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What Exactly Is a Keto Diet Anyway? We’re Breaking Down the Basics

It seems like new diets are everywhere these days, with the ketogenic diet (or “keto diet” for short) being one of the most popular — but how much do you really know about it? We’ve got the answers to all the health questions you didn’t even know you had about the keto diet.

What is the ketogenic diet plan?

The keto diet plan is a low-carb, high-fat, and limited-protein meal plan. Cutting carbohydrates can reduce your appetite and help you lose weight, but when you drastically reduce your carb intake and limit your protein consumption, you need to eat more healthy fats to balance out your diet.

“In a clinical setting, a strict ketogenic diet would involve ultra-low carb consumption, like 20 or 30 grams a day,” said Eric Westman, MD, director of the Lifestyle Medicine Clinic at Duke University, in an interview with Time. “You’d want healthy fats to account for about 80 percent of your calories, and protein around 20 percent.”

How does a ketogenic diet work?

Ketones are energy-carrying molecules in your body. When you eat carbs, your body uses the glucose in them to create energy. By following a ketogenic diet plan, you can put your body into a state of “ketosis,” which means that your body is using fat to create energy instead.

Is a ketogenic diet safe?

Ketogenic diets were actually first introduced to help treat certain medical ailments like epilepsy and seizures. Kids, older adults, and individuals with health complications like obesity, type 2 diabetes, or fatty liver disease should be careful and work with their doctor if they’re interested in trying the keto diet. But Dr. Westman thinks that otherwise healthy adults should be fine. “If you’re a young and healthy adult, I have no safety concerns about removing carbs,” he told Time. “It’s really not a radical concept.”

Avocado Ketogenic Diet

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

How do you start a ketogenic diet?

You start by adjusting your meals with a keto meal plan. Outside Magazine recommends filling up on “avocados, coconut oil, egg yolks, fatty nuts, olive oil, cheese, and fatty meats like bacon and sardines,” with six to nine servings daily. Aim for about 25 grams of protein per meal — “skin-on chicken thighs, steak, and whole-milk yogurt” are all OK. Be careful about what veggies you load up on (some of them are packed full of carbs), and try to eat three to nine daily servings of leafy greens and low-starch options.

Does the ketogenic diet work?

A recently published scientific study from Bethel University in Minnesota suggests that the keto diet not only works, it works better than exercise. In the experiment, scientists compared results from participants who were placed on a ketogenic diet without exercise, participants who ate their normal diet without exercise, and participants who ate their normal diet while exercising for 30 minutes three to five times per week. The results indicated that the ketogenic diet was the most effective at decreasing a participant’s body mass index, weight, and resting metabolic rate. The study focused in on patients diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes, but the results speak for themselves.

Celebrities like model Adriana Lima and rock star Mick Jagger have been known to flirt with ketogenic diets. The NBA star LeBron James has even been known to cut weight on the ketogenic diet.

What are the side effects of the ketogenic diet?

It definitely takes a while to make the switch and feel full of energy — you can crash in the meantime without any sugars. Some folks even report experiencing something called “keto flu” early on in the diet, which can include brain fog, nausea, fatigue, headaches, dehydration, and irritability. But once your body adjusts and moves into ketosis, you’ll be feeling a lot better.

Cheese Ketogenic Diet

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Where can I find ketogenic recipes?

New York Times best-selling author Elana Amsterdam has a whole section of keto recipes on her website. If you prefer to work from a cookbook, check out Maria Emmerich’s Quick & Easy Ketogenic Cooking: Meal Plans and Time Saving Paleo Recipes to Inspire Health and Shed Weight ($20.12, Amazon). Happy eatings!

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