The ketogenic diet is very strict and limiting. With a general recommendation of no more than 30 net grams of carbohydrates per day, for most, it requires a drastic change in dietary habits. Additionally, it forces a constant close monitoring of intake to ensure that the carb threshold isn’t exceeded (read: macronutrient tracking). I’m not at all opposed to counting macros — in fact I’ve been logging my food for about 10 years — but I do know that for most folks, this is a big shift, and not always better for overall life or health balance.
For perspective, 30 grams of carbohydrates is equivalent to about one banana. And there are carbs in nearly everything, including many of the fat sources that the keto crew relies on. (For example, one avocado has 17 grams of carbohydrates, one cup of shredded coconut has 12 grams, and one cup of almonds has 31 grams.)
That said, the ketogenic diet has proven to be impressively beneficial for brain health, especially for people with epilepsy or neurodegenerative diseases. It can also help with weight loss if done right. There are other benefits that come from its starvation-mimicking state, like higher energy, mental clarity, lower insulin and blood-sugar levels, lower triglycerides, a more stable appetite, and more.
And yes, I said that the ketogenic diet mimics starvation. By definition, it does so, thereby allowing our bodies to enter a metabolic state called ketosis wherein we’re burning fat for fuel, instead of glucose. This takes some time for the body to learn and the more often we practice it, the easier it gets to return to. The first time can be rough, hence the term “keto flu.”
I often coach people through a keto-inspired diet, which is largely plant-based, rather than what can otherwise often look like the Atkins diet. It balances strictness with days off, which helps make keto a lifestyle instead of an unmaintainable phase.
These recommendations for a keto-inspired, plant-based lifestyle are rooted in a combination of approaches: plant-based, paleo, “slow carb,” ketogenic, and just generally healthy.
1. Don’t quit your smoothie.
This is one of the first things to go in a ketogenic diet, and understandably, as it’s often a very high-sugar meal. But it doesn’t have to be. The benefit of being able to squeeze a ton of excellent ingredients into a portable meal in just a few minutes is worth some workarounds. First, replace bananas with steamed yams for less sugar but just as much smoothness. Add fiber like acacia or chia to help offset the total carb count. (More on fiber below.) And consider simple swaps like raspberries (7 grams net carbs) versus blueberries (18 grams net carbs).
*Note: The “net” means total carbohydrates minus fiber, so it’s important to look at both numbers when choosing ingredients.
Other than the fruit, throw in all the greens and other goodness you can!
2. Enjoy more carbs by eating less sugar.
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Those with lower glycemic indexes are gentler on blood sugar (rather than causing it to spike suddenly and crash), which can support weight loss. It’s also helpful for keeping mood and energy levels stable and keeping cravings at bay. A ketogenic diet will cause you to become aware of the sugars in everything, including veggies. This can be a good thing if you also start relying on them as sweets. Over time, our palates adjust too, and simply steamed sweet potatoes will start to taste like dessert. (Add a little nut butter, sea salt, and cinnamon and you have one of my favorite treats.)
3. Eat more plants than fat.
A ketogenic diet is typically very high in fat. This can be tricky for people who aren’t as active as some of the pros giving the diet its fame. Fat is also the most dense macronutrient, which means we get to eat a lot less of it from a calorie standpoint. For example, one tablespoon of olive oil is calorically equivalent to three and a half cups of kale. Most people I know could not call a spoonful of oil lunch, but are quite glad to down a giant Buddha bowl. Then, of course, one can look at the health benefits of platters of vegetables versus cans of nuts.
4. Fiber is your very best friend.
As mentioned, “net carbs” are the total carbohydrates of a food, minus fiber. So, the higher the fiber in your carbs, the more of them you get to eat! Plus, you’re getting the digestive, intestinal, blood-sugar balancing, microbiome-pleasing benefits of fiber. I’m a big proponent of more fiber for just about everyone. We tend to eat too little of it, by far, and it’s good for so much. Try incorporating any of the following into your diet for a happier belly: acacia fiber or potato starch, hemp protein, flax and chia seeds, artichokes and sunchokes, peas, and most of the vegetable kingdom.
5. Chill with the protein.
This deserves its own story altogether, but to set the stage: protein deficiency is effectively non-existent in the United States. Contrast that with recent estimates that at least half of the population is deficient in magnesium and vitamin D. (And that’s naming just two of a ton of essential nutrients.) It’s generally quite easy to get enough protein — even when eating plant-based and not actively pursuing protein. Additionally, our body doesn’t need the protein; it needs the amino acids that it breaks the protein down into for reallocation in building muscles, neurotransmitters, and otherwise.
As long as we’re eating a variety of high-quality (read: recently alive, unprocessed, fruit and vegetable-based) food and digesting it well (read: eating slowly, chewing well, and making sure your gut health is good), chances are very good that we’re absorbing what we need to feel excellent.