A Beginner’s Guide to the Ketogenic Diet

Posted on in On Our Radar by Dr. Joseph Mercola

An Effective Way of
Optimizing Your Health


Many Americans suffer from various chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, and the main culprit is usually food. The standard American diet contains excessive protein and carbohydrates, neither of which is healthy because they eventually cause resistance to insulin and leptin. As a result you gain excess weight, develop inflammation, and become prone to cellular damage.

To avoid this problem (if this is the way you eat), you need to make significant changes in your diet. The best way is to put your body into a state of nutritional ketosis, a condition where the body burns fat as its primary fuel instead of sugar. To reach nutritional ketosis you must follow a ketogenic diet. But what exactly is a ketogenic diet?

The Various Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet

A ketogenic diet is a dietary approach that focuses on minimal carbohydrates, moderate amounts of protein, and lots of healthy fats—the three keys to achieving nutritional ketosis. In fact, it’s what I recommend for most people who would like to optimize their health.

There are many reasons to try a ketogenic diet. It can be beneficial for people suffering from chronic conditions or for people who would simply like to be healthier than their current state. You’ll be excited to know that a ketogenic diet can help with the following:

Weight loss: If you’re trying to lose weight, a ketogenic diet is one of the best ways to do it, since it helps access your body fat so you can more easily shed it. Obese people in particular can benefit from this method. In one study, obese test subjects were given a low-carb ketogenic diet and a low-fat diet. After 24 weeks, researchers noted that the low-carb group lost nearly twice as much weight (9.4 kilograms on average) as the low-fat group (4.8 kilograms).

I also have benefitted from a ketogenic diet, dropping my weight from 180 to 164 pounds despite eating 2,500 to 3,000 calories per day. Since then I have increased my consumption to 3,500 to 4,000 calories just to maintain my ideal weight.

fish, meat, vegetables

Less inflammation: The human body can use both sugar and fat as fuel sources. But the latter is preferable because it is a cleaner, healthier fuel, releasing far fewer reactive oxygen species (ROS) and secondary free radicals. By eliminating sugar from your diet, you’re cutting your risk of developing chronic inflammation.

Lower risk of cancer: One exciting discovery about the ketogenic diet is cancer prevention. Dr. Dominic D’Agostino at the University of South Florida showed how the ketogenic diet can impact this dreaded disease. He explains that all of your cells (including cancer cells) use glucose as fuel. However, cancer cells do not have metabolic flexibility and cannot adapt to using ketones as energy, which your regular cells can. Once your body enters a state of nutritional ketosis, the cancer cells starve to death.

Increasing muscle mass: Jeff Volek, PhD, is a registered dietitian specializing in how a high-fat, low-carb diet can affect health and athletic performance. In one of his books he states that ketones have a structure similar to that of branched-chain amino acids, which can be useful for building muscle mass. Ketones spare these amino acids, leaving more of them around to help promote muscle mass.

Reduced appetite: Constant hunger can cause you to consume more calories than you can burn, which can eventually lead to weight gain. A ketogenic diet can help avoid this problem because eating fewer carbohydrates can quell hunger pangs. In one study, participants given a low-carbohydrate diet had reduced appetites, helping them lose weight more easily.

Lower insulin levels: When you consume carbs, they break down into sugars in your body. In turn this raises your blood sugar levels and brings on an insulin spike. Over time you can develop insulin resistance, which can progress to type 2 diabetes. Altering your diet to a ketogenic approach can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In a study published in Nutrition & Metabolism, researchers noted that diabetics eating low-carbohydrate ketogenic diets were able to significantly reduce their dependency on diabetes medication and could eventually reverse the disease.

Different Types of Ketogenic Diets You Can Try

There are several variations of the ketogenic diet based on specific needs:

Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD): SKD is my typical recommendation for most people because it is very effective. It focuses on eating a lot of healthy fats (70 percent of your diet), moderate protein (25 percent), and very little in the way of carbohydrates (5 percent). Keep in mind that there’s no set limit to the fat because energy requirements vary from person to person, depending on their daily physical activities. However, a majority of calories still need to come from fats and you still need to limit your consumption of carbohydrates and protein for it to be considered a standard ketogenic diet.

Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD): TKD is generally geared toward fitness enthusiasts. In this approach you eat the entirety of your allocated carbs for the day in one meal, 30 to 60 minutes before exercise. The idea is to effectively use the energy provided by the carbs before it disrupts ketosis. If you’re following this approach, I recommend that you eat carbs that are easily digestible with a high glycemic index to avoid upsetting your stomach. When you’re done exercising, eat some protein to help muscle recovery, then continue consuming your fats afterwards.

Cyclic Ketogenic Diet (CKD): Whereas TKD is focused on fitness enthusiasts, CKD is focused more on athletes and bodybuilders. In CKD, you cycle between a normal ketogenic diet and a set number of days of high carb consumption, also known as “carb-loading.” The idea is to use the carbohydrates to replenish the glycogen lost from your muscles during a workout. It usually consists of five days of SKD followed by two days of carb-loading. During the ketogenic cycle, carb consumption is around 50 grams, but when you get to the carb-loading cycle the amount jumps to 450 to 600 grams. This method is only for people who maintain a high rate of physical activity.

High-Protein Ketogenic Diet: This method is a variant of the SKD. In a high-protein diet you increase the ratio of protein consumption to 10 percent and reduce your healthy fat consumption by 10 percent. In a study involving obese men who tried this method, researchers noted that it helped reduce their hunger and cut back their food intake significantly, so they lost weight. If you’re overweight or obese this may help you at first, and then you can transition to SKD after normalizing your weight.

Restricted Ketogenic Diet: As mentioned earlier, a ketogenic diet can be an effective weapon against cancer—if it is a restricted ketogenic diet. Restricting your carbohydrate and caloric intake causes your body to lose glycogen and begin producing ketones that healthy cells can use as energy. Because cancer cells cannot use these ketones, they starve to death.

A 2010 study helps back up this claim. It featured a 65-year-old woman with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), an aggressive type of brain cancer, who was put on a restricted ketogenic diet that started with water fasting. She then proceeded to consume only 600 calories a day. After two months her weight decreased and the ketones in her body elevated. And both magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and fluorodeoxyglucose-positron emission tomography (FDG-PET) scans detected no discernable brain tumor tissue.

Put Away These Foods Before Going on a Ketogenic Diet

Before coming up with an actual ketogenic diet food list it’s important to first examine what you’re eating and eliminate anything unhealthy. This means removing sugars, starches, and packaged and processed foods because a ketogenic diet focuses on eating real, whole food.

Milk contains the carbohydrate galactose and just one glass can eat up your entire daily carb allotment so I would not recommend it, especially for lactose-intolerant people. You’ll also want to avoid many other products such as hydrogenated vegetable oils (canola), soy products, and sodas.

The Ideal Foods to Eat for a Ketogenic Diet

After removing unhealthy foods from your diet, what’s the next step? When it comes to the core of an actual ketogenic diet, remember that you need to consume only a moderate amount of protein, or about one-half gram per pound of lean body mass, each day. In addition, you need to minimize carbohydrates and eat more high-quality fats so they serve as your new fuel source.

To ease yourself into a ketogenic meal plan I usually recommend adding C8 medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil into your food. It’s typically more expensive than other types of MCT oil but I prefer it because it more effectively converts into ketones. You can start with 1 teaspoon per day and then gradually go up to 2 to 3 tablespoons. If MCT oil does not agree with you, you can try MCT powder, which is easier on your digestion. The table below provides a good overview of other foods rich in high-quality healthy fats.

When building your ketogenic diet meal plan it’s important to include a lot of leafy green vegetables because they are rich in fiber, antioxidants, and various nutrients. Your best choices include broccoli, spinach, parsley, Brussels sprouts, and zucchini. While fruits are generally healthy, avoid the majority of them because of their high amounts of sugar. However, certain berries such as blackberries, blueberries, and cranberries are safe to eat in moderation because they are so rich in antioxidants.

You can choose from several beverages, the most important being water, but you may also drink organic black coffee (without any sweeteners or milk), which is also rich in antioxidants. You can drink coconut milk as well as herbal teas because both are rich in various antioxidants and nutrients. You might also investigate outside authoritative resources for more extensive lists of ketogenic foods.

Ketogenic Recipes You Can Try

People often underestimate the health potential of food. In truth the food you eat contributes to 80 percent of your overall health, with the remaining 20 percent dependent on various lifestyle factors. Now that you’re aware of the ketogenic diet, your next question may be, “How do I make ketogenic meals?”

Whether you’re a budding cook or a master chef, you can prepare delicious meals that’ll take your health to the next level. Many cookbooks are available including the one I co-wrote with Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans, The Fat for Fuel Ketogenic Cookbook. Some additional recipes I recommend include keto salads, the chocolate fat bomb, and macadamia fudge, to give a sense of what’s in there.

Who Should Not Be on a Ketogenic Diet?

Based on published studies, a ketogenic diet can be beneficial but not everyone can follow this eating plan. If you fall within any of the following categories I recommend against a ketogenic diet for safety reasons: Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding; those who are naturally thin or have anorexia; those who have had a gallbladder removed or have a history of kidney stones; young people whose body is still growing; athletes about to start a new rigorous season; those with pancreatic insufficiencies; and those with metabolic disorders such as Gaucher’s, Tay-Sachs, Niemann-Pick, and Fabry’s disease, which can interfere with fat metabolism and energy production.

The Side Effects of a Ketogenic Diet

Starting a ketogenic diet can help optimize health, but like any major dietary change it can have several undesirable (but not alarming) side effects such as:

Bad breath: Once you start on a ketogenic diet you may notice that your breath has an undesirable odor due to the higher acetone levels in your body. Acetone is a ketone produced during ketosis that is expelled in both your urine and your breath. On a positive note, detecting acetone on your breath is a good indicator that your ketogenic diet is working. You can brush your teeth and/or rinse your mouth with coconut oil to help remove the bad breath.

Frequent urination: During the first few days of a ketogenic diet you may have to visit the bathroom more often. That’s because your body is dumping he glycogen in your liver and muscles into your urine. And as the insulin levels in your blood begin to drop, excess sodium is also expelled in the form of urine.

Sugar cravings: You may develop intense sugar cravings as your body switches from sugar to fat for fuel. I encourage you to not give in to temptation. You can practice various relaxation methods or yoga to take your mind away from sugary foods.

Short-term fatigue: You may begin to feel tired at the start of a ketogenic diet. It’s actually one of the main reasons many people discontinue this approach long before they can enjoy its benefits. The reason you get tired at the start is that your body is adapting to using healthy fats for energy. The transition doesn’t happen overnight and full ketosis may take from seven to 30 days.

Digestive problems: A huge shift into any dieting method can increase your risk of digestive problems and the ketogenic diet is no exception. Constipation is commonly reported among those starting a ketogenic diet but it usually disappears in a few weeks once your body gets used to the healthier food you’re eating.

Hair loss: You may notice more strands of hair stuck in your brush during the first few days of the ketogenic diet. Don’t worry—hair loss is a common result of any major dietary change and will stop once your body achieves ketosis.

Going into nutritional ketosis by following a ketogenic diet is one of the most radical but highly beneficial lifestyle changes you can make to improve your health. As with most dietary changes, always remember to listen to your body. If you feel any side effects other than the ones listed above, you may need to adjust your food intake. Importantly, while my recommendations for the ketogenic diet may prove to greatly enhance your health, none are intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional.

Ideal Foods for a Ketognic Diet

Coconut oilAnimal-based omega-3
fats from healthy sources
such as wild-caught
Alaskan salmon, sardines,
anchovies, and krill
Olives and olive
oil (make sure they
are third-party
certified because
most olive oils
are diluted with
vegetable oils)
Raw grass-fed butterRaw nuts, such
as macadamias,
almonds, and pecans
Various seeds
such as pumpkin,
sesame, cumin,
and hemp
AvocadosGrass-fed meatsLard and/or tallow
(clarified butter)
Raw cacao butterOrganic pastured

Dr. Joseph Mercola finished his family practice residency in 1985, having trained in the conventional model. In his first years of private practice he treated many symptoms with prescription drugs and was actually a paid speaker for the drug companies. He embraced natural medicine after witnessing failures in the conventional model and has successfully treated thousands of patients in his clinic over the last 30 years. This article was excerpted from his popular health site, Mercola.com, which has nearly two million subscribers.

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