You’ve gone low-carb, defeated the “keto flu”, and things have finally started getting easier. You understand the science behind it, but that voice in the back of your heard has its doubts.
- Can drenching food in a sea of oils really help me live a long time?
- Do I disregard my rising cholesterol?
- I’m allowed to eat fried pork rinds?
The diet is simple in premise, but it has nuances. I did things wrong, but now you can avoid the biggest and most common keto mistakes that I still see newbies and veterans making.
Believing Carbs Are Always the Enemy
Around the clock carbohydrate face-stuffing makes transitioning into a ketogenic fat-burning state tricky. Carbs are the only non-essential macronutrient. You can get away with completely avoiding them. But they too, have a purpose.
Dietary carbohydrates can help you maintain healthy thyroid function, sleep soundly, and stay sensitive to insulin.
The thyroid prefers carbohydrates as a fuel source.
Anecdotes and research both show carbohydrate restriction leads to suboptimal thyroid function. This study in six healthy subjects suggests that thyroid decline begins in less than one week!
Insulin helps bring down blood sugar.
I’ve had an interesting relationship with insulin.
When bodybuilding I learned to intentionally spike it to drive glucose into cells. Then I went keto and avoided it like the plague.
Insulin has its place.
It regulates metabolism and prevents muscle breakdown. On a ketogenic diet, less carbohydrate (sugar) enters the body, so less insulin is needed. The body compensates by making cells less sensitive to insulin through the downregulation of GLUT4 transporters. Then when you inevitably have a carb it spikes your blood sugar higher.
Sleep benefits from carbohydrates.
I woke up at 2 AM every night for most of my life.
Even in the deepest ketogenic state, your brain consumes large amounts of glucose (sugar). In the absence of carbohydrate, you secrete the stress hormone cortisol to break down tissue and convert it into the necessary brain-feeding glucose. The rise in cortisol wakes you up. Typically your brain’s fuel reserves last for several hours, so you sleep well until the middle of the night.
Carbs keep free testosterone high.
Total and free testosterone have important differences.
Free testosterone is the bioavailable form. It is used by the body and a better overall biomarker.
On a low-carbohydrate diet insulin declines, and the result is more sex-hormone-binding globulin (SHBG). Free testosterone is bound up and made unavailable by SHBG. Your body cannot use bound testosterone. Deficiency has a similar effect to that of low testosterone.
Use your schedule, activity level, and diet goals to determine the ideal number of carbs to eat. Once adapted, a common approach is to make one meal per week high carbohydrate (low fat). Other typical carb feeding options include:
- A monthly refeed
- Every other week
- Daily carbohydrate backloading (one meal per day, preferably scheduled around exercise)
I prefer the latter, adding some carbohydrates to my dinner. I find that I sleep deeper, I workout harder, and am back in ketosis before the next morning.
Weaning off a lifetime of carbohydrates can lead to a nasty collection of flu-like symptoms dubbed the “keto flu”. After all, ramping up your fat-burning machinery after decades of little use takes time. The biggest keto mistake?
Start with salt. Lots of it. This one addition can make a world of difference. Salting my food made my keto flu symptoms completely disappear.
Isn’t salt bad for me?
Salt is a combination of sodium and chloride, two essential electrolytes. Lots of things deplete electrolytes. Sweat from exercise, sauna use, and even sleep. More notably, however, is eating low-carb.
Why do I need more salt on keto?
Insulin tells your kidneys how much sodium to store. Sodium level regulates the other electrolytes. Ketogenic diets reduce insulin, so you shed salt and therefore the other electrolytes.
Add salt to prevent fatigue, headaches, constipation, lightheadedness, and feeling sluggish.
If you are on-the-go, put a pinch of a quality salt under your tongue. At restaurants, add a few extra dashes to meals, or drink bone broth.
You Can Handle More Carbs And Stay in Ketosis
Keeping carbs low speeds up becoming fat adapted.
Once you clear that period, experiment with different amounts of carbohydrates to see what works for you. Exciting new research shows that physically active people can handle far more the typically recommended “ketogenic threshold” of 20–50 grams of carbohydrates.
Blood tests of elite athletes show that during intense exercise, no amount of carbs can pull them out of ketosis. We’re talking 300 grams in some cases!
If you are relatively active, it would stand to reason that you can remain in ketosis well above the previously suggested 50-gram ceiling.
Following Therapeutic Protocols
What made you go keto? For disease management and reversal? Or to look, think, and feel better?
Research focuses on disease management. Some of the findings and recommendations apply only to those following a ketogenic diet for therapeutic purposes. Take protein intake for example.
How much protein should you consume?
Ten to twenty percent of your diet coming from protein may help treat disease, but it will leave you hungry, less lean, and under recovered. When it comes to satiety, protein is king. It keeps you more full for longer. It has fewer calories than fat and is harder to store as body fat.
- Rebuilds damaged tissue
- Improves strength
- Better muscle mass retention
- Boosts metabolism
- Stronger bones
- Reduces cravings
- Lowers blood pressure
Ketones may be muscle-sparing, but life’s better with ample protein.
I felt lethargic, lost muscle, and developed an insatiable appetite when I drastically cut protein from thirty-five percent of my daily calories down to fifteen percent (my sweet spot is twenty-five percent).
Skipping the Bitters
Keto requires heavy fat consumption. Several standard deviations above the normal.
Adapting from a traditional low-fat diet might make you feel sick to your stomach. Your body isn’t accustomed to so much fat.
Why does this happen?
The liver and gallbladder produce bile. Bile breaks down and helps you digest all that fat. Therefore, anything that boosts bile increases your ability to handle fat. Modern science completely ignores an ancient remedy to low bile:
Bitters are herbal extracts from mineral-rich plants. They’re easy to identify. Foods bitter in taste are the perfect sources.
If you’re having a hard time digesting fat-rich ketogenic foods, add some of the following foods to your diet.
Going “Dirty” Keto
Fats are not all created equal.
Family-sized bags of fried pork rinds, processed meats, commercial dairy, and packaged snacks may all pass the net carbohydrate label inspection. These products contain fillers, artery-clogging industrial vegetable oils, unnecessary artificial ingredients, and nearly zero nutrition.
Dirty, processed keto comes at a cost:
- High cholesterol. This can be an issue if a subtype of LDL called VLDL is elevated.
- Rampant inflammation. Correlated with most chronic diseases, high inflammatory markers are bad.
- Nutrient deficiencies. “Dirty” food takes the place of real food. Getting fewer vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols can make you less resilient and more disease-prone.
- Unexpected carb consumption. The FDA allows product labels to be up to 20 percent inaccurate. During a day of heavy snacking, these extra carbohydrates can quickly add up.
What goes into a healthy keto meal?
Assuming you’re not carnivore:
A mountain of non-starchy vegetables. A moderate amount of quality protein. Lots of olive oil; butter or coconut oil, if you can handle it. On occasion, a minimally processed treat.
Overconsuming Ketone Boosters
Ketone salts, ketone esters and MCT oil both give your blood a nice ketone boost, but can also become a crutch.
They can ease the transition into fat burning for newbies, or speed up recovery from a carb re-feed. However, the calories still contribute to total daily energy consumption.
When you consume calories in any form, they become your primary fuel source. Burning stored body fat resumes only once you get through the last of the calories in MCT and ketone products.
If you care about restricting your fasting window for autophagy (cellular cleanup), adding these products may slow your progress.
Forcing Low-Carb When It Doesn’t Feel Right
Cutting carbs is not right for everyone all the time. What works for one person in a specific chapter of their life may not work for another.
Stress, genetics, toxin exposure, or extreme activity levels can all make a low-carbohydrate diet sub-optimal.
Reducing stress comes in many forms. Self-medicating with carbohydrates to blunt cortisol is not the ideal solution, but common. Among the stressed, cutting carbs can keep cortisol high for longer periods of time accumulating more wear and tear and potential adrenal fatigue.
Your genetics can determine how you respond to different diets. You may do poorly with saturated fats making coconut oil and butter bad choices. Some people do not metabolize fat as well as others. Armed with this knowledge you could take a digestive enzyme, or choose a different diet.
Body fat stores toxins in order to keep them away from organs. Burning body fat can liberate these toxins and recirculate them through the bloodstream. Dr. Berg summarizes this effect in a short clip:
There are many other reasons not to choose keto, or to take a break from the diet.
Letting Carbohydrates Stress You Out
Sticking to a diet long-term takes willpower. If you eat low-carb for performance reasons, don’t let it define you or cause you to miss out on life.
The occasional bite of something your friends rant and rave about should not set you back or ruin your day.
Give your brain some credit. Socializing and enjoying life can often overpower the physiological effects of straying from your habits. Some research even shows that thoughts and pictures can change your hormone levels. Worrying too much about dietary choices likely has a larger negative effect than consuming an occasionally “cheat” meal.
Fear over a carb slipping past your lips activates a cortisol-fueled stress response, which is not good for your stress levels, blood sugar, insulin, or adrenals.
Enjoy the occasional indulgence knowing that your ketones will rise again before you know it.
Not Using Modern Technology to Check Your Progress
Your body may give you signals about whether or not a diet works for you, but at the same time, we live in a wonderful era of data and self-quantification.
Together your genes and blood are two useful tools to help evaluate your progress.
Genes Influencing Your Ideal Diet
Your genes can tell a lot about the likely effect of dietary choices on your physiology.
23AndMe and Ancestry both give you the option to export your raw data. A number of services can help you evaluate genes related to diet. Some notable genes to keep track of for those on keto:
- FADS1, FADS2
- PPAR alpha, PPAR gamma
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but nonetheless a good starting point.
Blood Markers Reveal Red Flags
After evaluating your genes, your blood provides lots of insight into how your body responds to a diet.
The cost of blood testing can quickly add up. For keto purposes, at a minimum you should track:
- Fasting glucose or insulin
- NMR or advanced lipid profile
Why these test?
Converting T4 to bioavailable T3 requires some glucose so it is can become problematic in the absence of carbs.
Fasting glucose and insulin should both drop significantly on the ketogenic diet. A high value can indicate cortisol dysregulation, circadian rhythm misalignment, or various other issues.
NMR panels contain a measure of VLDL, the dangerous type of LDL. Often, dirty keto results in high VLDL.
HS-CRP measures overall inflammation.
Bonus: adding an Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio test could help shed light on the source of inflammation.
Putting It All Together
Embrace carbs. Well, kind of. Enjoy them in moderation, occasionally. When you do, time them around exercise.
Add electrolytes like salt to your food. Especially when you feel keto flu symptoms or have been diligent about staying in ketosis.
Test your genes and blood for a gauge of how you respond to the diet. If nothing else it will keep your mind at ease knowing the fats and oils are nothing but fuel.
Eat clean and use ketone-boosting products as tools. Dirty keto can lead to short-term weight loss, but keto provides a number of metabolic and longevity-enhancing benefits.
Let me know which of these you found most useful and if I forgot anything important.