Finding yourself confused by the seemingly endless promotion of weight-loss strategies and diet plans? In this series, we take a look at some popular diets—and review the research behind them.
What is it?
The ketogenic or “keto” diet is a low-carbohydrate, fat-rich eating plan that has been used for centuries to treat specific medical conditions. In the 19th century, the ketogenic diet was commonly used to help control diabetes. In 1920 it was introduced as an effective treatment for epilepsy in children in whom medication was ineffective. The ketogenic diet has also been tested and used in closely monitored settings for cancer, diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease.
However, this diet is gaining considerable attention as a potential weight-loss strategy due to the low-carb diet craze, which started in the 1970s with the Atkins diet (a very low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, which was a commercial success and popularized low-carb diets to a new level). Today, other low-carb diets including the Paleo, South Beach, and Dukan diets are all high in protein but moderate in fat. In contrast, the ketogenic diet is distinctive for its exceptionally high-fat content, typically 70% to 80%, though with only a moderate intake of protein.
How It Works
The premise of the ketogenic diet for weight loss is that if you deprive the body of glucose—the main source of energy for all cells in the body, which is obtained by eating carbohydrate foods—an alternative fuel called ketones is produced from stored fat (thus, the term “keto”-genic). The brain demands the most glucose in a steady supply, about 120 grams daily, because it cannot store glucose. During fasting, or when very little carbohydrate is eaten, the body first pulls stored glucose from the liver and temporarily breaks down muscle to release glucose. If this continues for 3-4 days and stored glucose is fully depleted, blood levels of a hormone called insulin decrease, and the body begins to use fat as its primary fuel. The liver produces ketone bodies from fat, which can be used in the absence of glucose. 
When ketone bodies accumulate in the blood, this is called ketosis. Healthy individuals naturally experience mild ketosis during periods of fasting (e.g., sleeping overnight) and very strenuous exercise. Proponents of the ketogenic diet state that if the diet is carefully followed, blood levels of ketones should not reach a harmful level (known as “ketoacidosis”) as the brain will use ketones for fuel, and healthy individuals will typically produce enough insulin to prevent excessive ketones from forming.  How soon ketosis happens and the number of ketone bodies that accumulate in the blood is variable from person to person and depends on factors such as body fat percentage and resting metabolic rate. 
What is ketoacidosis?
Excessive ketone bodies can produce a dangerously toxic level of acid in the blood, called ketoacidosis. During ketoacidosis, the kidneys begin to excrete ketone bodies along with body water in the urine, causing some fluid-related weight loss. Ketoacidosis most often occurs in individuals with type 1 diabetes because they do not produce insulin, a hormone that prevents the overproduction of ketones. However in a few rare cases, ketoacidosis has been reported to occur in nondiabetic individuals following a prolonged very low carbohydrate diet. [4,5]
There is not one “standard” ketogenic diet with a specific ratio of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat). The ketogenic diet typically reduces total carbohydrate intake to less than 50 grams a day—less than the amount found in a medium plain bagel—and can be as low as 20 grams a day. Generally, popular ketogenic resources suggest an average of 70-80% fat from total daily calories, 5-10% carbohydrate, and 10-20% protein. For a 2000-calorie diet, this translates to about 165 grams fat, 40 grams carbohydrate, and 75 grams protein. The protein amount on the ketogenic diet is kept moderate in comparison with other low-carb high-protein diets, because eating too much protein can prevent ketosis. The amino acids in protein can be converted to glucose, so a ketogenic diet specifies enough protein to preserve lean body mass including muscle, but that will still cause ketosis.
Many versions of ketogenic diets exist, but all ban carb-rich foods. Some of these foods may be obvious: starches from both refined and whole grainslike breads, cereals, pasta, rice, and cookies; potatoes, corn, and other starchy vegetables; and fruit juices. Some that may not be so obvious are beans, legumes, and most fruits. Most ketogenic plans allow foods high in saturated fat, such as fatty cuts of meat, processed meats, lard, and butter, as well as sources of unsaturated fats, such as nuts, seeds, avocados, plant oils, and oily fish. Depending on your source of information, ketogenic food lists may vary and even conflict.
The following is a summary of foods generally permitted on the diet:
- Strong emphasis on fats at each meal and snack to meet the high-fat requirement. Cocoa butter, lard, poultry fat, and most plant fats (olive, palm, coconut oil) are allowed, as well as foods high in fat, such as avocado, coconut meat, certain nuts (macadamia, walnuts, almonds, pecans), and seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, hemp, flax).
- Some dairy foods may be allowed. Although dairy can be a significant source of fat, some are high in natural lactose sugar such as cream, ice cream, and full-fat milk so they are restricted. However, butter and hard cheeses may be allowed because of the lower lactose content.
- Protein stays moderate. Programs often suggest grass-fed beef (not grain-fed) and free-range poultry that offer slightly higher amounts of omega-3 fats, pork, bacon, wild-caught fish, organ meats, eggs, tofu, certain nuts and seeds.
- Most non-starchy vegetables are included: Leafy greens (kale, Swiss chard, collards, spinach, bok choy, lettuces), cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, bell peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, cucumber, celery, summer squashes.
- Certain fruits in small portions like berries. Despite containing carbohydrate, they are lower in “net carbs”* than other fruits.
- Other: Dark chocolate (90% or higher cocoa solids), cocoa powder, unsweetened coffee and tea, unsweetened vinegars and mustards, herbs, and spices.
- All whole and refined grains and flour products, added and natural sugars in food and beverages, starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and winter squash.
- Fruits other than from the allowed list, unless factored into designated carbohydrate restriction. All fruit juices.
- Legumes including beans, lentils, and peanuts.
- Although some programs allow small amounts of hard liquor or low carbohydrate wines and beers, most restrict full carbohydrate wines and beer, and drinks with added sweeteners (cocktails, mixers with syrups and juice, flavored alcohols).
*What Are Net Carbs?
“Net carbs” and “impact carbs” are familiar phrases in ketogenic diets as well as diabetic diets. They are unregulated interchangeable terms invented by food manufacturers as a marketing strategy, appearing on some food labels to claim that the product contains less “usable” carbohydrate than is listed.  Net carbs or impact carbs are the amount of carbohydrate that are directly absorbed by the body and contribute calories. They are calculated by subtracting the amount of indigestible carbohydrates from the total carbohydrate amount. Indigestible (unabsorbed) carbohydrates include insoluble fibers from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; and sugar alcohols, such as mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol commonly used in sugar-free diabetic food products. However, these calculations are not an exact or reliable science because the effect of sugar alcohols on absorption and blood sugar can vary. Some sugar alcohols may still contribute calories and raise blood sugar. The total calorie level also does not change despite the amount of net carbs, which is an important factor with weight loss. There is debate even within the ketogenic diet community about the value of using net carbs.