Everything you ever wanted to know about food but were afraid to ask.
On the surface, groups such as carbohydrates, fats, fiber, and even protein may all seem pretty straightforward. But scratch below the surface and these terms are often misunderstood or used in the wrong context.
Our first example is “fruitsandvegetables.” This isn’t a typo; it’s written that way because people often refer to them as if they were the same thing. Fruit gets people into trouble because of its high sugar content, even more so when it’s been dried out. For anyone looking to follow the ketogenic diet, it may help to think fruit as watery bags of sugar. That “organic” fruit juice doesn’t fare much better which is essentially a form of liquid sugar.
In most western diets, fruits are typically over-consumed and vegetables are under-consumed. This wasn’t how our ancestors ate, back then, eating fruit out of season, would have seen you stoned as a witch, and rightly so.
Today we think nothing of picking up a carton of ripe strawberries in the dead of winter. Which loops back nicely to people eating too much fruit. To be clear, fruit can spike your sugar and kick you out of ketosis faster than a speeding ticket. Yes, berries are lower on the glycemic table, but it doesn’t take too many to put you back on the sugar train. Chew-chew (sorry, bad joke).
When choosing vegetables pay particular attention to their bold colors. As a rule of thumb, any vegetable that has the same color running all the way through it has a higher nutrient density. No really, it’s true.
It’s often said that variety is the spice of life, it’s also pretty good for the gut biome. A nice expression to remember is to try and “eat the rainbow.” Think of red carrots on a plate next to slices of beets with vibrant green lettuce, red onion, and yellow peppers (if you can handle them). As a side note, some may find that too many raw veggies irritate the gut lining, if this is you, lightly cook or steam them. That said, certain “leafy greens” are best uncooked as they can help the body to detoxify.
FATS AND OILS
The ketogenic diet is all about the fat. But there is more to this important nutrient than meets the eye. Straight out of the gate, it’s important to note that not all fats are the same; there are good fats and there are bad fats.
The word “fat” is often used as a blanket term that does a great disservice to this important nutrient. Over the years, fat has been demonized, I’m sure we have all seen those “low fat” labels in the supermarket.
But clearly we need good fat because important vitamins like A, E, D and K are all fat-soluble — simply put, good fats help us absorb those important vitamins. Perhaps this is why Mother Nature hides so much fat in breast milk. Hmm, I see.
Just to keep things interesting, fats can also be split into two more groups containing saturated fat and unsaturated fat. Rather than allowing this to get complicated let’s stick with using the term’s good and bad. What we don’t need are those manmade fats such as trans-fats or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These are “bad fats” and can be found in margarine and vegetable shortening.
Fast food restaurants also like to cook with them because they are cheap. But the body really can’t handle these types of fats and they quickly begin to mess with our chemistry. For any foggy thinkers out there, know that your brain is made up of approximately 60% fat. Trust me, stay away from bad fats. Those mother-fatters will mess with your mind.
Brains do much better with good fats, hence the ketogenic diet is loaded with them. People are often surprised to learn that the standard ketogenic diet or SKD for short, typically contains 75% (good) fat, 20% protein and only 5% carbs.
One of the most common mistakes keto newbies tend to make is thinking that low carb means eating more meat. As you can see from the ratio above, this simply isn’t the case. I know what you are thinking because I had the same thought, where the heck do I find 75% of good fat?
It’s actually not that difficult. You can pick up lots of good fats by eating certain fish, especially wild-caught salmon, (or sardines if you are on a tight budget). Good fat can also be found in raw nuts such as the macadamia nut, and in fatty meats, olives, eggs, and yup, let’s not forget avocados. One medium avocado has approximately 23 grams of fat.
If you find yourself in a bind, more fat can come in the form of coconut cream. It’s sold in a can and has 14g of good fat. Obviously, we want a brand that has no added sugar.
With a little imagination (along with a bit of time in the freezer), coconut cream can almost taste like ice cream. Throw in a handful of nuts (or a few berries from the lower end of the glycemic table) and you have just made a treat that keeps hunger at bay.
Another great source of good fat is a concentrated version of coconut oil, often called MCT oil (Medium-Chain-Triglycerides). MCT oil may also prove helpful with mental clarity. Some folks add it their salad, others add a tablespoon into their coffee. As with anything new, start small and go slow.
For this next good fat, I’m going to break with the standard mantra and also call butter a beneficial fat. I’ll explain the logic of this in a later. The good news is if you are lactose intolerant you may find that butter from pasture-fed cows (such as Kerrygold) is better tolerated.
Cheese is yet another good fat, but those with sensitivities should still avoid it (even if it is pasture-raised). If this is you, be sure to check out goat’s cheese which some people seem to fair much better with.
More good fat comes in the form of omega-3 fatty acids, which our bodies cannot produce. The two crucial ones are EPA and DHA, these are well-known for their anti-inflammatory benefits. If you are trying to limit the number of fish products in your diet because you have concerns about heavy metal toxicity, a good source of essential DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids is krill oil. Generally speaking, krill oil is lower in contaminants.
Omega-3s can also be found in chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts. Pasture-raised eggs have been shown to contain more Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin-A than regular factory-farmed eggs.
This early on I don’t want us to get sucked down an omega-3 rabbit hole as we still have so much to cover. But it’s good to know that a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 is something that needs to be addressed. An incorrect balance may increase inflammation in the body. As a rule of thumb, strive for a balance of 1:1 which is better than an excessive imbalance. Good luck getting there, if you follow the standard American diet (SAD) as it has waaaay too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s. Some estimates put the imbalance as far out as 40:1 in favor of omega-6s. Ahhh, ignorance is bliss, until it kills you!
In the past, people were all a little quick to follow a low-fat diet. Some nutrition experts suggest that the current food pyramid would actually be more beneficial if it were turned upside down. Make no mistake, good fat is important to your health.
Eating more good fat also helps us feel fuller longer. It slows down the absorption of carbohydrates which in turn helps keep blood sugar levels under control. For that reason, diabetics may also do well with the ketogenic diet.
Before we move onto the next food group, I just want to add that the correct way to increase good fat in your diet is by doing it gradually. As with anything new, always start small and go slow (I’ll continue using this term like a broken record because it’s super important). Ultimately, we all have different needs and, for some, consuming too much good fat when the body isn’t used to it can present a new problem — a stressed gallbladder. A good clue for this is usually a pain in the right shoulder. I digress.
Protein is protein, right? Meh, not so fast.
Often times the word “protein” is inaccurately used to describe meat, and even then is applied with an enormously liberal brush. Technically speaking, protein can be found in spider venom, yuk, who wants to put that in a crock-pot?
Also, deep-fried chicken can be called a protein. But let’s not forget that it’s usually fried in rancid oils (bad fat) which can be an instant hit of inflammation-forming free radicals.
Let’s take protein a step further.
Humans and gorillas are genetically very similar; we actually share 98% of our genes with them. An adult silverback gorilla can weigh 500+ pounds and is estimated to be twenty times stronger than an adult man, yet gorillas don’t eat chickens or cows. And yet, gorillas are composed mostly of muscle with a fat content of just 3%.
So where does their muscle-building protein comes from? Well, it’s not KFC that’s for sure. It comes from the sixteen pounds of plants and leaves they eat every single day. Yup, protein can absolutely be found in vegetation. Who knew?
Am I saying we should all become a vegetarian? Nope, never did say that. However, the perception that any diet consisting of vegetables is somehow inferior needs to be challenged. Think about it, the muscle that powers a racehorse is also formed without consuming any meat. As any vegan bodybuilder will tell you, meat is not the only way to get protein.
Again, I’m not attempting to convert meat-eaters into vegetarians or vegetarians into meat-eaters. I’m simply challenging your perception of what protein is.
Bottom line: yes, protein can be found in meat, but not all meats are the same. Keep this in mind as we move through the rest of these food groups. There is always going to be a junk version and a healthy version.
Pasture-raised meat is a term used to describe the way an animal has been raised. It simply means it’s been left to graze as nature intended. When it comes to buying meat, try to support local farmers who allow their animals to be raised on open pastures. If you can’t afford the sticker price of a farmer doing his job right, then the solution is to eat less meat. That’s okay too, but don’t forget, when the animal you eat consumes antibiotics, so do you.
Tip 1 — Always keep meat on the bottom shelf of your fridge, that way if it leaks for any reason it’s not going to drip on your vegetables and make you sick.
Tip 2 — If meat doesn’t smell right to you, get rid of it. Remember the golden rule. If in doubt, throw it out.
FIBER and STARCH
Even though both starch and fiber are complex carbs, they act very differently in your body. If you are looking for something to give you energy, starchy food may help. If you want something filling that isn’t loaded with calories, opt for something high in fiber.
Enzymes in your body can easily break the bonds that form starches, turning them into sugars for energy. But your body can’t make enzymes to break down fiber, so fiber isn’t fully digested — but it does have some health benefits. This would include lowering your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity.
Fiber is important, not least to aid in good digestion. Unfortunately, much of the standard dietary advice often lists breakfast cereal and whole grain bread as good forms of fiber. While it may be true that the fiber content in these foods is high, so too is the possibility of a reaction, particularly from gluten. Don’t panic, I’ll cover food triggers soon enough.
There are lots of alternative sources of fiber. Quinoa is gluten-free, high in fiber, and has a higher nutrient content than most grains. Oatmeal made from gluten-free oats also has fiber, but be aware that many of the “instant” brands can be loaded with additives and sugar. While standard oats may take a few minutes longer to prepare, they are generally better tolerated. Soaking oats overnight can help turn them into instant oats. In the morning simply strain out the water and replace with warm almond milk.
As a rule of thumb, oatmeal will bump you out of ketosis but that in itself isn’t always a bad thing. Some folks tend to cycle their carbs which means they go full ketogenic followed by a few days of slightly higher carbs. This is also known as the cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD): typically, this is five days keto two days with higher carbs. For me personally, I try to listen to my own body, I kinda get a feel for when I need to carb up and when to stretch it out.
The value of fiber shouldn’t be underestimated because it helps to support your gut microbiome. This is a complex ecosystem of bacteria located within our bodies. The vast majority of the bacterial species live in our digestive system. This is a super interesting area of medicine and perhaps one day I’ll write another book on this very topic. But for now, let’s not bite off more than we can chew (intended pun).
Fiber can also be found in plant foods like vegetables, cooked turnip greens, spinach, beans, chickpeas, lentils, and nuts. For those who can tolerate it, brown rice has more fiber than white rice. If you struggle with bloating from rice it may be helpful to buy “sprouted rice.” There’s a pretty good one sold here in the US called “Sprouted Blonde Gaba Rice” from Planet Rice. I have zero affiliation with this company so feel free to check out other sprouted rice. As always, I’m just trying to save you a little time.
Fiber can also be found in fruits such as avocado, pears, apples, blueberries, and raspberries.
Starches are a complex carbohydrate (I’ll get to those in a moment), so let’s keep this one short and simple. Vegetables high in starches are also generally higher in calories. Starches are found in vegetables such as potatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peas, parsnips, green beans, dried beans, and corn. Side note, some estimates also suggest that 90% of corn is now genetically modified. For some folks, corn is notoriously harsh on the digestive system.
SIMPLE AND COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES
Simply put, we could think of carbs as one or more sugar molecules bound together and then broken down by the body to be used as fuel. ALL carbs turn to sugar, some faster than others.
Carbohydrates (or carbs for short) are found in lots of different foods. They are in fruits, grains, vegetables, pastries, potatoes, bread, and even milk, candy, and soda. Carbs can then be split into two basic groups, either simple or complex. Shall we take a look?
Simple carbs are easily absorbed into the bloodstream because of their simple molecular structure. Think fruit, milk, table sugar, etc. Simple carbs can be thought of as giving you a faster hit of sugar.
Complex carbs have a more complex molecular structure that can take longer for the body to break down into sugar. Think grains, vegetables, potatoes, etc. Complex carbs can be thought of as giving you a slower hit of sugar. So far we have simple carbs and complex carbs, now we need to split them once again into good carbs and bad carbs. I know right, but this bit is super easy.
In the interest of simplicity, let us think of bad carbs as those that have been heavily processed. This would include cereals, crackers, pastries, white bread, soda, etc. Bad carbs are high in calories but essentially low in nutrients.
This now gets easier because it only leaves good carbs. Good carbs are the unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, etc., and are always found in their natural state.
SUGAR AND SPICE
SUGAR is a tricky one because as we learned earlier it can be just as addictive as cocaine! Food manufacturers know this, which is perhaps why sugar is added to everyday items like milk, bacon, bread, and even salad dressing. To make matters worse, you can’t even rely on sugar to be called sugar by the people whose job it is to write the labels.
Here are a few of the common bait and switch terms used for sugar — but there are plenty more! Cane Juice, Corn sweetener, Corn syrup, Dextrose, Fructose, High-fructose corn syrup, Invert sugar, Maltose, Lactose, Sucrose, White sugar, Corn syrup solids, malt syrup, Anhydrous dextrose, yadda, yadda, yadda.
If you aren’t paying attention, all this sugar quickly adds up to a body that can no longer cope. The medical term for that is diabetes. Remember, carbs (and to a lesser degree protein) are also broken down into sugar.
You can find a FULL list of the sugar content of foods in the glycemic index table. The glycemic index table is a value assigned to foods based on how slowly or how quickly those foods cause increases in blood glucose levels. Also known as “blood sugar” levels.
Turmeric is arguably one of the most studied and powerful spices on the planet. Turmeric has been used in cooking for thousands of years. It has a warm, peppery, and bitter flavor and a mild fragrance slightly reminiscent of orange and ginger. The main active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin which has powerful anti-inflammatory effects and is a very strong antioxidant. Turmeric is fat-soluble which means you want to take it with food that has a certain level of fat content. This will allow the turmeric to better absorbed. Turmeric/curcumin has long been studied for its cancer preventative properties. Adding turmeric to your food is easy to do and is thought to have wide-ranging beneficial effects. However, quality is key. Many herbs and spices coming from India and China contain alarming amounts of lead! Keep in mind that the organic label is no guarantee that a product is free of heavy metals, it simply suggests its free of pesticides.
There are lots of herbs and spices with health benefits, enough to warrant a whole chapter on the subject. Given that we still have a lot to cover I’ll just surface brush a couple of them.
Other useful spices known to have health benefits are cinnamon, ginseng, and ginger. Ginger has an astounding number of health benefits. It can aid digestion and speed up metabolism. It’s also antibacterial, anti-parasitic. Garlic is also another well researched antibacterial and anti-parasitic. Due to the high sulfur content in garlic, it can be helpful with detoxification. That said, garlic is also a potent lectin which can be a problem for some individuals.
Try to limit your fish consumption to those kinds that are known to be lower in mercury. Wild-caught salmon from Alaska is a good choice, although any fish with a high selenium content can be consumed in moderation.
Selenium plays a role in counteracting mercury toxicity, something we have known about for more than forty-five years. Sardines fall in the high selenium category, but avoid fish such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish. To be on the safe side, limit tuna to once every two weeks or less.
NUTS AND SEEDS
Be mindful not to consume too many nuts in one sitting. Doing so will almost certainly throw your balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats into a bad ratio. Anthropological research suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1.1.
When it comes to eating nuts, moderation may serve you better than excess. Think how long it would have taken our ancestors to crack open a single nut. Today it’s possible to consume large amounts of nuts because all the hard work of removing the shell has been done for us. Keep in mind that peanuts and pistachios are both prone to mold.
Sprouted seeds are less problematic than un-sprouted seeds. If you are looking for an economical way to bring an abundance of minerals and live enzymes into your diet.
Fermented foods are packed with good probiotics and can help boost the number of good bacteria found in your gut. Fermented foods also have the ability to positively influence the immune system, but it’s better to gradually work your way up. As in the case of candida, too many fermented foods too quickly could hasten a die-off reaction.
Some estimates put the weight of the tiny gut microorganisms at approximately three pounds per person! Given the extraordinary ability of the gut to affect both our physical and mental health, any attempts to influence the gut flora can produce a certain amount of unpredictability. Better to start small and go slow.
Looking at food as a number is too much of a one-dimensional approach to nutrition. Calorie counting fails to take into account the quality of the food because it focuses instead on the measurement of energy.
While it’s obviously important to have enough calories coming into the diet, the obsession with calorie counting has the potential to become counterproductive. Stop counting calories and start counting quality!
RICE AND GRAINS
Rice is a borderline trigger food that some people do okay with and in others can prove reactive. If this is you try giving the rice a vacation for thirty days, and then gradually reintroduce it back.
Grains — Nope, no grains. The ones used in today’s food simply aren’t the same quality they were even thirty years ago. In some remote parts of Europe, you might get away with it, but for the rest of us? Meh, grains have become an ugly form of kryptonite.
The healing properties of vinegar date back thousands of years and were used by the Egyptians and Greeks; even Hippocrates used it.
Apple cider vinegar is great for helping food taste better, it’s also a powerful tonic to keep in the cupboard. Acetate is a molecule found in apple cider vinegar that has been shown to increase metabolism. Acetate is made by good bacteria in the gut and science is just discovering its use in calming down an overactive immune system.
Many of these claims are backed up with legitimate scientific studies and data can be found on sites such as PubMed. From asthma to migraines (and a whole lot of stuff in between), some people report remarkable improvements from using this type of vinegar.
Apple cider vinegar (sometimes called ACV) can also be helpful for detoxing the body and fighting infection. It’s also believed that apple cider vinegar helps the process of digestion become more effective.
Personally, I’ve found ACV helpful with seasonal allergies. I simply added a tablespoon in a small (16oz) BPA-free bottle of water and kept sipping on it until I found relief. To some, I’m sure it’s not going to taste that great, but if you catch allergies early in the season it can be better than itching eyes and sneezing.
Some people report improvement in arthritis, high cholesterol, and even regulating blood pressure. Apple cider vinegar is best diluted in water and drunk on an empty stomach. A good starting point would be a tablespoon in 8 oz. of water. This will also help the minerals in other foods be better absorbed.
For a complete list of effective ACV remedies, be sure to check out a website by the name of earthclinic.com. I used this site often as it’s packed with helpful tips and so easy to navigate.
Salt is often demonized but salt isn’t the problem, very often it’s the type of salt that creates the problem. Regular table salt is heavily processed and usually contains numerous additives to prevent clumping. Regular table salt has fewer natural minerals than Himalayan salt. By comparison, Himalayan salt also tastes better.
Before we end this post, I’d like to encourage you to put what you have just learned into practice. The next meal you eat, take a moment to see which food groups are on your plate. When we are just starting out it’s not uncommon to find our plate stacked with bad carbs, grains, dairy, or fructose in the form of fruit. I know, right? WTF? (Where’s The Fat?)
If this is all new to you then as a basic rule of thumb, try to fill half your plate with leafy green vegetables. This will begin to make you view the remaining on your plate as important nutrients.
What did we learn from this?
Food is divided into different groups and each has the potential to affect the body in one way or another. Remembering that some foods can belong to more than one group.
The important take-home message is that sugar comes to us in many forms, all of which we need to dial down. Good fats, however, are like a long lost friend to be welcomed through the door.
Homework: to help cement what we have just learned, check out this book.