In the age of the “obesity epidemic,” more research than ever is focused on determining safe, effective, and long-lasting ways to help prevent or reverse unhealthy weight gain. And studies have found that one possible solution is following a very-low carbohydrate diet called the ketogenic diet.
The keto diet drastically reduces the body’s supply of glucose—which is typically obtained from eating carbohydrate-heavy foods like grains and sugar—instead forcing the body to use fat for energy. That may sound similar to other low-carb diets, but there is one key keto distinction: Instead of a focus on lots of protein, the keto diet emphasizes healthy fats, mostly from keto-approved foods like coconut or olive oil, butter, meat, avocado, and eggs.
For this reason, the keto diet doesn’t just help with weight loss. It’s also been shown to reduce the risk for diabetes or heart disease, protect against certain neurological disorders, and improve cognitive function. But that doesn’t mean that adopting the keto diet will be all smooth sailing, either. For many, the transition from a high-carb diet to one that’s built around healthy fats and plenty of vegetables can trigger some side effects.
If you’re considering adopting the keto diet to help improve your overall health, be advised that you may run into one or more of the following challenges. The good news, however, is that most of these will very likely dissipate within several weeks—or even sooner if you follow my advice.
Because you’ll be eating far less carbohydrates than you’re used to while on a keto diet, you’ll likely also be decreasing the amount of fiber in your diet. This can contribute to various digestive changes, including constipation. To help keep things “moving,” drink plenty of water and make sure to eat a variety of low-carb plant foods throughout the day, especially high-fiber veggies like leafy greens, cooked cruciferous veggies and avocado.
You may also want to supplement with a digestive enzyme, particularly one that contains the enzyme lipase. Lipase is the primary enzyme that breaks down dietary fats, which will help with all of the extra avocado and coconut oil you’ll likely be consuming.
- Low energy
Many metabolic changes need to take place in your body in order for you to switch from using fat for fuel instead of glucose. And while this process unfolds, it’s common to experience periods of fatigue, weakness, and brain fog as your body reserves energy for the aforementioned metabolic processes.
One way to help keep your energy up is to make sure that you’re not dehydrated and that you’re also getting enough essential nutrients, especially electrolytes. Many keto dieters find that adding salt to their meals and having some bone broth on a daily basis helps to restore some of the electrolytes that are lost during ketosis, including magnesium, potassium, and sodium. Bone broth also supplies a number of other important nutrients and amino acids, while decreasing potential side effects like muscle wasting, headaches, cramping, and spasms.
And, of course, you should aim to sleep at least eight hours per night and go lighter on your schedule during this transition period, which should prevent you from feeling even more stressed and run down. If you can’t seem to sleep well, try these natural tips to fall asleep fast, or try taking about 400 milligrams of magnesium citrate before bed.
- Muscle weakness
In addition to feeling more tired than normal on the keto diet, you may also experience decreased strength, difficulty recovering from a tough workout, and/or general weakness. For this reason, I recommend saving any intense training sessions for when you’re feeling stronger and more energized—especially if you’re also dealing with signs of hypoglycemia (another potential side effect of ketosis), which can cause temporary shakiness, lightheadedness, and sweating.
So how can you combat this potential weakness? For starters, be sure to eat enough protein to fuel your body—but not too much. On the keto diet, the total amount of protein needed is not very high, about 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of ideal body weight. If you suspect you’re not eating enough overall, try having more non-starchy veggies and fat, instead of more protein, as an excess can lead to dehydration, mood swings and kidney issues (not to mention bad breath).
To replenish sodium levels—if hypoglycemia is an issue—you might also want to try having a glass of water with about one-quarter teaspoon of Himalayan or natural sea salt salt stirred in.
- Increased cravings
According to a 2007 report that appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “One major advantage of the ketogenic diet is that it allows the calorie intake to be cut drastically without producing ravenous hunger.” So even though your overall appetite may be decreased on the keto diet, the reality is that your cravings for carbs or sugar might not be.
Food preferences and ingrained dietary habits can take some time to change, so it’s expected that you might deal with some temporary symptoms of “withdrawal” as you remove certain comfort foods from your diet. In many cases this might be more of an emotional issue than a physical symptom, so be patient with yourself and remember that your taste buds are capable of changing. Be sure to eat enough calories in general, and allow time for your preferences to sort themselves out, which will happen as you start feeling better overall.
Eating more healthy fats, fiber, and adequate amounts of lean protein will help kick those cravings, as will regular servings of probiotic-rich, fermented foods.
Many people don’t realize just how connected their digestive system is to their nervous system. When your diet changes, so does the production of hormones and neurotransmitters that affect how you feel, sleep and behave. You might notice that for the first couple weeks on the keto diet you’re feeling unmotivated and generally crummy, but this doesn’t mean that the diet is doing harm.
In short, it takes time for your brain to adapt to its new energy source (remember: fat, not carbs), so hang in there. If symptoms like lack of sleep, sluggishness, or lingering headaches are contributing to your poor moods, try getting more magnesium from foods like leafy greens, avocado, and salmon to help. You should aim to eat at least two cups of raw, green, leafy vegetables per day, in addition to other non-starchy veggies that you enjoy.
Also, remember that meditation, exercise, and journaling are great, non-food ways to improve your mood fast.
Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist and author with a passion to help people get well using food as medicine. He recently authored ‘Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and Five Surprising Steps to Cure It’ and he operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites at http://www.DrAxe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DRJoshAxe.