What is keto diet for weight loss and is it really healthy?
What is this keto diet you keep hearing about? The high-fat, low-carb diet promises big results and has gained popularity as a quick weight loss diet plan. But health experts warn it could be dangerous. Find out why.
The keto diet has been steadily increasing in popularity over the past few years. Keto's reputation as a route to rapid weight loss has the diet trending; and with celebrities, like actresses Sonam Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, as well as filmmaker Karan Johar praising the low-carb, moderate protein and high-fat eating diet plan, we have a feeling that interest won't be waning any time soon. But the keto — short for ketogenic — diet shouldn't be entered into lightly. There's a lot that health experts still don't know about the long-term effects of the diet — and they warn it could be dangerous. But what exactly is the keto diet and how does it work?
What is keto?
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb eating plan designed to force the body into ketosis, a metabolic state that burns fat for energy, according to a 2017 report published by Harvard Medical School. Once in ketosis, the body creates organic compounds called ketones to help create energy lost from those missing carbs. As the body adjusts to running on ketones by burning fat for energy, it's common to experience weight loss. This is the crux of keto's popularity: Many people see results. Still, it's important to note that much of this can be attributed to water weight shed from depleting carb stores, which can easily fluctuate. Despite these benefits, undergoing a seriously restrictive diet like keto shouldn’t be taken lightly.
What to eat and what to avoid?
Just like any other diet, the keto diet has its pros and cons. So which foods can you eat and which ones should you avoid? Most keto followers aim to get around 60-75% of their calories from fat, 15-30% of their calories from protein, and the rest from carbs. Bread, fruit, starchy vegetables, and even whole grains like oatmeal are strictly banned. Limiting carbs to 50 grams a day or less likely means you’re cutting out unhealthy foods like white bread and refined sugar, according to a Mayo Clinic report. But it also means you may have to cut back on fruits and certain vegetables, which are also sources of carbohydrates.
Is it a new diet?
The keto diet has been one of the most talked-about health trends in the past couple of years, but it’s not a fad. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports the ketogenic diet was introduced by modern physicians as an epilepsy treatment in the 1920s — a technique that is still used to treat child epilepsy today along with seizure medications. Many high-fat, low-carb diets like Atkins have popped up over the years, but keto has eclipsed them all to join the ranks of high profile diets like intermittent fasting. Despite keto's relatively long-standing history, interest has exploded over the past few years. A quick search through Instagram reveals over 1 crore #keto posts, an endless scroll through dramatic transformation photos, niche keto memes, and diet-friendly meals. Like other low-carb, high-fat diets, keto draws people in with its promised weight-loss results. Blogs, Pinterest, and Instagram have been lighting up with keto recipes and meal plans, but that doesn't mean it's actually good for you.
Is keto healthy?
It’s easy to see why a diet that promises quick results — and that technically allows you to still enjoy foods like cheese — would be so tempting. But before you try it, it’s important to realise that keto can also have its downsides. "Following the keto diet for an extended period of time can be difficult, and even some of its top proponents warn against sticking to its strict guidelines (like cutting back carbohydrates to 50 grams a day or less) for more than 30 to 90 days," Kolkata-based dietician Anupam Dey says.
If your primary goal is weight-loss and you're able to commit to a seriously strict diet, keto can be an effective option. "I prescribe keto to patients that are not getting the health benefits they are looking for from other tried methods or that have other health issues such as high blood sugar levels, hypertension, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), Alzheimer’s, obesity, and diabetes," Mumbai-based dietician and clinical nutritionist Geetanjali Shah. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that obese men following the keto diet for one month lost an average of 14 pounds or 6.3 kg. The study also found that high-protein, low-carb keto diets are more effective at reducing hunger and lowering food intake than high-protein diets that include a medium amount of carbohydrates. And a review study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that keto has potential therapeutic uses for epilepsy, weight loss, cardiovascular disease, and Type 2 diabetes.
Eating nourishing healthy fats is always a good idea, but it's important to set yourself up for long term success. Dey notes that when done incorrectly, keto can come with a host of nasty side-effects like constipation due to a lack of fibre. "I generally don’t think keto is sustainable, unless you are motivated by an illness or the short-term weight loss outcomes," he says, adding, "It is hard to meet all your nutritional needs, socialize, eat out, travel and follow the diet exactly as you should unless you pack and bring your own food and know exactly what supplements you need to take for all the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals you are missing out on by avoiding fruit, veggies, and grains."
Another problem with the keto diet, Shah says, is that weight regain is almost inevitable. "Keto can be a great jump-start to weight loss, but the reality is that most people can't adhere to it for very long," Shah says. "Often, people are going into ketosis and losing weight, then coming out and gaining it back and falling into this yo-yo pattern, and that’s not what we want." In addition to being extremely frustrating, she says, these types of weight fluctuations are also linked to a higher risk of early death. Dey also warns that a long-term keto-style diet can affect the heart and arteries, raise chronic disease risk, damage blood vessels or lead to vitamin or mineral deficiencies. It's therefore thought that keto works best as a short-term diet—no more than a couple months—but medical advice can vary.
If you do choose to follow keto, it's important to have medical supervision to monitor blood sugar and ketone levels, as well as make sure you aren't missing any key nutrients or suffering other nasty side-effects. Shah stresses that high-fat diets should include well-sourced fats and proteins (not just regular oils), and should be paired with an active lifestyle. She, however, warns that even when carefully balanced, a keto diet is difficult to maintain. "Doing the diet long-term can actually be harmful," Dey says. "Cutting out carbs from your diet will cause deficiencies, as you are not eating whole grains and starchy vegetables. Drawbacks include feeling fatigued or muscle loss, and long term drawbacks can include hypoglycemia and high lipid levels."
If you're keto-curious but reluctant to take the plunge, it's possible to incorporate elements into your daily routine. "Not everyone can — or should — commit to keto, but everyone can reap the full-fat benefits of fried eggs or sautéed tofu. Now that's a non-diet diet we can get behind.