The ketogenic diet (also referred to as the keto diet) has been around for decades, but recently it’s grabbing headlines for its ability to enhance performance and melt pounds. But are these claims legit? And, more important, is it safe?
“I get asked all of the time ‘What is the keto diet” followed by ‘Do you think I should do it,’” says Kelly Nohl, a registered dietitian with Henry Ford Health.
Here, Nohl answers those questions – and many more – so there’s no need to wonder about this popular diet plan anymore.
Q: What is the ketogenic diet?
A: The ketogenic diet (also called keto) dates back to the 1920s, when doctors began using it to control seizures among patients with epilepsy. The diet’s composition of carbohydrates, fat and protein force the body to use fat instead of carbohydrates for energy. Dubbed ketosis, this process creates acids in the blood called ketones that our bodies and brains use for fuel.
Q: What do you eat on a ketogenic diet?
A: A true keto diet contains 80 percent fat, fewer than 5 percent carbs and 15 to 20 percent protein. In order to achieve that, dieters have to ditch a few major carbohydrate-heavy food groups including grains, dairy, beans and fruits. When you remove those, you find yourself loading up on meat, fish, butter, eggs, avocados, oils, nuts, seeds and non-starchy vegetables. The keto diet looks very different from the diet recommended in the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is about 20 to 30 percent protein, 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates and 10 to 35 percent fat.
Q: Does it help dieters lose weight?
A: Since a ketogenic diet effectively eliminates major food groups, you’re likely to lose weight – at least at first. Eating higher amounts of protein may help keep hunger pangs at bay and that’s good for dieters who want to lose weight. Also, it takes more energy for your body to convert fat to ketones for fuel rather than using readily available glucose from carbohydrates. But the carbohydrate restrictions mean that most people have trouble sticking to the diet long term and end up regaining any lost weight when they revert to a “normal” eating plan.
Q: Does a ketogenic diet help you build muscle?
A: No. In fact, a ketogenic diet actually causes your body to lose muscle mass. Research suggests that even if your diet is high in protein, or your protein intake is constant, a carb-restricted diet may promote muscle loss. When we eat carbohydrates with lean protein, our bodies produce insulin. This acts as a sort of key, unlocking our muscles to let the protein in so that it can build muscle tissue. Skipping carbohydrates depletes our energy stores and reduces muscle-building potential.
Q: What are the drawbacks?
A: In addition to being tough to follow, the ketogenic diet coaxes your body to release more of the stress hormone cortisol. This can lead to a variety of chronic health conditions including heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. And since it nixes entire food groups – including heart-healthy whole grains and nutrient-rich fruits – followers usually come up short on critical nutrients. To add insult to injury, the diet’s high fat content and lack of fiber can lead to constipation (among other ailments).
Q: Who is a candidate for the keto diet?
A: As the research stands now, the keto diet is only appropriate for people with epilepsy. While researchers are hard at work investigating whether a ketogenic diet can help conditions ranging from cancer to arthritis, but epilepsy is the ONLY condition with substantial research backing up a ketogenic approach.
Q: Who is NOT a candidate for the keto diet?
A: Anyone with a chronic condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure or metabolic syndrome should avoid following a ketogenic diet. Plus, since the fat content hovers around 75 percent, it’s a red flag for people who have heart disease. Finally, the high protein, low-carbohydrate combination could overtax the kidney and liver, especially among people with kidney and liver disease.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a long-term weight loss plan, the ketogenic diet probably isn’t the answer. Instead, focus on eliminating simple carbohydrates, including cakes, cookies and sugar-sweetened beverages, while adding more nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains to your plate.
Still not seeing the pounds melt away? Call 1-855-434-5483 or to make an appointment with a registered dietitian. He or she can help you come up with a customized plan to help you achieve your weight-loss goals.