Executive summary of the Keto diet
Avocados are your BFF on the keto diet. Photo by Jonathan Beckman

Executive summary of the Keto diet

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have heard of the “Keto” (short for ketogenic) diet. Just what is it, and does it work? What are the upsides, and the downsides? And where can you find all the resources in one place? HERE, in this executive summary. I will update this post as I come across more material, so definitely come back to it.

What’s the skinny?

  • This article will tell you what you need to know before deciding to try the “Keto” diet.
  • After an overview and how it works, you will get guidance on the difficulty level, traps for the unwary, and what both the proponents and opponents of the diet say.
  • Then we will conclude with resources for Keto apps, blogs, and recipes. You can basically Keto-ize anything, and the marketplace has already done a lot of the work for you.

Keto is a household name 

I remember the first time I heard about the Keto diet. It was 2015, and I was having coffee with one of my trainer friends, who is one of those girls you look at and think, she must live in the gym. I ordered my non-fat, skinny vanilla latte, and she ordered her Americano with a side of “heavy cream.” I gave her a quizzical look.

“It’s the keto diet,” she said nonchalantly, as she swirled the thick cream into her coffee. “You eat high fat, moderate protein, and really low-carb. You can have all the cream in your coffee that you want.” 

I thought, you can? Sign me up! I immediately went home and started researching keto, buying books, and ordering Bulletproof coffee (more on that in a minute).

Since then, Keto and keto-related literature and recipes has dominated the internet, Instagram, and literature. I have curated a lot of that content and will use it to help you navigate through the pros and cons. As you will see, it’s not as simple as that, but I will do my best to give you a summary that #busyAF #fitprofessionals can easily digest.

four raw fish meat
Photo by Christine Siracusa

The basics of the Keto diet

What it is

The ketogenic (“keto”) diet has at its core a goal of achieving a state of ketosis in the body. Ketosis is a metabolic state in the body – when the body is in this state, it is burning fat and making “ketones” for energy. This can happen when one follows a ketogenic diet, which is so low in carbohydrates that the body cannot rely on its stored glucose (sugars) for energy. In a nutshell.

How it works

The diet has a lot to do with “insulin resistance,” a term you probably come across whenever you read anything about keto. In simple terms, insulin resistance is when cells in your body do not respond effectively to the hormone insulin that is circulating in your body. Experts blame excess carbohydrate or sugar consumption for causing this state. When a person has consumed excess carbs, either from certain foods or from overeating, it causes the pancreas to secrete even more insulin. When insulin levels are high, this stimulates fat storage in the liver. As a result, the liver will become even more resistant to insulin, which leads to MORE fat storage. It’s a vicious cycle that can lead to diabetes and obesity.

The Keto diet is designed to restore insulin resistance and break this cycle (which is why it is sometimes recommended for diabetics). When insulin is low, this puts your body into ketosis. In this state, the body can use fat for energy.  .

The rules of the game

The keto diet requires a low-carb, moderate protein, and high-fat macro intake. Remember the post on macros? By low carb, we mean really low carb. Generally, only about 20 grams a day. The overall ratio of the three macros on average is about 5% carbs, 25% protein and 70% or more, FAT. The amount of carbs you can have for the ENTIRE day is usually about 20-30g or less, which is about a cup of blueberries. Find out more about how low the carb count is in keto here.

What you can eat

Basically a lot of FAT. Coconut oil, butter, avocado, nut butter (without added sugar), olive oil, macadamia oil. Lean proteins, but you do have to watch your protein intake on this diet – it is a moderate, not a high protein diet. Most nuts are ok. You will also hear a lot about MCT oil, which is a medium-chain triglyceride oil that keto-lovers claim promotes weight loss. Read more about the oil and its claims here. This is one of the ingredients in the famous “Bulletproof coffee,” which is basically a high-calorie coffee drink intended to replace breakfast. Proponents praise it for staving off hunger keeping super focused. You can now buy this in any form, including pods, from the Bulletproof website.

closeup photography of red cherry
High sugar fruits, like cherries, are basically a no-no. Photo by Roksolana Zasiadko

What you cannot eat

A lot is off the table on this diet. Fruit is basically off the table, except a small handful of  a low-carb fruit, like blueberries. So are grains, legumes, potatoes, added sugar, and pasta. As well as most root vegetables, like beets, carrots and sweet potatoes. And clearly, added sugar of any kind, whether it comes from honey, agave, coconut, or any other source is out.

Other variations: the Bulletproof diet, Keto 2.0, and Ketotarian

The “Bulletproof diet” is not just about the coffee- it is somewhat of a modified version of Keto, in that it promotes “carb cycling. “Carb cycling” is basically the theory that you alternate low-carb days with higher carb days to “refeed” your system and prevent the negative effects of completely eliminating carbs. You can read more about the mechanics of carb cycling here – it is not specific to one particular diet.

There is also now trending “keto 2.0” This is still a very low-carb diet, but with a lower percentage of fat (around 50%) and a higher percentage of carbs (around 20%). So there is more flexibility to eat carbs. Given that this would translate to 80 grams of carbs on a 1600 calorie diet, that would allow for half a cup of grains at lunch and dinner, and some fruit, which makes some dieticians happy at the fact that it is more doable and still gets the body some important nutrients.

The ketotarian diet is a plant-based version of the low carb, high fat keto diet. It provides some flexibility, as you can eat eggs, ghee (clarified butter), and even fish, but is generally very restrictive. It was popularized in the book “Ketotarian: The (Mostly) Plant-Based Plan to Burn Fat, Boost Your Energy, Crush Your Cravings, and Calm Inflammation” by Will Cole, a chiropractor and functional medicine practitioner. The diet has been criticized for being restrictive and may be difficult to maintain long term. I mean, cheese is basically the only consolation for keto, so I get it!

What keto proponents say

According to supporters of the diet, keto regulates hormones and reduces hunger. You also see instant gratification because of the immediate loss of water weight. Eating higher amounts of fat also increases satiety, which is less likely to lead to random “snacking”. People have reported losing as much as 14 pounds in two weeks on the diet. 

Proponents also call out the medical benefits of keto beyond weight loss. For example, a ketogenic diet has been shown to help epilepsy patients have reduced seizures. Also, the encouragement of consuming healthy fats like avocado can be great for your skin. The Bulletproof diet book, which was written by a Silicon Valley executive, Dave Asprey, who used it to slim down from 300 pounds (you can read an interview with the clearly svelte best-selling author here). And yes, I bought it and read it. Read about it in my review of the top 3 fitness books[LINK] that women should buy.

What keto opponents say

According to this Harvard health article and other sources, the diet comes with health risks, including liver issues (because of all the fat to process), nutrient deficiencies, fuzzy thinking or brain fog. Proponents clap back by saying that the brain fog is temporary, like caffeine withdrawal, and then you “clear up” after you stick to it.

Opponents also caution that there is a risk of consuming too much fat and essentially making the diet backfire. Finally opponents caution that the diet can cause loss of lean muscle mass and slower metabolism in the long term. Even many people who are successful in the keto diet report that they don’t keep with it because it’s simply not sustainable (this article has a great story, reviewed by an MD). But as with all diets, for every common complaint there is a counterargument, for example, from this pro-keto site offering solutions to common complaints.

Level of difficulty: 8 out of 10

Downside

Actual compliance with the original “keto 1.0” is really challenging, mentally, physically, and logistically. You have to be really vigilant, especially of foods that do not seem to have a lot of carbs, like kale, cashews, pistachios,  and even some meats like bacon that contain hidden sugars. Those little micro carb and other sneaky foods (like beets) can add up and “kick” you out of keto.

Restaurants are also tricky, because even foods you would assume are zero carb can have added sugar for flavor – like steak, chicken, ribs, even fish. For example, Wolfgang Puck’s steak recipe calls for adding sugar to enhance the flavors!

Not to mention, if you break down and have a few bites of that wedding cake or a glass of champagne at cousin Betty’s nuptials, it’s a lot more detrimental in the keto diet, and it’s a whole thing to get back on track. We have willpower, and we are strong, but we’re not dead!

This leads to the ultimate complexity – you actually have to BE in ketosis for this diet to work. This has to be tested through your blood, urine, or breath. There are at-home options on the market, but this adds a lot of extra work to the process.

Upside

On the upside the market is SATURATED (no pun intended) with keto-friendly products and recipes that make you feel like you are NOT missing out on the regular foods you had to eliminate. Basically, you can “keto-ize” anything. There are countless recipes for keto pizza, keto cookie dough, “cloud bread”, and “fat bomb” snacks you can buy or make with ingredients like coconut and/or almond flour and natural plant-based sugar substitutes, like stevia or monk fruit. There are off the grocery shelf keto pancake mixes, keto brownie mixes, and keto marinara sauces. If you want to be keto, the world can be your low-carb oyster.

The bottom line

The Keto diet can have quick payoffs; it may be helpful to people who have problems with eating too much bread, pasta, and “white carbs.” It encourages consumption of healthy fats, which are great for your skin and hair, and help you feel more full. On the downside, it is an extremely demanding diet, and the long-term success and health consequences are worth noting. Also, if you  don’t achieve ketosis, or get “kicked out” you are just overeating fat, which could backfire and cause weight gain.  Proponents and opponents can agree that it can be a good short-term solution, but the jury is still out on whether the diet is sustainable or safe for the long-term.

More Resources: Products, apps, blogs, and recipes

Popular Keto products

Keto apps

This article reviews all of the top keto apps and indicates which ones are best for which purposes (recipes, carb counting, etc). One of the most popular with the best recipes is the KetoDiet app, which also has a good community feature for support and getting advice (like good keto ketchup recipes).

Keto blogs

There are countless keto blogs with recipes and advice, and this site ranks which are the best of 2021. I am personally a fan of the big man’s world, which also has paleo and vegan recipes. If you have a sweet tooth, you have hit the jackpot with this site. It has really simple but yummy recipes for edible cookie dough and keto chewy chocolate chip cookies.

Keto recipes

Keto recipes are EVERYWHERE. But while this may seem intimidating, you can literally have ANYTHING you want keto-style. If you can Google it, you can do it.

A lot of the dessert-type recipes use sugar substitutes to replace sugar, including stevia, erythritol (a natural sugar alcohol), or monk fruit powder (yes that’s a thing.) I would experiment with each to see what your preference is. For example, I think Stevia has an aftertaste but monk fruit powder tastes pretty good to me.

pizza with green leaf and yellow liquid on brown wooden table
Even pizza is in your reach on keto. And yes, there are keto beer options too. Do college sororities know about this? Photo by Miha Rekar

Some of my favorites are:

More about the Keto and Bulletproof diet

If you want to get really nerdy about it (like me), read on:

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