If you listen to any fitness podcasts or read nutrition blogs, you’ve probably heard of the ketogenic diet. The basic concept is pretty simple: by eating a diet high in fat and low in carbs, you can obtain a wide variety of health benefits.
Proponents of the ketogenic diet claim that it’s useful for managing several conditions, including epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, autism and certain kinds of cancer. Some of these claims are controversial, while others – specifically, those about epilepsy and some cancers – have broad scientific support.
Many people have lost weight on the ketogenic diet, including some of the most popular bloggers who write about it. Some bodybuilders also use fasting to induce ketosis to help them cut weight before a competition.
No matter why you’re considering a ketogenic diet, the first thing you’ll need to know is how to get into ketosis. This is no simple matter, and a lot of people struggle with it.
We’re going to explain what ketosis is, how to achieve it, and what happens to your body while you’re in a state of ketosis. After that, we’ll talk about how to stay in ketosis, and share some handy keto tips for making the most of your new lifestyle.
What is a State of Ketosis?
Before we learn how to get into ketosis, we’ll need to understand what it is, and how it’s different from a normal, baseline metabolism.
How Metabolism Works
It’s a common myth that your body’s cells use glucose for energy. While this is half true, they also utilize proteins and fats. And they don’t use any of these fuel sources directly. Instead, your cells’ mitochondria convert fats, proteins and glucose into a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
Different cells require different energy sources to create ATP. For example, your heart, muscles and brain prefer glucose, while your liver and pancreas prefer amino acids derived from fats and proteins.
ATP is sometimes called the body’s “molecular unit of currency”. Your cells need it for muscle contraction, sending nerve impulses and creating other chemicals, including DNA and RNA. Without ATP, your cells would quickly stop working and die. This isn’t just true for people. Animals, plants and even bacteria need ATP to live.
Regular Metabolism (Glycolysis)
If you’re eating a typical modern diet, you’re probably getting about half of your calories from carbohydrates, with the rest being split roughly evenly between fat and protein.
In this case, most of your body’s ATP is going to come from carbs. Your body does this by breaking down carbs into glucose in the small intestine, where it’s absorbed into your bloodstream. From there, it goes out to all of your cells, where glucose is converted into ATP in a process called glycolysis.
Fat and protein are broken down into amino acids – sometimes called fatty acids – in the liver. These fatty acids are distributed through the blood as needed or stored in your liver until they’re needed. If your body has a large amount of extra fatty acids or excess glucose, the liver turns that extra fuel into cellulose – fat – and stores it under your skin as an emergency fuel reserve.
This is why most dieticians will tell you to eat fewer calories than you burn if you want to lose weight. Your body will need more fuel than it’s taking in, and will start turning cellulite back into amino acids to make up the difference.
Metabolism Without Carbohydrates (Ketosis)
If you’re not eating carbs, your body isn’t going to have an easy way of producing glucose. Instead, it’s going to need to create glucose from something other than carbohydrates, or it’s going to need an alternative fuel.
Thankfully, your liver has an alternative. It’s capable of turning dietary fat into chemicals called ketones. Ketones take the place of glucose for the majority of your body’s cells. The exception to this is a small number of brain cells, which require glucose.
Once again, your liver has a solution. It can convert protein into glucose. While this isn’t as efficient as using carbohydrates, it’s good enough to provide glucose where it’s needed.
How to Achieve Ketosis
If you’ve been following along so far, you’ll probably have guessed how to put your body into a state of ketosis. Simply put, you need to eat fat – lots and lots of fat. And you need to restrict your carb intake.
Different ketogenic diets have different guidelines, but the rule of thumb is that you want less than 5 percent of your daily calories to come from fat. Any more than that and your body will have enough glucose for its needs, and will maintain a normal, glycolysis-based metabolism.
As for protein, you’ll want to keep it at around 25 percent of your calories. If you eat more protein than that, your liver will use protein to create glucose instead of going into ketosis. This is a feature of many popular diets, like the Atkins diet and the modified Atkins diet.
So why wouldn’t you just eliminate protein altogether?
Because your body needs it. Protein is essential for creating several amino acids that your body can’t do without. Your liver, pancreas, and muscles – including your heart – require these amino acids for repairing and replacing damaged cells, and some of your organs need protein for metabolism. You can live without carbs. You can live without fat. But you can’t live without protein.
If you’re getting 5 percent of your energy from carbs and 25 percent from protein, you’ll need to get the other 70 percent from fat. Note that this is just a general guideline. Some people advocate less protein and some a little more, but you’re looking at a diet where between 65 and 75 percent of your calories are coming from fat.
Does that sound like a lot of fat to you?
It is, and that’s honestly the hardest part of the ketogenic lifestyle. Compared to eating that much fat, cutting carbs out of your diet is a sugar-free cakewalk. There are plenty of helpful guides out there, and we’ll give you some tips later on as well.
How Long Does it Take to Get Into Ketosis?
So you’ve gone through your pantry and thrown out all your bread and pasta. You’ve trashed your sugar and gotten rid of your flour and rice. You’ve started your day with a bulletproof coffee, eaten bacon for breakfast and a Caesar salad with lots of fatty dressing for lunch. You should be in ketosis, right?
Here’s the thing about your metabolism: it really, really likes carbs. Carbs are the most efficient fuel your body has, and our ancestors had to work a lot harder for their food than we do. As a result, our bodies evolved to use the most efficient fuel first.
What this means is that your body is going to use up all the glucose in your bloodstream first. Then it’s going to start breaking down protein to produce more. Your liver will only start turning fat into ketones when your glucose is depleted and your cells need all available protein for cell repair instead of energy.
This can take anywhere from 3 to 7 days, depending on your metabolism.
If you’re looking for how to get into ketosis fast – or as fast as possible – our best advice is to take an exogenous ketone supplement. This will put ketones into your bloodstream, encouraging your liver to produce more.
What Happens When the Body is in Ketosis?
When the body is in ketosis, it’s getting the bulk of its energy from ketones. Ideally, the only glucose you’ll have in your system is the minimum amount required for healthy brain function. Don’t worry about not getting enough glucose – your liver will always convert protein to glucose if your brain is at risk.
The reason the ketogenic diet is used for epilepsy is that a lot of the brain cells that misfire in an epileptic seizure can work perfectly fine when they’re running on ketones. Scientists aren’t sure why, but for some reason, ketones can restore these brain cells to normal function.
Ketosis also makes it easier for your liver to break down cellulose when you’re running a calorie deficit. If you want to maximize weight loss, ketosis can help by “priming” your liver to break down fats more easily.
Another beneficial effect of ketosis is that some cancers are very inefficient at metabolizing ketones instead of glucose. Be careful here. This is only true of certain cancers, so talk to your doctor to find out if the ketogenic diet will help manage yours. It’s also important to note that the keto diet isn’t a replacement for medical care. It’s just one of many things you can do to tip the scales in your favor.
How to Stay in Ketosis
Staying in ketosis requires one simple thing: sticking to the diet. However, there are a few pitfalls that can knock you out of ketosis. Let’s look at a few of those.
- Artificial sweeteners: Many artificial sweeteners can raise your glycemic index by mimicking sugar so realistically that it actually fools your body. This will throw your liver off-kilter, and cause it to start converting protein to glucose, knocking you out of ketosis. Some artificial sweeteners, like Swerve, are keto-safe.
- Alcohol: Not all alcohol contains carbs, but some alcohols do. We’re looking at you, beer. Even so-called “low carb” beers have more than 20 grams of carbs in a single bottle. If you’re going to drink on the ketogenic diet, stick to vodka, whiskey, or other hard liquors, and use an unsweetened mixer like seltzer water. Whatever you do, stay away from sweet liqueurs like amaretto or Irish cream. These are loaded with sugar.
- Get plenty of exercise: When you exercise, your body will burn carbs first for a burst of energy. If you have any glucose left in your bloodstream, it will disappear faster with exercise.
- Practice intermittent fasting: Sometimes, your body needs a little time to realize that it needs to start producing ketones. Intermittent fasting – for example, limiting your eating to an 8-hour window – can give your body the extra encouragement it needs to stay in ketosis.
Keto Diet Tips
It’s easy to say “eliminate carbs”, but how do you actually do it?
Foods to Avoid
Some things are obvious: bread, pasta, soda, sweets, and beer. Others are less so. Let’s look at some of those foods.
- Potatoes: Potatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables around. And since they’re a vegetable, you’d think they’d be carb-free. But they’re not. The same goes for other starchy vegetables like carrots.
- Salad dressing and mayonnaise: Most commercially-produced salad dressings and mayonnaise have sugar or corn syrup added. While some organic salad dressings are sugar-free, you’ll need to make your own mayo at home. It’s surprisingly easy, and only requires eggs, olive oil, garlic, and vinegar.
- Drink plenty of water: The ketogenic diet causes your kidneys to become more active. Basically, this means you’ll pee more than you used to. Since your body will be losing water at a higher rate, you’ll need to compensate by drinking more.
- Read the ingredients on everything: And we mean everything. Buying a sauce for your steak? Check the ingredients. It almost certainly has sugar or corn syrup. Buying vegetables? Look up the nutrition facts online. You’ll be surprised at how many foods have carbohydrates.
Meeting Your Nutritional Needs
One thing even hardcore keto advocates will admit is that the ketogenic diet is not a balanced diet. Some nutrients are only found in carb-laden foods, so you’ll need to supplement them.
- Vitamin D and B vitamins: To begin with, you’ll want to take a vitamin D supplement, as well as a B-complex. Make sure these are zero-carb formulations.
- Calcium: Ketones are slightly acidic. To compensate, your body will release calcium from your bones in order to balance your blood’s pH. Needless to say, this is a bad thing. To prevent it from happening, you’ll want to take a calcium supplement.
- Phosphorus and other electrolytes: We’ve already talked about your kidneys becoming more active when you’re in a state of ketosis. This eliminates electrolytes like sodium and phosphorus at a faster rate than normal. Put plenty of salt on your food, and take an electrolyte supplement to make sure you’re getting a good balance of nutrients.
What if I Can’t Get Into Ketosis?
Getting into ketosis can be harder for some people than it is for others. For people whose bodies are particularly resistant, it can take up to ten days for ketosis to start.
If you’ve been on the diet for ten days and your ketone level is still low, you may be inadvertently eating more carbs than you need. Go through your diet with a fine-tooth comb to make sure you’re not eating carbs. Pay attention to the foods we mentioned in the last section. They’re frequent culprits.
If you’re sure that you’re not eating too many carbs, the next thing to look at is your testing method. Breath and urine tests are reliable for most people, but they aren’t as accurate as a blood test. When in doubt, buy a blood test kit and see if your testing equipment was to blame.
If you’re still coming up with nothing, try switching dietary supplements. Some supplements that claim to be carb-free actually aren’t.
We’ve heard people describe the ketogenic diet as some kind of fantasy where every breakfast is bacon and every dinner is steak and eggs. As we hope you can see, there’s a whole lot more to it than this. While bacon, steak, and eggs are all on the menu, you’ll need lots of MCT oil, butter, and heavy cream to get enough fat in your diet.
You’ll need to take plenty of supplements. Potassium, magnesium, calcium and B and D vitamins are all going to be in short supply, so at the very least you’ll want to supplement these essential nutrients. Some people may also suffer from diarrhea or constipation due to a lack of fiber. In that case, you may also need to take a fiber supplement.
You’ll also need to be aware of the potential health risks. Ketoacidosis – while rare for non-diabetics – can be dangerous and even fatal without medical care.
The ketogenic diet is often referred to as a “lifestyle”. After reading everything we’ve shared about it, we hope you can understand why. It requires dedication, discipline, and a willingness to understand the science behind your diet. If you can handle that, you’re well on your way to getting into ketosis – and staying there.