The ketogenic diet has in recent time become a popular and intensely debated topic.
Some people claim it is the best diet ever and that it has many benefits to losing weight, building muscle and overall health, while others dismiss it as just a new diet fad.
The truth is, like in most of these cases, somewhere in between.
In this post, I cover what I have come to understand are the most important things to know about the ketogenic diet and weight loss.
What Is The Ketogenic Diet?
Described very briefly the ketogenic diet is very high fat, moderate protein, and extremely low carb diet. It is somewhere around 75 % of calories from fat, 20 % from protein and 5 % from carbs.
The purpose of the ketogenic diet is to more or less be in ketosis all day, which is a special state of the body when it is burning only fat (technically it is ketones) for fuel rather than carbs (glucose).
This state occurs when the body has been deprived of carbohydrates and the glycogen storages are emptied.
Everyone Burns Fat, But Not All Are In Ketosis
Burning fat for energy is normal.
It is said that the body highly prioritizes burning glucose for energy, but burning fat should, for example, happen whenever you are in an energy deficit or if you are in a fasted state.
However, burning fat for energy is not the same as being in ketosis. Achieving the ketosis state can take days because of how much glucose/glycogen can be stored in the body.
Because of how the hormone insulin responds to carbohydrate intake, insulin levels will remain low all the time on the ketogenic diet.
Having low and stabile insulin is what people usually praise as the #1 health benefit of the ketogenic diet
A Quick History Note:
The ketogenic diet was originally made for treating epileptic seizures in 1920s, and in its original form, it is actually lower in protein compared to what is used mainstream in the fitness and weight loss space today. (Read more on the history of the ketogenic diet on Wikipedia)
The Cause Of Weight Loss
As I have pointed out many times on this website, the cause of weight loss is and will always be a deficit in the energy balance of your body.
But there are so many different ways to create that calorie deficit, which is evident in all the marketing material of the weight loss industry.
There are so many different diets and they can all help you lose weight as long as you consume fewer calories than you burn. From this perspective, there is nothing special about the ketogenic diet.
It is just another diet among many that can help you lose weight.
If you want an overview of some of the more popular diets for weight loss, then you can check out this cool rundown of weight loss diets by Behealthy.
In the end no matter what, when or how you are eating, gaining or losing weight is essentially a question of energy balance.
In order to gain weight, you need a calorie surplus, and in order to lose weight, you need a calorie deficit.
If you want to stay healthy and retain your muscle mass, there are of course a number of concerns you need to address in your diet other than just the calorie deficit.
For more information on these concerns, you can check out my other posts explaining why you should do weight training while in a calorie deficit and how to use weight training to lose weight.
Could Help You Maintain a Calorie Deficit Easier
Some people have huge successes with fat loss on the ketogenic diet.
I have found that these people were often overweight/obese for a long time and tried other diets but failed until they tried the ketogenic diet.
It is awesome that people have success with losing fat.
However, the reason that they succeed is not the diet itself. It is because they maintain a calorie deficit on the ketogenic diet.
It might increase the metabolism a bit and make burning fat easier for your body, but these effects pale to the effect of eating a lot fewer calories.
When you cut out a whole macronutrient category (carbs) which is often what people eat the most of, then a calorie deficit comes naturally.
From what I have read and heard, it seems clear to me that the reason why some people have huge success with the ketogenic diet, is that the combination of protein and fat is highly satiating for them, thus making a big calorie deficit easier maintainable without feeling starved.
Additionally, people who have been overweight/obese for a long time is likely to have insulin sensitivity issues. The ketogenic diet does a great job of combatting those problems.
The Ketogenic Diet Makes You Lose Weight Faster
This is something that is often claimed by people following this diet, and it is true when first starting out.
What happens when carbohydrate intake is reduced to such a degree as the ketogenic diet, is that glycogen storages are reduced a lot.
The glycogen primarily comes from the carbohydrates you eat, and these glycogen storages are where glycogen is stored for immediate use by muscles for example.
This reduction makes perfect sense since carbohydrate intake is very low and ketones are the primary fuel source.
Goodbye To All The Water
Glycogen storages hold a lot of water in the body!
For every part of glycogen 3 – 4 parts of water is bound. So when these storages are reduced less water is held in the body.
The reduction in water can account for a big difference in scale weight.
Less Food Volume
A High-fat diet is simply more calorie dense. 1 gram of fat is 9 calories while 1 gram of carbs is 4 calories.
This means that the food you eat will have less volume and therefore not weight as much in your stomach.
Essentially, the ketogenic diet makes you lose more weight and does it faster compared to other higher carb weight loss diets, due to the big decrease in glycogen storage and water weight. The effect is usually seen within the first week or two, and after that it plateaus.
Note: A drop in scale weight due to a reduction of glycogen storages, water weight, and food volume is true for most weight loss diets. However, the reduction in glycogen storages and water weight is especially significant with the ketogenic diet.
The Ketogenic Diet Does Not Make You Lose Fat Faster
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the calorie deficit is what determines the rate of fat loss.
If fat loss and muscle retention is the priority, which it should be, then it gets a bit more complicated.
However, studies have shown that as long as an equal calorie deficit is maintained while including sufficient protein then the rate of fat loss stays the same when comparing a low-carb and high-fat / ketogenic diet to a macronutrient balanced diet or even a high carb diet.
In this respect, as long as you are eating relatively healthy there is no superior diet when it comes to fat loss!
What I mean by relatively healthy is simply a diet consisting of mostly whole foods with a good amount of plant food especially vegetables.
Furthermore, a huge one-year long study has recently shown that the same improvements to metabolic health markers are produced whether you do a low-carb and high fat or high-carb and low-fat diet.
You can check out a great review of the study here.
With the ketogenic diet, you are technically burning a lot more fat but that is because you are also eating much more fat.
Not Optimal For Strength And Muscle Gain
Research clearly shows that the ketogenic diet is less superior for building strength and muscle than a diet that includes a good amount of carbs.
It has been shown that the availability of glycogen affects the rate of protein synthesis, which again affects the rate of which you are able to build muscle.
Having almost no carbs in your diet is going to heavily affect the availability of glycogen, and thus you will have a slower rate of protein synthesis.
Another point is that higher insulin levels are associated with a better so-called anabolic environment (“muscle building environment”).
Such higher insulin levels are generally non-existent on the ketogenic diet.
Ketogenic Diet And Health Benefits
Depending on your current health, the ketogenic diet does have numerous potential health benefits that could make it worthwhile.
Research has shown that the ketogenic diet is effective for treating symptoms of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome or in general insulin sensitivity problems.
Actually, the ketogenic diet is so effective in countering insulin problems that some people suffering from type 2 diabetes have their symptoms cured within a very short time span.
There is also some evidence that it might reduce the risk of cancer and also alleviate acne problems in some people.
Finally, the ketogenic diet can be effective in treating symptoms of a wide range of neurological diseases, e.g. Alzheimer’s, sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, autism, and bad headaches.
What all these health benefits have in common, is that if you are a normal healthy person there is really no reason from a health perspective to adopt the ketogenic diet.
Some people report mental clarity and just feeling better on a ketogenic diet. Obviously, this is great stuff, but my guess is this is because they either have insulin sensitivity issues or had a bad diet before.
The Ketogenic Diet Could Be Overkill
It should be noted that a general low-carb diet or doing intermittent fasting could be enough to treat insulin sensitivity issues.
In other words, adopting the ketogenic diet might be overkill.
If you want to know more about intermittent fasting, you can check out my two other posts:
Is The Ketogenic Diet For You?
The ketogenic diet works for losing weight, and for some, it works really great.
In most cases, I would think it is due to the fact that maintaining a calorie deficit is easier for these people while eating only fat and protein.
If you have type 2 diabetes or have neurological diseases, then the ketogenic diet can be very beneficial. But this is in general and not only to lose weight.
If you are a normal healthy person and like to eat carbs, then I think the chance that you will have success with the ketogenic diet is very small.
Transitioning to the Ketogenic Diet and Back
It is important to realize that transitioning to the ketogenic diet, is for most people going to feel pretty awful. It is a big transitioning for your body to use ketones as fuel all the time, and it will take getting used to. This can take up to two weeks.
Additionally, what most pro-keto professionals don’t talk much about, is that what to do after the fat loss is achieved. Should you remain on the ketogenic diet the rest of your life, or should you slowly start eating more carbs again?
Transitioning to eating more carbs is probably not going to be a complete walk in the park either.
My Personal Opinion on the Ketogenic Diet
Rarely mentioned which I personally find hard to understand, is that the ketogenic diet is just painfully strict to follow.
It will undoubtedly lead to many inconveniences in social situations that include food or eating out at a restaurant.
Such a strict diet does simply not resonate with my personal idea of having a great diet that is easy to maintain.
In my opinion, your diet should be inclusive rather than restrictive.
I can’t say I ever tried the ketogenic diet, but I did try a low-carb high-fat diet, which made me extremely grumpy and short-tempered. This drove my sister which I was living with at that time completely crazy.
She basically pleaded me to stop the diet.
Are You Planning To Go Keto?
I would love to hear from you and your experience if you are going keto or if you are already on the ketogenic diet.
Also if you have any questions, I will answer them as soon as possible.
Just use the comment section below.
If you are planning to go keto, I believe one of the biggest issues you will have is what to actually cook (besides egg and bacon).
An acquaintance of mine has previously recommended me this free cookbook. They charge shipping and handling if you want a physical one.
Check Out The Free Keto Cookbook
I never actually used the book myself because I haven’t tried keto myself, but the book looks nice.
The Awesome Nutrition Guide
If you are interested in a much more flexible and non-keto diet, then I have a great free resource for you.
It is a 50+ pages pdf that I have titled “The Awesome Nutrition Guide” because it is awesome. It also got an accompanying email course.
It is for both men and women and the main idea behind it is to serve as your blueprint for getting the body you want!
It also covers in-depth what I believe to be the biggest sticking point for people who can’t seem to control their weight.
Get it all as a welcome bonus when you sign up for my email list.
Great informative post. My husband has tried many different diets to assist with the inflammation caused by cancer and had some success with the keto diet. That said, it IS extremely difficult to follow (in my opinion, even harder than being a vegan, which I am) and does contribute to grumpiness! I share your opinion also about being as inclusive as possible. Anyway, thanks for the thorough review!
Thanks for sharing your husband’s experience with the keto diet!
I am terribly sorry to hear about his cancer, but it is great that he is having some success with the keto diet. I wish the best for him and you.
This is a very well presented article explaining a lot of the things that lots of folks don’t know when they follow a specific diet.
This article explains how the body used fuel and where it comes from and is very clear about ketogenic diets not having some magical form of weight loss……it’s just a calorie deficient.
This article makes it clear what’s going on and I appreciate that
I have followed a ketogenic diet for some time, but I’m probably really not in one now because I’ve added carbs because I weight train. I think I’ve found the right mix.
thanks for a great article
Hey W Tucker
Thanks for your kind words.
Everyone is different, and some people do just respond better to having fewer carbs in their diet. I think the key thing is to try out different things and see and feel how it works.
However, I think the majority of people who do better with fewer carbs would better off with a general low-carb high-fat diet, and not the ketogenic diet. It is just too extreme, and you don’t need that unless you have some serious health issues.
Thank you so much for this in depth explanation about the ketogenic diet. It is good to get information from someone who is not biased one way or the other.
I have been looking into this diet for quite a while and hubby and I decided to try and do a ‘fasting’ regime. We actually don’t eat anything between the evening hours of 20:00 around to the afternoon at about 14:00. This is a total of 18 hours each day with only drinks (without sugar or sweeteners) but no food.
We have yet to be strict about the foods we eat but always use organic coconut oil and avocado oil for cooking and extra virgin olive oil for cold use.
I’m not sure we could go to the extremes of a total ketogenic diet but wonder if what we are doing at present is of benefit. Your thoughts would be appreciated. Great post, thanks.
Sorry for the late reply. I recently arrived in Germany after a very long journey.
I think it sounds great that you are trying out intermittent fasting. If you feel it fits your lifestyle, then it is great option to reduce the total calories you are consuming and gain some great health benefits. When that has been said, I don’t think intermittent fasting is for everyone.
The ketogenic diet is another story haha. I think you said it yourself when you say: not sure if we could go to the extremes of the keto diet. I mean, if you are not sure then don’t do it, because it is painfully hard to follow, and in my opinion should only be adopted if you have serious health issues.
I have lost 10 lbs on the ketogenic diet. I also am now out of danger of full blown type 2 diabetes and have had a reduction in blood pressure medication. What I like about it is the foods you CAN eat such as cheese, steaks, salads, heavy whipping cream etc. My biggest challenge had been my cravings for french fries so perhaps once a month I have some. The diet makes me feel full because it is high fat. There are also excellent, tasty recipes which provide variety. I would support a ketogenic menu at a restaurant but so far there are none. At any rate I am quite satisfied and could adopt this as a permanent lifestyle.
I am happy for your success!
Really awesome you managed to reverse your diabetes and reduce blood pressure medicine. This diet is so powerful at fighting diabetes, so I hope you will have even better results in the near future 🙂
Funny that you should mention french fries. I think too, that french fries and potatoes would be the hardest for me to avoid. And then another one would be beer haha.
Did your doctor or someone else recommend you try out the ketogenic diet, or did you just decide yourself you wanted to try it out?