The Basics of Keto
Lots of people have heard about the keto diet, and have even been encouraged to follow it without truly knowing how it works. We thought we’d write a short article to explain the basics of what Keto and Ketosis is, the things you need to do to follow the diet correctly, and the things to watch out for to make starting off your research easier.
What Is "Keto"?
Keto is a diet where your body mainly burns things called ketones instead of the standard glucose for energy. How most people get energy is by digesting carbohydrates and breaking them down into a type of sugar called glucose. This is then used to power our cells and make sure we have the energy to go about our daily business. By limiting how many carbohydrates you eat in a day to generally no more than 30g a day, your body is forced to turn to fat for energy. It breaks these fats down into ketones and your body then uses those to power you.
When your body is using ketones for fuel, this state of being is called ketosis. The aim of a keto diet is to keep you in this state of ketosis. There are ways to tell if you are in ketosis or not, detailed in our What Should You Expect When You Start A Keto Diet section.
what are the benefits of a keto diet?
Well, the obvious benefit is that you’re a lot less likely to have blood sugar spikes, and more likely to have steady energy levels throughout the day. In a non-keto diet, sugars get digested and used up very quickly, leading to sugar rushes followed by a crash.
Your body constantly needs a fuel source and lets you know when you’re running low whenever you feel hungry. Because ketones are a much more steady source of energy than carbohydrates you tend not to get as hungry as quickly as your body burns through them slower, which can help to prevent overeating.
The best metaphor I can think of is that sugar is like gunpowder. The second you light it up there’s a big explosion with lots of heat and light and there’s nothing left shortly after; whereas ketones are more like coal, you light them up and they’ll stay burning for hours providing a steady heat, and slowly fizzle out.
Because of this slow burn, keto is great at helping people lose weight as it keeps you feeling full for longer than the same number of calories of carbohydrates. Therefore it’s easier to maintain a calorie deficit (eating less calories than your body needs to encourage the burning of your fat) as you don’t feel as hungry so the urge to eat isn’t as strong.
Keto can also help with diabetes. By not eating any carbohydrates (and therefore having little to no glucose in your system) your body finds it easier to regulate your blood sugar levels, lowering your risk of Hyperglycaemia. Some doctor’s in the UK are recommending keto diets for people with type 2 diabetes, and some can even go into remission entirely.
what do you need to do to follow a keto diet?
Well, the first thing is to eat no more than 30g of carbs per day. This means cutting out thing like bread, pasta, rice and a lot of starchy vegetables. Good foods to eat on a keto diet are:
Low carb vegetables (Cauliflower, caugette, etc)
As you can see, the list isn’t very vegan friendly, but that doesn’t mean vegan keto is impossible. Edamame beans, seitan, seeds and restricted amounts of pulses are all great vegan sources of protein.
Most of your calories should be coming from fat. This will be your main source of fuel and as a result it will be what you’ll consume most.
The next most important thing is making sure you’re getting your electrolytes like magnesium, potassium and salt. In order to be following a keto diet well you need to be having ample amounts of all of these, as too few minerals could lead to something called keto flu which you definitely want to avoid. We talk more about this in the What To Watch Our For section.
What Should You Expect When You Start A Keto Diet?
A big change like this is going to have an adjustment period. These are the most common side-effects for transitioning to a keto diet and a lot will pass once you’re fully in ketosis. Keep an eye out for them as they can be a useful sign to show you’re doing something right!
When starting, your body excretes a lot of the water and salt from it’s muscles. As a result you’ll need to pee a lot. Remember to drink a lot of water and keep an eye on your salt levels. It might not be obvious this is happening if you weren’t hydrated to begin with, and it will fade with time.
Dramatic initial weight loss
Due to the same expelling of water mentioned above, you’ll notice you can lose up to 2kg per day initially. This will slow down once your body is used to the diet but this can come as quite a shock for those who weren’t aware this could happen, and can lead to people feeling disappointed when they see this stop.
Just like any change in diet, your gut will need time to adjust. Over the counter medications can help with any symptoms here if you are finding them a bit much, but it will pass if you follow the diet.
While your body is still switching over from carbs to fats for fuel, your body will crave anything carb-y and you may feel quite hungry. Don’t worry about calorie counting intially and just focus on not going over 30g of carbs a day and this should go at around day 4 and you can start being more strict then.
Change in breath smell
Ketones have a very distinct smell. It’s somewhat fruity and can be smelled on your breath and urine when in ketosis. For a lot of people this isn’t an issue, but others can find it too much. A quick fix is to use a breath spray or gum (that’s keto friendly!) to cover the smell.
What To Watch Out For
The thing about a keto diet is that when it’s done wrong and enough care isn’t taken into making sure you’re getting it right, it can be quite nasty. These effects are commonly referred to as “keto flu”, and it’s important to be aware of them. Your body has ways of letting you know if things are off, and here are the the things to keep an eye on:
Headaches, headrush, brain fog, muscle cramping and nausea:
These are all signs that you are not getting enough salt. You lose salt at a faster rate than normal on a keto diet, especially in the first few days. It’s important to keep an eye on your salt levels and make sure you’re getting at least 6g a day, with more being helpful.
You can increase your intake by adding more salt to your meals or eating cured meats.
Heart palpitations and muscle cramping: These can indicate that your potassium intake is too low. Muscle cramping is more likely to be caused by low salt, but if you find you’re cramping even with a high salt intake you may want to try some potassium. Heart palpitations (where it can feel like your heart is beating too hard or fast briefly) are also indicative of being low on potassium. Aim to intake at least 2 grams of potassium per day.
Some great keto-friendly sources of potassium include green veggies (such as spinach, kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts), mushrooms, salmon, avocados and various nuts and seeds, like almonds. You can also buy lite salt, which is a mix of 2/3 table salt and 1/3 potassium chloride, and use this on your food.
Anxiety and leg cramping: If your cramping is specifically in your legs - generally the calves - or you are experiencing higher levels of anxiety than normal, this can indicate you are low on magnesium. Aim to get at least 300 milligrams of magnesium per day.
You can find magnesium in a lot of the same foods that have a good amount of potassium - almonds, spinach, avocado and wild fish like salmon are all good choices. You can also purchase magnesium supplements if you are struggling to meet your magnesium goals. If you do want to do this, try to find magnesium chloride or magnesium bisglycinate and avoid magnesium oxide.
These symptoms do sound nasty, but if you make sure to follow a well-balanced ketogenic diet, you won’t experience any of them! Still, keep the list in mind above so that if you do experience any issues, you know what steps you can take to deal with them.