The ketogenic diet (commonly referred to as keto) is growing in popularity as more people continue to discover the benefits of incorporating healthy fats into their diets—but what does keto really mean? Fundamentally, keto is about what our bodies burn in order to fuel our daily lives and activities. Dietary ‘fuel’ comes in the form of macronutrients from food. So, what is a macronutrient, you ask? Well, macronutrients come in three forms: fat, protein and carbohydrates. How much of each of these we eat determines what our bodies have at their disposal to burn to keep us moving and give us energy.
Primary Energy Source
Most of us are sugar burners. We burn glucose for fuel, which primarily comes from the carbohydrates we eat (i.e. bread, potatoes, pasta, beans, fruit, and all food containing sugar) that break down to sugar during digestion. This glucose can also be stored as glycogen (a more complex sugar) in our muscles and around our liver. Being a sugar burner comes with some downsides, though. The use of sugar for energy requires the production of insulin by our pancreas. Too much sugar leads to more insulin and this can lead to conditions like insulin-resistance, metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes, all of which are at near epidemic proportions in the United States today. Blood sugar and insulin regulation is just two of the many benefits of a ketogenic diet. Other positive outcomes include loss of excess body fat, decreased triglycerides, increased HDL cholesterol (or ‘good’ cholesterol), lower blood pressure, possible reduction in seizures in those living with seizure disorders, increased brain health (our brains are made primarily of fat and cholesterol!), and reduced acne.
Burning Fat for Fuel
The alternative to burning sugar for energy and fuel is burning fat. The body only has two options for fuel: fat or sugar. The only way to burn protein for fuel is for the body to convert it to sugar, which generally only happens if our bodies break down our skeletal muscle (yikes!). This is obviously not a desirable option. When we reduce our carbohydrate intake, we burn through our stored glycogen faster, which causes the body to begin breaking down fat into compounds called ketones to use for fuel. When our bodies are burning ketones for energy, we are in what is known as a state of ketosis. Eating in a way that maintains this physiological state is the basis of the keto diet.
Keto Approach to Food
So, what should we eat if we want to adopt a keto approach to food? We first must look at macronutrient ratios. A ketogenic diet should be around 75% fat, 15% protein and 10% carbs. There is a common misconception that a keto diet is all meat, but in actuality, protein is a minimal component. Regardless of meat consumption, plants should play a big role in the selection of foods that make up daily snacks and meals on a keto diet. There are many hardworking plant fats that can fill the 75% of the diet coming from fat, such as coconut, avocado, olives, nuts and seeds. If you consume dairy, then full-fat (ideally organic and grass-fed) dairy products like cheese, butter and cream are also available as fat choices.
Staying in Balance
Vegetable and seed oils should be avoided due to their overly processed and high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which need to be balanced with adequate omega-3 fatty acids. While omega-6 fats are necessary, too many of them left unbalanced by omega-3 fats leads to inflammation. To stay at only 10% carbohydrates, it’s important to remember that carbohydrates are abundant in many vegetables (mostly those grown below the ground, like carrots and beets) in addition to bread, beans, pasta, fruit, juice and sweets. This means that carbohydrates on the keto diet need to primarily come from leafy and/or cruciferous vegetables.
Many superfoods are high in beneficial micronutrients (like antioxidants and minerals) and low in carbohydrates, so they're great to include in the carbohydrate category as well. Finally, we have the 15% of calories coming from protein. These can come from animal protein (preferably sustainably raised, grass-fed, pastured animals or wild-caught seafood) or from a diverse blend of plant protein sources such as nuts, seeds and legumes. That choice is an individual one.
Interested in getting started? Click here to shop our keto-friendly superfoods and stay tuned for more information on ways we can support your keto lifestyle.
Author Bio: Amy is Navitas Organics' Product Specialist. If you've called or emailed us in the past year, it's probably her that responded to your question. A longtime Navitas consumer whose favorite products are hemp seeds and maca powder, Amy is a nutritionist who is passionate about food-as-medicine and organic, sustainable food in particular.