Everything You Need to Know About the Ketogenic Diet

In five months, it will be exactly one year since I switched to a ketogenic diet. Before answering the question of what this diet is, I’ll explain why I did it.

Traditionally, college students are warned about the freshman 15, the dreaded weight that comes from a new diet that you acquired with your newfound college freedom. Thankfully, I can say I avoided that issue, but I ran into a whole other problem — I wasn’t eating at all. I have an unnatural amount of food allergies including every kind of nut, wheat, soy, carrots and I’m lactose intolerant. With all of those issues, it’s hard to find anything to eat, so freshman year I depended a lot on going home to home cooked meals and while I was in Gainesville, I stuck to tater tots (great diet, I know).

It wasn’t until entering sophomore year, when I had a full kitchen in my apartment, that I realized I wasn’t taking advantage of my kitchen or serving my body well. I was feeling lethargic and unsatisfied because my body wasn’t receiving the proper fuel. Also, I’m a culprit of giving into foods that I'm allergic to, which makes my skin look irritated from allergic reactions. I’ve always wanted to change my diet, but my various food allergies kept me from making any serious changes.

A few months ago, someone close to me wanted to get into better shape. They went to a weight loss clinic and met with a nutritionist. That nutritionist told them to restart their body’s metabolism. They initially thought that meant a juice cleanse or something of that nature. The clinic informed this person that for two weeks they were going to be on a very strict diet that would place them in ketosis.

According to WebMD, ketosis is a metabolic process that your body carries out to keep working. When it doesn't have enough carbohydrates from food for your cells to burn energy, it burns fat instead. This seemed like a perfect way to start, but I knew I needed a way to keep up a healthy lifestyle after the fact and I found the ketogenic diet.  

I spoke to Jurate Lukosaityte, a graduate assistant who’s worked with UF Human Nutrition Professor Peggy Borum and the UF Precision Ketogenic Therapy program for more than seven years. I asked him a few questions about the ketogenic diet.

HC UFL: People commonly call or believe a Ketogenic diet is protein packing and about bodybuilding. What is the nutritional definition of a ketogenic diet? 

JL: "The ketogenic diet is rich in fat, low in carbohydrate, and adequate in protein. When someone is on a ketogenic diet, the dietary fat is broken down into ketones, which become the body’s main source of energy. This state of metabolism is known as nutritional ketosis, which is why the diet is called ketogenic."

HC UFL: Are there any deficiencies or health complications that would drive someone to start a keto diet?

JL: "The ketogenic diet was first used in the 1920s to treat patients that had uncontrollable seizures, known as refractory epilepsy. It’s popularity resurged in the early 1990s when a young boy, Charlie Abrahams, became seizure-free as a result of receiving the ketogenic diet at Johns Hopkins. The ketogenic diet is currently a medical treatment option for refractory epilepsy and patients who have genetic conditions that prevent them from using carbohydrate as a source of energy, such as Glut1 deficiency and pyruvate dehydrogenase deficiency. The ketogenic diet is not currently recommended for the treatment of any other disorders. However, more research is being done to see how it can useful for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and weight loss."

HC UFL: What’s the difference between just saying you’re low-carb or that you’re ketogenic?

JL: "There is no clear definition of a low-carbohydrate diet and there are many variations of the ketogenic diet that exist today. According to the Charlie foundation, they include the classical ketogenic diet, the modified ketogenic diet, the MCT diet, the modified Atkins diet, the low glycemic index treatment, and intermittent fasting. These diets are meant to induce nutritional ketosis for the treatment of disease. However, simply decreasing the amount of carbohydrate in the diet does not guarantee nutritional ketosis."

HC UFL: It's said that carbohydrates are needed in the diet to create energy. Is it true that people who follow a keto diet are going to need supplements to make up for this energy deficit or are they doomed to lethargy?

JL: "Some individuals report that they feel tired immediately after starting the ketogenic diet, but this feeling usually goes away within a few days. Fat, protein, and carbohydrate are all sources of energy for the body. When someone is on a ketogenic diet, they replace the Calories that come from carbohydrate with fat. As long as adequate Calories for age, height, weight, sex, and activity level are maintained from food intake, then there should not be an energy deficit. Dietary supplements are only recommended if food intake does not meet requirements for vitamins and minerals."

HC UFL: Is the ketogenic diet a weight loss plan that you do for a few weeks or can it be a maintained lifestyle change?

JL: "There is evidence that shows ketogenic diets can be maintained for individuals who use it for the treatment of disease. However, traditional ketogenic diets used for therapeutic purposes are not intended for weight loss. Despite the popularity of low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss, there is some controversy as to whether or not they are more effective than other diet plans. To learn more about low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss, the Atkins website is a great resource." 

HC UFL: Is there a point in life that is harder to transition to or maintain a ketogenic diet? 

JL: "The ketogenic diet used to be only offered to children as a medical treatment because they can be influenced by their parents and have not developed specific preferences yet. In the past few years, the broadened definition of a ketogenic diet has made it available to adults. I think that any diet which provides a variety of options for meals or recipes can be maintained, regardless of age. However, I think that the individual has to be motivated for it to be consistently maintained."

HC UFL: Are there any people you would advise not to switch to this lifestyle?

JL: "I would not advise anyone to switch to a ketogenic diet unless it was recommended by a physician for medical treatment and monitored by a dietitian. Moderation is important and extreme dieting may not be safe if it is not done carefully. Individuals should follow recommendations that are available in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. The guidelines support a healthy eating style that focuses on a variety of foods."

HC UFL: Are there any ways to make balancing a keto diet easier?

JL "Patients who receive a ketogenic diet may find balancing easier if they have the support of friends, family members, and a team of healthcare professionals. There is still a lot of research ongoing with the ketogenic diet and no one knows exactly how it works. Every individual responds differently to the ketogenic diet, and there is no magic diet which currently exists that can fix everything."

I’m one of the few that changed to a ketogenic diet without weight loss concerns. I adopted the diet plan to feel better and have a healthier lifestyle. It is difficult to switch to a low-carb or ketogenic diet with a busy college schedule, but I've found that with time, it's manageable. There are so many apps with recipes to follow and plans to help you stay on track. 

No matter your situation or your nutritional journey, always do what's best for your mind and body, and don't be afraid to consult experts for guidance.