When I say “hack” or “biohack,” what does that call to mind for you? Taking 20 supplements per day, shining special lights into your ears, stem cell injections? Simpler things like wearing blue light blocking glasses or turning your shower to cold for 30 seconds?
The term has become ubiquitous in modern parlance, to the point where its meaning has become blurred. On the one hand, hacking can be about optimizing—taking your health and fitness to the next level once you have the basics dialed in, or adopting strategies aimed at living well over 100. On the other hand, a hack can also be a shortcut or trick designed to reap certain benefits without putting in the usual work. (Whether that’s a clever maneuver or a form of “cheating” depends on the context and whom you ask.)
Since the keto diet has reached such massive popularity, there’s also great interest in hacking keto. This probably isn’t surprising since a keto diet is more restrictive than other ways of eating. Any tactic that might make it easier would therefore be welcome. Also, there’s a lot of hype surrounding the keto diet right now. Yes, it will naturally attract people who aim to optimize their health and who want to squeeze the greatest possible effects out of keto. And…occasionally it may attract people who are looking for a quick fix rather than a long-term solution. Some will assuredly be set up for disappointment when it turns out that keto isn’t a panacea. Results aren’t always forthcoming on people’s desired timeline, so they look for tricks to kick it into high gear.
As you’d expect, then, there are lots of resources promoting “keto hacks.” Most of these turn out to be basic common sense tips for any diet: set realistic goals, plan your meals, know how to read ingredient lists, find an accountability partner. This is all great advice, but it’s not about keto per se. Likewise, a lot of so-called keto hacks are just the Primal Blueprint Laws: move a lot (don’t be sedentary), lift heavy things, avoid sketchy oils, sleep. Everyone should be doing those things, keto or not.
In my view, a keto hack is a strategy that goes beyond the basics of ketogenic eating (i.e., drop carbs and increase fat) to do one of the following:
Get you into ketosis quickly
Make a keto diet easier and/or more enjoyable
Enhance the effects of ketosis and/or increase ketone levels
Mimic or achieve ketosis without having to strictly restrict dietary carbs
Let’s look at 10 common keto hacks and see how well they jibe with the Keto Reset and Primal approaches.
1. Ingredient Swaps
This one is the most basic, aimed at making keto easier and more enjoyable by taking higher-carbs foods you already know and love and swapping in keto-friendlier ingredients. Think zoodles with pesto and parmesan, almond flour mug bread, cauliflower rice in everything.
This also includes swapping traditional sugars/sweeteners for things like stevia and monk fruit. I’m on the fence regarding the sweeteners. If using keto sweeteners judiciously makes keto sustainable for you, they’re fine in moderation. (Search MDA for articles about the pros and cons of specific options.) However, if they keep your sweet tooth raging and your cravings high, they’re not worth it.
Verdict: Definitely, but be mindful about using keto-friendly sweeteners.
2. Manipulating Your Macros
Once you have the hang of eating basic keto macros, you can choose to strategically manipulate your intake of fat, protein, and carbs. You might want to do this if there’s still room for improving how you feel day-to-day or if you want to make faster progress toward your goals. Dropping dietary fat to lose body fat is one of the advanced strategies described in The Keto Reset Diet. If you’re struggling with hunger, changing your ratio of fat:protein might help. Experimenting with a cyclical or targeted keto approach falls into this category as well.
Verdict: Yes! The Primal+keto approach encourages self-experimentation and finding your personal “sweet spot.”
3. Going Carnivore
More and more people are starting with keto and moving on to carnivore nowadays. For some people it’s about the simplicity—eat meat, don’t eat other foods, done. Other people use carnivore as the ultimate elimination diet because they are desperate to solve the mysteries of their gut or other health issues that paleo/Primal/AIP/keto couldn’t fix.
The jury is still out on whether the carnivore diet is safe long term. As with keto, it surely depends on how you implement it. Are you truly eating nose to tail—organs, skin, blood, glands? That’s very different than only eating ground beef and ribeye. Personally, I doubt that it’s optimal compared to a diet that is at least somewhat omnivorous, but we need more data. Furthermore, I haven’t seen evidence that it’s superior health-wise to Primal+keto for the general population. Of course, if it profoundly changes an individual’s health for the better, that’s a different story.
Verdict: As a short-term experiment, sure. As a long-term diet, I’d need a good reason. (Not wanting to make a salad wouldn’t be good enough for me.)
4. Measuring Ketones and/or Blood Glucose
This falls into the category of self-quantification—not exactly a hack so much as a tool that biohackers use to track how their bodies respond to different stimuli. For individuals who are dealing with medical issues for which blood sugar regulation or ketone levels are important, measuring is a must. For the rest of us, tracking can be a useful tool, especially to see how these markers are affected by specific foods or quantities of foods. Some people simply like gathering data, and that’s cool too.
Just remember that higher ketone levels are not in and of themselves the goal (except in specific medical situations). Ketone and blood glucose levels do not directly predict weight loss or other outcomes, although they can give you some clues about what’s going on in your body.
Verdict: A useful tool for learning about your body, but not necessary if you’re doing keto for general wellness or weight loss. Subjective measures often suffice.
5. Incorporating MCT Oil
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) can be especially useful for supporting a keto diet and are traditionally used in keto fatty coffee recipes. MCTs are digested differently from other fats, going directly to the liver where they can be converted into ketones. The increased ketone production is probably why some people report experiencing greater mental clarity or appetite suppression when they incorporate MCT oil into their diets. Research also suggests that MCTs increase the thermic effect of food and promote greater body fat loss, a benefit to those hoping to lose weight with keto. They might also positively affect gut health.
Because MCTs can raise ketones even when consumed alongside high-carb foods, using MCTs might allow you to still reap some of the benefits of ketosis on higher-carb days. MCTs can also be used alongside intermittent fasting to enhance ketone production and stave off hunger. (Mark’s official decree about whether MCT oil breaks a fast: “technically yes, but realistically no—and it may even enhance your fasting experience when consumed in moderation.”)
On the other hand, an over-reliance on fatty coffee can crowd out more nutrient-dense breakfast options, and MCTs are still calories (though energy efficient ones). If your weight loss stalls, and you’re consuming a lot of MCT oil, that might be the problem. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Verdict: Thumbs up! Start slowly because MCTs can lead to disaster pants if you’re unaccustomed to using them.
6. Taking Exogenous Ketones
Commercially available ketone salts or ketone esters can be used to raise blood ketones above the levels that are typically achievable with diet alone. They are somewhat controversial in the keto diet world, at least in the corner that we inhabit with the Keto Reset. However, I think the research into their possible applications for medicine, sport, and cognitive performance is intriguing.
I’m less enthusiastic about exogenous ketones as a weight-loss supplement. Yes, exogenous ketones can support a ketogenic diet by suppressing appetite, increasing energy, and being used to extend fasting. They do not, however, cause fat burning and weight loss, which is often how they are portrayed to consumers.
Verdict: Unnecessary and expensive. If you have the funds and want to experiment, by all means do so, but check out Mark’s take on exogenous ketones before you buy.
7. Intermittent Fasting
Keto folks love intermittent fasting. Eating in a compressed window during the day makes it easier to control caloric intake and regulate insulin production over a 24-hour period. Some people notice marked improvements in gut health by giving their guts a break from digesting food all the time. As with MCTs and exogenous ketones, intermittent fasting can “make up” for the effects of a somewhat higher-carb diet, allowing you to loosen the reins on the carb restriction a bit and still be in ketosis some of the time.
Many people also find that they naturally slip into a compressed eating window once the appetite suppressing effects of keto start to kick in. In The Keto Reset Diet, Mark recommends starting by delaying the first meal of the day until hunger ensues naturally. This is a gentle way to introduce intermittent fasting.
There are important cautions here though. Women need to be more mindful about fasting and caloric restriction than men, as do high-volume athletes. Intermittent fasting can be stressful on the body, so if you are already under a lot of stress from work, family, health issues, poor sleep, or heavy training load, now is not the time to start.
Verdict: Yes! Start by building a foundation of fat-adaptation first through Primal and ketogenic eating.
8. Fat Fasts, Egg Fasts, Etc.
None of these strategies is actually fasting for the record. They’re very-low-carb eating plans that allow a very limited range of foods. Usually they’re aimed at breaking through a weight loss plateau. If they work, it’s likely due to caloric restriction (it’s boring to eat a lot of the same food all the time). Otherwise, the purported benefits are the same as the regular ol’ keto diet: reduced appetite, increased satiety, and insulin regulation.
To me, these don’t pass the sniff test of “optimizing health.” Indeed, if you look at the “rules” for any of these, there are always myriad warnings about not doing them for more than a few days, if you have certain medical conditions, or if you are already low body fat. You can break through weight loss plateaus with other methods and still get plenty of nutrients.
Verdict: No thanks.
9. Fasted Exercise
This is another of the advanced strategies in The Keto Reset Diet, meaning it should only be undertaken once you have acclimated to the keto diet. Mark recommends working out fasted to help accelerate the process of fat- and keto- adaptation and to promote mitochondrial biogenesis and autophagy. Research has also shown that fasted exercise can improve insulin sensitivity, fat-burning, and endurance.
Note that while it can yield beneficial hormonal and metabolic effects (and is probably useful for endurance athletes), training fasted might not be optimal for people looking for muscle gains. Also, fasting can increase the stress of a workout, so if you already struggle with excess stress or cortisol, this strategy is probably not for you.
Verdict: Yes, once you are fat- and keto-adapted. You need not conduct all workouts fasted to reap the benefits.
Mark just wrote a very comprehensive two-part series on sprinting (Part 1, Part 2), so I won’t rehash it all here. Suffice it to say sprinting has tremendous adaptive hormonal effects, and it upregulates fat-burning, which all keto folks want. Sprinting can help deplete glycogen stores and get you into a state of ketosis faster. On the flip side, sprinting in a somewhat glycogen-depleted state (as keto folks generally are) enhances the benefits.
You can adapt sprinting to different fitness levels and physical abilities, so don’t avoid sprinting just because you’re not a runner. If you’re stalled out on your weight loss or fitness goals with your current diet and exercise routine, or if you want to take your fitness to the next level, throwing in the (healthy) stress of sprinting might be just the ticket.
Verdict: Go for it!
Final Thoughts: Use Your Brain (AKA Primal Blueprint Law #9: Avoid Stupid Mistakes)
I feel it’s important to mention that you can be successful and happy with a keto approach that involves none of these hacks. Also, of course, some of these might be inappropriate for your unique situation. With any hacks, understand why you are doing them, as well as the possible benefits and downsides. Don’t try something just because you saw it on YouTube or heard about it from your neighbor if it doesn’t feel right to you.
Most of all, don’t get sucked into the “keto harder” mentality where you just keep pushing and pushing your body to achieve better/faster results to the point where you go way past what is healthy or necessary for you. Be mindful about keeping self-imposed stressors in the “adaptive” category, and don’t compare your journey to others’.
Do you practice any of these? Do you have questions on other keto “hacks” you’ve heard about? Share your thoughts below, and thanks for stopping in today.
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life. For more info, visit lindsaytaylor.co.