It seems like everyone I know these days is trying a keto diet. From beauty YouTubers to friends who believe it will cure their MS, the diet has won a range of followers. There are even products at Whole Foods specifically for keto diets. It almost seems inescapable these days. As someone who is unhappy with their weight, I started looking into it to see if it could be for me.
How does the keto diet work?
When you follow a keto diet, 60 to 80 percent of your daily calories come from fat. Because you are eating more fat and restricting carbs, in about 24-48 hours your body enters ketosis. This is a metabolic process where your body uses fat for energy instead of sugar, which is your body’s preferred source.
Fat metabolism and carbs
By forcing your body to rely on fat for energy, the theory is that you will burn your body’s fat stores. On top of that, many ketogenic dieters report decreased appetites. While no one is sure why ketones decrease your appetite, one theory is that ketosis is the state your body is in during starvation, so your body is protecting itself. Your body also digests fats more slowly than carbs, so you may feel satisfied longer.
Before you start chowing down on butter and bacon, there are some watch outs. You can achieve ketosis at a variety of calorie levels, and your needs will vary from day to day. The one thing you never want to do is stop for an afternoon latte or eat a piece of fruit that wasn’t part of your meal plan. Eating extra carbs will take your body out of a ketogenic state as well as not getting enough fat. You have to do it just right for the diet to work.
Does the keto diet work?
Since so many people start eating this way with the promise of weight loss, it’s important to know that it works before upending your eating habits. And studies looking into this are promising. A study published in Clinical Cardiology showed obese adults who followed a ketogenic diet for six months had significant weight loss — 32 pounds on average — as well as reductions in total cholesterol and increases in HDL cholesterol (the good kind).
A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the weight loss from the first three to six months of following the keto diet was greater than weight loss from following traditional balanced meal plans. In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a study was published showing obese men lost about 14 pounds after following the diet for a month.
Should you try a ketogenic diet?
A ketogenic diet could be helpful in treating a variety of conditions and it seems promising when it comes to weight loss. It does come with strings attached.
Keto side effects
There are side effects such as bad breath, headaches, nausea, and fatigue. There is even an adjustment period referred to as the “keto flu”. While it usually passes in 24-48 hours, some people feel the side effects for several weeks. You could feel bloated or constipated and may need to use the bathroom more often because ketosis can act as a diuretic.
As with any highly restrictive diet, you may be missing out on key nutrients and you will need to be supplementing accordingly so you don’t end up severely deficient. If that happens you could risk your ability to stay in ketosis or experience other side effects of nutrient deficiencies such as hair loss and severe constipation.
Long-term weight loss
It may also be risky for long-term effects. All the studies we have are relatively short term and it is possible (or likely, even) that you may regain the weight if you return to your normal eating habits. It has great potential for people with chronic conditions, but staying on the diet long term may make your body sensitive to carbohydrates. There is some hope for people looking to lose weight as research shows that cycles of brief ketogenic Mediterranean diet periods separated by longer periods of the Mediterranean diet over a year helped obese adults maintain their weight loss.
When to avoid keto diets
There are some groups who should stay away from this diet at all costs. If you’ve ever suffered from disordered eating, this diet can bring that back due to its strict rules. Certain medical conditions such as Type I diabetes, kidney issues, Muscular Dystrophy and pregnancy are contraindicated with the keto diet. And that is just a starter list. You should always, always, always check with your doctor before starting a diet. And if you want to try a keto diet, you should seek out a nutritionist or dietician who has experience with this type of diet to ensure you are looking out for your health.
Final thoughts: Fad diets, treating diseases, and what’s right for you
The more I researched, the more I was intrigued. Keto diets have been used as a treatment for epilepsy since the 1920’s (although it fell out of fashion when anti-seizure medications became available). There are neuroprotective effects of the diet that have been observed in sufferers of seizure disorders so experts have been considering this diet for a variety of other neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s or MS. So I was starting to think maybe it might help with my nerve disorder? Unfortunately, there aren’t any human studies at the moment to prove out the theories.
Celebrities love it
But what has most people talking isn’t the potential for it to treat disease, it’s the celebrities who have been singing its praises. Everyone from Kourtney Kardashian to Halle Berry and a variety of popular YouTubers have tried it and claimed it gave them great results.
Weigh potential with your health goals
While this diet has a lot of potential, like just about any other diet, it has a few watch-outs too. I’m not sure if it has reached Paleo or Whole30 level popularity/fanaticism yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets there. The more I looked into this diet, the more I was intrigued and think it might be something that could help me — particularly the rotation with a Mediterranean diet. I think I’m going to talk to both my primary care doctor and my neurologist to see if it something that has potential for both weight loss and nerve health.
Mary Fran Wiley is a well known gluten-free and positive living blogger from Chicago where she writes Curiouser and Curiouser, maintains the Chronic Positivity Project, and has been featured in Allergic Living Magazine, Care2.com and Today.com.