The Ketogenic Diet 101

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This is the third article in a three-part series on fats in the diet.

Part two of this series on fats in the diet left off with a reference to converting dietary fats to ketones as the optimal way for the brain and body to function. So, what, exactly, are ketones, and how might they factor into a way of eating that could be good for us?

Ketones are a specific type of energy-carrying molecule that burns fats. Most people are typically in a state of glucosis, which means they’re burning glucose from carbohydrates for energy instead of burning fats. We each determine what our bodies burn for fuel based on what we’re ingesting each day. Simply put, by cutting down on carbohydrates and increasing fat intake, you can create a ketogenic diet that shifts your body from a state of glucosis and into a state of ketosis, which means it’s burning fat instead of glucose.

From Atkins and South Beach to Mediterranean and Zone (so ‘90s!), low-carb, high-fat diets—or “LCHF” diet plans—are still the rage, and growing evidence suggests they’re a big improvement over the carb-heavy traditional American diet. But the ketogenic (or “keto”) diet is the most carb-restrictive member of the LCHF approach. Is this a radical or extreme way to eat? For some, maybe. The “low-carb/high-fat” mantra has been on the dietary fad radar for at least a quarter century now. It’s not news. What’s radical, at least in my experience, is what you’re trying to avoid at the grocery store, restaurants, or the casual get together with friends and neighbors: the pervasive bread, sugar, and snack offering. We’re inundated with choices, and it requires a radical frame of mind to just say “no.”

Why Practice A Keto Diet?

But why practice this austere, if not altogether prudish approach at the dinner table? When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I admired people with an appetite. They exhibited a genuine pleasure in living, and the table was the center of their unabashed joy for all things rich and delectable. My uncle Tommy, as one example, owned a gourmet food market across the street from Princeton University, along with a catering company. He had 10 children. I worked for him over the summer and would return to his home with a paper bag stuffed with cash from the day’s profits. Over a typical evening appetizer spread of shrimp cocktail, chicken wings, crab cakes, deviled eggs, and too many cheeses to count, he and my aunt would stack the bills while pouring more Moet or, better yet, something stiff on the rocks. The party didn’t actually get underway until the neighbors showed up, usually uninvited.

Uncle Tommy died too early. I think his liver eventually failed him as a result of his “lifestyle” choices. Some of us practice austerity because we know how we feel after one too many—of just about anything. And it’s no coincidence that we’ve found ourselves in Jane Fonda aerobics classes and Fit for Life diet mode since the 1980s. The Baby Boom generation, as always, just wants to feel good without the brain fog and the excess girth that comes with indulging. Diet obsessions are still in vogue because all 76.4 million members of the Baby Boom generation are aging together. Teenagers get the energy drink and soda commercials; the aging generation gets hit with the erectile dysfunction and bladder control ads, while monitoring potential descent into Alzheimer’s. It doesn’t seem fair.

From this standpoint, though, the keto diet has wide appeal. The lasting benefits can range from reduced hunger and increased energy, to weight loss. Some research even hints at memory improvements.

What Does A Keto Diet Look Like?

In a clinical setting, a strict ketogenic diet would involve ultra-low amounts of carbohydrate consumption, ideally around 20 or 30 grams a day, according to Dr. Mercola and others practicing in the same vein. That’s about the number of carbohydrates in just one apple. Along with dramatic reduction of carbohydrates, a ketogenic diet also limits protein consumption. As I pointed out in a previous article in this series, this plan doesn’t actually encourage a free-for-all behind the barbecue pit. Meat proteins eventually turn into glucose the same way as carbs do. It comes down to a point of balance, and this is where the fats enter the picture. Cutting carbs and restricting protein means seriously upping your fat intake. And that’s exactly what a true ketogenic diet involves. You’d want healthy fats to account for about 80 percent of your calories, and protein around 20 percent.

Dr. Mercola and Nora Gedgaudas outline a fairly strict approach to this way of eating, one that may not be entirely necessary. After all, radical approaches at the dinner table never last for long. You don’t have to obsess on the numbers with your kitchen scale. Again, the advantage here is what you learn to cut out of your diet. Eliminate the pasta, bread, sugar, snacks, and alcohol—the usual suspects—and you will likely overcome the laments that plague us after we pass 50: the aches and pains, the brain fog, and the constant appeal of a long nap.

This doesn’t mean you won’t need guidance. Once you evaluate the science on your own, any number of recent books can follow up with the actual diet plan.

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Thomas Washington is Head Librarian at the Albany Academy for Girls. He has been a Co-op member since relocating to Albany from Washington, DC in 2015.