Unless you have been living under a rock for the past year, it is likely you have heard something about the Ketogenic diet. Whether it be a success story, an article headline boasting fast weight loss results, or a new professional athlete that has jumped on the bandwagon. The diet that was once solely used to help treat children with epilepsy has now become one of the most popular and fastest growing diet trends in the US.
What exactly is the ketogenic diet?
In short, it is a high fat, low carb diet being used to help people lose weight.
A little background: fat, carbohydrates, and protein are the three macronutrients. One or more of these macronutrients are present in all of the food that we eat and these are what contribute to the calories in our food. All three are necessary for human life as they each provide energy as well as essential vitamins and minerals for our body to undergo its normal functioning. This includes keeping our hearts beating, allowing us to complete activities of daily living, and exercising.
The average daily American diet consists of roughly half (50%) of our calories from carbohydrates, one-third of our calories from fat (33%), and the rest (17%) from protein. These ratios are normal and keep our bodies functioning the way they should.
In the ketogenic diet, we are altering our fat and carbohydrate intake such that 75% of our diet comes from fat and only 7% of our diet comes from carbohydrates. A pretty significant change.
(To give some perspective… a person that consumes 2000 calories per day would meet their daily carbohydrate needs with one bagel on the ketogenic diet).
What does this change do for us?
Well, typically our bodies prefer to get our energy from carbohydrates. They can use it quickly and store it easily for later use, which is convenient because our average diets already consist of mostly carbohydrates. However, our bodies do have the ability to run off fats instead of carbohydrates. That is if we can consume enough fats consistently to get our bodies to do so.
The ketogenic diet provides a high enough fat with little enough carbohydrates that our body can get into a state called “ketosis” where it begins burning fat, rather than carbohydrates, for fuel. Once our body is in this state, we typically see weight loss.
Well that is easy enough, right? Why isn’t everyone doing this to lose weight?
This diet is easier said than done. Carbohydrates make up so much of our average diet because they are in almost everything we eat. This includes bread, pasta, cereal, and grains (both whole grain and processed varieties), but also beans and legume, fruit, dairy (yes, even unflavored, non-fat milk), starchy vegetables (like corn, peas, and potatoes), and anything with added sugar. Cutting these foods down from 50% of our diet to only 7% requires extreme discipline.
I’m disciplined, I’ve done my research, I’ve made my shopping list, and I’m ready to go. Anything else I should know?
Yes! There is a catch… Not only does it take a couple weeks for our bodies to be in ketosis, but also even minor slip-ups can get your body out of this state meaning it’s no longer burning fat for energy and you are essentially eating large amounts of fat with no added benefit. This diet must be maintained without error to truly be effective.
Thoughts from a Registered Dietitian
As an RD, I am often asked about the efficacy of this diet and whether it is worth trying. My answer: generally, anytime I hear someone talk about a diet where they cannot eat fruit and vegetables I am immediately skeptical. Restriction in diet culture is scary enough as it is, but to restrict foods that we know are chalked full of essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to survive is something I have trouble getting behind.
The research on this topic is new, meaning that longitudinal studies (that follow this diet through the lifetime) are not yet available. We cannot say definitely that this diet is healthy to maintain for a lifetime nor can we really speak to its long-term health effects. While many great foods with healthy fats exist (like the beloved avocado and peanut butter), it is challenging to follow this diet without also adding foods that contain a substantial amount of saturated fat. We know that this type of fat (found in things like animal products and full-fat dairy) can also contribute to increased cholesterol and clogged arteries.
In short, the ketogenic diet can help you lose weight, but it is not the only way to lose weight. As simple as it seems, consuming a balanced diet, listening to your bodies hunger cues, and staying active every day is an effective way to stay healthy and meet your health and wellness goals. If you do want to give this diet a go, I advise you to consult your doctor (and your dietitian if you have one) before you begin to ensure you are not deficient in any nutrients along the way.
Author: Allison Labyk, MS, RDN
Author Bio: I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist living in Hamburg, Germany. I am a Cleveland native with strong roots to the Columbus area after completing undergraduate and graduate studies in nutrition at The Ohio State University. I have a passion for all things food and nutrition and I strive to provide women with digestible, evidence-based nutrition recommendations in order to empower women to make important decisions regarding their body and overall health.
Link to social media: Instagram @allison_labyk