"The keto diet is primarily used to help reduce the frequency of epileptic seizures in children. While it also has been tried for weight loss, only short-term results have been studied, and the results have been mixed. We don't know if it works in the long term, nor whether it's safe," warns registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
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A keto diet (or ketogenic diet) is drastically low in carbohydrates and very high in fat—typically 75 percent of calories come from fat, 20 percent from protein, and just 5 percent from carbohydrates. That’s extreme even by other strict diets’ standards. (Paleo, for example, typically allows you to get 20 to 40 percent of your calories from carbs.)
For people with diabetes, rapidly rising ketone levels can signal a health crisis that requires immediate medical attention. When there is an absence or not enough of the hormone insulin (or the body is too resistant to insulin to allow it to drive glucose into the cells for energy), the body cannot use glucose for fuel. Insulin helps ferry glucose to our cells and muscles for energy. Instead, in this case, the body resorts to burning stored fat for energy through the process of ketosis, leading to a buildup of ketones in the body.
Other kinesiologists think the keto diet could have dangerous effects on athletic performance, and it's tough to know what potential side effects a long-term high-fat diet might have for a healthy person, since we don't have any solid study results yet. Low-carb diets like keto can make it easy to neglect key nutrients like magnesium, calcium, and potassium found in fresh, high-carb foods like beans, bananas, and oats.
It’s important to remember that the goal of any dietary change is to promote a healthy lifestyle, so make sure to select a meal plan you can envision yourself following long term. If you know you will not be able to comply with such stringent carbohydrate restrictions for years to come, the ketogenic diet is most likely not the right choice for you.
As for how it feels to follow the diet, St. Pierre says it will vary from person to person; as with most diet-related things, whether or not a way of eating works is in the eye of the beholder. He’s seen some people feel fine, but that “some clients have found it causes brain fog and lethargy, decreases their performance, disrupts their regular bowel movements, and makes them feel generally crappy,” he says. Some keto adherents also report having pretty atrocious breath, which might be caused by the presence of acetone, a ketone and byproduct of fat metabolism, in exhaled breath.
Also make sure that you know what foods have mostly carbs, fat, and protein, so you can make the right choices. For instance, it’s not just bread, pasta, chips, cookies, candy, and ice cream that contain carbs. Beans may contain protein, but they’re also very high in carbohydrates. Fruit and veggies also mostly contain carbs. The only foods that don’t contain carbs are meat (protein) and pure fats, like butter and oils (including olive oil and coconut oil).
According to Macri, “If somebody is looking for physical and psychological health, the best way to get there is to focus on health. That entails eating in balance, not restrictively; moving regularly; and looking at the role of stress in one’s life. Those three areas will get someone to health as well as happiness.” Check out the 13 things doctors want you to know about the keto diet.
One downside to a ketogenic diet for weight loss is the difficulty maintaining it. “Studies show that weight loss results from being on a low-carb diet for more than 12 months tend to be the same as being on a normal, healthy diet,” says Mattinson. While you may be eating more satiating fats (like peanut butter, regular butter, or avocado), you’re also way more limited in what’s allowed on the diet, which can make everyday situations, like eating dinner with family or going out with friends, far more difficult. Because people often find it tough to sustain, it’s easy to rely on it as a short-term diet rather than a long-term lifestyle.