What do Kourtney Kardashian, that guy you follow on Instagram who posts photos of bacon smothered in cheese, and some our ancient ancestors have in common? They’ve all gone keto. Ketogenic that is.
The high-fat diet is the fitness and wellness world’s current obsession – just check the more than 7 million posts using #keto – but is it right for you? To find out, we talked to two of our experts: naturopathic doctor and Founder and Chief Inspirer of Healthy Living at Legacy, Dr. Meghan Walker, and Dain Wallis, Health Coach and co-founder of Move Daily.
What is the Ketogenic Diet?
Aside from being the hottest topic on Instagram, what exactly does it mean to “go keto”?
“The ketogenic diet is a low carb diet (25-30 grams per day based on your size), designed to keep carbohydrates low enough that the brain burns ketones (fats) versus glucose as the primary source of fuel,” explains Dr. Walker.
It’s also not new. Fasting has been around since at least 500 BC and the ketogenic diet was introduced in the 1920s to mimic the metabolism of fasting, as a treatment for epilepsy.
What Does Your Diet Look Like?
If you were to go by Instagram only, you might assume keto is more or less a trendier version of Atkins – things wrapped in bacon, steak smothered in butter, a block of cheese over ground beef, things on top of bacon, a plate of scrambled eggs and individually wrapped cheese slices… did we mention bacon?
“Some people believe that keto means they can eat whatever they want as long as it’s low-carb, that calories don’t matter,” explains Wallis. “This is the biggest mistake that people make with keto. The second is probably that keto is a high-protein diet, which it is not. The third is that keto will absolutely work no matter how else you live your life (re: movement, re: stress, re: self-care), and this is also incorrect. Keto is not a panacea, and it takes true dedication to an entire lifestyle to make it work.”
So what should you eat if not bacon wrapped in bacon? Think healthy fats like ghee, coconut oil, and avocado; quality and sustainable protein like grass-fed beef, organic chicken, and fish; vegetables (think greens, not starchy). And you don’t have to skip dessert – just the sugar. That’s where the “fat bombs” that you see in your feed and alternative flour (think almond and coconut) baked goods come in.
What Happens When You Go Into Ketosis?
“The human body will go into a state of ketosis when glucose (the brain’s preferred source of fuel) is not provided through the diet,” explains Wallis. “When dietary carbohydrates (and to a lesser degree proteins) are restricted, the body must resort to breaking down fats at an elevated rate, thus producing ketone bodies to provide energy to vital processes in lieu of glucose.”
Generally it takes anywhere from two to seven days for the body to go into ketosis, when it starts to burn fat for energy instead of glucose.
Who Might Benefit from the Keto Diet?
While your feed might be packed with people using keto for weight loss, the people who stand to benefit the most from it are actually those with resistant epilepsy, and type 1 and type 2 diabetes, according to Dr. Walker.
“In each case, the medical use of the ketogenic diet requires careful supervision from your healthcare provider,” she explains.
“Inactive, obese populations and/or those with chronic disease like diabetes (or the precursors thereto) are those who can benefit the most from keto,” says Wallis. “The keto diet will suppress insulin and therefore anyone with hormonal dysfunction will stand to benefit the most. Keto has also been used for years to battle epilepsy, and new research is showing promise for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders.”
Who Should Avoid It?
“The ketogenic diet can cause considerable stress in the body,” explains Walker. “I have not found people to do well on this diet when they are managing adrenal fatigue and when they may have difficulty managing their blood sugar (for example, hangry people). Pregnant and nursing women should also avoid this diet as should children and the elderly.”
“The keto diet is an ‘advanced health move,’” she continues. “It should be used in consultation with your healthcare provider and with an existing understanding of healthy eating practices and adequate vegetable consumption.”
Wallis echoes that sentiment. “I think that true keto is a very poor choice for almost everyone who is already relatively healthy, as it is an extreme choice for a non-extreme measure.
“Athletes and high-stress populations should avoid keto,” he continues. “Carbohydrates are not evil, and when stress hormones are elevated (whether due to activity/physical stress or mental/psycho-emotional stress), insulin is a much-needed and powerful weapon for the body.”
Any Side Effects we Need to Know About?
Short of becoming the person who’s always talking about keto, what else might be an unwanted side effect?
“The ketogenic diet can contribute to adrenal fatigue, worsen poorly managed thyroid conditions and for some people, make it difficult to loose weight again in the future,” says Dr. Walker. “Constipation, diarrhea, muscle cramping, drowsiness… the list goes on.”
How Long Should You Go Keto?
“I have found that this diet works best in shorter periods of time (six weeks vs six months for example) and during seasons when we would have historically fasted such as the winter,” says Dr. Walker.
“Keto is sustainable in the long-term if you legitimately need to stay in a state of ketosis for your health and wellness,” says Wallis. “Without this requirement – and if you are intent on living a social lifestyle in today’s society – keto is not sustainable long-term.”
The Bottom Line?
“Nobody wants to hear this,” says Wallis, “but research shows that when you control for calories, keto is no more effective for weight loss than any other diet.”
“When done properly, for the right person, for the right reasons, they can thrive [on a ketogenic diet],” says Walker. “Long and short, work with someone who can help develop this diet or another one that is right for you.”