Fad diets are as American as apple pie. Starting with the Cigarette Diet in 1925, the US has seen the number of prescribed diets grow into the hundreds with more coming out each year. Some of them are legitimate and based on sound research. Others, like the Baby Food Diet, Cotton Ball Diet, and Tapeworm Diet, are less so. Say what you will about fad diets, but there’s no shortage of creativity.
One diet that's become very popular in recent years and has been tossed in with fad diets is the Ketogenic or Keto Diet. The diet has actually been around since the early 1900s when it was successfully used to treat epilepsy and brain cancer. But you'd more likely recognize it from online pictures of people drinking butter coffee or eating bowls of bacon. Eating keto means eating fat. Lots of fat - at least 70% of your calories. For the rest, 25% should come from protein and 5% or less from carbs.
In most of the world, carbs are the body’s primary source of energy. To simplify some complex physiology, carbs are broken down into glucose. Glucose is then used to fuel your brain and muscles. Due to the global abundance of cheap carbs - primarily rice, wheat, and corn - this is how most of the world runs. However, there are a few cultures that don't have access to carbs and must use something else for fuel - fat.
When your body has no carbs, it naturally will turn to fat for energy. This causes your body to ramp up production of something called ketones and these ketones replace glucose as your body's fuel. When this happens, your body goes into ketosis. This is the goal of the keto diet. That or eating as much Kerrygold butter as possible.
To get to ketosis, you need to eat a lot of fat. That doesn't mean you've got a green light to pound bacon and donut sandwiches. There are good and bad fats and if you're going for ketosis, you want the good ones. That means nuts, seeds, fish, avocados, olive oil, eggs, poultry, coconuts, grass-fed meat, and full-fat dairy products. Common sense still applies so industrial fats like margarine and all processed foods are a no go. Vegetables low in carbs like spinach, kale, bok choy, and cauliflower should also be eaten in abundance.
The difference between the keto diet and fad diets is that the keto diet is backed by a long list of potential and proven benefits that are based on scientific research. Not sure if the Cookie Diet can say that.
The keto diet only recently resurfaced and there's a lot more research to be done before any hard conclusions can be made. One conclusion that we probably can make is that the keto diet is more than the next Cabbage Soup Diet.
Eating too much of anything will make you more doughy. But eating more of your calories from fat doesn't make you fat. When carbs are restricted, eating more fat actually increases fat loss. In one study, individuals lost an average 25 pounds over a 6-month period. Physiologically, this makes sense. Because fat becomes your body’s main source of fuel, your body burns it at a much higher rate than it would normally. How much higher? One study showed keto-adapted individuals burned 2.3x more fat than those on a Western diet. That's more than twice as much fat.
Not only do you burn more fat, but you burn more of that elusive belly fat. That's right, ketogenic diets are unusually effective at shedding the gut.
Research says otherwise. One study had elite gymnasts on a ketogenic diet for 30 days and compared their strength performance before and after. The results? No significant difference was found between the athletes who were on a ketogenic diet versus those who weren't. The only major difference between the two groups was that the keto group weighed an average 3.5 pounds less and carried 4.2 pounds less fat.
Some have warned that the keto diet is unsafe by arguing that it leads to ketoacidosis, a rise in blood acidity that could be fatal. However, unless you’re a diabetic, ketoacidosis is virtually impossible.
One short term effect is often referred to as the "keto flu". This "flu" hits in the first few days as the body adapts to using fat for fuel. Symptoms include lack of energy, dizziness, mental fogginess and are usually gone by day three or four.
From what we now know, there don't appear to be any long term negative side effects. The keyword is "now" because we (humans) also used to "know" that tobacco was so healthy that we called it "God's remedy." The point is that we don't know anything until science proves it beyond reasonable doubt and even then we're probably wrong.
The potential benefits are numerous - fat loss, muscle retention, mental clarity, longer life, and prevention of serious diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. The risks are few, if any. Not many other diets can make this claim, so why aren't we call having butter coffee and bacon for breakfast?
Adherence. Limiting carbohydrates to less than 50g a day is not easy. Poultry, meat, and dairy have 0g carbs while leafy greens have very low amounts. But what many people don’t understand is that the keto diet is not just a diet, it’s a metabolic state. Too many carbs will knock you out of ketosis and if that happens you lose all the benefits. That means no cheating. No chips on gameday, no tossing back drinks on Saturday night, and that Thanksgiving pie? Forget about it.
The keto diet is definitely not another fad diet. Worst case, it's an effective fat loss tool with numerous medical applications. Best case, it could be one of the best diets for humans in terms of overall health and longevity. We can't conclusively say for sure and won't know until the whitecoats write up more studies. While we wait, try out some butter coffee (it's actually not bad) but whether it becomes a cornerstone of your diet is up to you.