Ok. So at least once a day somebody asks me what I think about the ketosis diet and whether I think it’s a good idea…Here’s the short answer: it’s bullshit, and no, it’s not a good idea for most people. However, in the interest of being a thorough and somewhat balanced source of information, I’ll delve a little deeper into the keto mole-hole. Pull up a chair and get comfy because I’m gonna go into some detail here and give you the long answer now.
I suppose it’s a good idea to start at the beginning: what exactly is this magic load of spunk that people seem to be guzzling up so enthusiastically? It’s very, VERY low carb spunk for starters. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carb diet. Its guiding principle is that our brains – our bodies’ biggest consumer of energy (about 30% of the fuel we take in is used by our brains) can run on either glucose (carbohydrates’ simplest form), or ketones. If we don’t take in enough carbohydrates to fuel our brains, our livers will start producing ketones by breaking down stored fat into ketone bodies – which the keto-converts will tell you, makes it possible for your body to switch its prime energy source from carbohydrates to fat, thereby burning through the fat stores in your body like gasoline in a fire. AND you get to this magical bio-hacked state by eating lots of all the delicious food that most of the other diets tell you to limit: butter, whipping cream, peanut butter, cheese, bacon…easy!
Seriously why are we not all doing this??
Here’s why. Most of you are familiar with the three macronutrient groups (if you aren’t you can learn about them here) and you know that the three need to be somewhat balanced in order to maintain optimal health and performance. The balance is a little different for everyone based on body type, activity level, and personal preference, and it also may be a little different from day to day, but in a nutshell each macronutrient has a job to do: carbohydrates fuel your brain and your physical activities, protein helps your body repair itself and build muscle and other lean tissues, and fat is important for catalyzing nutrient absorption, reproductive health, and joint health. (That’s an overly simplistic Coles Notes version but it’ll suffice for our purposes here. If you’d like more detailed information, here is a good place to start) Now, the primary goal of a ketogenic diet is to effectively eliminate carbohydrates for long enough that the liver starts producing an alternative fuel source that the brain can use to continue functioning during periods of starvation. Sounds sort of like an emergency life support system, right? Right.
So in order to activate this alternative-fuelled life support system, you have to first get rid of the stored carbohydrates in your body, and the quickest way to accomplish that is – you guessed it – starvation. Or fasting – whatever you want to call it. (Ever fasted for more than 24 hours before? It’s not that fun.) If you don’t want to fast, you can stop eating carbohydrates – it takes a little bit longer but at least you get to distract yourself by exploring lots of tasty options that were not available to you on other calorie-controlled diets: peanut butter sandwiches with slices of prime rib where the bread used to go? Yay, sign me up! After about five days of this, the exhaustion and hangriness and brain fog will go away and you’ll start to feel pretty good again at which point you’ll pee on a stick to see if your body is producing the appropriate level of ketones and congratulations, you’re in a ketosis state. At this point you will have dropped some weight as well, simply because without carbohydrates stored in your body, your body won’t be able to retain water either, and you may feel like the water you drink is just running right through you. Your body can remain in this ketogenic state for as long as you can live without carbohydrates…but as soon as you go over the recommended 20g of carbohydrates in a day (for reference, a medium-sized apple has about 22g of carbohydrates), your body will revert to its natural carbohydrate-burning state and you’ll have to go through the five days of misery again in order to re-establish that ketosis. Bottom line: the keto diet is a commitment. It’s a full-time job to maintain. If you are peeing on the stick every day to make sure you’re remaining in this keto state you can make it work, but don’t think that you can have a life outside of your diet plan – no eating out, no going for a beer here and there, no special occasions unless everyone around you is doing keto too.Why on earth would you do this to yourself? Well, lots of people look at the ketogenic diet and think it looks awesome because you can eat lots of fat – specifically lots of fatty foods that would otherwise be something to avoid most of the time. That’s a big selling point…but here’s a bigger one: the keto diet gets you weight loss results really, really quickly. Now before you drop what you’re doing to fire up the fryer and cook that bacon that’s been in the fridge calling your name, keep this in mind: it’s not actual fat loss that shows up right away; it’s water loss. See, for every molecule of carbohydrate your body stores, it has to store four molecules of water. If you use up your carbohydrate stores and don’t replace them, you will have to drop water weight too. (This is usually what happens when people start just about any diet, because most of us eat more carbohydrates than are good for us.) And speaking of carbohydrates…it’s worth considering that lots of foods that are fatty and delicious are also very high in carbs – think chocolate, doughnuts, etc. And lots of high-protein foods like greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and even some protein powders have more carbohydrates than is recommended on the keto plan.
How to execute it then? There are lots of online support groups out there for people who do the keto thang, or if you want to get started on it. There are websites that include meal plans, subscriptions, macronutrient calculators; everything you could want as far as support is concerned. And let’s not forget supplements! There is big money to be made off the people who are trying to simulate normal life while in ketosis and pretend like they are enjoying all the same carb-o-licious foods that the rest of us are.I tried some of the online keto macronutrient calculators to see what they’d recommend for a relatively large 40-year-old woman who has an active job and works out regularly just for comparison’s sake – and I came up with pretty close to the same recommendations every time:
Total Daily Energy Intake: 2054kCal
To compare, the macronutrient split I use right now looks like this, to accomplish the same result:
Total Daily Energy Intake: 2050kCal
Notice any similarities? The daily kCal total is pretty close to the same, but on one plan I can live relatively normally, enjoy a wide variety of foods, and indulge/celebrate/walrus out from time to time. On the other one I’d have to stick to a short, strict list of foods lest I let myself slip out of ketosis and back into my body’s default, carbohydrate-burning state.
Show of hands: how many of you have tried a diet before? If you’re old enough to have been around in the 80’s and early 90’s you’ll remember that most of the “healthy” diet plans recommended a high-carbohydrate, low fat diet – in fact, there are lots of people out there clinging to the idea that eating fat is terrible for you – but if you ever actually did it, do you remember how you FELT? Not awesome, probably…because any diet that advocates for eliminating or drastically reducing any macronutrient is hard to maintain and not going to make you feel very good. Now, people who have accomplished ketosis will tell you that they’ve never felt better…and that may be true, in the moment. But 100% of those people (give or take a fraction of a percentage point MAYBE because I don’t know a single person who has actually done it) end up giving up on it before too long because it’s a veritable tonne of work.
Bottom line? The Keto diet seems easy because it’s simple and it eliminates some of the decision making we have to do from day to day. Unfortunately ‘simple’ and ‘easy’ are not the same…and in almost all cases, the keto diet ends up on the list of stuff that we tried for a while, spent too much money on, lost a bunch of weight really quickly, and then gained it all back (plus a few extra pounds) as soon as the diet was over. DIETS DON’T WORK.
Here’s what I tell my clients about weight loss: if you want to lose weight you have to change how you live. If you want to keep the weight off, whatever you do to lose the weight has to be something you can do FOREVER. There’s no going back to ‘normal’, so you have to find a new ‘normal’ – and the best way to do that is to focus on small habit changes you can maintain for life.