What is a Ketogenic Diet?

What is a Ketogenic Diet?

It’s all the buzz recently, in gyms, health columns, amoungst your friends perhaps. Could a ketogenic diet be for you? Could you eat butter, bacon and cream and still lose weight?

A Bit of History

First off, let’s discuss exactly what it is and how it has evolved.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that people have been observing this effect for, like a really, really long time. It was first noted in 400 BCE when Hippocrates was observing a patient who was having seizures and realised that he stopped having seizures after 5 days when he stopped eating completely.

It popped up again many times since then, but most notably in 1911 in Paris and in the U.S. with doctors who were treating children with epilepsy. Mayo clinic experimented with a ketogenic diet in the 1920s and had success with children with epilepsy. The first benefits of ketogenesis where in relation to epileptic seizures and to the brain. There is now ongoing research into the possible benefits of a ketogenic diet in relation to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or for brain injury. More recently, ketosis and fasting have been used on metabolic diseases as well in order to try to reset the metabolism.

But it wasn’t recently until the 1980s or 90s, that the possible benefits to the body were considered. These bodybuilders wanted to shred fat and look cut!

What is Ketogenesis?

There are two ways to achieve ketogenesis (or the production of ketones) in the body. One is through fasting or starvation (which is rather uncomfortable) and the second is through a ketogenic diet, which is very high in fat and very low in carbohydrate, and sort of replicates starving. It was developed by our very clever bodies as a survival mechanism during times of starvation as an alternative way to generate energy for the body. Normally, the main source of energy in our bodies comes from carbohydrate which is converted glycogen and stored by the body. The brain uses glycogen as its main energy source as it can easily pass through the . You might notice that your brain doesn’t function well when it’s starved of food. If you’ve not been eating enough, you might have experienced that “brain fog” where the brain seems to just not be working very well.

So when the body is starved of carbohydrates and all of the glycogen stored in our muscles and liver is used up, the body it looks for an alternative source of energy. After all, the brain must be fed if we’re to continue to survive. Glycogen is actually quite heavy in its molecular form, because it is paired with water in a 3:1 ratio. Because of this the body prefers to store excess energy as fat. When people refer to “losing water” when they start to lose weight it is the water molecules in the glycogen storage they are referring to. As stored glycogen runs out, you also lose the water it is paired with and that is quite heavy. (Unfortunately, as soon as you stop starving yourself and replenish your glycogen stores that weight will immediately come back on again.)

To create the alternate energy source the body needs when the body is starved of carbohydrates, it has developed a complex alternative biochemical pathway that basically converts the stored fat into an energy source that the body and brain can use. Put very simply, fatty acids are first released from our body’s cells. These fatty acids are combined with co-enzyme A which then form acetyl-Co-A chains. These chains move into the mitochondria where our bodies make energy and then some further chemical reactions happen which creates some different products, one of which is ketones. These ketones are released into the blood and can be used for energy. When your body produces ketones, you are in a state of ketosis.

Sounds magic right? Stored fat being transformed and used up as energy!

What Does a Ketogenic Diet Look Like?

Just to give you an idea of what a ketogenic diet looks like, let’s compare:

A regular balanced meal:

Protein @30%          Carbs @40%          Fats @30%

A ketogenic diet:

Protein @10-20%          Carbs @5%            Fats@75-90%

5% Carbs:

Let’s work out what 5% of your daily intake in carbohydrate would look like. Let’s say that your daily caloric intake is about 2000 calories. 5% of that would be 100 calories. That equates to about 25 grams of carbohydrate per day or one carrot or 15 grapes – that’s for the whole day, not just one meal. SO if you have the 15 grapes, then the rest of your day must have zero carbs, just fat and protein.

A Ketogenic Day

With the percentages above, a typical ketogenic day might look like this:

  • Breakfast – One egg, one rasher bacon, 2.5 tbsp whipping cream, 2 tbsp butter and very small apple.
  • Snack: peanut butter ball with equal parts peanut butter and butter
  • Lunch: tuna salad made with mayonnaise, 2.5 tbsp heavy whipping cream, one short piece of celery chopped and 2 pieces lettuce
  • Snack: keto yogurt – 1 tbsp whipping cream, 1 tbsp sour cream, half a strawberries and sweetener.
  • Dinner: cheeseburger on lettuce with tbsp butter, 2 tbsp cream and 2-3 green beans
  • Snack: keto custard – 2.5 tbsp heavy whipping cream and pure vanilla flavouring

You Should Know That..

Some things that people may overlook when embarking on this eating style is that:

  1. It’s extremely high in fat
  2. It’s extremely low in carbohydrate, close to no-carb
  3. Protein also is generally lower than what is regular for most people.

Some Challenges of a Ketogenic Diet

The benefits for epileptics is quite clear. Following a ketogenic diet can drastically reduce the occurrence of seizures. If this was your goal the effort it requires would be worth it. Having said that, even epileptics find the diet difficult to stick to. Everything must be measured exactly and the type of foods you can NOT eat is extensive.

Foods you can’t eat on a Ketogenic Diet:

  • Dairy
  • Fruit
  • Grains
  • Beans and Legumes
  • Starchy Vegetables
  • Veggies with any sweetness – carrots, squash etc..
  • Most processed foods

One of the side effects of being in ketosis is weight loss. Some other possible side effects might be:

  • constipation due to lack of fibre
  • deficiency in many micronutrients due to insufficient fruits and vegetables
  • low grade acidosis
  • hypoglycaemia
  • raised blood lipids an cholesterol

Losing Fat on a Keto Diet

The whole low carb approach of the 90s, which is still widely popular thought that the war was about fighting to energy storage capability of insulin. Insulin is responsible for getting nutrients or energy in cells, so, the idea is, if we can control or minimize the insulin response, then energy couldn’t be stored. It was hypothesised that when energy gets stored in cells, it makes us fat, so if no energy is stored then we don’t get fat.

Carbs in their digested form (glucose) stimulate insulin release. The theory was eating fewer carbs would result in losing weight. A ketgogenic approach would have the same effect as it is very low carb.

Unfortunately, although insulin is a key hormone is energy storage, it is not the only factor. Energy storage is controlled largely by our brain and not one single hormone. As with most things nutritional, it’s a complex system and a complex answer. So annoying, isn’t it?

Insulin and a Low Carb Approach

What people found when they tried a ketogenic or low carb diet was that they ate more protein and more fats. The good thing about that is that those foods release satiety hormones or hormones that make us feel fuller for longer and then.. we eat less!

So, the weight loss was actually about eating less, not the insulin/low carb approach.

Still keen on trying it? The other problem with this approach is that is very hard to sustain. I mean how mush salad drenched in oil or bacon with cream can you stomach.. every day!? you also risk the nasty side effects of possible nutrient deficiencies.

A very low carb approach can have a negative effect over time as well, as it messes with your hormones and can, yes.. wait for it. slow your metabolism. Yikes! Who wants that!? It can also lead to dreaming about bread, mashed potatoes and pasta.

Just one more word of warning, then I’ll stop.. insulin is an anabolic hormone. you need to to build muscle. if you create an environment with little insulin, you won’t be able to gain muscle. you’ll be working against all of your hard work in the gym.

My Verdict on a Ketogenic Approach

You can certainly experiment on your body with any approach for a sort time and see how you respond. However, the ketogenic approach is a very extreme diet which eliminates many of the foods and therefore essential nutrients of a healthy diet. It should be done under supervision and unless you have some of the medical problems, it’s probably not going to worth it or sustainable.

For a more moderate and sustainable approach, why don’t you get started with some sound, easy to follow advice and some of my weight loss coaching packages.


This post was adapted by Rosanne Gilks and inspired by an article by the staff at Precision Nutrition. 







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