The Keto Diet And How It Works

by Liberty Stembridge, Lifestyle Columnist

Published in Lifestyle on 30th November, 2018

It seems like everyone's talking about the keto diet at the moment, some people love it, some people hate it, but everyone seems to have an opinion. If you're one of the many who's missing out on this trend, it's time to get educated, so at least you won't have to keep nodding and smiling while your coworker tells you about his protein macro's.

What Is The Keto Diet?

The keto diet is primarily a very high-fat, low-carb diet. It focuses on increasing the fat in your diet in order to replace the amount of carbohydrates that you'll be discarding. The aim is to switch your body from burning carbohydrates for fuel (which in turn, are converted into sugars) to burning fats for fuel, and the method is very simple: stop eating carbs, start eating fats.

what is the keto diet

You might at this point be thinking - but fats are bad, too much fat and we start gaining weight! And while this isn't entirely incorrect, the keto diet actually promotes weight-loss, and we'll get into how exactly a little later on. For now, the most important piece of knowledge is that not all fats are created equal. Naturally occurring unsaturated fats such as the fats found in avocado, nuts, seeds and so on are actually highly beneficial and an essential part of a healthy diet. The "bad" fats we often talk about are the highly processed, saturated fats found in margarines, fried foods and junk food. These fats are often stripped of any and all nutritional value they once held, but also contain a lot of calories and can therefore lead to weight gain.

The different types of keto diet

As if the keto diet in itself wasn't complicated enough, there are actually several different types of ketogenic diets you can try out, here are the main ones:

The Standard Ketogenic Diet

The SKD is what most people consider to be the keto diet, it follows a low carb, moderate protein and high fat ratio of food consisting of about 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbs. Carbs are restricted to 30g or fewer.

The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet

The CKD follows the standard keto diet, but allows for days off to "re-feed". On these re-feed days, you can eat carbs, but once they're over it's back to the standard ketogenic diet. This type of keto is usually used by professional athletes and body builders, in order to refresh their stores of glycogen and fuel their workouts.

The Targeted Ketogenic Diet

The TKD is focused on only eating carbs around workout times, usually about an hour to half an hour before a workout, and then following the SKD at all other times. This means that before a workout you can replenish your stocks of glycogen and have higher-intensity workouts. This diet is also mostly used by athletes and bodybuilders as another way to fuel their workouts, while still reaping the benefits of ketosis.

For the average joe, the standard ketogenic diet will work just fine, but an awareness of the other types of ketogenic diet can be useful for if you ever start a new exercise regime, or know that you might have a particularly labor intensive task ahead of you.

How It Works

The short and simple version is that the ketogenic diet pushes your body into a state of ketosis, in which you are burning ketones for energy, rather than glucose.


Ketones are minute fuel molecules released by your liver that act as an alternative fuel for the body to be used instead of glucose. The ketones themselves are produced by the liver, by converting fatty acids (found in fats) into ketones in a process called ketogenesis. These ketones are then used by the body for energy instead of glucose. We are said to be in a state of ketosis when we primarily use ketones for energy. This helps to explain how ketosis can help us to lose weight. When we are lacking in carbohydrates to convert into glucose (which then is converted into energy for the body to use) we switch to burning fats and as a result go into ketosis. Sustained ketosis means that we can effectively burn off a lot of our unnecessary fat stores.

Is Ketosis Natural?

Ketosis isn't an unnatural or unhealthy process, in fact, you've probably been in ketosis many times but not realized it. If you've ever skipped a meal or tried intermittent fasting, your body will have been deprived from carbohydrates and switched into ketosis in order to get enough energy to survive. The specific metabolic pathway that the body uses in order to burn fats for energy has evolved over the years as a way to adapt to a scarce food supply.

Back when we were hunter-gatherers, our food supply was limited and we didn't know when we would be able to get a meal, so we often ate only once or twice a day. As a result, our bodies developed the ability to not only store fat, but also to burn fat and use it as a sustained energy source. When we get our energy through ketosis, we often feel like we have more energy and that our energy lasts longer, which is also why fasting is so popular. Nowadays, most of us live within walking distance of an abundance of food (and a lot of refined sugars and carbohydrates) so we're eating more carbohydrates than ever, but our bodies aren't adapted to this, and as such we often develop sugar addictions and start gaining weight.

How do you get into ketosis?

The fastest way to get into a state of ketosis is to fast, but of course, this isn't a sustainable option. The keto diet however, provides a way to stay in a state of ketosis for extended periods of time and reap the benefits, without sacrificing food.

How Do You Know When You're In Ketosis?

There's numerous different ways that you can detect ketosis, there's no hard or fast rule but here are some of the common signs and tests:

Keto Breath

Fondly dubbed "keto breath" this phenomenon occurs when we go into a state of ketosis because of one of the by-products produced when fatty acids are broken down, called acetone. Acetone is a sign of ketosis, but also causes your breath to smell different, often described as metallic or fruity. No amount of brushing will get rid of this smell, but it does dissipate after a few weeks of being in ketosis.

Increased Thirst

When we move into ketosis, the body uses up excess glycogen and we need to urinate more. This in turn means that we become thirstier, although this generally isn't a very accurate way of detecting ketosis.

Ketone Tests

Ketone tests are probably the most inexpensive but reliable way to test whether you are in a state of ketosis. They are strips of paper designed to change color if ketosis is detected. You simply dip the paper into your urine and watch to see if the color of the strip changes. What's particularly great about these strip tests is that the deeper the color, the deeper into a state of ketosis you are, so they are great for judging how well you are managing to maintain ketosis.

However, they aren't perfect. After a few weeks of ketosis they are likely to start showing false negatives because of a change in the breakdown of ketones in your body, meaning that you will be in a state of ketosis but it will not show. They are also easily affected by how hydrated you are. Drinking a lot of water can give you a false negative, as it dilutes the compound within the urine that the test it trying to detect, and you will therefore seem to be in a shallower state of ketosis than you actually are.

What Can You Eat On A Keto Diet?

There's no getting around the fact that the keto diet is pretty restrictive, the key to understanding and implementing it however, is to understand what you can and cannot eat.

fruits keto diet

Do Eat:

Fats and Oils: these are an essential part of the keto diet, and you'll be trying to increase your fat intake quite a bit. The best place to source your fats and oils is from natural sources such as nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut oil, butter and olive oil.

Protein: protein is not that difficult to get, contrary to popular belief, and you don't need a lot of it on the keto diet, too much protein is actually detrimental. Meat can be consumed in moderate quantities, but depending where you are getting it from, you may have to account for the extra sugars and unwanted additives found. Again, nuts and seeds are also a good source of natural plant proteins.

Vegetables: the keto diet suggests that you stick to primarily above ground vegetables such as leafy greens like spinach, kale, broccoli etc. Frozen or fresh makes no difference.

Fruits: generally, fruits are avoided but an exception is made for small fruits like berries.

Beverages: try and stick to water only, as it is not only incredibly beneficial but also has 0 calories and isn't going to upset the balance of nutrients within your body.

Don't Eat:

Grains And Grain Products: grains are a big no-no on the keto diet, they're high in carbohydrates and low in fats. Stay away from grains such as rice, quinoa, buckwheat, couscous and any grain products such as bread, pasta, noodles etc.

Root Vegetables: also unadvised on the keto diet, root vegetables generally contain much higher carbohydrate content than leafy greens and therefore should be avoided.

Legumes: all types of legumes should be avoided, much to the disappointment of anyone who loves a three-bean salad.

Sugars: these are also a definite no-no. Refined sugars are not only very bad for you, but are essentially just broken-down carbohydrates, so they'll knock you right out of ketosis. Unfortunately, this also includes most fruits too, so say good-bye to your morning smoothie.

Alcohol: not all alcohols are created equal, but in general most alcoholic drinks contain a fair amount of sugars and carbs, so they're best to be avoided (and your liver will thank you for it).

Keto and Alternative Diets

You might be thinking that the keto diet already sounds pretty restrictive, and if you eat a diet that's alternative to the mainstream already, such as a vegan diet, you might be wondering if it's even possible to successfully take on a keto diet. Chances are, you can still try the keto diet, but you may well have to put a bit more work in and you'll probably find it difficult when out and about. The basic principles of 70% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbs can still apply however, and so long as you stick to this ratio, you should be able to get into a state of ketosis.

Benefits of the ketogenic diet

While the ketogenic diet is still fairly controversial, there are some notable and well-accepted benefits that it does offer.

weight loss keto diet

Weight Loss

One of the main reasons that many people turn to the ketogenic diet is to aid in weight loss. Because you are essentially burning fats for energy, it becomes a lot easier to shed extra fat that your body may be clinging onto. This is particularly beneficial for anyone who struggles with obesity, or who has a disorder that may make it difficult to lose weight. Of course, the ketogenic isn't recommended as a weight loss diet for everyone, so it's best to check with a doctor first.

Research has shown that the ketogenic diet in fact surpasses the ability of most other diets in it's ability to promote weight loss and is so filling that often you can lose weight without having to restrict calories or feel hungry.

Controlling Diabetes

The ketogenic diets ability to help the human body lose excess fat means that it is often touted as an excellent option for anyone struggling with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes. One study found that the ketogenic diet improved insulin sensitivity by 75%, and in other research, diabetes patients have been able to stop using all diabetes medications. However, more research is needed in this area.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is one of the largest causes of death in America, and it's only getting worse by the day. The ketogenic diet has been known to help reverse or prevent heart disease somewhat by improving risk factors such as body fat, HDL cholesterol levels and blood pressure. However, it should be noted that other factors come into play, and that it is not wise to solely rely on the ketogenic diet.


The ketogenic diet was originally developed as a way to help control or cure neurological disorders such as epilepsy and is now used by some to help control seizures in epilepsy patients as research has shown that the ketogenic diet can significantly reduce seizures in epileptic children.


One of the most well-known benefits of switching to a keto diet is the extra energy it can provide. For people who suffer from spikes in energy due to blood sugar levels and can never seem to be consistently energized, this can be life-changing. When our bodies burn fat instead of glucose for energy, it can provide a much more stable and long-lasting source of energy, resulting in less hunger, less sugar cravings and less fatigue.

Disadvantages of the ketogenic diet

The Transition Period

Many people who switch to the keto diet, especially those who do it quite abruptly, can suffer from a tough transition period. Symptoms such as fatigue, low motivation, dizziness, nausea, difficulty concentrating and irritability can all appear, often to the bewilderment of the newly transitioned keto fan. This phenomenon is known as keto flu, and while it does go away after awhile, it's effects can be difficult to deal with and make transitioning a lot harder, especially for those who were already struggling with lack of energy or motivation.

ketogenic diet

Negative Effects On The Body

The ketogenic diet isn't perfect, and although it can aid in weight loss and improve energy levels, it doesn't protect you from getting sick or being unhealthy. Many people who live on a ketogenic diet eat animal products and saturated fats, both of which have been shown to have adverse effects on the body and can increase levels of cholesterol and sodium in the body. So while the ketogenic diet can be beneficial, it is important to also take other aspect of diet and nutrition into account.

Final Thoughts

The keto diet definitely isn't for everyone, but for a lot of people it poses some genuine health benefits. While the transition phase might be difficult, the potential reward is more than enough for many people to want to switch over. So, while some may be branding this as a fad diet, it all depends on the person. However, there still needs to be more research done in this area, and it's always worth visiting a health professional before switching to a particularly restrictive diet, especially if you already suffer with any health conditions.

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