A registered dietitian’s take.
Every year the wellness world buzzes about the latest and greatest way to fuel your body. For a while it was paleo, but recently all the hype is around the more extreme version: the ketogenic diet. Today we’ll dig in. What is the keto diet, how does it impact health, and is it something you should try?
What is the Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet is an extremely low-carb, high-fat diet. In fact, it only allows about 25 grams of carbs or less per day. (As a reference point, a medium-sized banana provides about 27 grams of carbs.) On the keto diet, you’re allowed to eat meat, fish, eggs, natural fats, cheese, leafy greens, and other vegetables that grow above the ground. You’ll avoid fruit, potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, and other carbohydrates.
When eating a regular diet, the body relies on carbohydrates or sugar for energy. When you stop eating, the body has only a certain amount of stored carbohydrates. Eventually, it has to make energy from other sources. Without adequate carbs, the body will start to convert stored fat into energy called ketones. Our bodies are very adaptive and can switch from running off of glucose (carbs) to ketone bodies (fat).
One thing to know before you throw out all your carbs: Because you’re changing the way your body metabolizes energy, some people report feeling flu-like symptoms in the first two weeks of the diet. It is even referred to as the “keto flu.”
Keto Diet Benefits
The keto flu sounds scary, so let’s look at how it really impacts overall health. Switching metabolism from using sugar to using fat is a natural process. However, there’ll be a period of adjustment as hormones and electrolytes rebalance. Historically, we’ve gone long periods of time without eating, and our bodies are still able to provide us fuel and energy. So while this may feel uncomfortable initially, once the body switches over, it’s an effective way to create energy.
The ketogenic diet was originally developed in the 1920s when researchers found that fasting had anti-seizure effects on patients they were studying. Since then, we’ve learned that lower-carb diets can have anti-tumor effects on the body. Why? Many tumors feed on sugar, so cutting off their food source can help shrink them. More research is coming out around the benefits of the ketogenic diet for diabetes management, Alzheimer’s, and weight loss.
Should You Try It?
The keto diet is a challenging diet to stick to. Not only because you may feel physically sick for the first couple weeks, but because you’re significantly changing the way you eat. If you’re concerned about disease conditions and how this diet would impact your overall health, talk to your healthcare provider before making any dietary changes. Whenever you limit a large macronutrient category, it’s best to do so under the guidance of a professional to assure you aren’t putting yourself at risk for any nutrient deficiencies.
I usually suggest trying a more paleo-based diet to start. This will help decrease your overall carbohydrate intake without the flu-like symptoms. I really like the Whole30 approach as a way to ease into a paleo diet. It focuses on whole, real, clean foods, and has made many people feel better overall.
In some cases I suggest the ketogenic diet to people who are already active and looking to lose that last bit of fat. It can help you move through a weight-loss plateau. However, it shouldn’t be a long-term diet for most people.
As with anything nutritionally related, the results can vary from person to person. There are some who thrive on a very low-carb diet while others just can’t get to a place where they feel healthy. Genetics, environment, stress levels, nutrient levels, and sleep all play a huge role in how this dietary change can impact your body. No matter how much we learn, research, and use technology, the only person who knows what feels best for your body is you.