The Ketogenic Diet, Paleo or Both?

Manipulating Macronutrients...

Join Coach Tonda today, as she shares some insight and answers your questions. Grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. This is a long one, and worth the read!


Weight-loss clients want to follow ‘something’. Something proven, with instant results. They often hold an image of themselves based on ‘successful’ celebrity-someones. Sometimes they’ll relate success stories of friends who’ve paid a high price for rapid weight-loss on a supervised ketogenic diet intended to drop pounds fast. Others rave about people they know who live the Paleo lifestyle.


They ask you to help them lose weight fast. Shizzam! Epic failure.


They beg you for something extreme. Next month: Boom! No client.


As wellness coaches and educators, it’s our responsibility to explain that branded diets are rarely sustainable, and that the path to complete wellness is in understanding physical and emotional nourishment. We need to understand some basics—covered in this article—in order to forge great relationships with our clients. In order to educate others on wellness, we need to maintain our knowledge base. With that in mind, here’s an interesting lesson in anthropology and chemistry.


Genuine Paleolithic?


Can we really eat like our ancestors?


Until twelve to fourteen thousand years ago the world was in the Paleolithic era—one that encompassed over two-and-a-half million years.


It’s difficult to comprehend that enormous time span, let alone follow the variety and availability of regional foods. More profound is that, for a major portion of that era, we were not even the humans we recognize as ‘each other’ today. Paleolithic times included Homo sapiens’ predecessor, Homo habilis.


It is only in a basic way that today’s ‘Paleo lifestyle’ is connected to our ancestors. The common thread? Eating food available in natural form.


This is an important factor to share with your clients so that they can appreciate that the Paleo concept—also called the Stone-age or Caveman diet—is modern interpretation. No, we cannot eat exactly like our ancestors. Yes, we can avoid processed foods (our ancestors didn’t have it, and we can choose not to purchase it). And we can source the most natural products currently available, just as our ancestors did.


And there are other significant differences: our ancestors, mostly frugivores, filled up on carrion, bugs, and whatever could be found or caught easily. I suspect today’s Paleo crowd would not find this an appetizing concept.


Todays’ Paleo lifestyle plan is based on foods that, theoretically, would have been available to Paleolithic man—vegetables, fruit, nuts, roots like carrots, and meats (including organ meats). In general—though each Paleo group has its specific list, it excludes legumes, salt, potatoes, dairy, grains, alcohol, coffee, and refined sugar, as well as processed foods of any description, including processed oils.


But, Paleolithic humans ate whatever was available; they didn’t have a shopping list. And they did eat tubers (like potatoes) and grains (predecessors of the grains we have today). Those tubers, comprised of stored energy in the form of complex carbohydrates, were an essential part of the Paleolithic diet. Legumes acted as easily storable protein sources for winter when hunting and gathering yielded little or no fresh foods.


Tubers and legumes helped to replenish glycogen stores in the muscles to ensure there was ready energy when needed—the cleanest burning fuel (they have no ketones) and are really the only thing that can replace that stored glycogen when it’s used up.


Carbs also provide fuel for the brain and nervous system, which could explain why there was such evolutionary progress during this period, when they went from using bone tools and rudimentary stone tools to complex stone tools (plows, grain grinding stones) in the Neolithic era.


So, the answer to ‘can we eat like our ancestors?’ is that we can eat a varied diet of natural sourced food that is currently available. Choosing Paleo should include a willingness to understand that the Paleolithic era spanned such a vast amount of time that the diet went through many modifications.


The Salt of the Earth


Another aspect of Paleolithic groups that lived near the sea was the use of salt. It was regularly used as a preservative, particularly for dried or cured meats to last through winter, as it was easily attainable by allowing sea water to evaporate. Although our modern consumption of sodium may be too high, it’s more the type of sodium than the amount that is problematic. Sodium erythorbate, sodium sulfate, sodium sulfite are often used in highly processed or artificially preserved meats. Sodium is an electrolyte that is required for proper use of water in our bodies, but processing causes a ‘backwards’ ratio of sodium to potassium compared to natural unprocessed foods.


Lastly, and absolutely noteworthy, is that Paleolithic populations moved about; they didn’t even use animals for transport. Contrast this with our own limited movement. Today it’s not as much our consumption of carbs that is an issue, but the lack of activity.


Scientific Breakthroughs


Nutritional anthropologists have noted that a high protein, high fat, low carb diet had shown a reduction of epileptic seizures. Therefore, as science progressed, the ketogenic diet was developed in a way to chemically communicate with the brain in the interest of reducing seizures. The ketogenic diet was not originally designed for weight loss.


Flash forward to the twentieth century—1924 to be exact, when it was documented that a ketogenic diet made a remarkable impact on children with epilepsy.


Later, in the mid-1990s, the ketogenic diet was ‘rediscovered’ when a Hollywood producer achieved remarkable results for his son with epilepsy. From this, Charlie’s Foundation was formed to renew scientific interest in the possible benefits.


Because this diet involves high fat and adequate protein, with little or no carbohydrate (the glucose that would be derived from dietary carbs is absent), fats are broken down by the liver into fatty acids and ketone bodies. These ketones are then used as a replacement fuel, especially for brain and nervous system function, which normally relies purely on carbohydrates. A resultant condition, known as ketosis, was found to reduce the frequency of seizures in children and, amazingly, this benefit continued even after discontinuing the eating regimen.


The diet was originally designed to provide just enough protein for growth and repair, and overall calories adequate to maintain normal weight for the individual’s height and build. The ratio of fat to protein was about 4:1. As anti-convulsive drugs became available, the diet lost popularity, possibly because food choices were limited.


And it had its drawbacks: constipation (for about a third of those following it), due to a required limitation of water, but certainly aggravated by lack of dietary fiber. (Water was increased later in the plan because of the increased likelihood of kidney stones.)


How Ketosis Works


Ketosis is a state that occurs when there are not enough calories from carbohydrate sources (or calories in general) to support the energy production processes of the body. The body will then convert fat to fatty acids, which muscles can use for fuel, and the ketone bodies which replace the carbohydrate fuel for brain and nerve tissue. These tissues cannot normally burn anything but carbs for fuel; however, the body will always adapt to allow it to function as close to normal as possible.


Exercising for long periods of time can put us temporarily into ketosis, which is why cardiovascular training is so efficient at reducing fat stores on the body.


But, ketosis, over a long period of time, can cause a buildup of excess ketones, which are highly acidic and can change the pH balance of blood. Left untreated or unresolved, it can lead to coma and death. Diabetics are at greatest risk for ketoacidosis, as their ability to utilize insulin and glucagon to regulate blood sugar is disrupted.


Most of the fats consumed during these periods of high intensity ketogenic dieting have been known to come from high-fat meats, dairy, and butter—known as LCTs (Long-chain triglycerides). Today, modified coconut oil, known as MCTs (Medium-chain triglycerides), is used as it has less negative impact on the body when consumed in large amounts. MCTs are much more likely to become energy than to store as fat, and because they come from coconut, there is no cholesterol.


While fats can burn for fuel, cholesterol cannot, and when the majority of calories comes from certain fats, the level of dietary cholesterol will be far higher than required; a great deal of it will find areas within the cardiovascular system to deposit, eventually causing blockages that may lead to a heart attack and/or stroke.



Cue the Marketing Giants and Opportunists


Post scientific discovery—especially with the rise of the Atkins diet of the 1970s, the weight-loss industry became more lucrative than ever.  


Like all low-carb diets, Atkins restricts the consumption of dietary carbs, particularly from easily digested and absorbed sources such as grains and grain products, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. These diets do allow for highly fibrous carb consumption such as salad vegetables, but rely largely on fats and proteins from meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, nuts, and seeds.


Even in the Atkins diet, the purpose is to put the body in ketosis, but in this case, only the ‘induction phase’ truly induces this state. As time goes by, carbs are reintroduced until the subject is eating about the same amount of carbs as anyone else.


Beyond Atkins, some of the popular weight-loss diets that promote this process are Paleo, and Low- or No-Carb diets, The Zone (40-30-30), and The Dukan Diet.  They are somewhat similar in food choices, at least at the beginning, and in their purpose, although Paleo claims some differentiation from the rest; considered by its followers as a long-term lifestyle.


You and Your Client: Successful Relationships


Ultimately, there are nutritional pros and cons to the modified version of Paleolithic eating, and to supervised ketogenic plans. The big pro is that the focus is on whole foods and eliminates processed foods.


But we do not live in Paleolithic times where we expend vast amounts of energy. We don’t have complete access to pure foods. Add to those facts that we have a ‘con’ in terms of trickery: the diet industry itself, and a ‘con’, as in a negative, which is that a pure ‘diet’ requires a level of commitment that not everyone is willing to extend.


While many of us in the fitness industry are willing to be more extreme in our practices, both nutritionally and physically, generally our clients are not.


We MUST allow for the fact that, for most people, extremism will not be sustainable, and can cause obsession about perfection of food choices; the perfect recipe for multiple failure. We must encourage realistic goals that are completely achievable.  


Even if clients are willing to be extreme long-term, we have to consider whether they have a family, and whether their family members would be willing to buy in. If not, we’re asking clients to prepare separate, multiple meals, which is likely to affect their success.


Educating our clients to the origins of Paleo, the exploitation of ketosis by fad plans, and helping those same clients understand healthy and realistic choices is a huge responsibility. It’s especially difficult when the average client wants an instant fix, and compares themselves to underweight and underage fashion models for products promoted by a billion dollar industry focused on selling the impossible, and consistently doing nothing to promote positive self-image or true wellness.



All foods are essential

—even Paleolithic man ‘got’ that on some level


It would behoove us to ensure that we encourage our clients to get ample activity and to balance calories between different types of carbs, fats, and proteins. Reducing processed foods is always a valuable step, but we must allow for those days when convenience, or even just preference that day, will be a factor.


Let’s not counsel clients into obsession and unrealistic behavior: let’s encourage them to make informed decisions, to understand the marketing angle of quick fix diets and, mainly, let’s invest in reality and support them to do their best MOST OF THE TIME and not get hung up on expectations of perfection.



Tonda McGillis has a Bachelor of Applied Science in Therapeutic Nutrition and is a Registered Orthomolecular Health Practitioner.  She received her Bachelor degree in 2000 from the Edison Institute of Nutrition.


She is a canfitpro PRO TRAINER providing PTS, FIS, HWL and CPR-AED programs and exams and works with Andrea Thatcher as an Associate PRO TRAINER offering courses and exams across Calgary.



Reach out to Tonda with your Nutrition Questions or comments -


Join Tonda for her next Nutrition Certification Program - Healthy Eating and Weight Loss in Calgary.

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