resulting in improvements in IBS symptoms.
For some people this is the top benefit, and it often only takes a day or two to experience it.
Increased physical endurance
Ketogenic diets can in theory increase your physical endurance by improving your access to the vast amounts of energy in your fat stores.
The body’s supply of stored carbohydrates (glycogen) only lasts for a couple of hours of intense exercise, or less. But your fat stores carry enough energy to potentially last for weeks.
Beyond this effect, another potential benefit is the reduction in body fat percentage that can be achieved on a keto diet (see weight loss, above). This reduction in body fat weight is potentially valuable in a number of competitive sports, including endurance sports.
The ketogenic diet is a proven and often effective medical therapy for epilepsy that has been used since the 1920s. Traditionally it was used primarily for children, but in recent years adults have benefited from it as well.
Using a ketogenic diet in epilepsy can allow some people to take less or no anti-epileptic drugs, while potentially still remaining seizure-free. This may reduce drug side effects and thus increase mental performance.