Dietitian Charlotte Martin has answers!
Charlotte Martin, MS, RDN, CSOWM, CPT, is on a mission to educate, inspire and empower through the power of good eats! We’re teaming up with this wellness warrior to answer all of your burning Birch Benders questions.
What is the keto diet?
The keto diet is more than just a low carb diet — it’s a very high fat diet combined with a VERY low carb diet. For example, when adhering to a keto diet, around 70-80% of your daily calories come from fat, 20-25% comes from protein, and just a mere 5-10% comes from consuming carbs.
So, if you’re following an 1,800-calorie diet, that’s only 20-45 grams of carbs per day (most keto “experts” recommend keeping net carbs at no more than 20 grams per day – see “how are net carbs calculated”). To limit carbs to this extent, you’ll have to eliminate grains, starches, most sweets, most fruits, and also alcohol, while sticking with mostly meat, poultry, seafood, full-fat dairy, healthy fats, nuts, and non-starchy vegetables.
How does the keto diet work?
When you restrict carbs—the body’s primary fuel source—to that extent, it forces your body into burning fat and producing ketones — the water-soluble compounds that are produced as byproducts when the body switches to burning fat for energy instead of carbs. These ketones build up in the blood and are transported throughout the body (brain, heart, muscles, etc.) where they can be used for energy. This state is called ketosis.
In order to remain in a state of ketosis, you have to continue to restrict your carb intake. Consuming too many carbs—even if it’s just at one meal—could kick you out of ketosis and cause your body to switch back to using carbs as fuel.
What if I am interested in the keto diet, but don't want to fully commit to it?
If you’re interested in trying the keto diet but aren’t yet ready to commit to it full on, sticking with some of the core keto fundamentals is a great way to start incorporating healthier eating habits into your daily routine.
The keto fundamentals include:
Lowering carb intake: The average American diet is very high in carbohydrates, especially refined carbs. Unfortunately, these carbs often displace other important foods like lean proteins, healthy fats, and produce. Start by eliminating refined carb sources from the diet, such as chips, candy, and white bread/pasta.
Avoiding grains: Although whole grains aren’t bad for you, they aren’t actually necessary in the diet either. You can actually get everything found in grains (i.e. fiber, vitamins, and minerals) from produce. Start by cutting your grain intake in half and exploring veggie swaps, like cauliflower rice instead of regular rice, and zoodles (zucchini noodles) instead of regular pasta.
Avoiding added sugars: Just as with grains, added sugars are also a huge source of carbs in the American diet. Excessive sugar intake is linked to many negative health effects, so try reducing your intake as much as possible. Instead, stick with natural sugars, like the ones found in dairy and milk products. These sugar sources also come with important nutrients such as fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Focusing on whole foods: When possible, center your meals around whole and minimally-processed foods, which includes produce, nuts and seeds, meat, poultry, and seafood. Limiting your grains and added sugars is a great way to cut down your processed food intake.
How can I make the keto diet work for me?
Ready to take it to the next level and give the keto diet a go? Here are my top tips on making it work for you. (Note: Most of these tips can be used for non-keto/general healthy eating as well):
Get educated: Be sure to read up on the keto diet and learn more than just the basics before starting. Examine articles, recipes, books, and listen to podcasts so that you can familiarize yourself with the ins and outs, dos and don’ts. You should also consider consulting with a dietitian prior to starting. A dietitian can help you determine if the keto diet is a right fit for you and your lifestyle, and if so, help ensure you do it correctly.
Give your pantry a makeover: If it’s not there, you won’t eat it. Be sure to remove high-carb foods from your fridge and pantry. The first to go should be ultra-processed snack foods like chips and cookies. You’ll also want to remove (or donate) any high-sugar condiments (i.e. ketchup and BBQ sauce), sweeteners (i.e. honey, maple syrup, sugar), and grain/starch products (i.e. pasta, bread, legumes).
Stock up on keto-friendly snacks(!): You’ll want to have plenty of keto-friendly snacks on hand when “hanger” strikes. Full-fat cheeses, nuts, and our new Keto Cups are the perfect quick snack options for both keto dieters and those just looking to enjoy healthier snacks
Invest in some fun kitchen gadgets: Since you’ll have to eliminate a lot of high-carb, ultra-processed and “quick” foods, you’ll have to cook a lot of meals and snacks yourself. Use this as an excuse to invest in some new kitchen gadgets! An instant pot, spiralizer, and food processor make keto-friendly cooking a breeze, and can also be used for non-keto cooking as well.
Know what to expect: When transitioning into ketosis, you may experience some unpleasant symptoms like nausea, headaches, lightheadedness, dizziness, muscle cramps, and fatigue — typically around the 24–48-hour mark. This is what’s known as the “keto flu”. Don’t worry, it should subside after a week or so.
Listen to your body: Drink when thirsty and eat when hungry. If you feel tired, stressed, or any other negative symptoms (beyond the “keto flu” period), it’s probably a sign that you need to make some adjustments to your keto diet plan (i.e. eat more, consume more electrolytes) or indicate that the keto diet may not be right for you.
Consider tracking: Once you figure out how many grams of carbs, protein, and fat you’re going to stick to, it may be best to measure and track your food intake temporarily. You’d be surprised how many foods contain carbs, and those carbs can add up quickly!
Hydrate: Hydration is especially important when you’re on the keto diet because of the fluid excretion that occurs as a result of lowering carb intake. A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least half your body weight in ounces. For this same reason, make sure to salt your food to get the sodium you need. As your body excretes more water, it also excretes more electrolytes with it. You may even want to consider a keto-approved electrolyte supplement.
Get support from others: Be sure to let your friends and family know that you’re trying the keto diet so they can support you as best they can. Also, there are numerous keto Facebook groups and support forums you can join for motivation, tips, recipe ideas, and support, so take advantage!
Before starting any diet, including the keto diet, I recommend you consult with your healthcare provider to see if the diet is right for you!
What are sugar alcohols?
Sugar alcohols don’t contain the kind of alcohol you’re thinking of. They’re actually a sweet carb made up of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules (but without, the compound that gets you tipsy). Sugar alcohol is found naturally in fruits and vegetables, but the ones you see on ingredients lists (i.e. erythritol) are commercially produced from other carbs like sucrose, glucose, and starch. Because they act somewhat like a fiber and are incompletely absorbed and metabolized by the body, they contribute fewer calories than regular sugar.
Unlike other low/zero-calorie sweeteners like monk fruit and stevia, sugar alcohols do contribute carbohydrates. However, these carbs don’t affect blood sugar like sugar does (see: “How will these cups affect my blood sugar?”).
What is erythritol?
Erythritol is a unique type of sugar alcohol, as it contains fewer calories per gram than other sugar alcohols. For reference: xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram, whereas erythritol only contains 0.2 calories per gram. Also, unlike other sugar alcohols, most of the erythritol ingested is absorbed into the bloodstream in the small intestine, and therefore doesn’t enter the colon (large intestine). This gives it the highest digestive tolerance of all the sugar alcohols, so some people are able to bypass the unpleasant digestive symptoms that normally occur when consuming other sugar alcohols, such as gas and bloating.
Is erythritol safe for my family?
Erythritol is safe for you and your family and does not affect blood sugar and insulin levels. Plus, it could protect and improve oral health, unlike sugar. Erythritol has been shown to help reduce cavity formation, dental plaque and the amounts of the oral bacteria Streptococcus mutans — a major cause of tooth decay.
Are the new Birch Benders cups good for kids?
What I love most about the new Birch Benders cups is how they can be enjoyed by all members of the family, including kids! They’ve got protein and fiber, which helps keep kids fueled and focused. Plus, the sweeteners used in the cups (like erythritol and monk fruit) add the sweetness kids love, but without the sugar high (and subsequent sugar crash) or risk of cavities.
How will these cups affect my blood sugar?
Since our bodies don't have the enzymes needed to break down erythritol (the main sweetener used in these Keto cups), over 90% of it is absorbed into the bloodstream and then excreted in the urine. Therefore, it doesn’t affect blood sugar or insulin levels, unlike regular sugar.
How much erythritol is safe to consume daily?
The FDA does not issue any recommendations for the ADI (acceptable daily intake) of erythritol. However, research has found that the repeated intake of erythritol at a daily dose of 1 gm/kg body weight was well tolerated by humans. For reference, this would be about 70 grams for a 150-pound person.
How are net carbs calculated?
The term “net carbs” simply means the number of carbs in a food that your body can digest and use for energy. Carbs that fall into this category are those that come from starches and sugars. Since fiber isn’t broken down by the body and passes through your gut unchanged, the carbs that come from it don’t count towards net carbs. The same goes for sugar alcohols like erythritol.
To calculate net carbs, simply subtract the fiber and erythritol from the number of total carbs. For example, our Chocolate Chip Pancake Cup contains 15 grams of carbohydrates, 6 grams of dietary fiber, and 4 grams erythritol. 15 g – 6 g – 4 g = 5 grams net carbs.
Do note that some sugar alcohols can count towards net carbs. Maltitol, sorbitol, isomalt, and glycerin contribute about half a gram carbs per gram. So, you would only subtract half of their amount from the sugar alcohol equation. For example, if there were 4 grams of maltitol instead of erythritol in the above equation, you would only subtract 2.
What are your top 5 tips for healthy eating habits?
Here are some of my top healthy eating habits that anyone can use, including those on the keto diet:
- Reduce added sugar intake: Eating too much added sugar—the sugars added to foods/beverages during the manufacturing process—is known to cause negative health effects, like weight gain and increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Instead, focus on natural sugars, like those found naturally in dairy products and fruit. Be aware that fruit is a carb source itself, so you’ll have to limit it while on the keto diet. (Bonus tip: Raspberries are a great high-fiber, low-net carb fruit that keto dieters love!)
- Focus on healthy fats: Contrary to popular belief, fat won’t ‘make you fat’, if you choose the right fats. Healthy fats are super beneficial to your health, and can help lower “bad” cholesterol (LDL cholesterol), increase “good” cholesterol (HDL cholesterol), reduce blood pressure, and can even help with weight loss. Choose mono and polyunsaturated fat sources when possible, such as nuts, avocados, olive oil, and fatty fish like salmon and tuna.
- Eat non-starchy veggies with every meal: No matter what diet you follow, non-starchy veggies are never off limits — they’re usually highly encouraged. Non-starchy veggies give you a lot of bank for your calorie buck, providing fiber and disease-fighting vitamins and minerals for very little calories or total carbs. Plus, they add volume to your meals which can help fill you up. My favorite non-starchy vegetables are spinach, zucchini, cauliflower and bell peppers.
- Prioritize stress and sleep: Alright, so this one isn’t an eating tip, but stress and sleep can certainly affect your cravings and your diet thanks to good ol’ hormones. Stress and lack of sleep can throw your hormones out of whack, cause you to increase food intake and crave unhealthy foods, and even lead to increased fat distribution around your belly. So, be sure to get enough quality sleep (7–9 hours each night) and de-stress regularly.
- Progress not perfection: In nutrition, there’s no such thing as perfection. Whatever diet or eating approach you choose, remember there will be days when things don’t go according to plan and you “get off track”. Shame, guilt, and an all-or-nothing mindset won’t help you get back on track! Instead, talk to yourself like you would a friend — and stop being so hard on yourself!