One of the hottest topics in nutrition right now, the keto diet craze shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Promoted by celebrities like Halle Berry and Kourtney Kardashian, the number of people trying the diet has skyrocketed over recent years and has claimed top spot on the list of nutrition researchers’ interests. Along with its burst in popularity, though, is its surge in controversy. Critics say keto is a fad diet and argue that it’s harmful for your health in the long run. So, what actually is the keto diet and is it good or bad?
What is the keto diet?
The ketogenic diet － more commonly known as keto － is a low-carb, high-fat diet. Simply put, keto involves substantially lowering your carbohydrate intake and replacing it with fat. This cutback of carbs puts your body into ketosis; a metabolic state causing your body to burn fat instead of carbs for energy.
The standard keto diet typically involves consuming 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbs. It was originally designed to help people with seizure disorders such as epilepsy, but has recently gained popularity as a weight loss diet.
This video by Doctor Oz gives a great introduction to the diet:
Different types of keto
The most popular form of keto is the standard ketogenic diet (SKD) mentioned above, however variations on the diet have also risen to prominence:
Cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD)
Primarily used by athletes and bodybuilders, this type of keto involves periods of higher-carb refeeds, such as five days of keto followed by two days of high-carb intake.
Targeted ketogenic diet (TKD)
Also popular amongst athletes and bodybuilders, the targeted keto diet allows you to consume carbs around workouts for increased energy.
High-protein ketogenic diet
This type of keto is similar to the standard diet, but incorporates more protein to give a ratio of around 60% fat, 35% protein and 5% carbs.
Why some people are obsessed with keto
If you’ve met someone who’s tried the keto diet, likelihood is they’ve sung its praises. They’ve probably talked your ears off about how much weight they’ve lost in such a short space of time, and chances are you’ll be able to see it for your own eyes too.
Hailed as near miraculous by keto enthusiasts, research also shows that the diet is superior to the low-fat diet for weight loss; one study found that people on a keto diet lost around two times more weight than those on low-fat diets. All this happens without the tiresome counting of calories or tracking food intake, too, as dieters often naturally reduce their daily calorie intake to around 1,500 calories due to the filling nature of healthy fats and proteins.
Some researchers argue that cutting back on carbs is one of the most simple and effective ways you can lose weight. This is because low-carb diets get rid of excess water in the body which leads to quick weight loss. It also takes more energy to burn fat and protein than carbs which means you’ll be burning more calories than before.
In addition to weight loss, researchers argue that the diet can be beneficial for a variety of health conditions from heart disease to cancer and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This is because, they say, the diet can improve risk factors such as fat, cholesterol, blood pressure, sugar, and insulin levels. Other keto devotees maintain that the keto diet has cleared up their acne.
Why critics say you should give keto a wide berth
On the opposite hand of the keto-lovers are the ones who say you should steer clear of the diet at all costs. Researchers point out that studies on keto are far from conclusive, and findings that the diet is beneficial to long-term health are backed up by weak science. They argue that claims of improved health are unproven and merely anecdotal. Others go as far as to say that sticking to the diet long-term could be dangerous for a number of reasons:
It could lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as keto requires you to cut back on fruit and veggies. As well as being full of vitamins and minerals, fruit and veg are high in antioxidants. It may also be hard to get enough fibre which can cause digestive issues, bloating, increased cholesterol and blood pressure.
May affect athletic performance. One study showed that participants performed worse on high-intensity sports activities after 4 days on a keto diet compared to those on a high-carb diet.
Relaxing the rules can cause weight gain. Keto may be brilliant in the beginning but the reality is that most people can’t stick to it. This causes them to gain weight which often leads to yo-yo dieting, a pattern which is not only frustrating but which its resulting weight fluctuations are linked to a higher risk of early death. In addition to this, studies have found that keto is only more effective than other weight loss diets for about 6 months. After that, the difference in weight loss between diets is minimal.
Increased chronic disease risk. Some researchers worry about the effect of the high fat content on the heart and arteries, but this research is not conclusive.
Others point to the short-term side effects of the diet, such as the infamous keto flu. It’s not uncommon for keto dieters to get this flu while their body adapts at the beginning, and side effects include poor energy and mental function, nausea, sleep problems, increased hunger, digestive discomfort and diminished exercise performance. Diarrhea and what’s known as ‘keto breath’ (ever smelt nail varnish remover?) are also typical, but should go away once the body gets used to the diet.
Nutritionist, chef, and nine times cookbook author (and Plate Up chef!) Lee Holmes considers keto a fad diet. Fad diets, she says, are ones which eliminate certain foods or focus on only eating particular foods. These diets promise rapid weight loss, but this weight loss is usually not sustainable and can cause issues for our bodies, minds and gut.
How does it affect your gut? Well, eliminating certain food groups can starve good gut bugs and ruin our microbiota and intestinal lining. This is dangerous, Lee warns, as healthy gut bugs ensure that we’re protected against pathogens and help us to maintain a fully functioning immune system.
“Carbs are not the enemy… Once we demonise a whole food group, food no longer becomes our friend.” - Lee Holmes
Lee argues that carbs are essential for maintaining microbiome health, energy stabilisation, and hormone regulation. Limiting carbs will limit our gut diversity and result in us starving ourselves of essential fibres and prebiotic-rich foods. She says that you have nothing to fear if you eat unrefined carbs like fruit, starchy veg, and grains like oats, and maintains that everything should be eaten and enjoyed in moderation.
So… Should you try keto?
I think it’s safe to say that opinions are completely divided on this one!
With the keto diet rising in popularity and its devotees showcasing their amazing weight loss, it seems to be working for a lot of people. How long people survive on the diet and whether or not they gain the weight back, however, is less known, as are the long-term health implications of the diet.
It seems the ‘different strokes for different folks’ saying applies here. A diet that may work for one person may not work for another. Me, personally? I like Lee’s approach: everything in moderation. She says that carbs are not the enemy… she’s right; carbs are my best friend!