Disclosure: I am not an expert on keto and have zero medical background. My recommendation when reading my lifestyle posts is always, always to do research beyond my site and when in doubt, seek help from a medical professional before making diet and lifestyle changes.
Keto has been blowing up for quite some time, and as with anything that is trending, there are some misconceptions. Since I happen to do a lot of reading on low-carb diets and follow one, myself, I thought I would help address some of those misconceptions.
For some people, keto is much more than a diet and can be used as a tool to heal medical illness, whereas for others keto is far from ideal. In this post, I describe what keto is, how to use it correctly, the differences between keto, low-carb, and paleo, and describe the “type” of person keto may be right for.
If you’re already familiar with the ins and outs of keto, you can skip the What is Keto section and move on.
First, a smidge of background about me and my relationship with keto.
For the most part, I have been following a low-carb paleo diet for over seven years because it is the type of diet that both fits my lifestyle, keeps my body healthy (I have IBS, and low-carb paleo helps me keep my symptoms at bay), and is sustainable for me. Throughout this period, I have dipped in and out of keto, but not necessarily intentionally. I have never monitored my blood ketones, and being in ketosis has never been a goal of mine. I can tell I’m in ketosis when I have a huge boost of energy, all brain fog lifts, and I feel super strong, motivated and smart.
What is Keto?
Keto is a low-carb diet that trains your body to burn fat for fuel instead of glucose. It eliminates many pro-inflammatory foods like starches, grains and legumes by virtue of the fact that those food are carb-rich. For those who are looking to lose weight or control an inflammatory disease, keto can be a very effective lifestyle.
Keto has been around for centuries, and dates back to 500 BC when people began using it to control epilepsy. It gained in popularity in the 1920s as treatment for epilepsy and has made a comeback in the last 5 years as an effective weight loss tool as well as a way of treating or controlling various inflammatory diseases and reversing Type 2 Diabetes.
The amount of carbohydrates one can eat while still staying in ketosis varies widely. For instance, an athlete who does intense training may still be able to consume 70 to 150 grams of carbs per day and stay in ketosis, whereas someone with a more sedentary lifestyle will be aiming for the 25 to 50 gram range depending on physical activity.
Like anything health and food related, how keto translates over to you will be specific to you, your metabolism, and your lifestyle.
What do you eat on keto? Protein and fat are the priorities, where carbohydrate intake should be minimized. You can eat meat, seafood, eggs, non-starchy (low-carb) vegetables, healthy fats and oils, high-fat dairy like heavy cream and butter. Traditionally, there aren’t any rules surrounding how you source your macros, so long as you hit them so that your body begins to process fat as fuel versus glucose. In this sense, you can eat your favorite animal protein, full-fat dairy, and can even indulge in a sweet treat made with a zero-sugar sweetener.
Because there is freedom within the macronutrient construct, some people don’t find keto to be all that difficult, whereas those who are accustomed to eating a majority of their calories from grains, starches, and simple carbs may have a more difficult time adjusting.
Keto is specific about prioritizing protein. You’re aiming for .7 to 1 gram of protein per one pound of lean body mass (or more if you’re looking to build muscle). One mistake some people make while on keto is taking in too much fat at the expense of not enough protein. Yes, keto is a high fat diet, but adequate protein intake should be the number one focus, where fat should be secondary.
Potential Medical Benefits of Keto
From a medical standpoint, keto can be very healing. Scientific studies have shown a ketogenic diet can help lower your blood sugar, lose excess body fat, improve your sleep and focus, decrease inflammation, boost your energy, and prevent disease.
Like anything in life, it depends on where you start from. Those who are looking to lose weight find keto to be extremely effective by virtue of the fact that it retrains your body to be less insulin resistant, reroutes your metabolism, lowers systemic inflammation, and burns body fat quickly and safely.
Keto can also be a fabulous tool for those who are hormonally imbalanced because it helps control blood sugar. While imbalanced hormones can be caused by a plethora of things, uneven blood sugar (spikes and crashes) is one of the major causes, along with gut dysbiosis. Be careful, though! Many hormonal issues stem from eating too many carbohydrates, but on the flipsyde, you can also make yourself hormonally imbalanced by going too low-carb. Be sure you’re checking in with yourself, follow your intuition, and if your hormones are wonky, see an endocrinologist.
Keto can also be extremely healing for those who have gut issues so long as you’re careful about how you source your food. Again, keto is a low-inflammatory diet that eliminates most pro-inflammatory foods, and people with gut issues can benefit by eating a low-inflammatory diet. That said, if you’re looking to control gut problems using keto as a tool, be sure you aren’t eating dairy or processed meat.
How to Do Keto Correctly:
To do keto correctly, you need to be diligent enough about your carb v. protein v. fat intake that your body is running on ketones. You can monitor your blood ketones by purchasing a blood ketone meter. My personal opinion (take it for what it’s worth) is that if you’re going to do keto, you should do it right by getting your blood tested every 6 months or so and by monitoring your ketones regularly. The last thing you want to do is to compromise your health when the entire purpose of doing keto is to be healthier, right?
One common misconception is that you can eat as much fat as you’d like on keto. This is false. If you’re looking to lose body fat, you’ll want to be cognizant about the amount of fat you’re eating as the calories in, calories out principal still applies. Some people take more liberties than they should with fat and can go too fat-heavy. This can result in GI issues and also be counterproductive to weight loss.
Keto can be pro-inflammatory when used incorrectly. For instance, too much omega 6 fat can cause inflammation, especially in people with autoimmune disease. Favoring Omega 3 fats is the best route to take. You can overeat fat on keto (contrary to what some people have believed), which can cause more harm than good. Again, protein should be the first target you hit and thereafter, fat should come as it may. In order words, you don’t need to drink bulletproof coffee every morning alongside your keto donut and finish the day with a bowl of keto ice cream made entirely of heavy whipping cream. Use your common sense here.
Source your fat and your protein wisely. Processed meats can be very difficult to digest and can cause inflammation. In addition, dairy is one of the most pro-inflammatory foods out there and many people have a difficult time processing it even if they aren’t lactose intolerant. In essence, to make keto anti-inflammatory, you need to make adjustments.
What are these adjustments? Get your fat from good sources, such as fish, avocado, nuts and seeds. Eat quality protein – grass-fed, antibiotic-free, and sustainably raised is the way to go. Don’t go full-tilt bacon and sausage, unless said bacon and sausage comes from a quality source. Read labels and ask your butcher, don’t just blindly consume. Lastly, do keto dairy-free, or be very cautious about the type of dairy you consume. Raw dairy is great! Organic dairy is okay…dairy that is just regular dairy (think: your run of the mill carton of milk at the store) should be avoided by all people in my humble opinion.
What I like about keto is it controls inflammation very well as long as you eat quality meat and do it dairy-free. What I don’t like about keto is it isn’t necessarily specific about how your food is sourced (where paleo strongly advocates for choosing organic, pasture-raised, sustainably-sourced, etc) and doesn’t give heed to other lifestyle elements like self-care, meditation, and exercise. Of course these principals can be applied to a keto lifestyle, which is what my suggestion is if you are going to venture down the keto path.
I personally steer clear of dairy and processed meats, where on keto you can technically eat both. Keto focuses on hitting your macros versus quality of food. That doesn’t mean you can’t be cognizant of quality and lifestyle on keto, it just means the diet itself doesn’t promote those things, whereas paleo does. You can 200% do keto and be careful with the way you source your meat and fat.
For those who aren’t accustomed to eating much animal protein, keto can be a tough adjustment for the digestive system. For this reason, taking digestive enzymes with protein-heavy meals and intermittent fasting are both great practices to be in when doing keto. Intermittent fasting helps promote your own digestive enzymes by giving your body a break from digestion. It also helps boost metabolism, heal inflammation and is great for those who suffer from IBS.
For Whom May Keto be Effective?
Because I’m not a medical professional, I have no ground to stand on when it comes to recommending who may or may not benefit from keto. I will say, from what I’ve seen and read, there are certain types of individuals for whom keto works really well. Such individuals may be:
- Weight Loss: People looking to lose weight and haven’t had success with other types of diets. Keto is a very satiating diet since you’re consuming so much protein, so individuals who constantly find themselves hungry on other diets may find relief in keto.
- Insulin Resistance: Those who are pre-diabetic (insulin resistant) who would rather not become diabetic. Again, this should be approached with caution, and your medical care provider should be involved before you make a decision to do keto. Keto helps level out your blood sugar in a big way, which can help prevent diabetes.
- Autoimmune Disease: People with inflammatory disease (assuming you source your food wisely). Folks with autoimmune disease find relief in very low-inflammatory diets as they help lessen the severity of symptoms. That said, when doing keto, someone with autoimmune disease must be extra cautious about how they source their meat, should always eat organic, and should avoid dairy. Those who have difficulty keeping weight on should track macros (and micros) and calories carefully to ensure they’re getting the nutrients their body needs to support their immune system. Consult your medical care provider if you have any questions regarding keto and how it may effect your disease.
- Addictions: Those who have alcohol or sugar addiction. Since keto helps level out blood sugar, it can drastically help those who have addiction to alcohol or sugar. There will be a mega sucky adjustment period, but eliminating the very foods that create cravings can help re-wire your neuropathways so that you aren’t constantly craving sugar.
- Hormone Imbalance: Women who are estrogen dominant (do dairy-free keto and prioritize lean protein and omega 3 fats). Again, this is a slippery medical thing that should be discussed with your doctor (or endocrinologist). Many hormonal issues stem from imbalanced blood sugar or gut issues, so focusing on healing through diet can help get your hormones on track. This isn’t to say keto is a cure all – many other adjustments (like using non-toxic beauty and household products and taking supplements) but occur as well.
- Badass Biohackers: Those who are naturally diligent about tracking macros and are willing to do blood work several times a year to be sure cholesterol is normal. Are you a biohacker and simply strive for better health? Keto may be something you dabble in. Just be sure you’re taking the necessary steps to ensure you’re going about it correctly, and keep checking in with yourself. For most people (especially those who don’t track their ketones or do blood work), keto is not sustainable.
These are mere thought nuggets and should in no way be used as suggestions. I’m not saying keto is a solution to all of the above issues, and I’m not your doctor.
I am by no means an expert on keto (or on health issues), so if you’re interested in doing keto, I recommend going straight to the experts. Robb Wolf has an awesome Keto Masterclass as well as tons of resources on his website. He also has a great article on Keto v. Paleo. Mark Sisson also has a plethora of info on his site, and there are many food blogs that focus on keto recipes, so if you’re interested in poking around, poke away!
Keto will likely not be ideal for those who have difficulty processing animal protein, have genetic triglyceride issues (need to be careful about fat intake), people who (like me) don’t enjoy tracking macros, or competitive athletes (this one is debatable). Obviously, keto is not going to be right for people who choose to be vegetarian or vegan for health or ethical reasons as well.
Keto v. Low-Carb v. Paleo
What is the difference between a low-carb diet, a paleo diet, and a ketogenic diet? Keto is low-carb, but low-carb isn’t necessarily keto (just like all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon, you feel?). Paleo is lower carb than the Standard American Diet, but not necessarily low-low-carb or keto, especially if you’re whipping up paleo treats with pure maple syrup or honey, or eat a lot of sweet potato and fruit. Those who follow a low-carb or paleo diet can dip in and out of keto without even realizing it.
“Low-carb” doesn’t necessarily have hard and fast rules for how many carbs you should eat versus how much protein..it is subjective based on gender, age, body weight, physical activity, etc. What may be low-carb for you could be moderate-to-high carb for your friend or family member who also eats low-carb.
Paleo is intended to be low-carb, although many people who follow the diet can end up eating just as many carbohydrates as the Standard American Diet when they aren’t careful about how much fruit, starches, or natural sweeteners they’re consuming. Paleo emphasizes overall wellness, whereas low-carb and keto do not.
Paleo people tend to be mindful about all facets of health and environment, being cognizant of hormone and mental health as well as animal welfare and sustainability. The paleo community also suggests avoiding your personal trigger foods that cause inflammation or upset your digestive system, even if those foods are technically paleo-friendly. Again, you can easily incorporate the principals of striving for overall wellness with any diet you have, just like you can always be mindful about how you source the food and products you consume. It is the people who are regimented about such things that tend to be successful with keto long-term.
Putting it all together.
My take on any diet is that it has its place. Some people don’t process animal protein well but can tolerate plant-based protein like champs in which case a vegetarian or vegan diet makes sense. Some people (me) can’t digest carbohydrates well but do well with animal protein, so a lower-carb diet is optimal. Some people are looking to control weight or reverse disease, in which case an anti-inflammatory diet is ideal.
I generally don’t care how anyone eats so long as they are aware of what they are eating and why. My philosophy in life is you should always stay cognizant of all your actions, thoughts, and emotions and to stay aware, curious, and well-researched. In this sense, personalizing your nutrition is 100% a YOU thing, and no one can tell you what is right for you. Your nutritional needs will change throughout the course of your life…your best bet to health and longevity is to meet those evolving needs.
My advice regardless of how you eat is source wisely, pay attention to food triggers, listen to your body, and be quick to read but slow to incorporate. AND STAY CONSISTENT! Your body needs time to adjust to anything and everything you do to it. Just because you can’t see the healing doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Putting an adaptogen in your smoothie one time is not going to lower your stress. Taking a fish oil supplement for a week will not cure your acne. Taking a magnesium supplement every once in a while will not cure your insomnia. Going keto for 3 days will not help you lose 10 pounds and keep it off. I can’t stress enough that patience is a virtue when it comes to health. You’ll have no way of knowing what is working and what isn’t unless you stay consistent.
That’s it for now! I hope you learned something useful and as always, feel free to leave a comment or email me if you have any questions.