If you’re wondering whether you need to take supplements while starting or maintaining a keto lifestyle, we have good news. The ketogenic low-carb diet is actually very nutrient-dense when done correctly. Almost all nutritional needs can easily be met through what you eat while you work to stay in a state of ketosis. Still, sometimes supplements help or are even required to optimize the health benefits on the ketogenic diet, depending on your circumstances. Read on to learn everything you need to know about whether you need to take supplements on your keto diet.
How to Get All Your Required Nutrients Through Diet
As we said above, you can get most of the nutrients you need from the high-fat keto diet, if done correctly. What does “correctly” mean? Simply put, it’s a clean, mostly whole-foods diet focused on healthy fats and proteins and low-carb vegetables as well as keeping your ketone levels up.
Healthy Fats and Proteins
Healthy fats, which are the foundation of a keto diet, contain fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and are extremely nutrient dense. They often come in the form of animal-based foods (think meat, fish, dairy, all of which also contain protein). But not all animal fats are ideal. When choosing animal or even plant-based ingredients, it’s important to pay attention to food quality and reach for organic, grass-fed, and pasture-raised products. For example, grass-fed and pasture-raised animals and fatty wild-caught salmon are not just void of hormones, antibiotics, and other undesirable factory-farming elements, they’re also higher in healthy essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids, which in turn fuel the body with high-quality nutrients.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important because they help keep the body in an un-inflamed state. Other foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids include mackerel, oysters, sardines, anchovies, flaxseed, chia seed, and walnuts. Seaweed and algae are also important sources of omega-3 fatty acids, especially for people on vegetarian or vegan diets*. Seaweed and algae are among the few plant groups that contain both DHA and EPA (types of omega-3 fatty acids that reduce inflammation and risk for chronic diseases). The more nutrients you can get from the foods you’re eating the better, especially because it’s best to get your omega-3 fatty acids through food, rather than taking an isolated supplement. (Nutrients work in a synergistic way, meaning, they work together. So taking an isolated supplement is less effective than getting nutrients from whole food.)
*Due to the lack of healthy animal fats on a vegetarian diet, it’s hard to get all the fatty acids you need as a keto vegetarian, and it’s significantly harder for keto vegans. If you’re vegan and keto and want to ensure optimal health, you may need to take an animal-based supplement, such as fish oil. We know, it’s far from ideal, but science shows that there’s no better way to ensure you get enough Omega 3s.
The keto diet also allows for lots of wholesome, low-carb vegetables / keto-friendly foods such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, eggplant, cauliflower, green beans, and peppers. (Get a complete list of keto-friendly fruits and vegetables here.) Many of these vegetables contain fiber, vitamins, and important minerals, so it’s important to include vegetables in your ketogenic diet to ensure you are getting adequate minerals. Again with vegetables, quality matters. Choose organic vegetables if possible, in order to avoid pesticides and herbicides, which can block nutrient absorption and increase the need for supplements. For a guide to produce with the most and least amounts of pesticides, check out EWG’s 2019 Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen.
Supplements Worth Considering for a Keto Diet
Although we recommend getting most of your nutrients from a healthy whole food keto diet, there are some specific supplements that are helpful (and a couple that may even be necessary). Here are our top supplement suggestions when following a keto diet and why you might need them:
Salt: A Keto Essential
Just as we have spent years wrongly demonizing fat while we loaded up with sugar, salt has also long been a scapegoat. Meanwhile, salt is a very important electrolyte that helps with nerve conduction and maintaining balance in fluids surrounding your cells.
On keto electrolytes are especially important because the keto diet is naturally diuretic and thus, salt (electrolytes) is easily depleted, as is the amount of water your body retains (i.e. low levels of electrolytes can cause dehydration of body fluids). (Keto flu symptoms like cramping / muscle contraction or muscle weakness, leg cramps, irregular heartbeat or heart palpitations, brain fog are often side effects of salt/hydration depletion.)
Why does keto cause water and sodium loss or electrolyte imbalance? When you are on a ketogenic diet, the body uses body fat and fat from your diet rather than blood glucose (blood sugar) as your primary energy source. With less carbohydrate intake and less sugar to process as a fuel source, less insulin is produced. Insulin is needed for processing carbohydrates. However, very low carb equals less insulin production, and less insulin means the kidneys release more water, thus causing more trips to the restroom and the flushing out of electrolytes. With lower insulin, we run the risk of lower sodium (salt), and the undesirable, subsequent effects, including headaches, drowsiness, low energy levels, irritability, muscle cramps, and even nausea and constipation.
The good news is it’s easy to combat low sodium. Just be sure to drink lots of water and add a pinch of Himalayan salt or sea salt (preferably not table salt) to your food and water. (These salts generally don’t contain anti-caking agents that can include chemical compounds, some of which are known toxins.)
It is also perfectly fine to start supplementing your electrolyte intake/sodium levels to make sure you get enough electrolytes and promote rehydration, especially when you’re first starting the ketogenic diet. But don’t look to common electrolytes like electrolyte drinks like Gatorade and other sports drinks or even coconut water, which are not low-carbohydrate keto friendly. Instead, you can replenish with sugar-free powdered electrolyte supplements to make sure you get enough sodium and maintain good levels of electrolytes. You can find a lot of good electrolyte replacements online and in health food stores.
Magnesium: Because Everyone Needs More
Another mineral that most people can benefit from is magnesium. Magnesium is known as the “calming mineral,” and it’s responsible for over 300 enzymatic functions within the body, including the beating of our heart and flexing of our muscles! Ideally magnesium should be consumed from foods. Oysters, mussels, pumpkin seeds, and avocados are great, keto-friendly sources of magnesium, as are leafy green vegetables, all of which are allowed on a keto diet.
However, due to modern farming practices, our soils, and thus vegetables, are becoming more and more depleted of this important mineral, so it’s easy to experience magnesium deficiency. Luckily, there are many forms of magnesium supplements out on the market, magnesium glycine, magnesium citrate, and topical magnesium, to name a few, and sometimes it takes trial and error to find the form that you respond best to based on your bio-individual needs. Magnesium glycinate is magnesium bound with glycine, which makes it more easily digested (less digestive distress). Magnesium citrate comes in powder form and is taken mixed in water. Some people respond well to this form, others may experience digestive issues (bloating, gas). Topical magnesium is massaged into the skin, bypassing the need for digestion altogether.
Trace Minerals: Cover All Grounds
We’ve already talked about how embarking on a keto journey can throw electrolytes out of balance, especially early on in your keto transition. But there’s more to know here. It’s called trace minerals. Ideally these various minerals should come from your food first and foremost. But to be sure, it doesn’t hurt to take a trace mineral supplement, which typically contains a blend of over 72 trace minerals, including sodium, potassium, calcium, copper, iron, zinc, magnesium. Trace mineral drops trace mineral drops can be added to water to help boost our mineral consumption while keeping the body properly hydrated. Minerals can also be obtained in a pill form. Trace minerals can be especially helpful for ketogenic athletes who quickly burn through minerals due to high-volume activity.
Prebiotics and Probiotics For Healthy Digestion
When following a keto lifestyle, people tend to cut way down on vegetables in order to keep carbs low. However, vegetables contain prebiotic fiber, and prebiotics help to feed our beneficial gut bacteria (probiotics). Probiotics keep your gut in a healthy balance, which helps to ease digestion.
The best way to get beneficial prebiotics in your diet is to get your daily carbs through vegetable sources and eat these vegetables raw. Probiotics can also be found in fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi, which are fermented cabbage (typically found in the refrigerator section of the grocery store). Fermented vegetables do contain carbs that you will want to include in your macros, so be sure to read labels and factor those carbs into your daily plan. Also, keep in mind that a small amount of fermented vegetables still contains billions of prebiotics and probiotics. You only need a fork full of kimchi on the side of your meal, or a shot glass of kombucha.
Taking a prebiotic and probiotic supplement may be helpful as well, especially if you don’t have the palate for fermented vegetables. There are many types on the market (both in liquid and pill form). Some brands contain both a prebiotic and a probiotic together, making for one less supplement to take. Be sure to read labels. Some forms of probiotics contain added sugars.
Digestive Enzymes to Help Adjust the Body to Processing Fats
Although we are perfectly designed to digest and assimilate copious amounts of fat, many people transitioning into a keto diet are not used to digesting fat. The Standard American Diet, which is high in processed carbohydrates and low in quality fats, tends to make our bile (produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder) thick and sludgy. This can make it more difficult to digest and assimilate fats and to get all the nutrients we need from them into the body. Ideally, we want our bile thin and flowing, making it easier to process fats.
Taking digestive enzymes such as Digest Gold by Enzymedica can help break down healthy fats and ease digestion, so the body can adjust to a higher fat diet. There are also many brands of digestive enzymes designed especially for those who follow a keto lifestyle. These are typically capsules taken before meals. Eventually, through consuming healthy fats, such as grass-fed ghee, grass-fed beef, wild fish, avocados, and coconut oil, fat digestion will occur more naturally and the body will be able to process these fats easier.
Supplements for Vegetarians and Vegans
Studies show that vegans are not capable of getting proper omega-3 fatty acids through their diet and that vegetarians can, but are often deficient. It’s recommended that vegans and vegetarians incorporate a fish oil supplement and vitamin K2 and B12, derived from animal rather than plant resources, to enhance the Omega 6:3 ratio. Apps like Cronometer can help you assess your nutrient intake. You can learn more about these apps here.
Bottom line? Here at Keto-Mojo, we believe in getting as much of your nutrients from quality, whole foods as you can while eating to burn fat, stay in ketosis, pursue weight loss and metabolic health, promote overall wellness for your body and nervous system, and optimal muscle function and body functions, or all of the above. But sometimes you need a little help, and the above supplementations are great places to start. Combine them with a quality, fat-burning keto diet and you will not only look and feel better, you’ll also discover just how delicious a quality, healthy life can be!
Regardless, it’s always a good idea to consult your primary care physician/healthcare provider, nutritionist, or dietitian before starting any new dietary practice.
- Cliff J., Harvey, D.C., & Schofield G.M. et al. (2018). The use of nutritional supplements to induce ketosis and reduce symptoms associated with keto-induction: a narrative review. Peer J., 6: e4488. doi: 10.7717/peerj.4488
- Guo, W., Nazim, H., & Liang, Z. et al. (2016). Magnesium deficiency in plants: An urgent problem. The Crop Journal, 4(2), 81-91. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cj.2015.11.003
- Quinten, T., Philippart, J.M., & De Beer, T et al. (2014). Can the supplementation of a digestive enzyme complex offer a solution for common digestive problems? Arch Public Health. 72(Suppl 1): P7. doi: 10.1186/2049-3258-72-S1-P7
- Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets.
- Long-chain n-3 PUFA in vegetarian women: a metabolic perspective.