High in fat. Adequate in protein. Low in carbohydrates. These are the hallmarks of the ketogenic diet, or “keto diet” for short. If you’re interested in the diet, then you probably have three major questions:
- Can keto help me lose weight? Yes it can, but it takes time to work.
- Is keto hard to follow? Yes, it is.
- What can’t you eat on keto? Carbs, primarily, such as bread, pasta, potatoes, sugar and fruit.
Of course, there is much more to say about the keto diet than just those highlights. Let’s begin by briefly summarizing its backstory, which is fascinating because the keto diet was not originally developed for weight loss.
History of the Keto Diet
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about epilepsy and once described a man whose condition quickly disappeared through total abstinence of food and drink. The effects of fasting on epilepsy weren’t investigated by doctors until 1911, when a French study showed that a low-calorie vegetarian diet could dramatically improve symptoms in epileptic patients.
The French patients preferred the diet as a treatment over potassium bromide, which is used to treat seizures in dogs but causes depression, fatigue and lethargy in humans. They also found the restrictive experimental diet incredibly difficult to follow. (Imagine telling French people not to eat bread.)
Over time physicians deduced part of the reason why a low-carbohydrate diet can help patients with epilepsy. When the body has fewer available carbs to convert into glucose, the liver converts body fat into fatty acids. The liver also produces ketone, a chemical that enters the brain where it replaces glucose as a source of energy. When an epileptic patient’s brain has elevated levels of ketone, they may experience fewer epileptic seizures as the result.
This is why it is called the “ketogenic diet” – it promotes the genesis of ketone.
Physicians eventually discovered that medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) produce more ketone than metabolization of normal dietary fat. MCT drugs thus replaced the keto diet as the primary treatment for epilepsy around the ’70s.
We have Hollywood to thank for keto’s renaissance which began during the mid ’90s. That is when producer Jim Abrahams announced that his son’s epilepsy, which mainstream therapies had not helped, was successfully managed through the keto diet. Abrahams went on to found the Charlie Foundation for Ketogenic Therapies in 1994, and later produced a made-for-TV movie inspired by his son’s recovery (starring Meryl Streep, no less).
As you might imagine, anything with “diet” in its name and makes news in Hollywood will attract great attention. It is no coincidence that the Atkins Diet, which is virtually identically the original keto diet, reached peak popularity around the mid ’90s despite having been introduced decades earlier.
How Does the Keto Diet Help You Lose Weight?
We already touched on why keto helps you lose weight: When you eat fewer carbs, you have less glucose in your bloodstream; when you have less glucose in your bloodstream, your liver compensates by burning body fat. This body state is called ketosis (literally “ketone state”).
The keto diet is serendipitously designed to combat the main problem with the modern American diet. The average American now gets over 40 percent of their daily calories from refined carbs, such as sugar, white flour and white rice. In addition to heart disease and type 2 diabetes, a diet high in refined carbs carries a heightened risk of obesity. There are many reasons why refined carbs are so bad for your health, but their virtual absence of fiber, vitamins and minerals makes them the definition of “empty calories.”
In addition to burning body fat, the keto diet dramatically reduces intake of empty calories. And if you wish, you can also reduce the calories you eat while on keto. The science is clear: You will lose weight following a keto diet. It will take a while, and you may find the process unpleasant.
What Can You Eat on the Keto Diet?
You get to enjoy a lot of good foods on a keto diet:
- Greek yogurt
- Tea and coffee
- Dark chocolate
- Nuts and seeds
- Cottage cheese
- Low-carb vegetables
Sadly, commitment to the keto diet means forgoing many delicious things. These include:
- Grains, including any foods made from wheat, rice, oats and cornmeal
- Starchy vegetables and sugary fruits, including corn, potatoes, apples and bananas
- Sugar, corn syrup and all other sweeteners (as well as sweetened foods and beverages)
And for all you drinkers out there, beer is out of the question on keto. Fortunately, liquor and wine offer alternative options for five o’clock beverages.
When Do You Start Losing Weight on the Keto Diet?
Your body will probably enter ketosis around two to four days after you have started the keto diet, although for some people ketosis may begin after a week or longer. Weight loss resulting from ketosis may also be delayed due to one or more factors:
- Insufficient sleep
- Slow metabolism
- Insufficient exercise
- Consuming too little fat
- Consuming too many carbs
- Consuming too much protein
Is the Keto Diet Safe?
It usually is, although people who have recently adopted the keto diet often report dizziness, upset stomach, fatigue and mood swings. These are all normal symptoms while the body is adapting to ketosis.
The keto diet may increase the risk of developing heart disease and cause low blood pressure, nutrient deficiency and kidney stones. If you have a condition of the pancreas such as diabetes, or a condition of the liver, thyroid or gallbladder, the keto diet is not safe for you.
Many dietitians note that the highly restrictive keto diet is not sustainable. Worse yet, when you abandon the keto diet, you may gain back more weight than you lost. This is one reason you should consult your doctor or registered dietitian before starting any new diet, keto included.
If you would like to know more about the keto diet and whether it might be right for you, then we welcome you to schedule an appointment with Calhoun Spine & Wellness Center’s registered dietitian in Calhoun, GA today!