Every January, we are told that detoxification, dieting, and a new gym membership are the key to a successful new year. It seems like everyone is trying to lose weight as fast as possible and any diet that can promise rapid weight loss is the one they are willing to try. Intro: the Ketogenic Diet. The ketogenic diet (often shortened to just “keto” or “keto”) promises health benefits, ranging from weight loss to increased mental focus. But is it backed by science? Should you follow the crowd or stay away? Let’s dig deeper.
What is a ketogenic diet?
The ketogenic diet consists of an eating pattern that is high in fat, moderate in protein and low in carbohydrates. It is generally rich in foods like eggs, meats, nuts, butters, cheeses, seeds, oils, and some low-carb vegetables. It does not allow fruits, nor most vegetables, grains, potatoes, sweets or other carbohydrate-rich foods. A common distribution is eating 5% of total carbohydrate calories, 20% protein and 75% fat. This only allows 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day! The general premise of the ketogenic diet is to produce ketone bodies, which are fatty acid metabolites, and use them in place of glucose to feed cells. The ketogenic diet was first adopted as a treatment for people with epilepsy in the 1920s, as it was shown to reduce seizure activity in some patients. Today, most people opt for seizure medications (because dieting is a challenge to meet), but some still use this diet to help control their condition.
How is it supposed to work?
Let’s get closer to the gastrointestinal tract for a minute. When you eat a carbohydrate, which is found in anything from oatmeal to sodas and tomatoes, it breaks down into glucose. The main role of glucose is to supply energy for all our bodily processes. Our bodies are actually much less discriminatory, than we might think, regarding the source of glucose – it uses the carbohydrates from a tomato, a cookie, or a jelly bean in the same way: to create energy! (Of course, there are different benefits of a tomato versus a cookie or a jelly bean, but that’s a discussion for another day.) We store glucose in different ways: as glycogen (long chains of glucose) in the liver and muscle tissue, and extra, as fat in our fat cells.
Glucose is the main fuel for almost every cell in our body. Our brain, central nervous system, and developing red blood cells prefer glucose over any other source. When you exercise or haven’t eaten in a while, your body will break down its glycogen reserve for energy quickly.
What happens when you run out of glycogen? Big question! If a person doesn’t replenish their glycogen stores, their body will break down protein and fat for energy. What is the problem? Brain cells cannot use them. This is where ketones come in. When there are no more energy-providing carbohydrates left, the body will begin to produce ketone bodies, which can provide energy for most types of cells. As ketones are produced, the accumulation of ketones in the body is known as ketosis.
But why isn’t it so simple?
A couple of reasons. By losing weight (whether on the keto diet or any other restrictive diet), our bodies react as if we are hungry and cling to the nutrients that are given to them. This mechanism has served us for hundreds of years through periods of scarcity or famine. Constant lack of energy slows down our metabolism because our body wants to do one thing: keep us alive. A slowed metabolism is also the reason why it is difficult for people who restrict their intake to continue losing weight beyond a certain point or to maintain their current weight loss in the long term.
Additionally, there are some confounding variables that are worth noting when using a ketogenic diet. First off, eliminating a whole food group will reduce your intake. Yes, you can eat more protein and fat, but these nutrients are more satiating and less likely to be consumed in excess than carbohydrates. To put it more simply: you may be able to eat 3 bagels before eating 3 steaks or 3 avocados! Plus, avoiding carbohydrates can also leave you without some key nutrients, like the vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables.
Also, weight loss is probably not permanent. The keto diet can (temporarily) help you lose weight, but the chances of you staying slim are slim. Glycogen storage requires water, and once our glycogen stores are depleted (which occurs during ketosis), rapid “water weight” loss can occur. Once you fill in the carbohydrate deficit, that weight can quickly come back.
And as if all of that wasn’t enough, the keto diet can harm your relationship with food. Dieters often only consider the nutritional components of certain diets, while ignoring that food was not just made for energy. Food is rooted in tradition, joy and satisfaction, and restriction leaves some people with psychological harm. Restriction often leads to unhealthy food concerns, eating anxiety, interference with social events and meals, and an increased risk of eating disorders.
Overall, there is still a lot of research to be done on the effects of the keto diet. It is important to be very thorough in researching your eating plan before adhering to something that requires such extreme measures.
A better option? Find a style of eating that is sustainable, enjoyable and nutritious.
It is possible to strike a balance between all the noise we constantly hear about food. A good way to start would be to try to tune into the foods your body is craving to eat and why it might be craving them. Weight is a determining factor in health, but it is not the only one. Our advice is to focus on incorporating healthy and wholesome food while recognizing that indulgent pleasure is part of life. It’s time for us to stop complying with these rigorous dieting rules and start developing our intuitive eating skills so that we can respect our bodies and everything it does for us, not just judge it by its size.