Every January, we’re told that detoxes, diets, and a new gym membership are the key to a successful new year. It seems as though everyone’s trying to shave off the pounds as quickly as possible, and whatever diet can promise fast weight loss is the one they’re willing to try. Enter: the ketogenic diet. The ketogenic (often abbreviated to just “keto”) diet promises health benefits from weight loss to increased mental focus. But is it backed by science? Should you jump on the bandwagon or steer clear? Let’s dig in.
What is the ketogenic diet?
The ketogenic diet consists of an eating pattern that’s high in fat, moderate in protein and low in carbohydrates. It’s typically rich in foods like eggs, meats, nuts, butters, cheeses, seeds, oils and few low-carb green vegetables. It does not allow fruits, most vegetables, grains, potatoes, sweets, or other carb-rich foods. One common distribution is eating 5% of total calories from carbs, 20% from protein, and 75% from fat. This only allows about 20 to 50 grams of carbs per day! The overall premise of the ketogenic diet is to produce ketone bodies, which are metabolites of fatty acids, and use them instead of glucose to fuel your cells. The ketogenic diet was first adopted as a treatment for people with epilepsy in the 1920s, since it was shown to reduce seizure activity in some patients. Today, most people opt for anti-seizure medication (because the diet is challenging to adhere to), but some still use this diet to help manage their condition.
How is it supposed to work?
Let’s zoom into the GI tract for a minute. When you eat a carbohydrate, which are found in anything from oatmeal to soda to tomatoes, it is broken down into glucose. The main role of glucose is to supply energy for all of our bodily processes. Our bodies are actually a lot less discriminatory toward the source of glucose than we might think — it uses the carbs from a tomato, a cracker, or a jellybean the same way: to make energy! (Of course, there are different benefits of a tomato versus a cracker or jellybean, but that’s a discussion for another day). We store glucose in a few different ways: as glycogen (long chains of glucose) in the liver and muscle tissue and extra as fat in our adipose cells.
Glucose is the primary fuel for pretty much all of the cells in our body. Our brain, central nervous system, and developing red blood cells prefer glucose over any other source. When you are exercising or haven’t eaten in a while, your body will breakdown its store of glycogen for quick energy.
What happens when you run out of glycogen? Great question! If a person doesn’t replenish their glycogen stores, their body will break down protein and fat for energy. The problem? Brain cells can’t use them. That’s where ketones come in. When there are no more carbohydrates left to provide energy, the body will start to produce ketone bodies, which can provide energy for most types of cells. As ketones are produced, a build up of them in your body is known as ketosis.
But why isn’t it that simple?
A couple reasons. When losing weight (whether on the ketogenic diet or any other restrictive diet), our bodies react as if we are starving and hold onto whatever nutrients are given to it. This mechanism has served us for hundreds of years through periods of scarcity or famine. A lack of consistent energy slows our metabolism because our body wants to do one thing: keep us alive. A slowed metabolism is also why it’s hard for people who restrict their intake to continue to lose weight past a certain point or maintain their current weight loss long-term.
Moreover, there are some confounding variables worth noting when on a ketogenic diet. First, cutting out an entire food group will consequently reduce your intake. Yes, you can eat more protein and fat, but these nutrients are more satiating and less likely to be overeaten than carbohydrates. To put in simpler terms: you could probably eat 3 bagels before you ate 3 steaks or 3 avocados! Additionally, avoiding carbs may also leave you lacking some key nutrients, like the vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables.
Furthermore, the weight loss is probably not permanent. The ketogenic diet may help you (temporarily) lose weight, but the odds of it staying off are slim. Storing glycogen requires water, and once our glycogen stores are depleted (which happens during ketosis), rapid loss of “water weight” can occur. Once you refill the carb deficit, that weight may quickly come back.
And as if all that’s not enough, the ketogenic diet can damage your relationship with food. Dieters often only consider the nutritive components of certain diets, while ignoring that food was not only made for energy. Food is rooted in tradition, joy, and satisfaction, and restriction leaves some people with psychological damage. Restriction often leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with food, anxiety around eating, interference with social events and mealtimes, and an increased risk for eating disorders.
Overall, there is still a lot of research to be done on the effects of the keto diet. It’s important to be very thorough in researching your eating plan before adhering to something that calls for such extreme measures.
A better option? Find an eating style that is sustainable, enjoyable and nourishing.
It is possible to find a balance between all of the noise we constantly hear about food. A great way to start would be to try to get in tune with what foods your body is craving and why you might be craving them. Weight is a determinant of health, but it’s not the only one. Our advice is to focus on incorporating wholesome, healthy food while also acknowledging that an indulgent treat is part of life. It’s time we stop adhering to these rigorous rules of diets and begin to develop our intuitive eating skills so we can respect our body and all it does for us, not just judge it for its size.