Is Keto Good for the Gut?
Diet is a very individual thing. Yes, there is such a thing as a healthy diet. We’ve been talking about healthy foods for months now. They key is how to balance them in a way that works for you. I spend a lot of time reading about diet, nutrition, food intolerances and where these topics meet. I’ve also tried a lot of diets in my lifetime, only to be right back where I started. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I believe in the long-term definition of diet, not the short-term fix way of dieting. There are two definitions of diet:
- The kinds of food we habitually eat.
- A special course of food which we restrict ourselves to for weight loss or medical reasons.
Which one of these definitions comes to mind when you hear the word diet? Which definition sounds more appealing or sustainable to you? Until several years ago, I was only aware of the second definition. I never knew that health and weight were more easily maintained by the first definition. I know the long-term diet sounds harder, but I’m here to tell you it’s actually easier in the long run; and much healthier. That being said, what does this have to do with keto?
What is Keto?
In strict application, a ketogenic diet is one that focuses on high, healthy fat intake, moderate protein intake and very low carbohydrate intake. The purpose of this mix is to get the body to start burning fat and producing ketones as its preferred fuel instead of carbohydrates. Fat is converted by the liver into ketones, which the body can use as an alternate fuel.
Why would anyone want to do this? Well, the ketogenic diet developed out of definition number two above. The modern ketogenic diet was used in the 1920’s to treat epilepsy. For centuries prior to that, fasting was used to address seizures. Obviously, long term fasting is not ideal, so a a doctor at the Mayo Clinic proposed that the benefits of fasting could be achieved by a ketogenic diet. (1) This diet produced the same effect as fasting because two chemicals – acetone and beta‐hydroxybutyric acid – were produced in both fasting and low carb, high fat diets. The introduction of pharmaceutical drugs caused the ketogenic diet to fall by the wayside. Why would a natural, drug-free treatment fall by the wayside if it was working? One reason could be the limiting factors (strictness) of the diet. For example, carbohydrate intake on a strict keto diet for epilepsy was limited to 10-15 grams per day. This is extremely low when you consider the standard American diet as it has evolved over the last 40 years or so. Here are some examples of what 15 grams of carbohydrates looks like:
- Small piece of fruit, or
- One slice of bread, or
- 1/2 cup cooked oatmeal, or
- 1/3 cup cooked pasta or rice, or
- 4-6 crackers, or
- 1/2 cup black beans or starchy vegetables, or
- 1/4 serving of medium french fries
If you really want to get an idea of how many carbs are in food, start reading the labels. Most of the foods listed above at least contain fiber to offset the sugars (that’s what carbohydrates are) that would otherwise spike blood sugar. When you look at things like sugar-sweetened beverages that have no fiber and high carbohydrate levels, you can easily see where we’ve gotten into such a mess with metabolic related disorders like obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer. A 12-ounce soda, for example, packs almost 40 grams of carbohydrates that are all sugar, no fiber. And don’t think you can get around this with artificial sweeteners. Some have been linked to cancer, and all cause us to crave and eat more food because they do not fill us up.
That being said, in the mid-1990’s the ketogenic diet was brought back to life due to a child who was not getting relief through pharmaceutical drugs. Since then, the resurgence of keto has spurred much more research. This includes research on larger scale application of the diet to other health issues that are driven by excessive carbohydrate intake.
Is Keto for Everyone?
I would say that a pure, strict ketogenic diet is probably only necessary for therapeutic/medical purposes. The real usefulness of a ketogenic diet is in the lessons we can learn. It’s clear at this point that the standard american diet full of empty carbohydrates, refined grains and oils, pesticides, herbicides, and animals raised in confined feedlot operations are not serving our health. We’ve already looked at how it harms our gut health.
We can look at all of the gut-related diseases we’ve covered over the last few months and look at what we’ve learned toward healing the gut, and reducing risk and addressing things like type 2 diabetes. This includes:
- Reducing intake of refined/processed foods that are full of inflammatory additives and preservatives, as well as added sugar.
- Increasing intake of fresh, whole, organic vegetables and fruits; mainly vegetables, and limiting starchy vegetable intake.
- Moderate intake of pastured, organic meats like grass-fed and finished beef, pastured chicken and bison, and certain wild-caught fish high in omega-3.
- Increasing intake of healthy fats like sprouted organic seeds and organic nuts, coconut, grass-fed butter, ghee, and avocado.
- Avoid cooking with seed and nut butters as they are full of omega-6’s that oxidize under high heat. Cook with ghee, butter or coconut oil instead.
- Daily intake of prebiotic and probiotic foods to feed the microbiome and supplementing as needed.
- Adequate fiber intake to slow absorption of carbohydrates (minimizing blood sugar spikes), feed the colon and help with elimination
Why is this so important? If you do decide to dabble in a high-fat, low-carb diet, you need to be aware of a few key points:
- The microbiome needs prebiotic and probiotic foods to maintain a healthy balance.
- The microbiome needs clean foods to reduce inflammation and exposure to excess hormones and estrogenic effects. That means foods free of additives, preservatives and pesticides; as well as food that has been fed an unnatural diet. If your food is not healthy, you cannot be either.
- The microbiome needs adequate fiber to maintain balance and allow for proper digestion and elimination.
I’ve read a lot about keto and healthy fats and made the decision to move to a keto-type diet. This meant I added back some clean animal protein and pastured organic eggs; went back to eating nuts and seeds daily; maintained my high level of vegetable consumption (keeping starchy vegetables to a minimum); reduced my fruit intake to a more moderate level (organic wild blueberries and an avocado with breakfast); and gave up grains. I’ve been keeping my net carbohydrates (total carbs minus fiber) to around 50 a day. It was tricky at first, but I had already removed added sugars from my diet, so this made it easier. The key was better balancing my protein sources. While eating vegan, I was consuming high carbohydrate protein sources daily. This was driving gut issues, blood sugar spikes and constant weight management through calorie restriction and exercise.
A few years ago, even up to a year or so ago, I was unable to eat any red meat at all. I could not digest it and it left me bloated and slowed down my digestive system to a near halt. This had been going on for almost two decades. I figured I would never eat red meat again. What I learned this year is that grains are my true downfall. Given most of the meat made available to us is fed an unnatural diet that includes grains, it is not surprising I was starting to have so much trouble (inflammation) with meat. Since moving to grass-fed, pastured, organic products I haven’t been experiencing any difficulty. To test my current status, I ate a grass-fed, grass-finished filet last night for dinner. I had my husband cook it medium-well just to be safe. It was quite a pricey piece of meat, but worth every penny. It was as easy to chew as butter and tasted phenomenal. Better yet, my stomach and colon did not revolt. This is good because I now have one more food I can add into my diet for occasional variety, as too much seafood exposes me to too much mercury and other toxins now taking over our oceans.
As always, test don’t guess. If you think there are foods in your diet that could be causing you trouble, work with a health professional to find out. You can do an elimination diet to quickly find bad actors. You can have your fasting insulin (not blood sugar) number checked to see if you are pre-diabetic. Healing your gut and bringing your body back into balance takes some work, but I’m here to tell you it is worth it. I have spent the last few years testing, experimenting and changing things up until I found my magic combination.
My path, however, is my path. We’ve learned that everyone’s microbiome is different, which means our health status is different. What we can and cannot tolerate is different as a result. Taking it one step at a time and being aware of how food affects health is the starting point.
I’m taking all of these articles on gut health and putting them into a book, which I hope to at least have in an e-book format in the fall. There are a few more topics I would like to cover; and I know I could go on forever because there is always something more to learn about. I’ll let you know when it’s ready. For now, stay tuned and keep reading.
Yours in Wellness,