The ketogenic diet is all the rage worldwide, but what exactly is it about? And should you try it? We got a dietitian and a nutritionist to weigh in.
The latest diet that’s taken Hollywood by storm is the keto (short for ketogenic) diet. Fans of the diet include celebs like Halle Barry and Gwyneth Paltrow, reality stars Kim and Kourtney Kardashian as well as Victoria’s Secret Angel Adriana Lima.
Locally, celebs like Silver Ang and Nat Ho are strong proponents of the ultra low-carb diet.
It’s super effective for weight loss. “I lost 4kg in two months on the keto diet,” says Silver. “And the best thing was, I didn’t even feel like I was on a diet!” Indeed, the actress didn’t have to give up her favourite Mookata (Thai barbecue), Korean barbecue and steamboat meals.
Other benefits touted by keto diet fans – and seeing as it’s the most searched diet on Google in 2018, there are many worldwide – include improvements in energy levels and mental alertness.
So, what exactly is a ketogenic diet?
The ketogenic diet is essentially a very strict high-fat, moderate-protein and low-carb diet. When you cut down on your carbohydrate intake, your body eventually enters a state known as ketosis. In ketosis, your body burns fat instead of carbohydrates from food, and produces ketones, which are acids your body can use as fuel.
It’s good to note however that not all low-carb diets are ketogenic – it’s only keto if your body is allowed to go into ketosis.
So, when people say they are on a ketogenic diet, they could mean they are on a variant of it. Kim Kardashian, for example, actually went on the Atkins 40 diet in 2016 after having her son Saint. She reportedly lost a whopping 27kg in a short span of time. Similar to the keto diet, Atkins involves a very limited intake of carbs and high amounts of fat. The main difference is that on the Atkins diet, you’ll slowly reintroduce carbs, so ketosis will likely only come into play during the early phase.
While the keto diet is loved for seemingly helping people lose considerable weight without the restrictions or mundaneness of other diets, the keto diet wasn’t originally developed for weight loss. It had a more serious medical reason: for treating epilepsy in children.
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in the US noticed that some epilepsy patients who were exhibiting signs like low blood sugar had fewer seizures. So, they created a diet meant to trick the body into thinking it’s starving, without actually being so.
How to keto?
The diet recommends that your meals are made up of 70 per cent fat, 25 per cent protein and just five per cent carbs. (Hello, greasy bacon and creamy scrambled eggs!)
When you eat normally, carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream as sugar, which makes the body release insulin. Insulin allows glucose to enter the cells, which the body uses for fuel or stores as fats. By reducing your carb intake, the insulin levels are lowered too. This puts your body in a state called ketosis, where fats are broken down for energy instead.
The idea is that when your body runs out of carbs to burn for energy, it’ll look for the next alternative fuel: fats. Most keto followers keep satiated with a good protein and get their vitamins and minerals from low-carb vegetables such as kale, lettuce and zucchini.
Say goodbye, though, to bread, pasta, rice and sugar-laden desserts.
Typically, your body will become very efficient at fat-burning, and you’ll feel full while still consuming fewer calories overall – from the high-fat and moderate-protein meals. (That’s if you have the discipline to stick to keto guidelines – read on.)
(Also read: Use These Portion Control Tips to Avoid Overeating)
Should you keto?
While advocates swear by its health benefits and the added attraction of rapid weight loss, critics say the strict diet is unrealistic, unsustainable and might even be dangerous in the long run.
Dietitians and nutritionists Shape spoke to generally warn against it, at least in the long-term or if you’re doing it without proper guidance from a trained healthcare professional.
“It is not considered a healthy, balanced diet as the amounts of carb and protein are very limited, not to mention that the diet is almost devoid of fruits and vegetables,” says Jaclyn Reutens, clinical and sports dietitian, and founder of Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants.
This is also a concern of Charlotte Mei de Drouas, a certified nutritionist who is also a TV and radio personality. “A nutritious and balanced diet would include a variety of healthy foods which are not included in the keto diet due to their high carbohydrate content. Examples would be most fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains,” she says. “Many of these foods contain vitamins, minerals, fibre and other nutrients not found in other food sources.”
Then, there are the potentially harmful side effects.
“Ketoacidosis (dangerous condition when the body produces high levels of ketones) and hypoglycemia (very low blood sugar levels) may result,” Jaclyn cautions. “Other issues such as fainting spells, lethargy, lightheadedness and nausea can occur. Add to this, there will be an increased risk of kidney stones, fatty liver disease and elevated cholesterol levels.”
It seems like there may be a longer list of potential dangers compared to benefits. “There isn’t enough science to back up the diet and its long-term effects, for me to advocate it for weight loss or other health benefits,” Charlotte says. “I believe in striving for balance rather than extremes. The keto diet for me is too restrictive and cuts out a lot of nutritious foods which are needed by the body. It is also a little too strict in that a miscalculation of carbohydrates or proteins may knock you out of ketosis.”
(Also read: Pros & Cons Of The Keto Diet)
Global marketing director Jem Loh, 33, who lost 13kg in 2017, when she was on a strict keto diet, says, “As I travel frequently for work, it can be challenging to manage a keto diet while on the move. I find myself bouncing in and out of ketosis when I travel.”
She is often caught in cycles of “having to overcome the initial keto flu (flu-like side effects, including headaches and fatigue, when the body adapts to the diet) and kicking sugar cravings over and over”.
Still, she intends to stick to “the keto way of eating” as much as possible. Besides helping her control her appetite and eliminating hunger pangs, the diet has also helped her manage her insulin resistance, a condition that had led to polycystic ovarian syndrome in her 20s.
At the end of the day, the keto diet is “definitely not one to try out as an experiment”, says Charlotte.
“Speak to your GP or a health professional, and don’t rely on the Internet as your source of information,” she advises. “There’s no magic bullet for long-term weight loss. Look for a diet that is sustainable for you.”
(Also read: Heaty Foods to Avoid in Singapore’s Hot Weather)