The ketogenic diet, a.k.a. keto, is possibly the most polarizing diet trend to date. While believers sing praises for the quick weight loss the diet promotes, the critics warn against the risks that come with it. So, what’s what?
What Is the Keto Diet?
It’s important to understand how a diet works before you give it a go. In the keto diet, the goal is to switch your source of energy from carbohydrates to fat. To be able to do this, you need to severely restrict your carb intake so that the body reaches a state called ketosis.
Low-carb diets have been around for decades, but what makes the keto diet different is that instead of focusing on increasing protein, it’s all about increasing fat. It thus requires a very low amount of carbs, a moderate amount of protein, and a very high amount of fat.
The ratios vary per individual but typical keto guidelines call for a diet of about 70 to 80% fat, about 5% of carbs, and the remaining amount for protein. 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. (To help you visualize, one banana has about 23 grams of carbs—more than half the prescribed amount.) Keto diet meals, therefore, don’t allow grains, starchy foods, and some fruits and vegetables. (Read more about the foods that are allowed and not allowed on the keto diet here.)
Why Add Fat?
Fats have gotten a bad rap. In the past, fats were blamed for everything from heart disease to, well, getting fat. But good fats—emphasis on good—has a number of benefits for your health, aside from helping you get into ketosis and encouraging weight loss. They can help suppress appetites, which means you eat less. They can also improve brain health and boost your immune system, and are quite surprisingly good for your heart.
The key is eating the right kind of fat: Monosaturated fats, found in olive oil, nuts, and avocados; and polyunsaturated fats (also known as your omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), found in fish, nuts, and seeds. What to avoid? Trans fats, often found in processed foods, and to some extent, saturated fats—the jury is still out when it comes to the latter, but to stay on the safe side, focus on getting more of the monosaturated and polyunsaturated kind instead.
Is It Just a Trend?
It’s not just a weight-loss gimmick; the keto diet in fact has a medical basis. 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 but it also comes with numerous risks, given the potential high saturated fat. While it may help you drop excess pounds and has been shown to help improve insulin resistance, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, the diet can also potentially increase the risk of heart disease, nutrient deficiency, liver problems, kidney problems, constipation, brain fog, and mood swings.
Should You Go for It?
To date, there have been no long-term studies on the effects of the keto diet, probably because it’s not sustainable—after all, it’s hard to stick to a diet that’s very restrictive. That being said, it is a viable option for those with certain health conditions and those who need to lose weight quickly. Just keep the following tips in mind:
Be aware of the risks. It’s best to work with a professional if you’re thinking of trying this diet. Talk to your doctor before starting, especially if you have health issues. If you can, work with a nutritionist or a registered dietician to help you come up with a plan so you can get the nutrients you need.
Balance it out. Sure, it’s a high-fat diet but it’s not an excuse to eat lechon every day! Choose good fats over bad fats and make sure you get nutrients from the allowable vegetables and fruits. Cook using keto-friendly oils like avocado oil, which is high in essential fatty acids, and coconut oil, which is rich in medium-chain triglycerides (a.k.a. MCTs, which have shown potential as a beneficial good fat and a weight-loss aid). Use keto-friendly milk, such as coconut milk and almond milk, as well as keto sugar alternatives like monkfruit sweetener.
Be smart about snacking. Technically, chicharon falls under the “allowed” list but it certainly doesn’t make for a healthy snack. There are healthier keto snacks like cheese and heart-friendly nuts.
You can try out the keto diet until you hit your target weight then slowly reintroduce carbs. Just keep in mind that long-term studies have shown that when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight over time, nothing beats a healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet.