You may have heard about the ketogenic, or “keto,” diet. It’s the latest in a seemingly endless stream of diet trends that generate lots of buzz on the internet and on television every now and then. But, while trendy diets come and go, the keto diet – despite its recent surge in popularity – actually has been around for a while. Like, for centuries. As it turns out, many of our ancestors flourished off of eating a diet not unlike the keto diet people are turning to today. In fact, a similar diet was used to treat epilepsy in the 1920s.
But what is the keto diet, and how does it work? And what are the advantages of “going keto?” Blount Memorial Hospital registered dietitian Heather Pierce says there’s a lot to consider. “Ketogenic diets promote the use of fats as a person’s primary fuel source instead of carbohydrates,” Pierce said. “Most people do this by attempting a diet of about 70 percent fats, 15 to 20 percent proteins and five to 10 percent carbohydrates. This means eating a diet rich in foods such as eggs, meats, cheese, butter, oils, avocados, nuts, non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens and mushrooms, and some lower-carb fruits such as berries. On the flipside, going keto means avoiding foods such as rice, pastas, chips, crackers, potatoes, breads, beans, sugar, sweets and milk,” she explained. “The idea is that, after a day or two of going keto, our bodies switch from burning the glycogen found in stored carbohydrate to burning fat, which is called ‘ketosis,’” she added.
Like any diet, though, there are pros and cons to going keto. “The ketogenic diet can be really helpful for people who have type-2 diabetes, pre-diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or another insulin-resistant diagnosis, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS),” Pierce said. “This is because the reduction of carbs helps lower blood sugar and insulin. Keto also helps with weight management because ketosis helps reduce hunger, and the fairly quick loss of water weight when you start the diet makes it seem pretty effective,” she explained. “However, there are some potential drawbacks to the keto diet, as well. First, transitioning to ketosis can take some time. Some people transition to it in a couple of days, but it may take a few weeks for others. During the transition period, people can experience hunger, headaches, nausea, fatigue and irritability. Drinking enough fluids and eating a little more salt can help with these side effects, though. Also, some people who go keto can experience nutrient deficiencies, which can be balanced with a multivitamin, calcium and vitamin D. Constipation can be a side effect of keto, too, so if you’re trying the diet, make sure you’re getting enough fiber from the vegetables that you can eat. Exercise also can help with this,” she said. “With all these potential drawbacks, the keto diet can be tough for people to stick to, so it’s important to remember to seek out support from your health team, online sources, or there’s a podcast called ‘LowCarbMD’ that has some great speakers to learn from, too,” she added.
“Ultimately, I think the keto diet is safe for most people to try,” Pierce continued. “However, if you’re on multiple medications, or are trying the diet specifically to help control diabetes, I recommend that you consult with your physician first because the change in your diet could create a need to change your medications. It also can cause drops in magnesium, so medical management really is strongly advised. Also, the keto diet is not recommended for women who are pregnant or are breastfeeding, or those who have eating disorders or kidney disease,” she said. “If you do try the keto diet, remember that every diet has its challenges, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip up. Weight loss is a journey, not a quick-fix,” she added.