Keto-curious? Here’s what you need to know.

If you follow health and nutrition at all, chances are you’ve seen the ketogenic diet pop up more than once. Like many other popular diets past such as Atkins and paleo, the keto diet restricts carbs and emphasizes fat and (to a degree) protein. But this isn’t just any low carb diet… keto takes it to a whole new level. Going keto means limiting your carbohydrate intake to just 20 – 50g per day – for comparison, that’s only about 10% of the daily carbs recommended by the Institute of Medicine for an average 2000 calorie diet.

Put another way, with a medium-sized banana coming in at 27 carbs, you can reach your daily limit just from a small snack if you’re not careful. This puts your body into a state of “ketosis,” where it burns fat instead of glucose for fuel. Wait…a diet that makes your body burn fat? Sounds too good to be true, right? Well…yes and no. Some people swear by this diet – and others find the side effects just aren’t worth it. Either way, it only works if you seriously do your homework before jumping in.

So, how does it work?

Let’s break it down. On an average day, someone following a strict ketogenic diet aims for 75 – 90% of their calories from fat, 10 – 20% from protein and just 5% from carbs – though many go for a “modified” version that’s a bit more forgiving. So, while carbohydrates are your usual fuel source, the keto diet pushes carb intake so low that your body has no choice but to look elsewhere. Instead, it relies on ketone bodies, a type of fuel your liver makes from stored fat. By burning fat, it stands to reason you’ll lose weight. Which explains why this once-fringe diet has suddenly become a major trend.

So, what can you eat on a keto diet? Here are a few of the staple foods you can eat:

  • High-fat meat, poultry, fish
  • Eggs
  • Tofu/tempeh
  • Leafy green vegetables (ex: spinach, kale, Swiss chard)
  • Non-starchy vegetables (ex: cauliflower, asparagus, peppers)
  • Berries (in small portions)
  • High-fat dairy products (ex: heavy cream)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Avocados
  • Fats (while you can technically eat any fats on a ketogenic diet, we’d personally recommend you stick to heart-healthy unsaturated fat like olive oil)

As you might guess from this meat and dairy-heavy list, it can be a challenge to go keto as a vegan or vegetarian – though not impossible. It’s a good idea to talk to a dietitian before undertaking such a restrictive diet no matter what…but that step is especially crucial if you’re thinking about going keto AND plant-based, or you might not get the nutrients your body needs to function.

What are the benefits?

The main attraction of the keto diet should be pretty obvious – cutting down on body fat and losing weight. And aside from making your body burn fat for energy, going into ketosis might also help with appetite reduction, though studies at this point remain too small or short term to be totally conclusive. One study found that people following a keto diet had a much smaller appetite for eight weeks, but that at ten weeks, their desire to eat came back – even higher than before. Research has also shown that the ketogenic diet might have potential for improving your sensitivity to insulin, which could be promising for managing type 2 diabetes, despite the increased risk of high cholesterol. And of course we can’t write about the benefits of a keto diet without mentioning the reason it was invented almost 100 years ago: to reduce the frequency of seizures in epileptic children. Unlike the other possible benefits, this one is proven.

All in all, there’s no doubt that a keto diet can make some serious – and in some cases positive – changes to your body. And as long as you are working with a licensed dietitian to monitor your intake of other essential nutrients and your ketone levels, this low-carb diet can be an interesting option for people looking to lose body fat. But, for many, it’s just too extreme…and the side effects outweigh the positives.

About those side effects…

The most frequent side effect of trying a ketogenic diet is something called the “keto flu,” which can leave you feeling tired, lightheaded, nauseous and headachey. This comes about thanks to your body rapidly expelling sodium and fluids after limiting your carb intake. These symptoms will generally lessen once your body acclimates itself to your new diet, though fuzzy thinking and mood swings can persist on a longer term basis.

And that’s not all. There are a number of long-term issues associated with going keto. Number one? Keto diets are generally high in saturated fat and cholesterol, both of which are linked to an increased risk of heart disease. And, by forcing your liver to metabolize such a high quantity of fat, it can exacerbate liver problems. Plus, by limiting your diet to such a narrow range of foods, it’s easy to become deficient in essential nutrients like magnesium, selenium and vitamins B and C. Not to mention fibre, which it’s hard to get enough of without grains and legumes on your plate.

In conclusion…

Is the keto diet for everyone? Absolutely not. Could it work for you? Maybe, but you should really work with a dietitian before you start. The fact is, a ketogenic diet can be a very effective way to lose weight – but there are other, less restrictive diets with more long-term research to recommend them, such as the Mediterranean diet. If it works for you, amazing. But if not, don’t be discouraged. You’ve got options.

Want to place a keto-friendly order at Mad Radish? Many of our salads can be made keto-friendly with just a small tweak. Here are your options:

  • Smoky Caesar – remove chickpeas and add chicken or tofu
  • Crispy Taco Salad – remove tortilla strips and corn, and add chicken or tofu
  • Garden Cobb – good as is!
  • The Santa Fe – remove tortilla strips and corn