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Making Sense of the Keto Craze

In the past year or so, you may have heard chatter about this ketogenic – “keto” for short – diet that seems to be sweeping the nation, and becoming especially popular in the fitness community. While this may make you want to immediately label it a fad, the ketogenic diet has actually been around since the 1920s, so it warrants  a closer look.  We’ll examine the ketogenic diet to get a better sense of what it is, how to do it, and most importantly, whether and why someone might follow it.

Related: Start With Why

In the simplest terms possible, the ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that aims to change the main fuel source of the body from carbohydrates to fat. At its purest form, this means that up to 80% of a person’s calories would come from fat, and less than 5% from carbohydrate. Compare this to the American Heart Association’s recommendation to consume no more than 30% of daily caloric intake from fat, and you immediately start to see how vastly different this diet truly is. All our lives, we’ve been told fat is bad, so how would a diet that argues that a large majority of calories should come from fat provide any health benefit at all? To understand how this might work, we need to first understand another term: ketosis.

Ketosis is a metabolic state where energy is primarily derived from the breakdown of triglycerides (fat stores in the body), instead of the breakdown of glucose and glycogen that are derived from carbohydrates. Breaking down triglycerides produces compounds known as ketone bodies, which then travel in the bloodstream, and thus are a key marker of when a person is experiencing ketosis. This state occurs in all humans regardless of diet, but typically only in a “postabsorptive state.” This occurs when we haven’t eaten in over four hours.  A person on a ketogenic diet is nearly always in this state, so this diet dramatically changes our physiology.

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Originally, the ketogenic diet was designed for epilepsy patients, who experience fewer seizures when the brain and nervous tissue are powered by ketone bodies instead of glucose.  But how did this diet spread from a niche medical treatment to the latest big thing? The answer lies in the various studies that have supported the notion that the diet may provide health benefits we didn’t know about – or value – until recently.  Fat loss, blood sugar management, lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood, as well as cancer prevention are all possible benefits of depriving the body from carbohydrates, but the research is not yet conclusive.

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While all this may sound great, how can we determine whether the ketogenic diet will work for us or not?  First, remember that “diets” don’t work, long-term changes to dietary patterns do.  Ask yourself if cutting nearly all grains out of your life would be sustainable.  Another thing to consider for active individuals is that during exercise, especially intense exercise, glycogen stores in our muscles are our main energy source.  Consuming very little carbohydrate would all but deplete these stores and may leave you feeling tired and decrease exercise performance, although this isn’t the case for everyone.

Finally, if you truly are considering a strict ketogenic diet, I would highly encourage you to consult a medical professional to determine if this diet would be advisable for you, since there are risks involved concerning blood sugar levels.  But if you’re not considering this diet, not all is lost, because there is still plenty to learn from it.  Look up any keto food list and at the top you’ll see vegetables, meat, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats like various oils.  Focusing on revolving our meals around these foods, even while still allowing some fruits, grains, and dairy, will be beneficial for nearly all of us.

–Jay Alexander

Coach/Trainer

jay@crossfitslipstream.com