Transitioning to a low carb, ketogenic diet can initially be stressful. You are drastically limiting your intake of carbohydrates, which encompasses a huge variety of foods, many of which contain nutrients essential for optimal mind and body functioning.
The good news is there are numerous nutrient dense, low carb alternatives you can sub in. By taking note of which micronutrients are commonly lacking in the ketogenic diet, you can adjust your low carbohydrate plan accordingly to account for what may be missing.
Micronutrients vs. Macronutrients
All foods contain both micronutrients and macronutrients, which provide the body with the tools it needs to function optimally.
Nutrients needed in large amounts by the human body and are comprised of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. These nutrients provide energy for your body in the form of calories.
Nutrients needed in trace amounts by the human body for normal growth and development, including vitamins, trace elements, phytochemicals, minerals, antioxidants and fatty acids. Micronutrients help slow down the aging process, protect your body from disease and ensure that nearly every system in your body functions properly and optimally.
Micronutrients do not provide energy and thus cannot measured in calories. The Majority of them are not listed on a nutrition label, making them a little more challenging to track.
While all foods contain macronutrients not all foods contain large amounts of micronutrients.
Processed foods contain virtually zero micronutrients and are mainly composed of carbohydrates. These are nutrient poor foods and what I generally refer to as ‘bad’ carbohydrates. They will drastically spike blood sugar and sabotage your health and fat loss efforts.
Foods such as grass-fed beef, organ meats, pastured eggs and leafy greens are exceptionally nutrient dense and each contain a wide variety of micronutrients.
Studies have shown that consuming a complete micronutrient profile, a diet including all of the essential vitamins, will boost cognitive function, improve bone density, decrease the risk of infection and disease and more.
Everyone, regardless of their diet, should consume a variety of nutrient dense whole foods and limit their intake of low-nutrient processed foods to avoid sickness, disease and weight gain.
If you are following a ketogenic diet, be particularly mindful.
I am not implying that a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet is low in micronutrients. However, it can be if you are simply focused on hitting your macros by loading up on butter and bacon or other foods with little to no micronutrient value.
Beyond eating the wrong foods, your metabolism goes through a transition (or induction) phase when initially adapting a ketogenic diet. This may increase your risk for certain micronutrient deficiencies.
Carefully monitoring your micronutrients at the beginning of your low carbohydrate journey, will make you less susceptible to the ‘low carb flu,’ a common side-effect when first lowering your carbohydrate intake.
Micronutrient Deficiencies and a Keto Diet
Knowing which micronutrients you are most likely to need more of on a ketogenic diet will be key to your success.
Sodium is the most common essential mineral and electrolyte that people become deficient in after starting a ketogenic diet.
One of the biggest nutrition myths is avoiding salt (sodium) at all costs. Sodium was previously thought to exacerbate cardiovascular disease but several studies have disproved this.
Sodium is important for controlling blood pressure, retaining normal levels of water in your body and absorbing other micronutrients.
Lowering carbohydrates has a diuretic effect and your body begins to shed water along with essential electrolytes, sodium in particular. If you are an athlete who performs regular strenuous activities, you lose even more sodium through your sweat.
Symptoms of low sodium include:
· Extreme fatigue
· Inability to perform strenuous activity
During the first few weeks on the ketogenic diet it is important to monitor your sodium levels because this is when your body gets rid of the most, especially if you are exercising frequently.
Aim for between 3,000 - 5,000 mg of sodium every day on a ketogenic diet.
Consuming bone broth and adding more salt to your meals will help you hit your daily quota.
As you lose sodium from your body, you begin to lose of potassium simultaneously.
Being deficient in potassium can lead to
· Physical weakness
· Loss in muscle mass
· Skin problems
· Irregular heartbeat and in some cases heart failure
Aim for about 4,500 mg of potassium every day on a keto diet.
Avocado, mushrooms, kale, and spinach are all rich in this vital nutrient.
Magnesium is responsible for over 300 different biochemical functions in the body.
This electrolyte plays an essential role in protein synthesis, the production of energy (ATP), fatty acid formation and cell reproduction.
If you have a magnesium deficiency, you may experience
· Muscle cramps
Aim for about 500 mg of magnesium a day.
Magnesium can be found in Swiss chard, spinach, pumpkin seeds and oysters.
Calcium helps form and strengthen teeth and bones. This mineral further supports blood clotting, nerve cells signalling and blood pressure regulation.
Even though your body holds a large amount of calcium in the bones and teeth, it still needs to be consumed in larger amounts on the ketogenic diet. This is especially the case in the early stages when calcium is flushed from the body along with other electrolytes. Calcium should be consumed along with its co-factors of Vitamins A, D and K2 for maximum absorptions
Aim for 1,000 – 2,000 mg of daily calcium a ketogenic diet.
Cheddar cheese is a great source of calcium but there are many non-dairy sources including almonds, kale, sardines and bone-in canned salmon and broccoli.
There are 7 main types of B vitamins. They are often available altogether in a B-complex supplement.
Since the ketogenic diet relies heavily on consuming large volumes of leafy green vegetables and meat, there is not much concern in terms of becoming deficient in B vitamins.
Here are the most common B vitamins:
Vitamin B1 – Thiamin. B1 is crucial in the breakdown of carbs, fats and proteins. It is essential in the creation of energy (ATP) and necessary for nerve cell functioning.
Vitamin B2 – Riboflavin. B2 helps in processing fats and amino acids as well as converting macronutrients into energy. It can sometimes be an antioxidant.
Vitamin B3 – Niacin. B3 is imperative for cell respiration. It helps release the energy from macronutrients and supports central nervous system functioning, healthy skin, and improves sex hormones and supports memory functioning.
Vitamin B5 – Pantothenic Acid. B5 is a component that helps extract energy from fats. Pantothenic acid also helps produce red blood cells and steroid hormones.
Vitamin B6 – Pyridoxine. B6 is needed for the formation of red blood cells, protein and carbohydrate metabolism, and influences brain processes along with improving immune function.
Vitamin B7 – Biotin. B7 is critical for fat synthesis, amino acid and energy metabolism, and contributes to regulating blood cholesterol levels.
Vitamin B9 – Folate. B9 is required for the formation of red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. Women who are pregnant should consume larger amounts of folate to support foetal nervous system development and cell growth.
Vitamin B12 – Cyanocobalamin. B12 is one of the most well-known B vitamins. It is responsible for mental clarity, formation of red blood cells, and the breaking down of fatty acids to produce energy.
Deficiencies in B vitamins may result in psychological disorders such as depressions, anxiety, anger, confusion and paranoia. It is also linked to symptoms of heart palpitations, insomnia, tingling in the hands and feet and difficulty walking.
Foods high in a variety of B vitamins include:
· Grass-fed beef
· Green leafy vegetables
· Dairy products
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3’s are essential for many processes in the body including:
· Reducing inflammation
· Brain development
· Cardiovascular health
· Transporting oxygen in the bloodstream
· Reducing blood pressure
Consuming several servings of small, cold-water, fatty fish per week (salmon herring, sardines, mackerel) is the most effective natural way to get Omega-3’s into your diet. Many supplement with fish oil pills due to a lack of fish in their diet.
Aim for a daily dose of about 4,000 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids on any diet.
Omega-3’s are also found in pastured egg yolks, grass-fed beef and hemp seeds.
Iodine is a vital mineral for thyroid hormone levels regulation and preventing hypothyroidism, which can cause weakness, skin problems and weight gain.
It is added to processed table salt, when using a more naturally derived salt, you are probably not getting as much as you used to.
Sea vegetables such as kelp are a potent source that have even been used to treat hypothyroidism. Eggs, cheese, tuna and cod are also good sources.
Aim for at least 150 mcg of iodine per day on a ketogenic diet.
Iron is essential for proper growth. It boosts hemoglobin formation, which is needed in order to transfer oxygen in your blood from the lungs to the tissues, improves muscle function, increases brain function and promotes better energy metabolism.
Red meat and eggs are your best source of heme-iron, the most bioavailable type.
Aim for about 8 to 30 mg of iron per day on a keto diet.
Phosphorus, Vitamin A, Vitamin C & Zinc
A well formulated ketogenic diet based on whole, real foods, lots of above-the ground vegetables and well-sourced animal proteins and fats will provide all the necessary requirements for these micronutrients.
Food Vs Supplements
In general, it’s always best to get as many of your micronutrients through natural, whole foods rather than using supplements. Nutrients are most potent when they come from food. Additionally, natural food is accompanied with several nonessential but beneficial components including flavonoids, carotenoids, and antioxidants that aren’t found in most supplements.
Getting your micronutrients from whole foods will help you consume a larger variety of nutrients, fiber and protective substances like antioxidants. Your body also absorbs the nutrients more effectively from whole foods whereas excess micronutrients through supplements are excreted through urine.
Food quality matters, too. The healthier, more organic food usually contain more nutrient density (micronutrients).
Supplements weren’t designed to substitute food, but in today’s environment we are often depleted in larger amounts than we are able to replenish from food alone and even the highest quality food has a lower nutrient profile than in times past. Supplementation is often a necessary part of an optimal nutrition plan.
When Supplements May Be Necessary
While consuming natural, whole foods is the best way to ensure you have optimal amounts of micronutrients in your body, supplements can still play a role in your diet.
Please consult with your health care team, get tested and determine supplements and in what doses will provide you with the most benefit.
You should definitely consider using supplements if you fall into one of the following situations:
· You are pregnant
· You are an adult age 50 or older (any older adults need to supplement with B vitamins)
· You do not get enough sun.
· You aren’t eating enough calories
· You are not eating a wide variety of foods including vegetables, meats, and fish
· You are a vegetarian
· You have a medical condition that affects how your body absorbs nutrients
Micronutrients are Essential for Keto Diet Success
Aside from the initial phase when your body is flushing out essential electrolyte minerals sodium, calcium, potassium and magnesium, the ketogenic diet can provide you with you all of the micronutrients your body needs if you follow it correctly.
Restricting carbohydrates does not mean you will be lacking in certain vitamins and minerals.
Using supplements can help optimize your body in every way but it is encouraged that you try to fill as many gaps in your diet as possible with natural, whole foods.
Avoid consuming your calories from foods that contain little to no micronutrient value. Foods like butter and bacon can fill you up while leaving you with a potential micronutrient deficiency. Consider always consuming organic above the ground vegetables along with your tasty morsels as they have more nutrients, antioxidants, and minerals that are more easily absorbed by your body.
Be sure to check with your doctor for any micronutrient deficiencies but as long as you incorporate green leafy vegetables along with natural, grass-fed meats and avoid processed foods, you should have most of the essential nutrients your body will need to thrive.