The Ketogenic (“Keto”) Diet has been rapidly gaining in popularity, and not just amongst celebrities like Hallie Berry, Kobe Bryant, and Kourtney Kardashian, but among the masses.
I could probably name at least 3 people I know who are currently on this diet.
So what’s all the hype about? Is it a fad? Does it work?
It seems everyone who has tried it has successfully been able to lose large amounts of weight and report feeling more energetic and focused. But is it the holy grail it’s made out to be?
What is the Keto Diet?
The premise of the Keto Diet is based on using fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates (“carbs”). Your body and brain prefer to use glycogen as fuel (which is supplied by carbs). In order to get your body to switch its preferred fuel source to fat, you must eat very, very little carbohydrates (approximately 20-50g per day total).
When your carbohydrate stores are depleted your body will go into a state of ketosis, where fat is released from cells and turned into ketones, your body’s backup plan for energy in the absence of carbohydrates.
What Do You Eat on a Keto Diet?
A Keto Diet consists of high-fat, moderate protein, and a minuscule amount of carbs.
A typical keto diet consists of fish, meat, poultry, eggs, oil, cheese, vegetables that grow above ground (especially dark green leafy vegetables), some nuts, and berries.
What You Can’t Eat on a Keto Diet (Not an exhaustive list!)
Bread, pasta, oatmeal, rice, potatoes, hummus, couscous, quinoa, other fruits besides berries, starchy vegetables such as peas, corn, beans an lentils.
Condiments such as ketchup, barbecue sauce, and marinades. Any boxed or packaged snack foods such as chips, ice cream, cookies, chocolate, biscotti, muffins, bagels, pizza, cereal and granola bars are off limits too.
Ketosis is Not a New Idea
I remember first hearing about ketosis years ago when I was just starting to take weight training seriously and thinking about competing. The first serious weight training book I picked up was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding” and I remember reading about how bodybuilders would use a ketogenic diet to get shredded for their shows. They even went so far as to urinate on “keto test strips” to ensure they were staying in ketosis every day! Um, since this idea did not appeal to me in the least I didn’t pay too much attention at the time.
It turns out the keto diet has been around even longer! In the 1920’s, researchers discovered that when their patients increased the levels of ketones in their bodies they experienced fewer seizures.
Ketosis May Help with Insulin Resistance
When you eat any type of carbohydrate – whether it’s a complex carb such as a potato or oatmeal or a simple carb such as candy or a piece of white bread – your body breaks it down to glucose. When glucose enters the bloodstream and blood sugar rises, your pancreas secretes insulin which sends a message to your cells to either use that sugar for fuel or store it. This is how your body works under normal conditions.
The problem is, our standard diet is full of processed, artificial, and modified “foods.” A diet consisting of foods that are highly processed, poor quality, and high in sugar will skyrocket your blood sugar over and over again all day long. Every time your blood sugar soars your pancreas releases insulin to help your cells absorb all that sugar. If there are too many spikes too frequently, over time, insulin resistance can set in.
Insulin resistance simply means your body is ineffective at using glucose. Many health conditions, including diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome, and metabolic syndrome, can result if your body becomes insulin resistant.
Of course, when you follow a ketogenic diet where you are eating very few carbs you will not be mass producing glucose and overstimulating your pancreas to produce insulin.
Also, since dietary fat has a higher satiety factor than carbohydrates, you will stay fuller longer between meals on a ketogenic diet than on a moderate or high carb diet.
People who have tried the keto diet have reported a series of symptoms the experienced during the week or so of the diet known as the “Keto-Flu.” It takes some time for your body to get used to the transition from carb-burner to fat-burner. Depending on how reliant you were on carbs and sugar, you may experience some of the symptoms below:
• Bad breath
• Sugar Cravings
• Brain Fog
Fans of the diet say that after the initial transition their symptoms went away and they felt more energized.
Who Should Not Try Keto?
As with any diet, please be sure to consult with your physician before you decide to try it. That being said, there are some groups of people who should definitely not try a ketogenic diet. Ketogenic diets are not recommended for people who:
• Are currently pregnant or trying to get pregnant
• Are currently nursing or plan to start soon
• Have kidney disease or kidney problems
• Have liver disease or liver problems
• Are under 18 years of age
• Have a history of disordered eating
• Have a history of fainting
*This is NOT an exhaustive list. If you have an existing health condition please consult with your doctor first.
My Problem with the Keto Diet
I’ll admit I had a really hard time finding anyone who outrightly objected to the ketogenic diet. (It seems that Jillian Michaels is not a fan, though!)
That doesn’t exactly mean the keto diet is the golden ticket to weight loss and health. While short-term results seem positive, there are very few studies on the long-term results of this eating style across various populations. There is very little research on the impact on women, especially. Since this style of eating has a huge impact on hormones, I remain optimistically cautious, on how this will all play out over time.
That being said, here are my issues with Keto:
1. It’s extreme.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know that I do not like extreme approaches when it comes to nutrition. Going from eating a moderate or high-ish number of carbs per day (say 250-400g) to 20g is a pretty big dive! The truth is if you’re eating a lot of white-flour foods (simple sugars) and sugary sodas and sports drinks and just cut those out you could also lose weight and prevent the on-going blood sugar spikes and resulting fat storage.
2. It leaves no room for progress.
Most people who try the keto diet experience rapid weight loss in the beginning. This makes sense because when you cut carbs you’re eating fewer calories overall. Also, each gram of carbohydrate comes along with roughly 3-4 grams of water weight. When you decrease carbs, you drop water weight and pounds on the scale.
But what happens when you hit a plateau when you’re on a ketogenic diet? Where do you cut calories from? Protein and fat are essential nutrients so if you take from those sources you are really doing your body a disservice.
3. Where’s the mindfulness?
Staying in a state of ketosis takes an obsessive amount of vigilance. At the end of the day, it is another diet with diet rules. If you slip up and eat too many carbs you may push yourself right out of ketosis. This isn’t a bad thing, but then you aren’t exactly following the plan. Plus, if you kick yourself out of ketosis and try to jump back in you’ll likely have to experience those unpleasant side effects all over again.
Is it sustainable over time? Sure you can stick to a diet and follow the rules and lose the weight but then what? Do you never eat a potato or an apple again?
What I don’t like about the keto diet (and most diets in general) is the insinuation that some diet plan’s man-made rules are more intelligent than the wisdom of your body.
4. What about your micronutrients?
If you’re not eating carbs you’re not eating fiber which could impact digestion and upset your microbiome. You could also end up lacking vital micronutrients. As with any eating regime that advises eliminating an entire food group, you will have to be extremely careful with your food choices and quantities so that you don’t become deficient in certain health-promoting nutrients.
Common potential deficiencies include magnesium, potassium, sodium, and B vitamins.
A Better Alternative? – Carb Cycling
There have been many variations of diets that work on the same principle as Keto, including Atkins and Dukan, and even intermittent fasting. You see they all are based on the idea that when you burn up the body’s main fuel source (glucose/carbs) you tap into burning fat.
All of these diets “work” in the sense that if you follow them you will lose weight in the short-term but what about the long game?
As far as I’m concerned you can’t go wrong when you focus on eating a whole, quality, minimally-processed diet consistently of foods free of GMOs, dyes, chemicals, and artificial crap. Cutting down on sugar (the average American eats over 66lbs of added sugar per year) will go a long way too.
Fat Loss Happens In Stages
There is a hierarchy to this process. You want to do the least extreme thing you can to coax your body to burn fat and keep everything consistent until that stops working. When that level of calories and exercise stops working you make a small tweak to get things moving again and then keep everything the same until it stops working again.
If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it!
Remember to always get clearance from your physician before you try any diet or exercise program.
I am not a doctor or Registered Dietician, nor do I claim to be. (I am a Certified Health Coach).
As I mentioned, there is a lack of long-term research on the safety of following a keto diet so keep that in consideration.
My take is that the vast majority of people will be able to get great results with a far less extreme approach.
Carb cycling is a great way to enjoy similar benefits and still enjoy a healthy diet. You do not have to go into ketosis to achieve the same benefits. A carb cycling diet involves manipulating carbohydrate intake to tap into burning stored fat.
For someone who eats five meals per day it an example might be:
Day 1: High Carb Intake (Starchy Carbs at all 5 meals)
Day 2: Medium Carb Intake (Starchy Carbs at 4 meals)
Day 3: Low Carb Intake (Starchy Carbs at 3 meals)
It’s much more flexible and realistic for most people because you don’t have to give up healthy carbs indefinitely. You also don’t have to be perfect! We naturally eat different amount each day so you can take a more mindful approach and eat the types of foods you naturally crave.
I’d love to know what your thoughts are on the Keto Diet. Leave your comments below!