The keto diet has become a fad in the last couple of years, but it’s also become quite polarizing. On one side, there are advocates who swear by its weight-loss powers and who post an Instagram photo of their abs to prove it. On the other, there are harsh critics who bannerImage the negative effects on health of a high-fat diet. So, who should you believe?
The Keto Diet, Explained
First, the basics: Our bodies get nourishment from three macronutrients, namely, carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Different diets play around with the ratios of each of these macros. Carbs provide energy, protein builds muscle, and fat helps organs function properly. You may have heard of athletes who “carbo load” before a big race or game—loading up on carbs gives them a storehouse of energy that helps them power through their event.
The keto diet aims to switch the body’s source of fuel from carbs (sugar) to fat. To achieve this, the body needs to reach a state called ketosis. And to get to this state, you have to limit the amount of sugar coming into your body by severely restricting your carbohydrate intake.
A low-carb diet is nothing new; the Atkins diet, for one, gained popularity in the ’70s. What sets the keto diet apart from its low-carb cousins is that it requires only a moderate amount of protein (versus other low-carb diets that are high in protein) and an extremely high amount of fat. How high? The ratios vary per individual but typical keto guidelines call for a diet of about 70 to 80% fat. In a 2,000-calorie diet, that amounts to about 165 grams of fat, 40 grams of carbs, and 75 grams of protein. That’s about triple or even quadruple the recommended daily amount of fat and a very limited amount of carbs. (For reference, one banana has about 23 grams of carbs.)
What this means is that, to live a keto lifestyle, you have to pretty much say goodbye to grains and other starchy foods as well as some fruits and vegetables. The keto diet has a list of foods that you can and cannot eat. A review of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health gives a quick keto guide listing the foods that are allowed and not allowed on the diet:
- Fats such as cocoa butter, lard, poultry fat, most plant fats (olive, palm, coconut oil) and foods high in fat such as avocado, coconut meat, certain nuts, and seeds in each meal and snack
- Some dairy with lower lactose content such as butter and hard cheeses
- Moderate amount of protein in the form of grass-fed (not grain-fed) beef, free-range poultry, pork, bacon, wild-caught fish, organ meats, eggs, tofu, and certain nuts and seeds
- Most non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, bell peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, cucumber, celery
- Some fruits, like berries, in small portions
- 90% or higher dark chocolate, cocoa powder, unsweetened coffee and tea, unsweetened vinegars and mustards, herbs, and spices
- All whole and refined grains and flour products, added and natural sugars in food and drinks, starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn)
- Most fruits and fruit juices
- Legumes (beans, lentils, peanuts)
- Full-carb wines and beer, drinks with added sweeteners
This means you have to say goodbye to bread, pasta, and rice, which is especially hard to do for rice-loving Filipinos.
To Keto or Not to Keto?
Despite the criticism from the scientific community and some experts, the ketogenic in fact has its roots in medicine. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health states that it was commonly used in the 19th century to help control diabetes and, in 1920, was introduced as an effective treatment for epilepsy in children. The latter has led to speculation that the keto diet may be likewise effective against other neurologic disorders, but studies still need to be conducted.
Small-scale, short-term studies have suggested that the keto diet does have some health benefits, including weight loss and improvement in insulin resistance, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. But it also comes with numerous risks.
An article in Harvard Health Publishing cites the biggest potential risk to heart disease, given the high saturated fat. Other risks include nutrient deficiency, liver problems as metabolizing fat can aggravate existing liver conditions, kidney problems, constipation due to the lack of fiber from fruits, brain fog, and mood swings—after all, who wouldn’t be in a bad mood if they had to give up pizza and pastries?
The Bottom Line
There have been no long-term studies on the effects of the keto diet, possibly because it is highly restrictive and, thus, not sustainable.
If you need to lose weight quickly, then it’s a viable option but don’t use it as an excuse to binge on hearty servings of bacon and eggs or lechon kawali every day. Make sure that you get much-needed nutrients from a variety of sources; there are, after all, a number of vegetables and a few fruits that are allowed on the diet.
Consult with your physician, a nutritionist, or a registered dietician before starting on the diet, especially of you have some existing health issues. Some recommend going strictly keto, then slowly reintroducing carbs after you’ve hit your target weight (alternating between keto weeks and non-keto weeks, or having some carbs every few days). But to maintain a healthy weight long-term, it’s best to adopt a healthy lifestyle with a well-balanced diet.