Today was reluctantly brought to you by ketogenic diets (aka Atkins). I have to admit, for a second there I thought that there were some promising aspects about ketogenic diets. I always had viewed them as a sly way for people to eat all the bacon and butter they can shove down the hatch. Turns out I was (and still am) mostly right about that…but there’s more to it, so I suggest you put your feet up, and read on.
In a nutshell, ketogenic diets entail eating ridiculous amounts of fat, some protein, and very little carbohydrate. The theory is that by reducing carbs to almost nothing, we shift the body into a state of burning mainly body fat/dietary fat for energy. Sounds great, right? Eat a bunch of fatty, delicious foods while watching the pounds just melt away? Sign me up! NOT.
For one, most people who are getting their nutrition information from their bros at the gym are not even doing it right. For ketosis to occur (aka for the body to be relying more on burning up stored fat for fuel), the diet has to be predominantly FAT, with moderate amounts of protein. However, typically those I see who “think” they are doing a ketogenic diet are eating a boat-load of protein. What’s the problem, you ask? Well, if ample protein is present, the body will rely more heavily on gluconeogenesis (aka production of glucose from protein in this case) rather than producing ketones. The body always prefers glucose to ketones when given the option.
For two, although there are many studies that tout the benefits of a ketogenic diet, there are some significant factors to keep in mind while deciphering this research:
- In the studies that mention huge improvement to trigyceride levels and blood sugar levels, what they DON’T ever mention is what the test subjects’ lifestyles were like prior to a ketogenic diet. In other words, if you were eating bags of Cheetos and drinking gallons of Coke every day, then a ketogenic diet might actually be a little healthier for you in terms of less substrate available to make triglycerides and/or raise blood sugar levels. However, if you are a relatively healthy person, and you embark upon a true ketogenic diet, it can have some negative effects on your overall heart health.
- MANY of the studies that showed a significant initial weight loss in the beginning (first few weeks) of a ketogenic diet admit that it is a significant loss of water weight (loss of glycogen = loss of water), AND that after several more weeks/months, the subjects’ weight often returned to baseline. In other words, people either lost the ability to truly stick to this restrictive style of eating, or the rapid loss of weight made them feel invincible and able to eat anything, or both…
- Although it sounds novel to think about being able to eat all the fat you want, this diet is very limiting and restrictive. Therefore most people can’t stick with it, so any benefits are temporary (as are most diets, so stop it!). A ketogenic diet doesn’t mean you get all the bacon cheeseburgers or ice cream you want. In fact, ice cream would not be allowed; nor would the bun on the cheeseburger or any French fries. So, a ketogenic meal would be high in fat but mediocre on the protein side; and forget about fruit, milk, yogurt, many vegetables, whole grains, etc. What I find amusing is that after a quick search of a nice example of a ketogenic meal to show you, most of what I found would not put you into “ketosis;” rather, it would encourage gluconeogenesis from the significant emphasis on protein. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
- A “low carb eating style” is not at all the same as a “ketogenic diet.” In fact, most people I know who do “low carb” actually (and without even realizing it) are eating appropriate, moderate amounts of carbohydrate. Keep in mind that many of us (me) grew up eating copious amounts of carbs at meals. Where I’m from, we typically would have meat, potatoes, corn, bread, milk, and dessert all at the same meal. Therefore, “low carb” to me was having potatoes OR corn, a smaller amount or no bread, a smaller portion of milk, and no dessert. Is it truly “low carb”? No. But it’s far more appropriate in serving sizes than what I used to eat. Furthermore, low-carb eating entails eating enough carbohydrates to allow you to get plenty of much-needed antioxidants, fiber, and micronutrients from whole grains, vegetables, fruit, dairy, etc. but without consuming excess that can/will be stored as fat.
- Few of the bazillion studies I’ve read in the very recent past address the fact that because the diet (if truly ketogenic) is so limited, micronutrient deficiencies are bound to occur. If you have to take a supplement in order to get proper nutrition, therein lies a profound problem with your philosophy on eating in general…
- Ketogenic diets actually DO have some clinical relevance with regard to active cancer and epiliepsy. Here are some theories on why:
- Cancer cells have a much bigger need for glucose than “normal” cells. The theory behind some emerging research on applying a ketogenic diet to active cancer is that you are “starving” the cancer cells. In other words, by reducing the glucose available for the cancer cells, they are forced to take up ketones. However, unlike normal cells, the cancer cells don’t fare so well with using ketones for energy. Therefore, ultimately the cancer is thought to die.
- Please keep in mind though, that a ketogenic diet is not the gold standard for cancer prevention, although in theory it might sound like a good strategy. The reason why is that a ketogenic diet is quite low in antioxidant phytochemicals, the stuff that comes from plants and helps us fight off free-radicals Free-radicals are molecules that our bodies produce that can lead to cancer and/or other chronic health ailments. So, a diet rich in whole plant foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains) to prevent cancer would be a better strategy overall.
- A ketogenic diet has been around for ages with regard to treating people, especially kiddos, for seizures. The mechanism by which a state of ketosis reduces/prevents seizures is unclear; but the thought seems to be that individuals predisposed to seizures may be lacking some enzymatic capability to efficiently use glucose in the brain. By using a ketogenic diet, the brain can use ketones as the “plan B” for energy, thus reducing the incidence of seizures.
- Again, keep in mind that although the kiddos reduce/eliminate seizures, they still are at risk for multiple other ailments from a long-term ketogenic diet, such as heart disease, nutrient deficiencies, etc.
- Emerging research is starting to show some benefits with other neurological diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The jury is still out on those subjects, however.
If you know me personally, or if you’ve read ANY of my previous posts, you will not be surprised by what I’m about to say: STOP DIETING. PLEASE. Unless you have active cancer or epilepsy, in which case I am begging you to arrange to meet 1:1 with a registered dietitian nutritionist to do it right instead of google-doing-it. Please.
I am on board with low-carb eating, and I should probably do it more myself. Knowledge doesn’t always change behavior, so I indulge more than I should. Whatever. The difference, I feel, is indulging and knowing what you’re doing to your body versus indulging and thinking you’re doing something “good.”
Here’s a shocking revelation: eat real food, mostly non-starchy vegetables, some fruit, some whole grains, a decent amount of lean meat, eggs, or plant-based protein, some healthy fats, some milk or yogurt, and exercise more often. For that matter, just get up off the chair once in a while. If you are consistent with meal timing and amounts, you will learn to better listen to your body. Slow down with eating; eat about every 4ish hours (small meal or snack); and try to learn to enjoy life, including the foods you eat. Seek out ways to not only eat healthy foods, but enjoy healthy foods, and you will improve your health, your performance, your weight, or whatever it is you’re trying to improve through food choices.