Basics of a Healthy Low-Carb Ketogenic Diet

Basics of a Healthy Low-Carb Ketogenic Diet

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Butter provides many of the fat calories on a ketogenic diet.

Martin Poole/Photodisc/Getty Images

Dr. Russell Wilder, a medical doctor at the Mayo Clinic, developed the ketogenic diet in 1924 as a treatment for seizures in epileptic patients. Despite the diet's success, it took a backseat to anti-seizure medications during the 1940s. Some doctors still prescribe the low-carbohydrate, high-fat ketogenic diet for patients, especially those with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, whose seizures do not respond to medication.

The Gist

Normally, when your body needs energy, it turns to glucose, a simple sugar that comes from carbohydrates. Although this is the preferred energy source, your body has only a limited ability to store the simple sugar. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, the glucose stores in your liver run out in about 24 hours. If you don't supply your body with carbohydrates during this time, your body will turn to stored fat as an energy source. The idea behind the ketogenic diet is to extend this fat-burning process by significantly limiting carbohydrate intake and increasing consumption of fat. As your body burns fat, byproducts called ketones are produced. Although the mechanisms are still not entirely clear, researchers credit the ketones with the anti-seizure effects of the diet.

The Details

The ketogenic diet consists primarily of foods that are high in fat and, to a lesser extent, protein. Although the specific numbers may differ based on individual circumstances, fat generally supplies 70 to 90 percent of calories. Foods that supply this fat include butter, mayonnaise, heavy cream and oils, such as canola and olive oil. These foods are recommended because they are high in fat and almost lacking in the other macronutrients. Most of the remaining calories -- 10 to 30 percent -- come from protein, which is obtained through small portions of cheese, meat, fish and poultry. Fruit is also allowed, but in very small amounts.

Optimizing Nutrition

The ketogenic diet is not considered a balanced diet because it is lacking in vitamins and minerals, the most notable of which are calcium, vitamin D, iron and folic acid, reports Because these vitamins and minerals are essential to good health, supplementation is often necessary. Your dietitian can recommend vitamin and mineral supplements that supply you with the nutrients you need without interfering with ketosis.

Don't Try This at Home

Ketogenic diets are designed to control seizures and are not considered a healthy diet program for others. You should not attempt to follow a ketogenic diet unless your doctor recommends that you do so. If your doctor thinks that a ketogenic diet is right for you, you must work closely with a dietitian to make sure that you are getting the proper ratio of fat to protein -- usually 4 to 1 or 3 to 1. Ketogenic diets don't come without side effects. People who follow a ketogenic diet for an extended period of time are more likely to experience constipation, dehydration, bone fractures, slowed growth and weight gain. Ketogenic diets may also increase blood cholesterol levels and the risk of developing kidney stones.