Keto is not a new diet. In fact, it’s been in use for close to a century. It was initially devised as a treatment for children with epilepsy and has since become famous for weight loss. The weight loss version of keto is not new either and started gaining popularity back in the 1970s, thanks for a certain Doctor Robert Atkins.
The keto diet is so-called because it puts your body into a state called ketosis, but how long is it safe to be in ketosis?
Unlike many diets, keto is often viewed as a lifestyle. That’s hardly surprising because getting into and maintaining ketosis takes a lot of effort. You’ll not only need to control how much you eat but also what you eat too.
Because of this, you can’t just dip your toe into ketosis – you’ve really got to commit. There are no half-measures with keto.
In this article, we’ll lift the lid on the effects and benefits of the keto lifestyle so that you can decide how long you want to maintain ketosis.
What is ketosis?
Your body normally uses a combination of carbohydrate and fat for fuel. Carbs are the preferred source, and your body only tends to use a lot of fat when energy is running low, e.g., during a low-calorie diet.
However, when you limit your carb intake, say to less than 50 grams per day, your body has to start using more fat for fuel. Unfortunately, your brain and muscles don’t like using fat for energy. As a result, your body gets busy turning fat into something called ketones – an energy source your brain and muscles do like.
Turning fat into ketones is not a very efficient process, and it takes a lot of fat to make relatively few ketones. This inefficiency means that, in ketosis, your body burns fat like a fiery furnace, and you end up losing fat and weight faster than you would through calorie restriction alone.
Of course, such dramatic changes to your physiology don’t come cheap! Depleting your on-board carb stores and making the transition to using ketones for energy takes time. During this period, you may experience several symptoms and side effects, collectively called the keto flu. The symptoms of keto flu include:
- Difficulty focusing (“brain fog”)
- Changes in taste and smell
- Lack of motivation
- Sugar cravings
- Muscle cramps
- Increased urination
- Muscle cramps
- Fruity breath
- Skin rashes – keto rash
- Strong-smelling urine
That list may be off-putting, but it’s important to know that, in almost every case, these symptoms will disappear once you enter full ketosis.
How long does it take to get into ketosis?
Getting into ketosis takes time. Several factors affect how long your body takes to move from using carbs for energy to using ketones. Those factors include:
1. How much carbohydrate you eat – the keto diet is a low carb diet, but how low is low? Most keto diets limit you to no more than 50 grams of carbs per day, while others state you must keep your carb intake to between 20-30 grams. The one thing all keto experts agree on is that the lower your carb intake is, the faster you’ll enter ketosis.
2. How big your initial glycogen stores are – your body stores an abundance of carbohydrate. Stored carbs are called glycogen. Glycogen is a glucose chemically bound to water. The more glycogen you have in your body, the longer it will last. If you have large muscles, are an athlete or avid exerciser, or are genetically adept at storing carbs, your glycogen stores will be bigger, and it will take longer to delete them.
3. How active you are – remember those glycogen stores? Your body mainly uses glycogen to fuel physical activity. If you are predominately sedentary, your body has no real need to use glycogen for energy. If, however, you are very active, those stores will be depleted much faster. Providing you don’t replenish your glycogen stores by eating carbs, the more often and harder you work out, the faster will run out of glycogen and enter ketosis.
4. How much fat you eat – you’ll enter ketosis faster if you eat a lot of fat. Eating fat gives your body what it needs to make ketones in abundance. Most keto diets involve getting 70-80% of your calories from fat, and the rest from protein. Overeating protein could delay ketosis.
5. What supplements you use – several keto supplements may help you get into ketosis faster. Most are glucose dispersal agents that encourage your body to release more glycogen for faster use. Others enhance ketone production. While no supplement will make up for a lousy diet, the following substances may speed up your descent into ketosis:
- Alpha lipoic acid (ALA)
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
- MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil
- Exogenous ketones
6. Whether you try fasting or not – fasting, or skipping meals, will get you into ketosis faster. With no food to digest and use for energy, your body will use more glycogen and, the sooner that is depleted, the sooner you’ll be in ketosis. For this reason, a lot of keto dieters also practice intermittent fasting or IF for short. With IF, you push back your breakfast and eat your first meal much later in the day – in the afternoon or early evening.
So, how long will it take to get into ketosis? Because of all the factors in play, that is not an easy question to answer. If you are very active, have small initial glycogen stores, follow a strict ketogenic diet, and use some supplements, you could be in ketosis as quickly as 4-7 days. But, if luck runs against you and you make a few keto diet mistakes, it could take as long as two weeks.
What are the benefits of ketosis?
Most people start the keto diet because they want to lose weight. That’s hardly surprising because keto is great for burning fat. In the first week alone, you can expect to lose between 5-10 pounds. Admittedly a lot of this weight is water but it’s a sign of what’s to come, and you’ll soon start losing an abundance of fat too. Being in ketosis turns your body into a fat-burning machine!
While the keto diet results in rapid weight loss, it has some other benefits too. You might have started the keto diet for one reason, but you may want to stick with it for the additional benefits it provides. Those benefits include:
1. Anti-aging – the keto diet reduces antioxidant and free radical stress. Research on ketosis for anti-aging suggests that this is one way to slow the aging process and could even lead to increased longevity.
2. Lower blood glucose – eating fewer carbs will lower your blood glucose. This helps speed up fat burning and is also an effective way to avoid or control type 2 diabetes.
3. Treatment and prevention of PCOS – short for polycystic ovary syndrome, PCOS is a condition that affects many women and can reduce fertility. Very low carb diets have been shown to prevent and even cure PCOS.
4. Prevention and treatment of some cancers – refined carbs and sugar, when consumed in excess, are linked to many cancers. Eliminating these foods and going low carb may prevent or help treat certain cancers.
5. Enhanced brain function – your brain runs better on ketones than it does glucose. Keto results in less brain fog, better focus, and more creativity. It may also prevent the onset of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurological conditions.
6. Greater endurance – if your body runs out of glucose and glycogen, your energy levels will take a dive. Marathon runners call it hitting the wall. But, in ketosis, this is no longer a problem. With almost unlimited fat to use for energy, you should find that you have much more endurance and that your energy levels are more stable. Ketones also generate more cellular energy per molecule compared to glucose and fat.
7. Less pain and inflammation – sugar is inherently toxic and triggers lots of swelling and inflammation in your body. The keto diet is all-but sugar-free, which means inflammation will automatically lessen. Joint and digestive pain should become less noticeable on keto. Cutting sugar from your diet is also good for your teeth too.
8. More stable mood – sugar can wreak havoc on your brain and has a significant impact on your mood. If you eat a lot of sugar, you’ll soon notice your mood improves. However, as your blood glucose levels drop, so too will your mood. Replacing sugar and carbs with fats and protein will help keep your mood more stable so that you avoid all the highs and lows normally associate with sugar consumption.
9. Lower risk of cardiovascular and heart disease – contrary to popular opinion, eating lots of fat is not necessarily bad for your heart. In fact, the right types of fat can be literal heart savers! The keto diet cuts out real cardiovascular health risks: sugar and refined carbs. Keto is a heart-friendly diet.
10. Hunger suppression – with low but stable blood glucose, and while eating plenty of fat and protein, don’t be surprised if you are rarely hungry on the ketogenic diet. In addition, with an abundant supply of ketones, you should always have plenty of energy. These two factors combine to make keto an easy diet to live with for long periods.
How do you stay in ketosis?
Getting into ketosis is only half the battle. You need to stay in ketosis if you want to enjoy all of the aforementioned keto diet benefits. You do you do that you ask? Like this!
1. Watch that carb intake
Anything more than about 50 grams of carbs per day will bump you out of ketosis. After a few weeks of successful keto, you may be tempted to have a treat or two or may not be monitoring your carb intake as carefully as you did before. These seemingly innocent mistakes could cost you your hard-won ketosis.
Use a food tracking app to make sure your carb intake isn’t creeping up. Watch out for things like hidden sugars, high-carb fruits and vegetables, and sugar in processed foods. Ideally, your carb intake should be between 20-30 grams per day to maintain ketosis.
2. Maintain a high fat intake
You need to eat lots of fat for your keto diet to work. If your fat intake is not high enough, you may drop out of ketosis. Around 70-80% of your daily calorie intake should come from fat, compared to 15-25% in a more traditional diet. Use a diet tracking app to make sure you are consuming enough fat for ketosis. If you aren’t, you should start adding butter, olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, MCT oil, or other high-fat foods to your meals.
3. Watch your protein intake
Keto is a moderate protein diet and not a high protein diet. If you eat too much protein, and that is unused will be converted to glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. This can put you out of ketosis. Protein is important, but too much could stop fat loss. Ideally, protein should make up around 20-30% of your calorie intake per day.
4. Lay off the booze
Alcohol is not a carbohydrate, but most alcoholic drinks contain carbs and/or sugar. Alcohol can also rob you of your determination to forgo carbs. The occasional drink might not push you out of ketosis, but more than one probably will. If you must have an alcoholic drink, maybe to celebrate reaching a weight loss goal, stick to low-carb beer, white wine, champagne, or refined spirits without mixers.
5. Try the occasional fast
If you think you are edging out of ketosis, a short fast will get you back on track. A quick 16-20 hour fast should be all you need to re-establish ketosis.
6. Use sticks
Keto sticks are cheap enough that you can use one every day to monitor your level of ketosis. When the following keto, make sure you check your ketones once a day to confirm that you are still in ketosis and burning fat at the fastest possible rate. If you notice your level of ketosis is not as deep as you’d like, you can take action and do something about it before you are no longer in a ketogenic state.
7. Exercise regularly
Exercise can help keep your blood glucose levels low, use any lingering glucose or glycogen, and help deepen your ketogenic state. It will also enhance fat burning and improve your cardiovascular and muscular health and fitness. The keto diet works fine without exercise, but much better with it. Use exercise to maintain ketosis more easily.
8. Don’t give in to cravings
The worse thing about staying in ketosis is the occasional but severe craving for carbs. These usually are very short lived and become less frequent the longer you stay in ketosis. Cravings are a state of mind, and you don’t have to give in to them. Just remember that if you do give in, you’ll stop your body from burning fat, and you’ll have to go through getting into ketosis all over again.
What are the risks of ketosis?
The keto diet has such a profound effect on your body, it’s hardly surprising that some people are worried about the risk of this type of diet. The good news is that, for most of us, keto is entirely safe. That doesn’t mean it’s risk-free – no diet can claim that. However, done correctly, the keto diet should enhance your health rather than put it in danger.
The accepted risks of the keto diet include:
1. Muscle loss – your body doesn’t just use fat to make ketones, it may also use muscle. This could result in muscle loss. However, this risk is easily overcome by doing regular strength training workouts to preserve or even increase muscle mass.
2. Kidney stress and kidney stones – while unlikely, keto could increase the risk of developing kidney problems in susceptible people. Supplementing with potassium citrate can reduce this risk to almost zero. Avoiding processed meats will also help prevent kidney stress and kidney stones.
3. Yo-yo dieting and weight regain – because keto is very restrictive, a lot of dieters cheat and eat carbs, often in excess. This causes rapid weight to regain, much of it water. Sticking to the keto diet can be tough, especially if you have to eat out or have various social engagements.
4. Dehydration and loss of electrolytes – when your body releases glycogen, it also loses water. This is the result of increased urine output. As you pee more, you will also lose minerals called electrolytes. This can cause a host of problems, including cramps, irregular heartbeat, headaches, diarrhea, and constipation. The good news that these symptoms and risks are easy to control by drinking enough water and supplementing your diet with a sugar-free electrolyte supplement.
5. Ketoacidosis – ketoacidosis and ketosis are not the same things. With ketoacidosis, ketones are produced while blood glucose levels remain elevated. This can happen in people with improperly controlled diabetes. Ketoacidosis makes the blood more acidic than it should be. While keto can help people with diabetes, you should not attempt to self-treat your condition. Instead, if you are diabetic, discuss your keto diet intentions with your doctor before starting.
How long should you stay in ketosis?
Getting into ketosis takes time and effort, and being in ketosis offers a wide range of benefits. For that reason, you can stay in ketosis for as long as you can stick to the ketogenic diet.
If you are concerned about the risks associated with keto, try the next best thing – a cyclic ketogenic diet. With this variation, you go full keto for 5-6 days and then purposely break your diet and exit ketosis for 1-2 days. For many people, this works well both physiologically and psychologically.
Alternatively, if you aren’t so worried about the potential long-term benefits of keto and just want to lose weight, stick with keto for as long as it takes to reach your weight loss goal. Afterward, gradually reintroduce carbs to a level that allows you to maintain your newly-achieved bodyweight.
With keto, you are the boss. It can be an effective short-term weight loss solution or a long-term lifestyle. It’s entirely up to you.
If you want to lose weight fast, keto is an excellent choice. In fact, no diet works as well. Within just a couple of weeks, you’ll see noticeable changes not only on the scales but how you look and feel too.
On the downside, to get benefits from keto, you need to put in the work. Quitting carbs can be hard – initially at least. This is not a diet for the faint of heart. You need to commit!
However, if you are prepared to change the way you eat, forgoing foods like bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, and breakfast cereals, you’ll be amazed at how well the keto diet works. You might start keto because you want to lose weight but end up sticking with it because you feel so darn awesome. You don’t have to do all keto, all the time, but for easy weight management and better health, the low-carb lifestyle is hard to beat.