Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health’s contributing nutrition editor, says that many of her clients who have tried the ketogenic diet have also reported irritability and changes in mood. And while people don’t necessarily feel hungry on the keto diet—thanks to its high allowance for fat and moderate amounts of protein—some do report serious sugar cravings.
Ready to head out the door and start buying groceries? Slow down there, chief. Go through the pantry, fridge, freezer, and secret stashes under the bed, and get rid of foods with any significant carb content. In the first few days, you could end up craving them—badly. This means fruit, too. Even carrots and onions are too high-glycemic to work with keto, Wittrock says.
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.
If you decide to try the keto diet, be aware that it may be hard to stick to. The very low amount of carbs in the plan is a big change for many people. It also can make you feel tired for a few weeks until your body adapts. To make it a success, it’s a good idea to make a meal plan you can follow, including keto-friendly meals and snacks to keep on hand.
People use a ketogenic diet most often to lose weight, but it can help manage certain medical conditions, like epilepsy, too. It also may help people with heart disease, certain brain diseases, and even acne, but there needs to be more research in those areas. Talk with your doctor first to find out if it’s safe for you to try a ketogenic diet, especially if you have type 1 diabetes.
In a study done with 8 groups of obese individuals, researchers found that different amounts of dietary carbohydrates affect T3 and reverse T3 levels in different ways. T3 levels only decreased when the subjects consumed 120 grams of carbohydrates per day or less (regardless of how calorie-restricted they were). Reverse T3 levels, on the other hand, began to increase when carbohydrate intake was between 40 and 50 grams of carbohydrates per day.
For instance, working with an expert can reduce the risk for dehydration—which can make keto flu symptoms like headache, cramping, nausea, and fatigue worse. Drastically slashing carbs causes the body to excrete a higher volume of water and electrolytes, so you may need to drink more liquids and eat more salt to stay adequately hydrated, Mancinelli explains. How much more is different depending on things like your activity level and age, but a pro can help determine the right amount for you.
In terms of weight loss, you may be interested in trying the ketogenic diet because you’ve heard that it can make a big impact right away. And that’s true. “Ketogenic diets will cause you to lose weight within the first week,” says Mattinson. She explains that your body will first use up all of its glycogen stores (the storage form of carbohydrate). With depleted glycogen, you’ll drop water weight. While it can be motivating to see the number on the scale go down (often dramatically), do keep in mind that most of this is water loss initially.
Conklin's fasting therapy was adopted by neurologists in mainstream practice. In 1916, a Dr McMurray wrote to the New York Medical Journal claiming to have successfully treated epilepsy patients with a fast, followed by a starch- and sugar-free diet, since 1912. In 1921, prominent endocrinologist Henry Rawle Geyelin reported his experiences to the American Medical Association convention. He had seen Conklin's success first-hand and had attempted to reproduce the results in 36 of his own patients. He achieved similar results despite having studied the patients for only a short time. Further studies in the 1920s indicated that seizures generally returned after the fast. Charles P. Howland, the parent of one of Conklin's successful patients and a wealthy New York corporate lawyer, gave his brother John Elias Howland a gift of $5,000 to study "the ketosis of starvation". As professor of paediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital, John E. Howland used the money to fund research undertaken by neurologist Stanley Cobb and his assistant William G. Lennox.
Experts warn that the diet is extremely restrictive and not sustainable, and that it can lead to nutritional deficiencies, high cholesterol, or a serious condition called ketoacidosis. But even before long-term problems set in, many people who try the diet report other unpleasant side effects. These side effects even have a name in the weight-loss world: keto flu.
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). 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.
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 are three instances where there’s research to back up a ketogenic diet, including to help control type 2 diabetes, as part of epilepsy treatment, or for weight loss, says Mattinson. “In terms of diabetes, there is some promising research showing that the ketogenic diet may improve glycemic control. It may cause a reduction in A1C — a key test for diabetes that measures a person’s average blood sugar control over two to three months — something that may help you reduce medication use,” she says.
For decades we’ve been told that fat is detrimental to our health. Meanwhile low-fat “diet” products, often full of sugar, have flooded supermarket shelves. This has likely been a major mistake, that coincided with the start of the obesity epidemic. While this doesn’t prove causation, it’s clear the low-fat message didn’t prevent the obesity increase, and it is possible it contributed.
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)
Just because you're not eating all your fave carb-y foods, that doesn't mean you're going to go hungry. You'll be loading up on healthy fats (like olive oil and avocado), along with plenty of lean protein like grass-fed beef and chicken, and leafy greens or other non-starchy veggies. (Check out this printable keto diet grocery list, plus this additional comprehensive list of keto foods recommended by nutritionists, to get started.)
If you want to slam a protein shake post-workout, that's probably fine as long as you've got room for it in your macros. But shoot for one that is very low—like, zero—in carbohydrates. Pure isolates, such as Signature 100% Whey Isolate, are extremely low in carbohydrate. If you struggle to fit fat in during the day, toss a tablespoon of olive oil in with your shake. You won't taste it, and it gives a quick 13-14 grams of fat.
Louise holds a Bachelors and Masters in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University (UK). She attended Columbia University for her JD and practiced law at Debevoise & Plimpton before co-founding Louise's Foods, Paleo Living Magazine, Nourishing Brands, & CoBionic. Louise has considerable research experience but enjoys creating products and articles that help move people just a little bit closer toward a healthy life they love. You can find her on Facebook or LinkedIn.
Not everyone should opt for a low-carb diet. If you’re pregnant, it’s possible to be on a lower-carb diet (and may even be indicated if you are told you have gestational diabetes), but talk to your doctor to find out what’s right for you and to ensure that you’re covering any potential nutrient gaps. “Many women who are pregnant find that the thought of eating protein and fat makes them sick,” says Spritzler. This can be especially common in the first trimester. “They naturally want more carbs. You should always listen to your body,” she says.
Maintain a moderate protein intake. A keto diet is not meant to be a very high protein diet. We recommend 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kg of reference body weight per day. This means about 100 grams of protein per day if your lean body mass weight is around 70 kilos (155 pounds). Check out our target protein ranges to find out how much protein you should be aiming for each day.