Earlier this year, the statuses began popping up on my newsfeed: “Keto friends, you have to try this snack!” Or, “Hey, Keto friends, any recommendations for creamer?”
My interest was piqued. I knew the basics behind the ketogenic diet — by severely restricting carbs, your body goes into a state of ketosis in which it burns fat for energy. But beyond that very rudimentary science, I wasn’t sure of the specifics. And then there was my biggest question: should I try it?
An exchange with New York City-based dietitian Brigitte Zeitlin gave me my answer. In short, it’s not for me.
“As a registered dietitian, I would not recommend this diet for weight loss,” said the owner of BZ Nutrition. “If you find that it works for you personally, then do you! But, from a medical professional standpoint, it is my job and responsibility to evaluate the research and long-term risk factors of this plan, and as it is now, those results do not support this as a lasting healthful approach for weight loss.”
How the keto diet came to be
Originally, says the pro, the diet was created “as a medical nutrition therapy diet to treat children with seizure disorders.” Generally administered under strict medical supervision, it throws the body into a state of ketosis by limiting carbohydrates to about 5-10 percent of your daily calorie intake.
Since our bodies are designed to run mainly on carbohydrates, notes Zeitlin, “restricting them forces the body to find another source of energy to keep your organs functioning, which is what is happening when you are in ketosis.” In that state, our bodies burn up glycogen — the glucose stored in muscles — rather than the glucose that’s usually ready available from a constant stream of healthy carbs such as fruit, vegetables and grains.
How a keto diet works — and why it might be problematic
The reason it helps some people lose weight, explains the expert, is because it’s incredibly restrictive. Typically, following this diet means your 5-10 percent of carbs come from vegetables and very little fruit and that you avoid grains all together. The rest of your intake is 20 percent protein (think: chicken, turkey, fish, seafood, eggs, steak, and pork) and 70-75 percent fat (butter, ghee, avocados, coconut butter, coconut oil, olive oil, MCT oil, nuts, seeds, and nut butters).
By contrast, your average low-carb diet still lets you consume 30 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates. “Anytime you are removing food groups or limiting them so drastically, you are inherently cutting calories,” explains Zeitlin. “And that is why you are losing weight.” She also notes that carbohydrates contain more water than proteins and fat, “so by removing them from your diet, you are likely losing water weight, not actually true fat that will result in long-term sustained weight loss.”
Along with dropping pounds, she says, you could be missing out on key nutrients. “I would be concerned about the mineral and nutrient deficiencies like iron, zinc, potassium, folic acid, beta carotene, and magnesium that may be coming along with it,” says Zeitlin. She also notes that a yearlong study showed that those who followed a ketogenic diet had an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. And there are other less severe, but very unpleasant potential drawbacks such as weakness, fatigue and terrible breath and B.O. Lovely.
Also, as mentioned, it’s incredibly restrictive, which mean it can be incredibly tough to maintain. And if you stop, your body is likely to binge on all the things it’s been missing — like the pleasure of having both apples and berries in the same day. “As soon as you re-introduce a well-rounded diet back into the mix,” says Zeitlin, “you gain the weight back.”
But if you still want to try it…
That being said, if you’re following the ketogenic diet and feel energized, satiated and empowered by your weight loss, then by all means, make it work. Just be aware of the risk factors and, says Zeitlin, “aim to eat the highest amount of carbohydrates you can, giving yourself the most fruits and vegetables you can get in during the day.” For fats, stick to heart-healthy sources such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, fatty fish and shellfish, choose lean pieces of meats “and ditch the bacon and processed meats.”
If you’re looking to get your fittest sans carb cravings, Zeitlin advises taking a peek at the Mediterranean or DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets that utilize whole foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables, grains and healthy fats.
“They may not be as celeb-chic or ‘grammable,” she admits, “but they are healthy, they work, and most importantly they last long-term with research-backed evidence.”