What is a Ketogenic Diet?

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Here at The Institute for the Psychology of Eating we do NOT endorse or promote any particular diet or nutritional lifestyle. We do highly encourage that each person openly explores the wide variety of nutritional approaches and dietary strategies that are available to them. We see nutrition as an ever-changing journey. We believe that a healthy relationship with food and a well functioning metabolism is possible when we can each be open to what works best for ourselves, and others. We believe there’s a nugget of wisdom to be found in just about any diet that’s been designed with care in mind for people and planet.

As the paleo lifestyle gains more backing and more mainstream acceptance, one of the myths that needs to be consistently dispelled is whether “going paleo” requires you to adhere to a low-carb/high-protein diet indefinitely. The short answer, of course, is no. There are many, many ways to enjoy a paleo approach without going low carb.

Even still, there seems to be some overlap and a persistent misunderstanding that paleo equals low-carb (LC) or even very low carb (VLC) lifestyle only, and that there’s some inherent requirement or increased benefit by engaging in what’s known as a Ketogenic Diet.

Do they share some overlap? Sure – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one indicates the other.

Ketogenic diets are popular in the fitness world, and as one interpretation of the paleo diet, because of their tendency to alter the metabolic state of the body, their impact on brain chemistry, and therefore, how they change the body’s method (and specifically – the brain) of deriving its energy.

Basic biology states that every cell in our body runs on glucose, including our brain cells. But when you’re on a ketogenic diet, your body switches from glucose to fat as a chosen fuel source. This goes into effect when the liver learns to convert fatty acids into “ketone bodies”. This process allows our body to derive energy from fat instead of glucose during periods of fasting or carbohydrate restriction.  This reality becomes apparent in the body chemistry when you can detect elevated level of ketone bodies in the blood or urine, a state known as ketosis.

This has also been observed in the body during times of famine.

How Does it All work?

Well, here’s a little science to explain why, but first a couple key terms:

  • Glycogenis a polysaccharide structure, built from multiple molecules of glucose, used for energy and storage in animals and fungi.
  • Glucagonis a peptide hormone that raises blood glucose levels. It’s produced in the pancreas and has the opposite effect on the body than that of insulin, but they are part of the same biological feedback system.

So to break it down: whenever your body runs out of glycogen (glucose sugar, for all intensive purposes), the body will release glucagon from the pancreas. Now, glucagon is catabolic in nature, which means, it breaks things down, like tissue, (vs. anabolic, which builds tissue). In this case glucagon is essential, as it converts free fatty acids into the energy structure to make ketone.
This is why one of effects of a ketogenic diet includes lower glucose levels and possible improvement of one’s insulin resistance.

What Do You Eat on a Ketogenic Diet?

Even when you go searching for ketogenic diets, so many so-called experts discuss it as low-carb diet – but please be wary of those who fail to make the distinction regarding fat intake. For, contrary to colloquial belief, a ketogenic diet if not meant to be a high-protein diet – but it IS a high FAT diet (and yes, very low in carbohydrates). And quality is definitely key. Here’s what the diet consists of:

  • Quality fats & oils: butter, avocado, beef tallow, ghee, macadamia nut, olive or coconut oil, etc.
  • Protein: fish, seafood, whole eggs, lamb, poultry, beef, pork, etc.
  • Vegetables:  It’s recommended to go for low-carb veggies grown above ground: artichoke, broccoli, asparagus, green beans, kale, squash, etc.
  • Dairy: full fat dairy – cream, sour cream, hard and soft cheeses, etc.
  • Nuts and Seeds: Macadamias, walnuts, almonds, cashew, pine nuts, hazelnuts, pistachio, sesame seeds, etc.

You’ll notice that grains, bread, potatoes, pulses and legumes, fruit, and sweets such as candy, cookies, and desserts are not present.

Care to learn more?

It Even Has Disease Remediation Benefits


The Ketogenic Diet was developed by Dr. Russell Wilder, in 1924, for the Mayo Clinic, as a highly effective treatment for epilepsy. Even though it was hugely success, upon the advent of anti-seizure medications in the 1940s, the diet fell out of favor. Despite many hypotheses, the mechanism by which the diet works to control seizures remains a mystery. Scientists in several laboratories around the world are working to unlock this mystery with animal studies. Even today, this is found to be an incredibly useful dietary protocol for those suffering seizures.


Dr. Dominic D’Agostino, who researches metabolic therapy with his team at the University of South Florida, found that when carbohydrates were removed from the diets of lab mice, they survived extremely aggressive metastatic forms of cancer.

As we know, all cells, including cancer cells, run on glucose. But, it’s been discovered that when you deprive cells of glucose, like one does on a ketogenic diet, our cells make the switch to the alternate fuel now being provided them: ketone bodies. But here’s the catch. Cancer cells can’t make the switch. Cancer cells can only survive on glucose, hence why low-glycemic diets are often recommended. Dr. D’Agostino explains that our normal cell structure are remarkably resilient and are equipped with “metabolic flexibility” – and this is something that can be exploited to our advantage when it comes to defeating cancer.

It’s also been show to help Alzheimer patients regain memory and thought function, improves mitochondrial function for neurological disorders, helps provide diabetes patients with blood sugar control, and has been show to relieve symptoms for those with gluten allergies, as one might imagine.

Other benefits include:

  • improvement in acne lesions and skin inflammation
  • improved triglyceride levels and cholesterol levels
  • weight loss
  • dietary satiation

Are there Any Dangers to Eating this Way?

Although present studies show the long-term benefits from following a ketogenic diet – it’s not for everyone.

Ketosis can lead to excessive production of uric acid and hyperuricemia, which can be discovered by measuring high uric acid levels. You may start out with feelings of euphoria, a false high or feelings of abundant energy, but this is often due to high levels of cortisol being released by the body to maintain blood sugar. Over time, this can lead to adrenal fatigue.

For some, after the early low-carb ketogenic “honeymoon” wears off, they a return to feeling sluggish, unfocused, or experience a lull in weight loss. Others notice, in addition, the onset of cold hands and feet, or hair loss. Doctors have advised that these are symptoms of low thyroid function, and really – the only way to reduce such symptoms is to add in more carbohydrates. As a ketogenic diet is often low in fiber rich foods like grain, starchy vegetables or fruit, mild to severe constipation may be the result.

Other issues reported from prolonged ketogenesis include a decrease in bone density, eye problems or even pancreatitis. Women report menstrual irregularities. This is why a Ketogenic diet, while considered therapeutic, was only performed under close supervision, as Dr. Wilder instructed way back in the 1920s.

So is it worth exploring? It’s definitely possible. If you suffer from health concerns that have been shown to improve with this style of eating, please bring it up with your health team and discuss the potential. If you’re looking to lose weight or feel better in your body, it’s one of many paths available to you.

Here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, we want to support everyone to cultivate a relationship with food that provides them the highest form of health and the most joy. We understand that everyone is truly different: they come to the table with different health histories, different mindsets and different needs. And this is how we train our Eating Psychology Coaches in our internationally renowned Professional Training. We encourage you to dive into who you are as an eater and listen to the messages your body is sending to you.

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