The ketogenic diet is a high fat, very low carbohydrate, moderate protein diet that has gained a ton of attention in the past year for its weight loss benefits. The diet involves drastically reducing your carbohydrate intake, which puts your body in a state known as ketosis.
What is Ketosis?
Ketosis is a metabolic state in which your body utilizes fat as its primary fuel source.
When glucose, the building block of carbohydrates and preferred fuel source for most cells in your body, is severely limited, levels of the hormone insulin drop and fatty acids are released from fat stores in a process known as lipolysis. These fatty acids are then transferred to the liver, where they are converted into ketone bodies (or just ketones). These ketones provide energy for the body in the absence of glucose.
Benefits of Keto
Even though this article is titled “Keto Isn’t For You”, the ketogenic diet does have it’s benefits. Studies have suggested that keto can help individuals lose weight, treat neurological diseases such as epilepsy, aid against metabolic syndrome, and more. Furthermore, individuals have also reported greater cognitive function while on keto, though these are primarily anecdotal with little scientific evidence to back the claims up.
Now you’re probably wondering: if studies have linked these benefits with the ketogenic diet, why am I suggesting that keto isn’t for you?
I don’t think that keto is an inherently bad diet. It can most definitely help a specific subset of the population. For example, those with autoimmune conditions should steer clear of trigger foods like gluten and lectins, which are found in carbohydrates. However, it just doesn’t make sense for the majority of the people. Before I explain why, let me address what I believe is the biggest misconception surrounding the ketogenic diet.
Faster Weight Loss
For those of you who jumped on the keto bandwagon in the past couple of years, it was most likely because you heard that keto was a great tool for weight loss. The ketogenic diet can aid weight loss in the short term because it’s so black and white: eat proteins and fats, don’t eat carbs. It’s much easier to understand and implement than proper nutrition principles — nobody has time to learn about omega 3 to 6 ratios and how foods affect inflammation in the body.
However, multiple studies have shown that while the ketogenic diet does lead to weight loss, it is not significantly greater than that of a calorically equivalent, higher-carb diet. This is due to the concept of energy balance — if you expend more energy than you consume, you will lose weight; if you consume more energy than you expend, you will gain weight. Simple as that. Of course, there are other factors that can affect one’s weight loss journey, but you cannot escape the fundamental principle of energy balance.
Now you may be thinking, “But Daniel, keto turns me into a fat-burning machine!” and this is exactly where I think many people are mislead.
Ketosis is described as a metabolic process in which your body burns fat as its primary energy source. This description leads people to believe that upon entering a state of ketosis, fat will just magically “melt” off the body. Yes, you’ll see the a drastic drop on the scale in the first couple of weeks, but are you sure it’s all fat?
On the ketogenic diet, people see a major drop in weight when they first begin the diet, leading them to believe that they’ve burned a ton of fat off their body. However, this large drop on the scale is mainly due to water retention. When you eat carbohydrates, your body stores them as glycogen and each gram of glycogen is associated with 3–4 grams of water. As your body burns through its glycogen stores during the initial phase of keto, the water attached to the glycogen is lost as well which results in a large drop in body weight. So yes, you’re losing a lot of weight in the initial phase of keto, but most of it is just water that your body has been holding on to. This is why your weight can drastically fluctuate by several pounds throughout the course of a day!
Now I’m not saying that keto does not increase your ability to burn fat; it does, just not in the magical, overnight way we think. The FASTER (Fat Adapted Substrate use in Trained Elite Runners) study performed at the University of Connecticut has shown that keto-adapted ultra-endurance athletes have higher rates of fat oxidation than those consuming a high carb diet. Basically, the keto-adapted athletes burned more fat for energy when performing the same amount of exercise. Sounds like these results contradict everything I just said right? Not quite… these athletes consumed a ketogenic diet for an average of 20 months. 20 MONTHS!!! My question to you is: can you really adhere to it for that long?
For individuals whose primary goal is weight loss, the ketogenic diet is simply far too restrictive. Sure, you might be able to restrict carbs for a month or two and lose a couple of pounds, but is it truly something you want to be doing for months, or even years, on end? Are you willing to give up the oh-so-delicious bread basket just so you can stay in ketosis?
Most of you who have given keto a shot probably jumped straight from your previous diet, loaded with starches like pasta, rice and bagels, to the ketogenic diet. This is a recipe for disaster. For some reason, people seem to only look at the benefits of a diet on paper — it’s always about which diet works best, not which diet works best forever.
All diets are at least somewhat restrictive by nature, but the ketogenic diet eliminates an entire macronutrient. Yes, carbohydrates aren’t an essential macronutrient and you hypothetically could live the rest of your life without consuming a single gram of carbs. However, they make up a large portion of most cultures’ every day foods. Personally, I could never imagine cutting rice out of my diet simply because I grew up eating it almost every single day — it’s a part of who I am.
By eliminating carbs completely, you severely limit your food options and begin to develop a poor relationship with food. You crave the foods you know you can’t eat, which wreaks havoc on your mind. You become both the prisoner and the prison guard and, in this scenario, the prisoner always escapes. It’s not that carbs are SO appetizing that you lose complete control and consume everything in sight, it’s the breaking free from restriction that creates a binge mindset. One day, you tell yourself “just a bite won’t hurt”. That one bite turns into two, two turns into three, and before you know it you’ve annihilated two pints of Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked. You feel terrible for caving in, so you go back and restrict even harder in an attempt to make up for your sins… and so begins the diet-binge cycle. As I’ve mentioned before, I did not have a good relationship with food when I began my journey. I’ve been through these diet-binge cycles, and I can tell you it’s not a fun or ideal way to live.
I do still believe that there is a time and place for the ketogenic diet. Outside of its medical applications, keto can be beneficial to endurance athletes looking to maximize their performance as detailed in the University of Connecticut’s FASTER study. It can also be used in the short term to help people manage their blood sugar and increase insulin sensitivity. If you have a solid grasp on your diet, you can even experiment with it just for fun! However, long-term restriction of carbohydrates can lead to health complications such as low thyroid, increase cancer risk, worsened diabetic health, and more. Now there are variations of keto that help avoid some of these problems, but most think of the ketogenic diet as ‘no carbs’ and that is what this article is focused on.
Success is built from small habits that you form over a period of time, and adopting keto just to lose weight simply isn’t sustainable for most people. If your goal is long term weight loss and overall health, I’d suggest that you steer clear of the ketogenic diet.