The Ketogenic Diet: What You Need to Know

If you’re a regular reader of my blog articles (Thanks and I love you!), you may also have noticed that this article has an oddly similar headline to the one I’ve used in some other posts. This is because so many different diets out there, while they may have vastly opposing views (as in, vegan vs keto), both claim the same amazing health benefits for the person who follows their diet. Curious, isn’t it?

The Ketogenic Diet (often just referred to as the Keto Diet) is being promoted (aggressively by some I might add) as the final cure-all for every disease known to man (If you’ve read any of my other articles you’ll immediately know how hard my eyes are rolling right now). Got chronic fatigue? Keto. Diabetes? Keto. Unwanted weight gain? Keto. Cancer? Keto. PCOS? Keto. My goodness what CAN’T this diet do?! Where do I sign up??

It’s true, there are a few medical scenarios where the Ketogenic Diet has shown some promise. It’s been used for children suffering from certain types of childhood epilepsy for quite a few years. More recently there was a study using mice that showed a slowing in brain tumor growth by feeding the mice a ketogenic diet. Does this mean a Keto Diet protects us against cancer? Unfortunately, no. Animal studies do not tell us how something will work in humans. We are not mice. Additionally, cancer prevention and cancer treatment are two very different things. Does it mean that a Ketogenic Diet is good for our brains, because it helped these children with epilepsy? Again, no. These children have a very complicated, unique medical condition. Their brains are not working the way ours do, so a diet therapy for them will not have the same effect on us. People who use these examples to promote a ketogenic diet are extrapolating evidence and really don’t know anything about human physiology (or science, really). Or more likely they’re trying to sell you something.

So, what exactly is the Keto Diet all about? The Keto Diet is a very low carbohydrate diet with a sciency-sounding name. Followers of this diet are expected to consume around 20 grams of total carbohydrates per day (depending on who you talk to). To put that into perspective, one serving of fruit provides about 15 grams of carbohydrates. So if you are going to give the Keto Diet a go, that means no fruit, no milk, no yogurt, and CERTAINLY no grains! A bit of dessert? Hell no! The vast majority of the calories consumed come from proteins and fats. Meat, eggs, coconut oil, avocados, low-carbohydrates vegetables, maybe a few berries if you’re lucky. It can be quite restrictive, and not something most people would want to try and follow long-term. Like so many other “carbophobic” diets, it villainizes carbs as the downfall of mankind, responsible for every disease out there. No matter what diagnosis you have, they promise that depleting your body of carbs is the key to everlasting health.

As an aside- any diet that promotes bacon as a healthy food immediately makes me skeptical, but go on.

How did the Keto Diet get it’s name? Well, when our bodies are depleted of carbohydrate stores (there’s no gas left in the tank), rather than dropping dead we’ve managed to adapt to using backup fuel stores. For us, that is our body fat. We use fat as a primary energy source during rest, with carbohydrate going to fuel the brains cells. In that resting state, each molecule of fat that is broken down requires a carbohydrate molecule to complete the breakdown. You see, the brain runs on sugar (glucose). 24/7 The brain is demanding a constant supply of glucose to keep it functioning optimally. You know when you’re really really hungry and you feel like you can’t focus? It’s because your brain isn’t getting the sugar it needs. That makes some of us (guilty) a little cranky at times…hence the term ‘hangry’.

So, when there’s just no sugar left what’s a brain to do? Find another power source. The brain can’t turn to fat as a whole substance for energy, but it can use something called ‘ketone bodies’. Ketone bodies are by-products of fat breakdown. They can be used for a backup energy source for the brain in a low-carb environment. From a weight-loss perspective this sounds kinda great right? Just eat no carbohydrates, and lose fat FAST!

Unfortunately like all things in life, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are some definite pitfalls when it comes to The Keto Diet, which is why it falls into the category of another fad diet for me, not the “last diet you’ll ever need”

Our bodies do not only use fat for energy when we restrict carbs.

Guess what else the body turns to as a backup energy source when it isn’t getting enough glucose? Muscle tissue. Muscle is a high-maintenance tissue, which means it eats up a lot of energy on a daily basis to keep it functioning. In times of ‘starvation’ (which is exactly the environment the Keto Diet creates in the body), the body will sacrifice muscle tissue before it readily parts with fat. Think of it this way: If you suddenly had your income cut down by 50%, what would you cut from your budget first? Probably not essential things like water or electricity. It’s more likely that the first things to go would be the things that aren’t necessary for basic survival. Our bodies work the same way. In a state of starvation, muscle is depleted to decrease the drain on our bodies fuel stores. Your body doesn’t know you’re just on a short term fad diet, it’s getting ready for a famine. (to read more about the cycle of dieting and it’s negative effects on our bodies, click here)

Reaching a true state of Ketosis is not necessarily quick or easy

How does a person know they’re in ketosis? That they’ve restricted their carbohydrate intake adequately or for enough time? (depending on the amount of gylcogen stores in the body going into a Keto Diet, it could take several days to actually use them all up. Even longer if you’re inactive). The most dedicated Keto-ers will test their pee using dipsticks to measure the amount of ketone bodies excreted in their urine. Honestly, I have people who tell me they don’t have time to meal plan, never mind remember to test their pee everyday. Eating even a small amount of carbs (like in a weekly cheat meat), your body will quickly change gears to use those carbohydrate stores for energy rather than breaking down fat. So if you’re going Keto you need to commit. As soon as you start eating carbs again, you’re no longer in a state of ketosis and it’s back to square one.

The Keto Diet can be REALLY hard to follow, so why bother in the first place?

From my standpoint as a Dietitian, there is nothing inherently wrong with doing a ketogenic diet, aside from the potential hit to your muscle mass that occurs with most fad diets. However, there are some serious risks involved once a person begins to eat normally again so if you are considering trying the keto diet please do so under the guidance of a Registered Dietitian who is experienced in this area. I hope I’ve adequately dissuaded you with my post though!

My perspective is that if you’re going to change the way you eat, it has to be for longer than a few weeks or months. If you can’t maintain the changes forever, then why even bother in the first place? I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine a life without eating fruit, pasta, or birthday cake ever again! My #1 piece of advice for anyone thinking of starting any “quick weight loss” diet is: Do you think you can do this diet for the rest of your life? If the answer is no, it’s time to re-evaluate the plan and modify so a balanced approach is taken from the get-go. Otherwise what’s the point? You’ll forever be stuck in the cycle of dieting, where it’s on and off the bandwagon. You’re either fighting to lose weight, or giving up and gaining. We think we need a “kickstart” to motivate us and get the weight loss ball rolling, but in reality if we just did the healthy things from the beginning we’d be in a much better place 6 months or a year down the road. How many people do you know who did a fad diet, then managed to maintain their weight loss just by healthy eating and exercising- no more shakes, pills, or restrictions? If you do, I’d honestly love to hear from you!

Many testimonials I see from people swearing the Keto Diet was their saving grace makes me wonder; What was their diet like before? Would simply cutting back on processed foods, cooking more from simple ingredients, and not eating large portions have done the trick too? Why do we feel the need to take things to such an extreme? We could fill up our plates with vegetables and have a smaller portion of grains and meat, but instead we have this black and white, all-or-nothing approach to our eating. We can’t find balance and moderation, we’re either eating NO carbs, or ALL the carbs. chill out guys!

What about Ketone Body supplements?

Remember what I said before about people trying to sell you things? There is now a product you can buy (through network marketing no doubt) that contains exogenous ketone bodies that you take as a drink mix. These supplements are meant to push you into a state of ketosis in a short period of time, without needing such a restrictive ketogenic diet. Except, for best results they also recommend following a ketogenic diet. *eye roll* So, you’re spending a few hundred dollars per month on a product that you can’t really prove if it works or not, because the diet you follow would get you to ketosis anyway. And, we really have no scientific evidence to tell us what happens when we eat a ketone body supplement without following a low-carb diet. How do we make sure those ketone bodies are what we use for energy, and not the carbohydrates we’re eating? To date, there has only been one human trial completed on these products looking at their ability to enhance sports performance and they were a massive flop. So don’t waste your money on this BS.

Why fight nature? When pushed into a state of ketosis our bodies fight constantly to get out of it and restore balance. This idea that we can “biohack” our biology and change how our bodies function is absolute BS. Instead, we should treat our bodies like a partner or friend, not an enemy that needs to be forced into losing fat

My advice? If you think your diet needs some work, contact a dietitian. Start by changing some small things about the way you eat, like less takeout and more cooking and see where that gets you. Chances are, you won’t need to go to such extreme measures such as the Keto Diet to see a benefit in your health.

For more of my articles on breaking the cycle of dieting, click the links below!

Why I don’t have a weekly Cheat Meal (and neither should you!)

Why Weight Loss Should Actually Be Your Lowest Priority When Starting Your “Weight Loss Journey”

The Most Important Thing You Can Do For Your Health (that no one talks about)

5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Take Nutrition Advice From Just Anyone

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