by Dr. Will Cole
Diets come and go, and the latest fad always generates excitement, but there is one new diet trend that has legitimate and exciting science behind it: the ketogenic diet, which has been shown to enhance brain health, restore energy, stabilize blood sugar, lower inflammation, and more. And while it may seem like everyone is currently “going keto,” this high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb diet isn’t a no-brainer. There are ways to do it right, and ways to do it wrong. As a functional medicine practitioner, I see firsthand how this potentially beneficial diet can quickly become detrimental, even though the person trying keto has all the best intentions. Fortunately, the most common keto mistakes are easily remedied. Here are the things I most often see people doing that can inhibit their success in reaching their ultimate health and weight loss goals.
Mistake 1: Prioritizing macronutrients over food quality.
Just because the fat-protein-carb ratio of food happens to coincide with what is appropriate for keto doesn’t mean that food is good for you. If all you think about is “more fat,” you could choose inflammatory junk foods containing cheap industrial oils, artificial sweeteners, and trans fats, while depriving yourself of real whole-food healthy fats, not to mention vitamins and minerals. This can worsen your health problems rather than helping them.
The solution? Use whole food sources and read labels.
The culprits usually lurk in packaged foods that are highly processed, so read labels for ingredients you recognize before purchasing. There are many good whole-food options that are handy to have around and are keto-compliant, such as raw nuts and seeds, olives, and canned wild-caught seafood. If you always have whole-food snacks available, you will be less tempted to grab something junky. A food tracking app can help you keep tabs on the macronutrient content of whole foods without a label.
Problem 2: Overdoing dairy.
Conventional ketogenic diets are loaded with high-fat dairy products, but many people have an inflammatory response to dairy products. In fact, next to gluten, dairy is one of the most common food allergens in our society and one of the most inflammatory foods in our modern diet. Granted, most of the problems with dairy actually have to do with human intervention, but dairy in its pure, natural form, before the advent of industrial agriculture, is hard to find—and it may still be difficult for some people to digest. What’s worse, most dairy cows are pumped full of hormones to increase milk production. This drug-filled milk is then pasteurized, homogenized, and the fat is removed, and then it is filled with synthetic vitamins to make up for a lack of nutrients. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds anything but appetizing.
But even in organic dairy products, it’s the casein that is often the cause of sensitivity and reactions. Casein is the protein found in dairy, and there are two subtypes: A1 and A2. The A1 subtype is the type most likely to be in your local dairy case. It is the result of hundreds of years of cross-breeding and gene mutations, and it is the most likely to be a trigger for digestive problems and inflammation. While some people may digest A2 casein better, dairy products containing A2 casein are harder to find, could still cause inflammation in many people.
The solution? Look for substitutions.
Due to the rise of dairy allergies, there are many delicious dairy alternatives available in any grocery store, like milk made from nuts and seeds and coconut to creamy nut cheeses made from almonds or cashews. Nut milks and nut cheeses are not only great sources of fat and protein, but they come in many varieties, such as mozzarella, cream cheese, “Parmesan,” and more. Many brands taste just as delicious as their counterparts, and they are also easy to make at home. And if you are a butter lover, try grass-fed ghee—it is butter oil with the casein removed. It’s just pure grass-fed dairy fat.
Problem 3: Ditching veggies.
Just because vegetables contain some carbs is no reason to shun them from your diet. One of the most common misunderstandings I see among people on a ketogenic diet is that they need to greatly limit or avoid vegetables, but this leaves many people lacking in necessary phytonutrients, enzymes, fiber, and resistant starches that provide food for a healthy gut. Research has shown that high-fat diets that lack fiber from vegetables can actually increase inflammation.
Also, those avoiding veggies may be more likely to experience a loss of electrolytes common with a ketogenic diet because they are missing out on natural vegetable sources of magnesium, calcium, and potassium. The problem with processed electrolyte replacement drinks is that they can also contain unnecessary sweeteners and additives.
The solution? Fall in love with the produce section.
Sure, there are definitely some carb-heavy vegetables that you will probably want to limit in order to keep your daily crab count low enough for ketosis, but many amazing vegetables are low-carb enough for keto. In fact, my book Ketotarian is all about how to do a ketogenic diet and still eat a 100 percent plant-based diet. In my book, you can find the most nutrient-dense vegetable options for enjoying them while achieving ketosis—some of my favorites also have a significant amount of electrolytes, including:
- Avocado: 1,067 mg potassium / 58 mg magnesium per 1 whole avocado
- Kale: 329 mg potassium / 31 mg magnesium per 1 cup of kale
- Spinach: 839 mg potassium / 157 mg magnesium per 1 cup of spinach
- Swiss chard: 136 mg potassium / 29 mg magnesium per 1 cup of Swiss chard
Problem 4: Defaulting to processed and conventional meats.
Fatty meat is another conventional ketogenic diet staple. While this may not seem like “diet food,” in addition to its fat content, animal protein sources are loaded with other beneficial nutrients such as B vitamins, which are essential for healthy detox and inflammation pathways. But many studies have shown that diets high in non-organic, grain-fed conventional sources of animal protein such as corn-fed industrial feedlot beef or processed lunch meats, bacon, or sausage, have been linked to cancer and other diseases.
The solution? Go organic…or plant-based.
If meat is your jam, look for grass-fed organic cuts of meat and limit the amount of processed meats you eat. Bacon at every meal is no way to tamp down inflammation! Instead, go for wild-caught fish, which is a clean, nutrient-dense animal source of both fat and protein that most people overlook in favor of red meat.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the ketogenic diet, but I am also a big fan of going predominantly plant-centric when I do keto. Not only is it more affordable, but this style of eating takes advantage of the health benefits of both conventional ketogenic diets and plant-based diets. It’s a two-for-one for your health!
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