Optimizing Keto (Complete Guide)

With the ketogenic diet becoming so popular right now, I feel that it is very necessary to provide a plant based view on the diet. I myself am eating a plant based (mainly whole foods) ketogenic diet. And I feel that this approach combines two very powerful concepts and avoids the negative outcomes from high animal product consumption.

By volume, my diet is mostly leafy vegetables...

When you read reports on the internet from people, who switch to a ketogenic diet high in animal products, often times they still report great increases in their health and well-being. Many of them loose weight and build muscle. So it is clear that the diet provides some mechanism by which the body is better able to generate energy without too much harmful byproducts, as is the case when large amounts of processed carbohydrates are mixed with fats and proteins from animals. This western diet is clearly the worst of all dietary choices and eliminating one bad food group (processed carbohydrates) is clearly a step in the right direction.

...by calories, my diet is mostly nuts,
especially coconut.
When carbohydrates and fats are eaten together in an hypercaloric environment, they prevent each other from being metabolized efficiently by the body. From my own experience I can say that both approaches work (high-carb, low-fat as well as high-fat, low-carb). But they work because of different mechanisms and these macro-nutrient-ratios do not tell the whole story. In both cases I think it is important to stick with mostly whole foods. A low-fat diet doesn't work well if the diet is composed of refined grains or even whole grain flour products. Carbohydrates must predominantly come from slow digesting, fiber-rich sources, such as vegetables, fruits and beans. (Although some high calorie fruits like bananas can be too calorically dense and relatively devoid of nutrients)

Why you should not choose a meat-based approach to keto:

I am not saying you can never have meat or animal products if you want to be in optimal health. They can surely be eaten in small amounts without having negative health consequences. Before we dive into the all positive aspects of plants on a ketogenic diet, here follows a list of why you want to limit animal products to 1-2 servings a week.

  1. On a keto diet you consume high amounts of fat. Choosing animal sources of fat is not a good idea because environmental toxins are mainly stored in the fat tissue of animals. Read more
  2. Regular consumption of animal protein raises IGF-1 to excess levels, promoting tumor growth. Read more
  3. Animal protein consumption raises cortisol levels and lowers testosterone. I have experienced this myself after occasionally eating meat in the evening and every time having trouble sleeping afterwards. Read more
  4. Animal protein accelerates the aging process through increased levels of methionine, cysteine and leucine. Read more
  5. Meat can negatively influence the composition of the gut-microbiome, leading to the production of carcinogens in the large intestine. Read more

This list is unlikely to be complete. I am sure, science will discover more aspects of nutrition in the future.
If health reasons are not convincing you to at least limit animal product consumption, environmental reasons might still be important to you. Drastically increases ones meat consumption, as many ketogenic dieters do, is environmentally absolutely unsustainable if more people would follow this diet. There just not enough resources to feed so many animals and not enough fields to take up all of their waste. But I am repeating myself.

Benefits of the whole-foods plant-based approach to keto:

What foods are we talking about here?

Hazelnuts, Coconut, Almonds, Flax Seeds, Sunflower Seeds, Chia Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds, Cacao Beans, Avocados, Sesame Seeds, Peanuts, Walnuts, Macadamia Nuts, Soybeans, Cashews, Olives.
These are the foods I eat the most of, from a caloric perspective. And also in roughly that order. 

All of these foods come with a multitude of health benefits, They all contain fiber, minerals, vitamins, polyphenols, antioxidants and protein. Carbohydrates are present in most of them as well, but only in very small amounts and they are very low glycemic. This leads to a state in which the body produces almost no insulin to process these foods. They release their fat-content slowly over the course of several hours and do not spike blood-sugar or blood-triglycerides. Consumed in their raw form and with an eye on the overall omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, they provide steady energy from unoxidized, heart-healthy fatty acids. 

Important note on roasted nuts:

To avoid negative health consequences it is very important not to consume roasted nuts or seeds, as they contain high levels of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) and oxidized fatty acids. Which both act like free radicals in the body and can damage tissues. Keeping an eye on this is important and make the difference between success and failure on this diet. Most store bought nuts are either fried in vegetable oils or roasted at too high temperatures, especially peanuts and all flavored nuts. When you see that a nut is brown on the inside, you can be sure it is oxidized and full of AGEs. Avoid those. If you prefer roasted, than buy them raw and lightly roast them yourself with an eye on temperature and time (20min at 100°C should be okay). 

Coconut and saturated fat on the ketogenic diet:

Shredded coconut is a major part of my ketogenic diet. I eat it at almost every meal. If you have read about the ketogenic diet and the role of LDL and HDL cholesterol, you will know that high levels of both do not indicate a harmful metabolic state. They are proteins that carry fat in the blood-stream and deliver to the cells. So a high-fat diet will naturally increase the presence of those proteins.
Why is then LDL cholesterol considered a risk-factor for heart disease by most doctors? This is complicated topic and it probably takes a long time until we know all the details of how the body works. But new meta-analysis like this one are coming out and are going to change our view on saturated fat intake and cholesterol levels.

Good for your environmental conscience:

By eating plants as a source of your calories your diet will also have a major positive impact on the environment. Moving away from growing grains and other seasonal crops to planting trees for our foods sources, such as nuts, will be good for the climate by storing CO2, provide a habitat for a variety of species and causing less soil disturbance, among many other positive changes.

By volume, your diet will consist of mostly leafy vegetables, if you want to optimize your health. All vegetables that are lowest in carb are also very nutrient dense on a per calorie basis. By combining large volumes of those vegetables with the high caloric density of nuts, you can optimize your intake of micro-nutrients. The problem on a high-carb diet is that the relatively nutrient-poor grains already take up a lot of stomach-volume, so that it becomes uncomfortable to eat the amounts of vegetables required for optimal health. But the combination of vegetables and nuts is perfect in my opinion. Protein and carbs never digested well for me, whereas fats and protein digest perfectly together and also increase the nutrient absorption from the vegetables.
I strive to eat at least 500gr of raw vegetables and 500gr of cooked vegetables a day.

Here is what a ketogenic day of eating might look like for me in cronometer:

Even though some people consider 40gr net-carbs to be on the high-end for a ketogenic diet, I think it is not going to reduce utilization of ketones at all. All those 40gr of carbs are bound to fibers and are released very slowly so that they are immediately picked up by the cells of the body without the need for any significant amount of insulin. All the fiber is also going to be turned into ketones by the bacteria in the large intestine, further contributing to ketone-levels.

Most people apply the ketogenic diet to achieve a caloric deficit without having to experience too much hunger. This is one major advantage of this diet. But some people (like me) are actually on this diet and eat a caloric surplus to gain muscle. The benefits we are after are the anti-inlammatory effects of the ketones and to avoid the negative side effects of excess carbohydrate consumption. What follows are therefore my explanations of the combination of exercise and keto.

Exercise on keto:

Keto in a caloric surplus

In order to build muscle and gain weight, it is necessary to eat a caloric surplus if you are already lean. The major benefit of doing this on keto is that the body can very efficiently utilize the excess calories from fat, compared to carbohydrates. Storing excess carbohydrates is a messy process. The liver has to convert them to fat and this spikes triglycerides, which is bad on a high-carb diet. The steady energy-supply from fats on the other hand provides growing muscle with a constant supply. And most importantly, the anti-inflammatory nature of the diet (or rather of the ketones) counteracts most of the negative effects of over-feeding. 

Working out on keto:

Most people would describe the process of building muscle as slower, when compared to a high-carb diet. But I would argue that you also limit the fat gain (if you keep an eye on overall calories), while building muscle based on strength rather than on the "pump". Working out on keto is different. It does not allow for huge volume in a single session, for a single muscle. The "bro-science one body-part per day-split" does not work well with keto. After the initial adaptation I have found that I am able to train very heavy (1-3 reps) without any performance loss, while the medium rep ranges from 5-10 were a little compromised. On the other end of the spectrum, 20+ reps were possible as well. 
And I had to keep the overall number of sets per muscle lower. While I have never been a fan of the above mentioned split training, where you train a muscle once a week with high volume, I had to switch to even lower volume to keep the intensity high at each set. 

That means, the best approach for any natural lifter (especially on keto) is to train every muscle as frequently as possible with heavy weights (1-5 reps) and 3-4 sets per muscle. For me, this has turned into High-Frequency-Training, where I train my whole body 5-6days a week, with 7-9 exercises in each workout. Squatting, pressing and pulling every-day. Never to failure and always choosing the weights according to how the warm-up sets feel on that day. I think this is the optimal approach for weight-training on keto. It gives the muscle enough time to replenish glycogen store before the next session as it does not deplete them significantly.

Cardio can be done on the ketogenic diet (after the initial adaptation) without any performance loss. But it might take a couple of month before your level of endurance reaches higher than before. What I particularly like about aerobic exercise on keto is the fact that I need to breathe less. Fat burning requires less oxygen and when you are working hard this can be a tremendous relieve, making the exercise feel less demanding.