Is the Ketogenic Diet Worth Trying?

If you’re a fitness enthusiast, weight loss seeker or general health information consumer, you’ve likely heard of the ketogenic (keto) diet. You’ve probably also heard some amazing success stories where people have lost in excess of 1-2 pounds a day while following this particular diet.

Years ago, I was personally asked to vet a ketogenic inspired diet called the Tisanroeica Diet, which is a Mediterranean-style version that’s widely popular in Italy.

After having shed 10 pounds in less than a week, I can certainly attest to the powerful weight loss effects of going keto. And, to this day, whenever I’m looking to quickly drop a few stubborn pounds in a finite amount of time, the ketogenic diet is one of my go-to regimens.

But, don’t just take my words at face value and go jumping on the keto bandwagon.

As an avid athlete and blogger who just happens to be an expert in health, fitness and nutrition, I’m always mixing it up and trying new things.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that despite it being an almost guaranteed weight loss method, switching to a ketogenic diet can come with some real drawbacks. So, before you even think about trying it, here’s what you need to know.

Basics of the Ketogenic Diet

In and of itself, the ketogenic diet is a low-carbohydrate (low-carb) diet characterized by a relatively high intake of fat with moderate consumption of protein. As its name implies, this diet is specifically designed to activate a metabolic process called “ketosis”.

Ketosis markedly increases the body’s inherent fat burning potential in a way that supports dramatic weight loss, oftentimes, even in the absence of significant calorie restriction.

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Truth is, there’s not a ton of ‘newness’ to the ketogenic diet, as ketosis is largely driven by general reductions in carbohydrate intake.

The ketogenic diet is a low-carbohydrate (low-carb) diet characterized by a relatively high intake of fat with moderate consumption of protein.

This is the basic premise of Paleo and Atkins style diets; though each can be distinguished by the relative composition of fat and protein allowed. Atkins, for instance, is a low-carb, high-fat, high-protein diet while Paleo is a high-fat, moderate-protein diet in which grain and dairy foods are completely withheld.

All these diets involve some level of ketosis resultant from restricted carbohydrate consumption. The lower the carb intake, the more dramatic the weight loss outcome.

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How the Ketogenic Diet Works

Simply put, the ketogenic diet kicks fat burning into high gear! Let me break this down a tad bit further.

Under normal conditions, the body preferentially burns glucose to meet its energy demands. Also referred to as blood sugar, glucose primarily comes from the breaking down of carbohydrate-containing foods. If no carbohydrates are available from foodstuffs, the body will instead break down and utilize stored glucose, which is housed in muscle and liver cells. Glucose is stored in these cells as glycogen.

Now, the body can only store so much energy as glycogen (roughly about 2,000 calories worth). When it’s in short supply, the body will tap its fat stores for more energy, especially the visceral fat depot situated in the midsection.

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This is how ketosis is initiated.

The ketogenic diet kicks fat burning into high gear!

And, if you’re trying to lose weight, this WILL work to your advantage.

During ketosis, the body transforms into a fat burning machine. Stored fat is mobilized into the bloodstream and transported to the liver where it is then broken down into free fatty acids that are ultimately used to produce glucose. This process also leads to the production of ketone bodies (or ketones) in the liver which then serve as an alternative fuel source to glucose.

Since the ketogenic diet facilitates the utilization of free fatty acids and ketones for energy, weight loss is greatly maximized.

But, remember, the ultimate determinant of overall success is largely driven by the presence (or absence) of dietary carbohydrates. Additionally, many other factors can directly (and indirectly) influence ketosis including your age and gender, current fitness and/or disease status, the general nutritional quality of the foods you consume, and even your levels of underlying stress.

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Since the ketogenic diet facilitates the utilization of free fatty acids and ketones for energy, weight loss is greatly maximized.

What a Ketogenic Diet Plan Looks Like

As I mentioned before, the ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat, moderate-protein diet. This basically means you’ll have to load up on foods rich in high-quality fats (monounsaturated fats and omega-3s with some saturated fats) and lean protein while keeping your overall carbohydrate intake very low. By “very low” I mean at or around 20-50 grams of net carbs per day.

Net carbs essentially refers to the total number of carbs absorbed by the body and can be estimated simply by subtracting the amount of fiber and sugar alcohols contained within a food from the total carbs.

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So, which foods are NOT allowed?

Well, to successfully initiate ketosis, you’ll pretty much have to eliminate any foods containing moderate-to-high levels of carbohydrates.

The obvious ones include overly processed and refined foodstuffs like candies, pastries, desserts, white bread, cereals, soft drinks, most alcohol, and all junk foods. But, a lot of high-quality carbs like whole grains, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), starchy vegetables, and most fruits must also go. While these foods are incredibly nutritious, the sheer presence of starch and/or sugars can really drive up their carb counts.

For instance, a cup of cooked beans houses an average of 35 grams of carbohydrates while a medium banana contains about 27 grams.

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In addition to carb-rich foods, there are many carb-free foods included on the keto ‘do not eat list’. These include high-sodium foods like smoked, cured or otherwise processed meats, salted nuts and seeds, trans fats, and even refined vegetable oils (sunflower, canola, and soybean oils). And, though technically a valuable source of protein, milk is also not allowed due to the lactose (milk sugar) it contains.

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So, is there anything left to eat?

Well of course!

Foods like meats, fish and seafood, poultry, eggs, non-starchy vegetables (leafy green and cruciferous vegetables, peppers, and root veggies), nuts and seeds are the foundation of the ketogenic diet so expect to eat a whole lot of these. Needless to say, this diet might not be best suited for vegans and vegetarians.

Except for milk, full-fat dairy foods like cheese and sour cream are also allowed, which is a major distinguishing factor between keto and Paleo diets. A select few fruits are also fair game, namely berries, tomato, and savory varieties like avocado and olives.

To add a little sweetness to the diet, you can use high-quality zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia, erythritol and xylitol, and even enjoy a little unsweetened dark chocolate on occasion. As for beverages, all forms of water, unsweetened and herbal teas, plain coffee, nut milks, hard liquor (without additives), and dry wines can be consumed.

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That’s pretty much it!

The Benefits of Going Keto

There are a lot of upsides to following the ketogenic diet. The obvious one is weight loss. In addition to the increased fat burning potential associated with ketosis, the ketone bodies produced inherently suppress appetite making it a whole lot easier to eat less. This is especially beneficial, as ‘feeling hungry’ is one of the main reasons people tend to break away from dieting plans.

Going keto is also one of the most effective ways to control blood sugar levels, which helps reduce the body’s reliance on insulin. In addition to supporting weight loss, blood sugar and insulin regulation is especially beneficial in the prevention of diabetes.

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And, interestingly, although regular consumption of dietary cholesterol, saturated fat, and other nutritional “boogeymen” are at the heart of the keto diet, it supports a more favorable cholesterol profile by boosting high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol and lowering blood triglyceride (fat) levels.

This, in turn, reduces the risk of heart disease and potentially life-threatening complications like heart attack and stroke.

There are a lot of upsides to following the ketogenic diet. The obvious one is weight loss.

While this might seem surprising, despite widespread belief, dietary cholesterol and saturated fats contribute very little, if any, to the development of high cholesterol, heart disease, and related health problems. Truth is, day-to-day consumption of foods comprised of trans fats, empty carbohydrates and added sugar is much more of a contributor to chronic disease and overall poor health.

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In addition to weight loss and chronic disease-fighting benefits, ketogenic style diets have long been used as medicinal interventions for people with epilepsy (especially children), as elevated levels of ketone bodies in the bloodstream can reduce the occurrence of epileptic seizures.

The Downsides of Going Keto

The primary downside of the ketogenic diet is the increased likelihood of weight regain when carbohydrate intake resumes. And, it WILL resume because you WILL have a slip and fall off the bandwagon at some point. In fact, weight regain is quite common within six months to three years following ketosis-driven weight loss.

Now, you may be able to avoid extreme weight regain with a gradual but limited reintroduction of carbohydrates into your diet from time-to-time, both during and after weight loss. But, honestly, doing so is in and of itself a skill and I’ve found that most everyday folks simply don’t have the knowledge or wherewithal to do it right.

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Following the ketogenic diet can often lead to extreme fatigue as well. This can be a real problem if you regularly participate in moderate-to-vigorous endurance exercise. Personally, this is where I always fall off the bandwagon with very low-carb diets in general, as I regularly run and cycle long distances. For many, fatigue is most pronounced within the first couple of weeks but it could occur more regularly.

The primary downside of the ketogenic diet is the increased likelihood of weight regain when carbohydrate intake resumes.

Another side effect that’s minor but rather unpleasant is halitosis (bad breath), which is caused by high concentrations of ketone bodies. Regularly consuming wheat grass juice, liquid chlorophyll-enhanced water, and peppermint tea are just a few strategies I’ve personally used to counter bad breath during ketosis.

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Now, for certain people, the ketogenic diet can pose more serious health risks due to deficiencies in key micronutrients and dietary fiber due to the cutting of fiber-rich carbs like whole grains and legumes.

And, over time, ketosis can cause kidney problems in individuals with pre-existing kidney disease. It can also increase the risk of kidney failure in individuals with uncontrolled diabetes and other metabolic disorders due to excess excretion of ketone bodies in the urine.

The Net-Net

At the end of the day, the ketogenic diet is not for everyone. So, you should really consider all the factors I’ve highlighted before attempting this diet.

While initiating ketosis is a highly effective strategy for short-term weight loss, weight regain will likely occur unless carbohydrate intake is severely limited or eliminated, indefinitely. And, since the long-term effects of going keto aren’t known, its usefulness for weight maintenance is quite sketchy. As such, if you’re prone to weight gain, initiate this diet with extreme caution and preferably under medical supervision.

Truth is, most people just consume way too many carbs all the time. Therefore, I generally recommend limiting intake to 50-100 grams a day for weight loss and then upping intake to 100-150 grams for long-term weight maintenance. It’s all about moderation as opposed to elimination.

Related Article: Why I Preach Moderation as Opposed to Elimination for Good Health