Instead of thinking about the total carbs you’re eating, assess what those carbs provide to you. Do the majority of your carbs come from fruit and vegetables, with a payload of fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants? Fantastic. Or are you consuming them in the form of added sugars (cookies, candy, soda) or refined flour? If you are, you know what to do.
In the 1960s, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) were found to produce more ketone bodies per unit of energy than normal dietary fats (which are mostly long-chain triglycerides). MCTs are more efficiently absorbed and are rapidly transported to the liver via the hepatic portal system rather than the lymphatic system. The severe carbohydrate restrictions of the classic ketogenic diet made it difficult for parents to produce palatable meals that their children would tolerate. In 1971, Peter Huttenlocher devised a ketogenic diet where about 60% of the calories came from the MCT oil, and this allowed more protein and up to three times as much carbohydrate as the classic ketogenic diet. The oil was mixed with at least twice its volume of skimmed milk, chilled, and sipped during the meal or incorporated into food. He tested it on 12 children and adolescents with intractable seizures. Most children improved in both seizure control and alertness, results that were similar to the classic ketogenic diet. Gastrointestinal upset was a problem, which led one patient to abandon the diet, but meals were easier to prepare and better accepted by the children. The MCT diet replaced the classic ketogenic diet in many hospitals, though some devised diets that were a combination of the two.
If you start at 25g of net carbs a day, you can slowly increase to 50g as you lose weight. Once you reach your goal, you can increase your carbs as you see how they affect your weight. If you eat fruit for a week and gain weight, cut back. You have to figure out what works best for you. Ketosis can be maintained with as many as 100g of carbs each day.
When you eat less than 50 grams of carbs a day, your body eventually runs out of fuel (blood sugar) it can use quickly. This typically takes 3 to 4 days. Then you’ll start to break down protein and fat for energy, which can make you lose weight. This is called ketosis. It's important to note that the ketogenic diet is a short term diet that's focussed on weight loss rather than the pursuit of health benefits.
Ketogenesis has existed as long as humans have. If you eat a very low amount of carbohydrates, you starve your brain of glucose, its main fuel source. Your body still needs fuel to function, so it taps into your reserve of ketones, which are compounds the liver creates from fat when blood insulin is low. This process is known as ketosis: It’s like when a hybrid car runs out of gas and reverts to pure electricity.
This can look different for everybody, but some popular forms of this are the 16:8 diet, where you fast for 16 hours (usually from dinnertime until a late breakfast) and eat all your food within an eight-hour span. Another is the 5:2 diet, where you eat less than 500 calories for two non-consecutive days a week and then eat normally for the rest of the week.
As mentioned, there are a few reasons why the keto diet usually equals weight-loss gold, says Keatley. For starters, people usually reduce their daily caloric intake to about 1,500 calories a day because healthy fats and lean proteins make you feel fuller sooner—and for a longer period of time. And then there’s the fact that it takes more energy to process and burn fat and protein than carbs, so you're burning slightly more calories than you did before. Over time, this can lead to weight loss.
Run by the Charlie Foundation, this calculator can be helpful when you’re using keto as a therapy to help manage a medical condition. The calculator helps estimate calorie needs based on weight, assists in determining a macro ratio and macros needed per meal, and can calculate macro numbers on the basis of meals and snacks you enter into the system. Also takes into account fluids, supplements, and medications.
Although studies have shown that the keto diet can reduce seizures for children with epilepsy, there is no evidence indicating that keto helps with other brain disorders or improves mental cognition, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Some studies show that keto may lower blood sugar for people with type 2 diabetes, but there is not enough long-term research to determine whether it’s safe and effective for diabetics.
You may also have to moderate protein intake somewhat, as high protein intake (greater than 2.0g/kg/d) may make it more difficult to maintain ketosis. However, eating too little protein may also present health issues such as poor muscle development, increased hunger, and lack of essential amino acids. That is why we recommend a moderate level of protein intake, defined as 1.2-1.7g/kg/d. See our protein guide.
One downside to a ketogenic diet for weight loss is the difficulty maintaining it. “Studies show that weight loss results from being on a low-carb diet for more than 12 months tend to be the same as being on a normal, healthy diet,” says Mattinson. While you may be eating more satiating fats (like peanut butter, regular butter, or avocado), you’re also way more limited in what’s allowed on the diet, which can make everyday situations, like eating dinner with family or going out with friends, far more difficult. Because people often find it tough to sustain, it’s easy to rely on it as a short-term diet rather than a long-term lifestyle.
The ketogenic diet is not a benign, holistic, or natural treatment for epilepsy; as with any serious medical therapy, complications may result. These are generally less severe and less frequent than with anticonvulsant medication or surgery. Common but easily treatable short-term side effects include constipation, low-grade acidosis, and hypoglycaemia if an initial fast is undertaken. Raised levels of lipids in the blood affect up to 60% of children and cholesterol levels may increase by around 30%. This can be treated by changes to the fat content of the diet, such as from saturated fats towards polyunsaturated fats, and if persistent, by lowering the ketogenic ratio. Supplements are necessary to counter the dietary deficiency of many micronutrients.
In many developing countries, the ketogenic diet is expensive because dairy fats and meat are more expensive than grain, fruit and vegetables. The modified Atkins diet has been proposed as a lower-cost alternative for those countries; the slightly more expensive food bill can be offset by a reduction in pharmaceutical costs if the diet is successful. The modified Atkins diet is less complex to explain and prepare and requires less support from a dietitian.
Urine Strips: When tested in urine, these strips will elicit a color change based on the level of ketones, namely acetoacetate, which is present in the urine. It is important to note that acetoacetate is different than the ketones present in the blood, namely, beta-hydroxybutyrate (βHB). Due to its nature, urine ketone testing may be a sufficient initial method to test ketone production; however, it is not the ideal method for determining the utilization of these ketone bodies, especially once “keto-adapted.”
^ Freeman JM, Vining EP, Pillas DJ, Pyzik PL, Casey JC, Kelly LM. The efficacy of the ketogenic diet—1998: a prospective evaluation of intervention in 150 children. Pediatrics. 1998 Dec;102(6):1358–63. doi:10.1542/peds.102.6.1358. PMID 9832569. https://web.archive.org/web/20040629224858/http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/press/1998/DECEMBER/981207.HTM Lay summary]—JHMI Office of Communications and Public Affairs. Updated 7 December 1998. Cited 6 March 2008.
Keto for Diabetes: The ketogenic diet can be an extremely effective therapeutic treatment for diabetes. Since type 2 diabetes is hallmarked by insulin resistance, a ketogenic diet may improve insulin-resistance, associated pathological state via the following: 1) lowering and stabilizing both blood glucose and insulin levels, 2) improving insulin sensitivity, and 3) providing an alternative fuel source through ketone production. Virta Health recently published a report showing patients could rapidly improve glycemic control through reductions in fasting blood glucose, HbA1c, and medication use after 10 weeks of treatment. Patients lost 7% of their body weight on average and reported less hunger. For more information, please visit our friends at Virta Health who are actively working with diabetics (https://www.virtahealth.com).
There are so many tricks, shortcuts, and gimmicks out there on achieving optimal ketosis – I’d suggest you don’t bother with any of that. Optimal ketosis can be accomplished through dietary nutrition alone (aka just eating food). You shouldn’t need a magic pill to do it. Just stay strict, remain vigilant, and be focused on recording what you eat (to make sure your carb and protein intake are correct).
Eggs are a healthy, nutrient-dense food that has been incorrectly maligned for years. Cholesterol in food doesn’t increase cholesterol in your blood, so eat eggs liberally – they’re packed with protein and lutein, and they fill you up for hours. Make a healthy omelet with some cheddar, crumbled breakfast sausage, and shredded spinach and you’re already looking at over 30g of protein, just for breakfast! Spinach is a great source of magnesium and potassium, too. Add some sea salt and you’ve got a big dose of electrolytes that are so vital to maintaining energy and staving off headaches. Get the recipe and instructions
The ketone bodies are possibly anticonvulsant; in animal models, acetoacetate and acetone protect against seizures. The ketogenic diet results in adaptive changes to brain energy metabolism that increase the energy reserves; ketone bodies are a more efficient fuel than glucose, and the number of mitochondria is increased. This may help the neurons to remain stable in the face of increased energy demand during a seizure, and may confer a neuroprotective effect.
This article was reviewed by Jes Harvey, RD, on November 7, 2019. Harvey is a registered dietitian specializing in the ketogenic diet for children and adults. She is a certified specialist in Pediatric Nutrition and educates children with epilepsy on the ketogenic diet as an anti-seizure medication. Harvey also manages a private nutrition practice consulting adults on the ketogenic way of eating.
Keto for Cancer: Cancer is now being discussed as primarily a metabolic disease in which glucose can fuel its progression. Due to recent light shed on this subject, intensive investigations are underway and have begun to reveal that restricting carbohydrate intake can slow oncogenesis and that a full ketogenic-state may elicit even greater therapeutic benefits. Furthermore, research also suggests that fasting and the state of ketosis may increase the sensitivity of cancer cells to radiation and chemotherapy.
The ketogenic diet is calculated by a dietitian for each child. Age, weight, activity levels, culture, and food preferences all affect the meal plan. First, the energy requirements are set at 80–90% of the recommended daily amounts (RDA) for the child's age (the high-fat diet requires less energy to process than a typical high-carbohydrate diet). Highly active children or those with muscle spasticity require more food energy than this; immobile children require less. The ketogenic ratio of the diet compares the weight of fat to the combined weight of carbohydrate and protein. This is typically 4:1, but children who are younger than 18 months, older than 12 years, or who are obese may be started on a 3:1 ratio. Fat is energy-rich, with 9 kcal/g (38 kJ/g) compared to 4 kcal/g (17 kJ/g) for carbohydrate or protein, so portions on the ketogenic diet are smaller than normal. The quantity of fat in the diet can be calculated from the overall energy requirements and the chosen ketogenic ratio. Next, the protein levels are set to allow for growth and body maintenance, and are around 1 g protein for each kg of body weight. Lastly, the amount of carbohydrate is set according to what allowance is left while maintaining the chosen ratio. Any carbohydrate in medications or supplements must be subtracted from this allowance. The total daily amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrate is then evenly divided across the meals.