With the big splash a certain low-carb doctor made in the media years back, most folks nowadays are at least somewhat familiar with a general low-carb approach to eating. In the past thirty to forty years, quite a number of different low-carb diets have been formulated, which begs the question: What makes nutritional keto different?
Shift in focus
The biggest discrepancy between keto and all those other low-carb diets you've either read about or tried yourself is that the focus is different. On just about any low-carb way of eating, the main reason for doing it is pretty universally weight loss. That's not a bad reason to start, as being overweight is comorbid with quite a number of diseases and conditions. Sometimes it's the cause of the disease, sometimes it's a side effect. Either way, everyone acknowledges it's undesirable. But you'll probably lose weight on keto, so what makes it different?
Keto, and especially nutritional keto, is not really about weight loss. Oh yes, that's definitely a benefit of following a ketogenic way of eating. The overall diet, however, is about good nutrition, internal healing, and helping your body to utilize the most efficient fueling process. When you understand that this is the whole point of eating keto, you will more easily understand the other things that distinguish our protocol.
The next factor that makes keto different is that we strive to eat as "clean" as possible. That means minimally processed foods, mostly prepared yourself. You're going to eat a lot of fresh meats, vegetables, and dairy, and stay out of the vast majority of packaged foods.
The most obvious reason for this is the hidden carb factor. In a nutshell, just about everything you can buy that's in a package is going to contain sugar or sugar derivatives, starches, and other undesirable ingredients that make the product shelf stable. Not only are some of these ingredients going to mess with your ketosis, many of them have been shown to have links to various medical problems. Some have an outsized effect on insulin or interfere with the production and regulation of other hormones.
Nutritional keto is not if it fits your macros (IIFYM). It doesn't matter if you think you can squeeze in that wheat tortilla or bite of beans. It doesn't matter if that soy product is low in carbohydrates. These things aren't considered on-plan on a nutritional ketogenic protocol because they each cause physical problems, be it from inflammation, glucose and insulin spikes, or thyroid and hormone interference in the case of soy. We don't eat them and don't encourage others to eat them, and that makes us fairly unique in the low carb community.
Yet another thing that makes nutritional keto different is that it's expected to be a complete and permanent lifestyle change.
Many other low carb diets will get you into ketosis. They may even help you shed some weight. Most of them, however, aren't really formulated for the long-term and thus allow for cheating. Oh, they might not call it that. Carb ups, carb nights, if it fits your macros (IIFYM), and various fancy named phrases and phases that are supposed to help you eventually transition back into so-called normal eating abound. In plain language, it's assumed you will go back to eating carbage at some point and all these little schemes are dreamed up and built into the various low-carb diets to help you cheat while allowing you to believe you're still on plan.
The bottom line is this: study after study after study shows that adherents of all diets end up right back where they started (or worse!) once they go back to eating the Standard Western Diet. It doesn't matter if you eat raw, vegan, low-carb, or count calories. If you go back to the old lifestyle, you're going to go backward progress-wise. It's just a fact. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you will be able to accept that whatever way of eating you choose, it has to be forever if you want the accompanying physical changes to stick.
Keto operates on the assumption that this is for life. Thus, we encourage no cheats. Ever.
We know that's a hard pill for people to swallow, so we're going to give you some information that will make it go down a little easier. This article by Dr. Davis over at the Wheat Belly blog goes into physical/medical reasons why you shouldn't cheat. Keto is not identical to Wheat Belly, but there is a lot of overlap and the reasons he lists are just as applicable to our way of eating. The ones that are the most eye-popping are the return of inflammation (the acknowledged underlying cause of just about the entire gamut of disease and medical conditions), and the increase in internal production of small LDL particles (those are the ones that clog your arteries) for up to two weeks(!!!!!!!) after even one cheat.
There are other consequences of going back to the old ways of eating. According to Dr. Adam Nally, who has years of experience treating patients with the ketogenic diet, kidney stones are a common problem amongst people who do not stay faithful to their low carbohydrate lifestyle (see here for a piece in which he addresses the subject, and here for the podcast he does with Jimmy Moore, wherein they regularly discuss this very question).
Going back to eating all the old carbage is undesirable because it has undesirable outcomes. Don't do it.
This one most readers should be familiar with, but it never hurts to refresh the memory.
According to Phinney and Volek, a ketogenic protocol in a nutshell is:
- High fat (65% or more of your caloric intake is fat)
- Moderate protein (a maximum of 30-35% caloric intake is protein)
- Very low carbohydrate (5% or less caloric intake from carbs)
You need enough protein to spare muscle, which is a lot less than people tend to think. You need very few carbohydrates so that you stay in ketosis. Then you eat enough fat to make up the difference so that your body receives adequate daily fuel and you're not hangry (yes, hangry).
Many other low carbohydrate protocols give you a maximum number of daily carbs and then don't care how you get the rest of your fuel. Some even encourage high protein and lower fat. It's common medical belief that high protein can be hard on some people's kidneys, and this kind of approach is why low-carb living has that nasty reputation in the medical community. It also encourages an outsized insulin response in those with various metabolic disorders, which can interfere with fat burning and is not advised on a ketogenic protocol. All of which is why those macro recommendations are an important distinction between keto and other low-carb ways of eating.
Now that you know the main differences between nutritional keto and other low carbohydrate protocols, you should be empowered to make the best decision for life. Keep being awesome and keto on.