Bacon, eggs, and avocado for breakfast along with coffee laced with butter or oil. A salad with avocado, cheese, nuts, and dressing for lunch–– these are examples of the types of meals you might find on the ketogenic diet. Sound delicious? Keep reading to see more about what this diet trend is all about.
The Internet would have you think that it’s the next big thing, but read on to find out the facts about following this diet and whether it might be right (or wrong) for you.
What is it?
The ketogenic diet, which has been used to treat unmanageable seizures in children for many years, gained significant momentum in 2017 as a mainstream diet to help with weight loss and other health improvements. Proponents tout the diet to have a variety of benefits, from weight loss to improved sports performance, mood, blood sugar, and cholesterol control.
The ketogenic (keto) diet is a high fat, very low carbohydrate diet with moderate to low protein intake. For seizure treatment, this diet consists of 80-90% fat, 5-15% protein, and 5-10% carbohydrate. The keto diet typically followed for weight loss allows for a slightly lower amount of fat and more moderate protein intake. These diets are about 70-75% fat, 5-10% carbohydrate, and 20-25% protein.
How does it work?
The goal of a ketogenic diet is to put the body into a metabolic state called ketosis by depriving it of enough carbohydrates to use for energy. During ketosis your body burns fat, instead of its preferred source of energy, carbohydrates.
What are the benefits?
It’s important to consider what you’re looking to gain from following a ketogenic diet.
Weight loss: If weight loss is your main goal, based on research and what we’re hearing colleagues report in practice, you may lose weight and decrease your hunger if you’re able to truly follow the diet. Rapid weight loss within the first week or two is common, however it’s important to note that a fair portion of the initial loss is from water, not fat.
Diabetes: Some studies have also shown that people with type 2 diabetes have seen better blood sugar control (A1C levels) following a ketogenic diet. However, many diabetes educators and experts we’ve spoken to are not recommending this as an ideal diet for people with diabetes for a variety of reasons. If you do want to try this as a way to manage diabetes, it’s very important to discuss it with your doctor and dietitian first.
Mood and energy: If you follow the diet you may experience an initial period of low energy and mental fogginess, but can potentially look forward to more energy and mental clarity after the initial (approximately 3 week) period. Some people have also seen improvements in heart health markers including cholesterol numbers and triglycerides while following a ketogenic diet. However, there is no long-term evidence that the ketogenic diet is helpful in this regard. In short, we don’t know the impact this diet will have on you if you follow it long-term, because more studies have not been done evaluating the ketogenic diet for long-term weight loss, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease management.
What are the downsides?
One of the main downsides we see to this approach is how restrictive it can be. This makes the ketogenic diet somewhat difficult for many people to follow long-term. Even when weight loss is achieved, it doesn’t typically last unless you can make the diet a true lifestyle, which is difficult for many people. Further, while it may sound like a dream to be able to eat all of the fat you want, in reality the amount of fat that you need to eat on a ketogenic diet is not pleasing to many people. This way of eating can also get very monotonous and lack variety, if not well planned. The diet also severely limits many great tasting foods with a lot of nutrition, like fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains.
In addition, any diet that demonizes one group of food and makes it “off limits” may be detrimental to maintaining or gaining a healthy relationship with food for some people. We’d advise against this way of eating for people with a history of disordered eating or an eating disorder. And, if you find that not being able to eat carbohydrates increases your cravings for them or significantly decreases the enjoyment you get out of eating, this is probably not the plan for you.
The bottom line:
Nutrition is not a one-size fits all approach and following a ketogenic diet is likely no exception. Some people who can follow the diet long-term may be able to see improved weight and health markers. However, following this diet for anything other than treating seizures is fairly new, so we don’t know how effective or safe it is long-term.
Long-term diet research continues to show that there’s not much difference in long-term weight loss (at the one year mark) between people who follow a low-fat diet versus low-carbohydrate diets. For this reason, we advocate for our clients to practice mindful eating and look to an approach that feels doable and makes them feel good both in mind and body. This is not only important for the end result of weight loss, but also for your long-term relationship with food. If you do decide to try this diet, working with a registered dietitian can help you follow it safely and effectively.