If you have read a magazine on holiday recently or watched The Magic Pill on Netflix, you have likely come across the latest celebrity diet referred to as the ‘keto diet’. There are a few things you need to know before you dive straight in and throw out all the carbs.
What is the ‘keto diet’?
The ‘keto diet’, short for ‘ketogenic diet’, is a very low carbohydrate, high fat, moderate protein diet. It aims to induce a metabolic process called ‘ketosis’, in which the body changes its metabolism from burning glucose (a sugar found in carbohydrates like bread and pasta) to burning fat for energy. As the body begins to break down fats, compounds called ‘ketones’ are formed, which can then be used by the body for energy.
Why has it become a popular weight loss diet?
The popularity of the Atkins diet and other low carb diets, have resulted in the keto diet being used for weight loss. Unfortunately, the initial weight loss on the diet is not due to fat but is mostly water and a little muscle protein. Although you will likely lose some weight on the diet and your body will become more efficient at burning fat, maintaining the diet long term is very difficult and therefore the weight is likely to return when you come off the diet.
Where did the diet come from?
The ‘keto diet’ was not invented as a way to lose weight; it was developed to treat patients suffering from epilepsy.
It is currently used as a last resort medical treatment for children with epilepsy whose seizures cannot be controlled with anti-epileptic drugs. It has been found to reduce both the number and severity of seizures and can have a positive effect on behaviour. Although some adults with epilepsy may benefit from the diet, it is not currently recommended for treatment, as more data is needed about the impact of the diet.
What can you eat on the diet?
As the keto diet is a low carb, high fat diet, bread and pasta are not on the menu. Foods you can eat include:
• Meat and fish
• Nuts and seeds
• High fat dairy foods like butter, cheese and cream
• Oils like coconut and olive
• Some veg like avocado, cauliflower, cabbage, courgette, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and spinach
• Low sugar fruits like blueberries and raspberries
Foods that are off the menu include:
• Grains like bread, pasta, rice, oats and quinoa
• Desserts like cakes, pastries, pies, ice-cream and milk chocolate
• Root vegetables like potatoes, carrots and parsnips
• Legumes like beans and lentils
• Higher sugar fruits like apples, bananas, oranges, grapes, watermelon, pineapple, melon, pears, plums and cherries
• Condiments like BBQ sauce and ketchup (except mayonnaise)
• Alcohol like beer and sweet wine (except pure spirits)
Is it a healthy diet?
Unfortunately, due to the low carb nature of the diet, you have to limit your intake of fruits and vegetables, which are a good source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Wholegrains are also not allowed, which are a good source of fibre and help to regulate digestion, lower cholesterol levels and support heart health. You are also consuming much higher levels of fat and we know saturated fat is linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
The keto diet therefore goes against what the government recommends we should eat to achieve a healthy, balanced diet. However, if done correctly it can help to cut out many processed, refined foods.
Side effects of the diet
It usually takes the body around 3 to 4 days to shift metabolism and to use up all its glucose stores. Whilst the body adjusts to a withdrawal in carbs, it is likely that you will feel very low in energy and experience headaches, nausea and mental fog. However, this will likely fade after a week and many people have reported feeling much more energised, lower appetite and weight loss once they are in ketosis.
It is a lot more difficult to undertake the keto diet successfully than many people realise. To keep your body in ketosis you have to consume a considerably large amount of fat, a moderate amount of protein and very little carbs. If you are not consuming enough protein, your body can begin to break down muscle for energy.
Due to the restrictiveness of the diet and because we do not know about the long term health effects, it is not recommended for more than 3 months.
Take home message
The diet appears to offer incredible health benefits for people suffering from epilepsy and possibly other conditions like brain cancer. However, it is a very restrictive and cuts out many foods that we consider essential for health. The diet is not achievable long term and any weight lost will likely return when you come off the diet. Instead of the keto diet, try to eat a healthy, balanced diet, including 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, basing your meals on starchy foods like wholegrains and potatoes, eat a balance of beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein, swap unsaturated fats for saturated, and drink plenty of fluids.
Please consult with your doctor before starting the diet, as the diet may not be safe for everyone particularly if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or you have diabetes, kidney disease or a thyroid disorder. Due to the restrictiveness of the diet, it should only be carried out with the supervision of a trained medical specialist.
Speak again soon,
Gemma, The Food Doctor nutritionist