This New Weird Diet Might Actually Be The Best One For Fighting Inflammation
Editor’s note: Will Cole, D.C., is a longtime member of the mbg family (he’s in the mbg Collective and is even a class instructor!). His new book, Ketotarian, is all about marrying a ketogenic and vegetarian, vegan, or pescatarian diet for exponentially greater health benefits. Here, he explains what the ketotarian diet is and why it’s such a powerful inflammation fighter.
After years of seeing patient after patient struggle through countless health problems, I have been able to see firsthand just how powerful food can be in either fueling disease or helping you reach optimal health. I have seen where trendy diets fail and where they succeed. And it's for that reason that I think it's about time to dump diet dogma and food fads for good and put together a plan that will truly help your body thrive in an age when health problems continue to skyrocket.
We're in the age of inflammation.
Inflammation can be found at the root of almost all modern-day health problems, including heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune conditions. An estimated 50 million Americans have an autoimmune condition, and that is not including the millions more that are on the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum; someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds, and one in two men, and one in three women, will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. While this is common, this is certainly not normal.
It's important to understand that autoimmune disease—and any other type of health condition—doesn't just pop up out of nowhere one day. It starts with the slow burn of inflammation and can continue on for years, pushing you in the direction of disease. And what you eat can make a huge difference.
Meet the ketotarian diet.
At its essence, a ketotarian diet is a plant-based version of the trendy ketogenic diet, which has been shown to enhance brain function and stabilize blood sugar by providing your body1 with a more effective and sustainable form of energy (ketones) instead of quick-burning glucose from carbs and sugar. The conventional ketogenic diet can be extremely heavy in meat and dairy and doesn't take into account the sensitivities that many people have to this food group—not to mention, it can ostracize anyone who would rather follow a more plant-based diet. The ketotarian diet, on the other hand, leverages all of the benefits of eating a high-fat diet without the often-inflammatory effects of dairy2 and conventional, processed meats (which have been linked3 to cancer when consumed in high amounts).
So why is this combination of diets so potentially powerful? A ketotarian is able to take advantage of the benefits of eating plant-based while avoiding the common mistakes I see many well-intentioned vegans and vegetarians make. At their core, plant-based diets can lead to more environmentally friendly eating habits and can have intensive detoxification properties4, help fight cancer5, and also keep blood sugar under control6. However, in my clinic, I see far too often that many people who choose to eat more plant-based actually become carbatarians, living on bread, pasta, and other grains, along with beans and soy for protein, sometimes without even realizing how much they are relying on these food sources. The result? Severe deficiencies of vital nutrients and inflammation.
That's why a ketotarian diet makes it easier to create a plant-based food plan that's full of healthy fats, clean protein, and colorful, nutrient-dense vegetables. Since it's low-carb, moderate protein, and high fat, you're able to transition your body from a sugar burner to a fat burner and put your body into a state of ketosis—just like a conventional ketogenic diet but with a plant-based twist.
For those who want to truly geek out, in my new book, Ketotarian, I share all the cool sciencey details of a plant-based ketogenic diet. But the basic principles are simple:
- Eat real food.
- Keep your carbs low.
- Keep your healthy fats high.
- If you eat a nonstarchy vegetable, add some healthy fats.
- If you eat a healthy fat, add some nonstarchy vegetables.
- Eat when you are hungry
- Eat until you are satiated.
Healthy, plant-based fats are found in foods like coconuts, avocados, olives, and nuts. In terms of protein, seeds and nuts provide a great source of protein without the problems of soy (like hormone disruption) and legumes (like gut-irritating lectins), and carbs are found in low-carb, yet nutrient-dense, vegetables like dark leafy greens.
Why the ketotarian diet is so good at fighting inflammation
Research7 has shown that specifically eating a high-fat diet devoid of plant fiber actually increases inflammation. By eating ketotarian, the idea is you no longer have to worry about whether or not the foods you're putting into your body are going to throw you into an inflammatory state.
Here's why: By putting your body into a state of ketosis through a ketotarian diet, it is able to reduce inflammation by up-regulating the Nrf-2 pathway that is responsible for antioxidant gene induction, as well as turning on genes responsible for detox pathways in addition to cell function and inflammation. When the Nrf-2 pathway is activated, it calms inflammation and activates the powerful anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-108 and down-regulates pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Simply put, putting your body in a fat-burning state of ketosis soothes inflammation.
Also, the ketones produced by your body when you are in a ketogenic state have additional inflammation-fighting abilities. Beta-hydroxybutyrate activates the uber-important AMPK9 pathway to reduce inflammation through inhibiting inflammatory Nf-kB pathways in the body. I know this is a lot of science, but simply put, putting your body in a fat-burning state of ketosis soothes inflammation through a variety of pathways in your body.
Here's what a day on a plate looks like.
Here's what the ketotarian diet looks like in practice. Of course, it's slightly different for everyone, but this is how a typical ketotarian day in my life might go:
If I am not intermittent fasting, I like to start my day with a fat-loaded smoothie to wake up my brain. I stick with a green smoothie low in sugar with spinach, full-fat coconut milk, a small handful of blueberries, half an avocado for creaminess, and a tablespoon of chia seeds for even more healthy fats and some protein.
Easy to make-ahead and warm up at work, a good zucchini noodle bowl with a homemade olive basil pesto makes for a simple, yet nutrient-dense, lunch.
Tacos are my love language, so chances are you'll find me eating some lettuce-wrapped roasted cauliflower tacos for dinner—heavy on the guac and detoxifying cilantro.
Overall, ketotarianism is a practical and sustainable way of eating through its ability to limiting cravings through fat-adaptation, which is a major reason diets fail. Whether you want to be completely plant-based or add in meat every so often, ketotarian is a great home base. Of course, as with any major dietary shift, it's important to talk to your doctor to make sure you're choosing the best foods for your body.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He has holds a level 2 Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) certification. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting.