A Beginner’s Guide to Eating Keto (and keeping it healthy)
Considering all that you’re taught about carbs, protein and fats, a diet that turns the healthy eating pyramid on its head might seem counterintuitive. But with evidence of better weight management, reduced inflammation and improved mental energy and focus, could eating keto be right for you?
The ketogenic diet is trending right now. You may have heard about it. You may have read about it. Even so you may still be confused.
“Ketogenic… Isn’t that where you stuff yourself with fat?”
Put like that it really doesn’t sound very healthy, or even particularly appealing, so what makes this type of diet of interest and what are some of the benefits it could potentially bring to your health?
Clinical and scientific research suggests that eating a ketogenic diet can have a variety of metabolic effects: supporting weight loss, enhancing cognitive function and brain activity, reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. More recent studies indicate a connection between a ketogenic diet and your immune response.
Overweight and obesity, fat around the middle, brain fog, mental fatigue and excessive inflammation are some of the most commonly experienced health challenges, which could be a reason why the ketogenic diet has such appeal.
- This article takes a look at the what? why? and how? of keto and may help you decide if it fits with your lifestyle and goals.
- It also includes the types of food you could eat to keep your high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet as healthy as it can be.
What Is Keto?
Do you recall the Food Pyramid, the representation of the different types of foods to eat to achieve a healthy diet? At the base, the widest part of the pyramid, were starchy carbs like bread, pasta and rice. The recommendation was to have 6 to 11 servings of these a day. Moving up, the next layer was filled with fruit and veg. The recommendation was to eat 9 servings of these. One level higher and you reached the protein foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, bacon, eggs and nuts. The suggested intake was 2 – 3 servings. Yoghurt and cheese were also on the same level; so you could eat 2 – 3 servings too. Finally, right at the peak of the pyramid were the fats and oils. These were to be eaten very sparingly, in fact they didn’t even merit the word “serving”.
Well, quite simply, the ketogenic diet turns the food pyramid on its head. The fats and oils and carbohydrates literally swap places.
So what is it about dietary fats and oils that makes them worthy of becoming the mac-daddy macronutrient?
It’s all to do with the metabolic processes which produce energy for your cells and the hormones which coordinate them.
A useful way to visualise how your body uses each of the macronutrients is to think of how you keep a fire burning.
Consider the difference in burning time if you were to use a handful of twigs and leaves, a few chopped branches, or a big fat log of wood. Twigs and leaves would burn up in a matter of seconds. The branches would have a slightly longer burning time. As for the log of wood, it would burn for a much longer time giving a steadier warmth rather than a quick burst of heat.
This is a useful analogy to help consider what happens in your body.
Eating a high-sugar high-carbohydrate diet is akin to the twigs and leaves, while a diet where the carbohydrates are more starchy or fibrous would give you a medium burning time. However when your main source of energy comes from fats, it’s equivalent to throwing a larger log on the fire and getting that slow steady burn.
Eating a ketogenic diet, or going keto, means that you’ll be consuming a lot of fat, a medium amount of protein, and a small amount of carbohydrates. The intention behind this type of macronutrient balance is to put the body into a metabolic state called ketosis. Ketosis is what happens when you use fats as your main supply of energy: your cells switch to using fats instead of sugar for their metabolic fuel; meanwhile in the liver, fat is turned into ketones which supply energy for your brain.
Let’s take a look at how this style of eating may impact your health.
Why Do Keto?
When insulin and glucose levels become poor controlled all of these processes can be affected. Research indicates how your micronutrient status can disturb carbohydrate metabolism – for instance having a low magnesium intake. 
An over-production of insulin can also cause your cells to become resistant to insulin; this is where it’s made, released, and reaches the insulin receptors but doesn’t provoke the appropriate response in your cells. A resistance to insulin can cause your blood glucose levels to rise. Low vitamin D  and nutrient excess  are both implicated in insulin resistance.
How To Do Keto (And Eat Healthily)
As you now know, a ketogenic diet encourages a state of ketosis where you use ketones from fats for your energy, instead of glucose form carbs. It also promotes better control in a dysregulated glucose – insulin – energy production metabolic pathway. Keto diets help to lower blood glucose and blood insulin.
Carbs in your diet promote insulin release. Eating huge portions of protein promotes insulin release (excess dietary protein gets converted to glucose). Eating and snacking on sugary foods stimulates insulin release. So adjusting your eating habits to keep your insulin release low is what you’ll be aiming for.
Generally speaking, you’ll eat fewer carbs, eat a moderate amount of protein and eat fewer snacks or meals in total.
Let’s take a look at how you can introduce a ketogenic diet but continue to eat healthily.
FOUR HEALTHY WAYS TO MANAGE YOUR INTAKE OF CARBS
1. Swap higher sugar fruit (including sweet apples, mango, banana, cherries) for lower sugar berries, have strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.
2. Replace sugar, agave nectar, honey, date syrup, coconut sugar with erythritol (a sugar alcohol).
3. Replace starchy carbs including potato and pasta with cauliflower (many supermarkets sell it riced).
Other low-carb veg includes: asparagus, aubergine, avocado, basil, broccoli, cabbage, coriander, courgette, cucumber, ginger, green beans, green pepper, kale, lettuce, mint, olives, spinach, tarragon, tomato, and thyme.
4. Ditch grains such as wheat and rice and cook with ground almonds and almond flour, coconut flour, or chestnut flour instead.
AN EASY WAY TO EAT ENOUGH PROTEIN (no calculations required!)
How much protein do you need? There are lots of measures and conversions to calculate the recommended amount of protein for your weight and activity level, but there’s a simple way to get started.
Use your hand.
A serving of protein that is the same size as the palm of your hand is more than enough in one meal.
Good sources of protein include: meat, poultry, eggs, cheese, fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel, other fatty fish) and shellfish: clams, mussels, octopus, oysters and squid.
My top tip for naturally keeping the oils and fats in your diet:
Eat your protein foods ‘whole’ rather than the diet version. This will help you increase your fat intake and decrease the amount of added oil you eat.
TWO WAYS TO CHOOSE HEALTHIER FATS AND OILS
As you transition to a diet with a high fat content one of the questions that often arises is how to keep it healthy. Gram for gram, out of all the macronutrients, fat has the largest calorie content and for many people the fear is that they will put on excess weight. The fats and oils in your diet can also raise the issue of inflammation. As you likely know, fats can have an anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory effect on the body depending on their omega-3:omega-6 ratio.
Let’s consider each of these situations in turn.
1. Fullness vs calories – a simple way to get an adequate intake of fats and oils
A really useful phrase to remember is to ‘eat fats to fullness’. Fat and oil is calorie dense and very satiating, so you’ll quickly feel full when eating these foods. However, if you fill up on these types of foods first, you might not have a big enough appetite to ensure that you eat all the plant foods that you need. This could mean your vit and min intake is sub-optimal. So practice selective eating and go for greens first. Eat up your veg and greens, then protein-rich foods, before finishing with the higher fat foods which you’ll eat until you feel full.
2. Anti-inflammatory oils vs pro-inflammatory oils
A second measure of a fats (or oils) impact on your health is how anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory it is. This can seem a bit overwhelming at first, particularly when you head to the supermarket and see all the options available to purchase.
The principle on the keto diet is to eat oils and fats that are either:
- anti-inflammatory oils which are high in omega-3;
- saturated oils with a higher smoke point which stay undamaged when heated to higher temperatures;
- a source of ketones which can provide a quick burst of energy that your brain and body will love.
Here’s my pick of some of the better oils and fats: unrefined extra virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, coconut oil, butter and MCT oil.
Foods to eat for their nutritious fat content include: raw nuts (almonds, brazil, cashew, macadamia, pistachio, walnuts); seeds (chia, flax, pumpkin, sesame); avocado; oily fish and olives.
My top tip for maximising your intake of vits and mins:
You can also add some oil to your veg – try butter, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, or flaxseed oil. You’ll get the added benefit of better absorbing the fat soluble vits and phytonutrients from your greens.
Ketogenic diets are in, which means eating fat is back in fashion. The research suggests that this style of eating can have positive benefits on your health – from reducing inflammation, increasing mental clarity and promoting weight loss and a healthy weight. The key to its impact is in how it helps to stabilise and reduce blood glucose and blood insulin levels. So if these types of metabolic issues are currently a concern, then the keto diet might have a huge appeal. However, for this type of eating to have longevity, you’ll need to take a healthy approach, choosing plenty of fresh low-carb veg to meet your vitamin and mineral needs and an adequate serving of protein. Then choose healthier fats and oils to meet your energy requirements and satisfy your hunger.
References Mooren (2015) Magnesium and disturbances in carbohydrate metabolism.
 Sung et al (2012) Role of Vitamin D in Insulin Resistance.
 Coughlan et al (2013) Nutrient Excess in AMPK Downregulation and Insulin Resistance.
 Hardy et al (2012) What causes the insulin resistance underlying obesity?
Images from Unsplash.com
Johnathan Beckman, Louis Hansel, Womanizer, Tijana Drndarski