Written by Lia Rubinoff, Nutrition Consultant graduate
Fad diets are everywhere. From Paleo to the South Beach diet, through the Zone diet and back to Atkins, countless weight-loss plans have cropped up over the years, each offering varying degrees of efficacy and theoretical support.
Part of the allure is how wildly successful (at least at the outset) these diets can be, even though some may have detrimental effects over a long period of time.
Ultimately, no matter what the protocol may be, if you are interested in trying out a diet, it is important to understand how this new way of eating affects your body and why it yields the results its reputation claims.
The Keto Diet: Healthy or Harmful?
In addition to the aforementioned diets, the Keto diet is another way of eating that has recently earned press as a widely effective weight-loss plan. And not only is it gaining notoriety as one of the most popular current weight-loss trends, Keto is also touted as an energy-boosting diet with potential additional health benefits.
Despite this prestige, there are opposing claims that a ketogenic style of eating can instead be harmful and lead to such negative health effects as heart disease, weakening of the gut microbiome, and acidity and ketoacidosis.
So what are we to believe? Is Keto another fad diet or does it hold legitimacy as a lifestyle choice? To answer this question, we have to look at what ketosis is and how the diet interacts with our body.
What is Ketosis?
At its root, a ketogenic diet refers to a way of eating that will create a state of ketosis within the body. Ketosis is the circumstance in which cells utilize ketones—a derivative of fats—to make energy rather than the glucose—a derivative of carbohydrates—they typically use in energy production.
Although glucose is the most common form of fuel for the human body, ketones have a similar molecular shape to glucose and can also be used to make energy once the body has depleted its glucose reserves and needs additional sources.
This process usually only takes a few days, but it might be months before the body learns how to effectively adapt to ketones as its new primary energy source.
Thus the Keto diet actually changes the way we metabolize by changing the molecule we use to metabolize. It is useful to know that this metabolic modification can bring about temporary symptoms such as hunger, fatigue, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, muscle cramps, and bad breath.
To induce ketosis, it is crucial to monitor the ratio of macronutrients—that is, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—consumed. In fact, the ketogenic diet not only refers to creating a state of ketosis, but it also specifies a diet with high-fat content and very few carbohydrates.
Generally speaking, Keto diets are diets in which carbohydrates range from 0%–10% of the diet, protein makes up 15%–30%, and fats account for at least 60% of the diet and as much as 90%.
This means that, technically, you can eat anything as long as you maintain the prescribed macronutrient ratios. Thus, it is crucial to understand that there are both healthy and unhealthy ways to eat a ketogenic diet.
Interestingly, many of the health concerns associated with Keto derive from cases in which people are not making healthy choices within the ketogenic program.
For instance, a person may be eating within the macronutrient ratios of Keto, but choosing nutrient-poor, low-quality foods like processed foods, GMOs, toxic fats, large quantities of low-grade meats, and limited to no vegetables.
Eating habits such as these will ultimately lead to adverse health effects no matter what, and in certain cases like heart disease, eating a ketogenic diet with high quantities of low-grade fats and fewer vegetables will compound the already detrimental effects of eating those poor-quality foods in the first place. (Unfortunately, this is how many people on the Atkins diet developed heart disease when that diet was first introduced to the world).
Therefore, no matter what new eating style we choose, we need to make sure to practice it with care.
How Keto Can Be Healing
Though there is still much research to be done surrounding ketogenic diets, there are scenarios in which Keto is healing.
To see why ketones can be a preferred energy source, we must understand more of the inner workings of the glucose-insulin relationship.
When we eat carbohydrates, the beta cells of the pancreas release insulin to carry the glucose from the digested carbohydrates, out of the bloodstream and into cells for energy production or into tissues for storage as glycogen.
This process is very effective for energy production but is susceptible to disruption in cases in which individuals are eating processed, nutrient-poor carbohydrates and refined sugars, without enough healthy, nutrient-dense fats, proteins, and vegetables.
In such cases, the pancreas begins producing increased insulin in an attempt to manage the excess glucose in the blood, which can, in turn, down-regulate insulin receptors, limiting the ability of insulin to help glucose into cells for energy production.
If this process continues unabated, the body can develop chronic blood sugar imbalance, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, and the visceral weight gain leading to obesity.
Keto helps in these situations because, once the individual is in ketosis and no longer relying upon glucose, the pancreas can relax its insulin production, lowering insulin levels and allowing the body to regain its insulin sensitivity and blood sugar balance. This process offers healing as it will lead to improved balance within the body.
Finally, to return to the original question about fad weight loss diets, we can now see why Keto can be effective for those who have excess glucose in their systems that cannot be used to make energy. Insulin signals the liver to store glucose as glycogen so that the body can make energy between meals or during times of famine.
However, once glycogen reserves are full, the body begins to store excess glucose as triglycerides (fats), which is how the body gains weight.
Thus if an individual is dealing with obesity or just wants to lose fat, creating a state of ketosis will limit glucose and provide an opportunity for the body to first burn glycogen stores, and then naturally turn to its fat storage to utilize as fuel.
Therefore Keto is not just a fad diet, but also a theoretically sound method by which to achieve weight loss.
Regardless, please always keep in mind that every body is different, and although the method may be theoretically the same, each individual’s actual path to healing will differ.
Lia Rubinoff graduated from the Nutrition Consultant Training Program in 2018 and currently offers nutrition counseling and food-centered medicine to Bay Area residents looking to make health-centric changes in their lives.
Follow Lia on Instagram @liahelenahealing!