It seems strange that a diet that calls for more fat can raise “good” cholesterol and lower “bad” cholesterol, but ketogenic diets are linked to just that. It may be because the lower levels of insulin that result from these diets can stop your body from making more cholesterol. That means you’re less likely to have high blood pressure, hardened arteries, heart failure, and other heart conditions. It's unclear, however; how long these effects last.
If you’re looking to get a jump start on your health and fitness goals this year, you may be thinking about trying the ketogenic diet. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase before — it’s a huge diet buzzword — but aren’t sure what it means. Here’s a primer: The ketogenic diet is an eating plan that drives your body into ketosis, a state where the body uses fat as a primary fuel source (instead of carbohydrates), says Stacey Mattinson, RDN, who is based in Austin, Texas.
That said, it’s a good idea to work with a doctor or registered dietitian before you start eating keto—and continue to check in with them while you adapt to your new diet, recommends David Nico, PhD, author of Diet Diagnosis. Planning ahead can help you steer clear of nutritional deficiencies that can strike when you cut most carbs out of your diet. And doing so might also help minimize your keto flu symptoms.
Low-carb diets may improve high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and triglyceride values slightly more than do moderate-carb diets. That may be due not only to how many carbs you eat but also to the quality of your other food choices. Lean protein (fish, poultry, legumes), healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and unprocessed carbs — such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy products — are generally healthier choices.
Take me and my friend for example. For me, restricting carbohydrates for only 20 hours causes keto flu symptoms, and it sticks around for weeks. However, my friend is able to go from eating a high carbohydrate diet to fasting from all food for days, and he feels better than before. While I am laying in bed fantasizing about cuddling up with baked potato, my friend is finishing his third project. Why the difference?
Advocates for the diet recommend that it be seriously considered after two medications have failed, as the chance of other drugs succeeding is only 10%.[9][31][32] The diet can be considered earlier for some epilepsy and genetic syndromes where it has shown particular usefulness. These include Dravet syndrome, infantile spasms, myoclonic-astatic epilepsy, and tuberous sclerosis complex.[9][33]
There are many ways in which epilepsy occurs. Examples of pathological physiology include: unusual excitatory connections within the neuronal network of the brain; abnormal neuron structure leading to altered current flow; decreased inhibitory neurotransmitter synthesis; ineffective receptors for inhibitory neurotransmitters; insufficient breakdown of excitatory neurotransmitters leading to excess; immature synapse development; and impaired function of ionic channels.[7]
The ketogenic diet achieved national media exposure in the US in October 1994, when NBC's Dateline television programme reported the case of Charlie Abrahams, son of Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams. The two-year-old suffered from epilepsy that had remained uncontrolled by mainstream and alternative therapies. Abrahams discovered a reference to the ketogenic diet in an epilepsy guide for parents and brought Charlie to John M. Freeman at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which had continued to offer the therapy. Under the diet, Charlie's epilepsy was rapidly controlled and his developmental progress resumed. This inspired Abrahams to create the Charlie Foundation to promote the diet and fund research.[10] A multicentre prospective study began in 1994, the results were presented to the American Epilepsy Society in 1996 and were published[17] in 1998. There followed an explosion of scientific interest in the diet. In 1997, Abrahams produced a TV movie, ...First Do No Harm, starring Meryl Streep, in which a young boy's intractable epilepsy is successfully treated by the ketogenic diet.[1]

Around this time, Bernarr Macfadden, an American exponent of physical culture, popularised the use of fasting to restore health. His disciple, the osteopathic physician Dr. Hugh William Conklin of Battle Creek, Michigan, began to treat his epilepsy patients by recommending fasting. Conklin conjectured that epileptic seizures were caused when a toxin, secreted from the Peyer's patches in the intestines, was discharged into the bloodstream. He recommended a fast lasting 18 to 25 days to allow this toxin to dissipate. Conklin probably treated hundreds of epilepsy patients with his "water diet" and boasted of a 90% cure rate in children, falling to 50% in adults. Later analysis of Conklin's case records showed 20% of his patients achieved freedom from seizures and 50% had some improvement.[10]
If you’re looking to get a jump start on your health and fitness goals this year, you may be thinking about trying the ketogenic diet. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase before — it’s a huge diet buzzword — but aren’t sure what it means. Here’s a primer: The ketogenic diet is an eating plan that drives your body into ketosis, a state where the body uses fat as a primary fuel source (instead of carbohydrates), says Stacey Mattinson, RDN, who is based in Austin, Texas.
Before starting, ask yourself what is really realistic for you, Mattinson suggests. Then get your doctor’s okay. You may also work with a local registered dietitian nutritionist to limit potential nutrient deficiencies and talk about vitamin supplementation, as you won’t be eating whole grains, dairy, or fruit, and will eliminate many veggies. “A diet that eliminates entire food groups is a red flag to me. This isn’t something to take lightly or dive into headfirst with no medical supervision,” she says.
But people who started following the keto diet noticed weight loss for a few reasons: When you eat carbs, your body retains fluid in order to store carbs for energy (you know, in case it needs it). But when you’re not having much in the carb department, you lose this water weight, says Warren. Also, it's easy to go overboard on carbohydrates—but if you're loading up on fat, it may help curb cravings since it keeps you satisfied.
That said, there isn’t an agreement that a low-carb diet is superior to any other kind of diet or that it’s healthier long term. A review in the December 2015 issue of Diabetes Therapy that looked at the diet among those with diabetes noted that when it comes to weight loss, a low-carb diet performs no better than other higher-carb diets; and that it doesn’t produce better glycemic control, either. (5) Another report in Diabetes Care also found that over one year, those on a low-carb diet lost weight faster than those on a low-fat one, but after a year, weight loss and A1C levels (an average of blood glucose over about three months) were remarkably similar. (6)
Why the heck does it happen? Normally, the body uses glucose—or sugar—as its main source of energy. When you cut your carbs below 50 grams per day (the typical threshold for a ketogenic diet), you enter a metabolic state called ketosis: Instead of burning carbs for fuel, your body begins burning ketones—an alternative fuel source that the liver makes by breaking down fat. In turn, this can make you feel run down.
There’s also some evidence that it might help with type 2 diabetes. “An emerging body of research is finding that a keto plan may have some real benefits thanks to its ability to improve the body’s ability to use insulin and also help control appetite, which can result in easier weight loss,” says Karen Ansel, R.D.N., co-author of Healthy in a Hurry.
The easiest macro to calculate in the ketogenic diet is fat. Once you've got your carbs and protein set, simply fill the rest of your daily calorie needs with fat sources. If you find yourself wanting to gain a bit of weight, add approximately 500 calories, or 55 grams. If you want to lose weight, cut down on your fat intake by 200-500 calories, or 22-55 grams.
Magnesium is another important mineral that can make your transition to ketosis much easier. Although you won’t lose much magnesium while you are restricting carbohydrates, it is essential for helping you prevent and treat cramps, improve sleep quality, and increase insulin sensitivity. To get a decent dose of magnesium, make sure you add some pumpkin seeds, almonds, and spinach to your keto diet.
Infants and patients fed via a gastrostomy tube can also be given a ketogenic diet. Parents make up a prescribed powdered formula, such as KetoCal, into a liquid feed.[19] Gastrostomy feeding avoids any issues with palatability, and bottle-fed infants readily accept the ketogenic formula.[31] Some studies have found this liquid feed to be more efficacious and associated with lower total cholesterol than a solid ketogenic diet.[18] KetoCal is a nutritionally complete food containing milk protein and is supplemented with amino acids, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals and trace elements. It is used to administer the 4:1 ratio classic ketogenic diet in children over one year. The formula is available in both 3:1 and 4:1 ratios, either unflavoured or in an artificially sweetened vanilla flavour and is suitable for tube or oral feeding.[51] Other formula products include KetoVolve[52] and Ketonia.[53] Alternatively, a liquid ketogenic diet may be produced by combining Ross Carbohydrate Free soy formula with Microlipid and Polycose.[53]
Adopting a ketogenic diet may also hamper athletic performance, says Weiss, even though many athletes try it, thinking it will have the opposite effect. In a recent study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, Weiss and his colleagues found that after four days on a keto diet, participants performed worse on anaerobic exercise tasks—which involve short bursts of intense activity—than those who’d recently gone on a high-carb diet.
After about two to seven days of following the keto diet, you go into something called ketosis, or the state your body enters when it doesn't have enough carbs for your cells to use for energy. That's when you start making ketones, or organic compounds that your bod then uses in place of those missing carbs. At this point, your body also starts burning fat for more energy, says Beth Warren, RD, founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living A Real Life With Real Food.
There’s also some evidence that it might help with type 2 diabetes. “An emerging body of research is finding that a keto plan may have some real benefits thanks to its ability to improve the body’s ability to use insulin and also help control appetite, which can result in easier weight loss,” says Karen Ansel, R.D.N., co-author of Healthy in a Hurry.
The classic ketogenic diet is not a balanced diet and only contains tiny portions of fresh fruit and vegetables, fortified cereals, and calcium-rich foods. In particular, the B vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D must be artificially supplemented. This is achieved by taking two sugar-free supplements designed for the patient's age: a multivitamin with minerals and calcium with vitamin D.[18] A typical day of food for a child on a 4:1 ratio, 1,500 kcal (6,300 kJ) ketogenic diet comprises three small meals and three small snacks:[28]
This article was reviewed by Jes Harvey, RD. Harvey is a registered dietitian specializing in the ketogenic diet for children and adults. She is a certified specialist in Pediatric Nutrition and educates children with epilepsy on the ketogenic diet as an anti-seizure medication. Harvey also manages a private nutrition practice consulting adults on the ketogenic way of eating.
Although many hypotheses have been put forward to explain how the ketogenic diet works, it remains a mystery. Disproven hypotheses include systemic acidosis (high levels of acid in the blood), electrolyte changes and hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose).[19] Although many biochemical changes are known to occur in the brain of a patient on the ketogenic diet, it is not known which of these has an anticonvulsant effect. The lack of understanding in this area is similar to the situation with many anticonvulsant drugs.[56]
Children who discontinue the diet after achieving seizure freedom have about a 20% risk of seizures returning. The length of time until recurrence is highly variable, but averages two years. This risk of recurrence compares with 10% for resective surgery (where part of the brain is removed) and 30–50% for anticonvulsant therapy. Of those who have a recurrence, just over half can regain freedom from seizures either with anticonvulsants or by returning to the ketogenic diet. Recurrence is more likely if, despite seizure freedom, an electroencephalogram shows epileptiform spikes, which indicate epileptic activity in the brain but are below the level that will cause a seizure. Recurrence is also likely if an MRI scan shows focal abnormalities (for example, as in children with tuberous sclerosis). Such children may remain on the diet longer than average, and children with tuberous sclerosis who achieve seizure freedom could remain on the ketogenic diet indefinitely.[46]
Switching from a high-carb diet to a very-low-carb diet lowers insulin levels in your body. This is not only healthy but also one of the primary goals of a ketogenic diet. When insulin levels are very low, your liver begins converting fat into ketones, which most of your cells can use in place of glucose. When your body is mainly using ketones and fat for energy, you’re in a state of ketosis.
Physicians of ancient Greece treated diseases, including epilepsy, by altering their patients' diet. An early treatise in the Hippocratic Corpus, On the Sacred Disease, covers the disease; it dates from c. 400 BC. Its author argued against the prevailing view that epilepsy was supernatural in origin and cure, and proposed that dietary therapy had a rational and physical basis.[Note 3] In the same collection, the author of Epidemics describes the case of a man whose epilepsy is cured as quickly as it had appeared, through complete abstinence of food and drink.[Note 4] The royal physician Erasistratus declared, "One inclining to epilepsy should be made to fast without mercy and be put on short rations."[Note 5] Galen believed an "attenuating diet"[Note 6] might afford a cure in mild cases and be helpful in others.[11]
The original therapeutic diet for paediatric epilepsy provides just enough protein for body growth and repair, and sufficient calories[Note 1] to maintain the correct weight for age and height. The classic therapeutic ketogenic diet was developed for treatment of paediatric epilepsy in the 1920s and was widely used into the next decade, but its popularity waned with the introduction of effective anticonvulsant medications. This classic ketogenic diet contains a 4:1 ratio by weight of fat to combined protein and carbohydrate. This is achieved by excluding high-carbohydrate foods such as starchy fruits and vegetables, bread, pasta, grains, and sugar, while increasing the consumption of foods high in fat such as nuts, cream, and butter.[1] Most dietary fat is made of molecules called long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). However, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs)—made from fatty acids with shorter carbon chains than LCTs—are more ketogenic. A variant of the classic diet known as the MCT ketogenic diet uses a form of coconut oil, which is rich in MCTs, to provide around half the calories. As less overall fat is needed in this variant of the diet, a greater proportion of carbohydrate and protein can be consumed, allowing a greater variety of food choices.[4][5]
Adopting a ketogenic diet may also hamper athletic performance, says Weiss, even though many athletes try it, thinking it will have the opposite effect. In a recent study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, Weiss and his colleagues found that after four days on a keto diet, participants performed worse on anaerobic exercise tasks—which involve short bursts of intense activity—than those who’d recently gone on a high-carb diet.
A computer program such as KetoCalculator may be used to help generate recipes.[47] The meals often have four components: heavy whipping cream, a protein-rich food (typically meat), a fruit or vegetable and a fat such as butter, vegetable oil, or mayonnaise. Only low-carbohydrate fruits and vegetables are allowed, which excludes bananas, potatoes, peas, and corn. Suitable fruits are divided into two groups based on the amount of carbohydrate they contain, and vegetables are similarly divided into two groups. Foods within each of these four groups may be freely substituted to allow for variation without needing to recalculate portion sizes. For example, cooked broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and green beans are all equivalent. Fresh, canned, or frozen foods are equivalent, but raw and cooked vegetables differ, and processed foods are an additional complication. Parents are required to be precise when measuring food quantities on an electronic scale accurate to 1 g. The child must eat the whole meal and cannot have extra portions; any snacks must be incorporated into the meal plan. A small amount of MCT oil may be used to help with constipation or to increase ketosis.[37]
It’s a low-carb, high-fat eating plan. Most of what you eat is fat, whether that’s unsaturated fats like nuts, seeds, and avocados, or saturated fats like butter and coconut oil. About 20%-30% of your diet is protein, either lean (like chicken breast) or fatty (like bacon). You’re supposed to strictly limit carbs, even those that are typically considered healthy, such as beans, whole grains, milk, and many types of fruits and vegetables. On the keto diet, you eat less than 50 grams of carbs a day. To put that in perspective, one medium apple has 25 grams of carbs.
You've likely heard horror stories of what competitors feel like when they cut carbs low, or when the average bro talks about going keto. However, the odds are that those people were not actually in nutritional ketosis, or more importantly, following a well-formulated ketogenic diet. Yes, you may experience some fogginess and discomfort, but it doesn't have to be intense if you handle it right.

As for branched-chain amino acids, you'll find smart people who swear that they're keto-friendly, and others who don't. One of the BCAAs, valine, can be glucogenic, meaning that it can lead to glucose production and potentially contribute to leaving ketosis behind.[1] But does that mean it will happen? Not necessarily, particularly if you're just an occasional supplement user.
It seems strange that a diet that calls for more fat can raise “good” cholesterol and lower “bad” cholesterol, but ketogenic diets are linked to just that. It may be because the lower levels of insulin that result from these diets can stop your body from making more cholesterol. That means you’re less likely to have high blood pressure, hardened arteries, heart failure, and other heart conditions. It's unclear, however; how long these effects last.
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