Thinking about trying a keto diet to drop a few pounds before spring? It can be effective, but there are also some concerns about this particular way of eating. Here’s what you should know, and the right way to do it.
Never, have I ever, seen such a diet craze as the keto diet. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. I’m definitely old enough to remember the Zone diet, and Atkins has been around forever. I also seem to recall the cabbage soup diet as far back as high school – especially during prom season. But keto is one that I never thought would last. It is, however, currently trending on Google, and tearing through workplaces like a bad case of norovirus.
Just What is The Keto Diet?
Keto is short for ketogenic diet, and it actually has roots back as far as the 1920s – but not for weight loss. The ketogenic diet was and still is, used to help control seizures in children and some adults with epilepsy. It is in fact, quite successful at minimizing seizure activity, especially in those who don’t respond well to the medications.
Here’s how it works: Your body normally prefers to use glucose as its primary fuel source. That glucose comes from carbohydrates like bread, fruit, beans, starchy vegetables, dairy foods, and of course, sweets, so there’s usually a very ample supply of glucose. In the absence of glucose, blood glucose levels drop, and if it isn’t replenished within a few days, your body is forced to shift its fuel source to fat. One of the byproducts of using fat as fuel is ketones, which are produced in the liver. The cells in your body can use ketones instead of glucose and still function pretty well. In those with seizures, ketones seem to change the way the neurotransmitters work in the brain, and the diet results in about a 50% reduction in seizure activity. Another bonus – people lose weight quickly, at least initially, when they burn ketones.
The catch is that you HAVE to remain in a state of ketosis in order to produce those ketones, and to do that, you have to limit the number of carbs you eat to about 5% of your total calories – or about 30 grams per day for most people. To put that in perspective, one medium apple or 1/4 cup of dry oatmeal has about 15 grams of carbohydrate, so fruit and grains are out, as are all other major sources of carbohydrate. You also have to supply lots of fat, since it’s your only fuel source.
Can That Possibly Be Healthy?
That’s what most dietitians say! We really hate to see anyone cut out entire food groups for any length of time – unless there is a food allergy or intolerance-related reason to do so. We’re also big advocates for a well-balanced diet, and 5% carbs and 75% fat is not what I’d call balanced. Ideally, a balanced diet would have about 50% of calories coming from carbs, 30% of calories coming from healthy fats, and about 20% of calories coming from protein foods.
When you restrict carbs to only 5% of your total calories, there’s NO ROOM for fruit, whole grains, legumes, milk or yogurt. You can also say bye-bye to corn-on-the-cob, winter squash, sweet potatoes, and lots of healthy produce.
There are some health benefits to the keto diet – and I’ve witnessed these first-hand from some of my clients:
- Faster weight loss, at least initially
- Less insulin resistance and Improved blood glucose
- Improved triglyceride levels
- Sometimes, but not always – improved cholesterol (lipid) levels. This one really depends on the fat and protein choices you make, and how your body metabolizes fats.
- Possibly – improved energy and mental clarity
- No hunger!
But there’s also a downside:
Your diet can be too low in certain vitamins and minerals, like vitamin C, beta-carotene, and folate, which are all found in fruits and vegetables; calcium, which is rich in dairy; and electrolytes, because you need more when you’re in ketosis. Keto-friendly foods can provide these but you have to plan well.
Your diet will be low in fiber, and constipation is a common complaint.
Most people experience a few weeks in the beginning when they feel really lousy. It’s known as “keto flu”.
Your meals will get boring after a while unless you really love avocado, salmon, eggs, nuts and leafy greens day after day. Don’t even think about a bowl of strawberries, a baked potato or cereal for breakfast.
There are no good studies on the long-term metabolic effects of a keto diet. While you will likely lose weight, research suggests that in the long-run, weight loss is similar whether you follow a low carb or low-fat diet.
Personally, I have concerns about the long-term impact of eating this way on your gut microbiome. Those healthy bacteria in your GI tract really, really do best with lots of plant foods, and less meat and fat, and they are responsible for a big chunk of your immune system.
Thinking about trying it? Here are a few things to make you more successful
- Work with a dietitian who can help determine your exact calorie and macronutrient needs! You may not need to go as low carb as your office-mate.
- Take any supplements that are recommended, and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Much of the initial weight loss from ketosis comes from fluid loss.
- Incorporate as many plant foods as you can while staying within your carbohydrate goal. Leafy greens, tomatoes, carrots, cauliflower, and asparagus are all low carb veggies and you should include a generous serving with each meal and snack.
- Make sure you’re getting your fat from healthy sources. Skip the butter and use olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives.
- Choose good quality, healthy sources of protein – NO bacon or processed meats. Use organic, free-range poultry, salmon or other wild fish, lean, grass-fed beef, organic eggs, and small amounts of grass fed cheese.
- If you like the way you feel on a keto diet, but you find it hard to maintain, consider cycling on and off, so that you eat more carbs (up to 60 -75 grams/day) a few times each week. You’ll likely still get the benefits, with more flexibility, and without as much of the downside. Cycling will also make you feel better when you’re more physically – your muscles still need that glucose from carbohydrate foods.
- If you’re training for a race or other athletic event, a keto diet will not be your friend, so only try it in your off-season.
- Don’t force it! The most important thing is that you find the way of eating that works best for you. Different people do better with different eating styles, so please remember that just because you know someone who did well with keto, it doesn’t mean it will work for you. The best way to maintain a healthy weight is to eat smaller portions of real, whole foods, follow a diet pattern that works best for you, and get plenty of exercise.
Could you ever stick to a keto diet? Do you know anyone who has tried it successfully?