This post is to bring some clarity to the ever popular diet we all keep hearing about so that you know what it IS and more importantly, what it ISN’T. There are definitely reasons some people should not follow the ketogenic diet, but 90% of the naysayers I have heard speak out against the Keto diet are giving incorrect information based on their opinion of what the Keto diet is, not what the Keto diet actually is.
One reason I believe this diet appeals to so many people is that they are really tired of the calorie in versus calorie out weight loss advice. And there are well-known health gurus and health professionals that still want to push that advice while brushing off the Keto diet as just another name for Atkins. Since it’s far from the Atkins diet, it just adds to the confusion that already exists around this newer way of thinking about food, which I believed, is moving in the right direction. Another issue is, some are out there saying ketosis is “dangerous” and therefore it’s irresponsible to purposely put yourself into this state for the sake of weight loss.
First, let’s talk about what a Keto diet really is and what an Atkins diet really is, and then we’ll go from there.
One thing that you may have heard is that a Keto diet is the Atkins diet reskinned or renamed. I did my research last year on the safety of the ketogenic diet and what I found was that there was, in fact, a really common misunderstanding between those two diets, because they actually are very similar. As I was attempting to find information on the Keto (high fat, moderate protein) diet for long-term weight loss, what I really kept finding was a lot of research on the Atkins diet (high protein, low carbohydrate) that was were called a Keto diet for weight loss. Most research completed on a true high fat, moderate protein Keto diet was done to study it’s effects on epilepsy and seizures, not weight loss. The published literature available, for the most part, that was referring to weight loss was actually describing what the Atkins diet is.
Don’t miss the difference between these two -the Atkins diet is a low carb, high protein diet. The Keto diet is a low carb, high-fat diet. If you’re following a true Keto diet then that means you’re consuming 70% of your calories from fat, 5% of your calories from carbohydrate, and less than 25% of your calories from protein.
So you can see that Keto is not just a flippant term thrown around. It’s actually meant to put your body into ketosis. Ketosis means that your body is going to start burning fat for energy instead of the carbs that you’re eating. You kinda have to be a strict type A personality to do this. You can’t just dip your toe into this diet plan and haphazardly plan this. If you do, then your body is very well designed to compensate and will not go in ketosis. Meaning, if you eat a little bit more protein than you should, your body will turn protein into glucose for energy. And you’re not in ketosis anymore.
Same if you eat just a little bit of extra carbs, then your body’s going to immediately suck up those carbs for the energy and again, you will go out of ketosis. Your body has to go through all of your carb storage first, which is in your liver before it begins to dip into its fat stores. If you are on a Keto diet, you want your body to start breaking down the fat for energy. It’s a science. I’m not kidding -some people get serious enough to check for ketones in their urine. Most won’t get that serious, but that’s really the only way to be sure.
So why do a diet this extreme? There are benefits to it. If you have insulin resistance, it actually can help that because your body is not needing to produce nearly as much insulin. If you are struggling with hunger, you’re not hungry because the thing is, if you’re eating a lot of carbs, our body’s natural reaction when we run out of carbs is to feel hunger. If you eliminate your body’s need for carbs for energy, you’re not going to feel hungry anymore because now your body’s using fat. Not to mention, fat is really satiating anyways. You end up not feeling that hungry because of the types of food you’re eating.
I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly recap the Atkins diet. It has four phases although I have never met anyone who has gone through all of them or even knew there were “phases” to this plan. Nonetheless, it actually is very similar to a Keto diet if you’re in phase one, which is about 60% fat, 20% protein, and 10% carbohydrates. Those percentages are just enough to keep you out of that ketosis that the true Keto diet is meant for. You are only supposed stay on that “introductory” phase for about two weeks. But recall, the emphasis of the Atkins is on high protein, so most people are not looking to up their intake of oils, butter, avocados, nuts, etc like they would on the Keto plan. The focus is on bun-less burgers, steaks, chicken breasts, bacon, eggs and cottage cheese.
The next phase of the Atkins plan is when you start re-adding carbs back into your diet, only about five grams per week. Now, most people don’t do that. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody that actually did that. Eventually, you get into where you add 10 grams per week and then you get up to about 45 to 100 grams per week on your maintenance phase. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anybody do that until they quit altogether and the rest is history.
Another huge difference is that high protein, low carb diets have always been solely focused on weight loss and nothing else, going into ketosis is just part of the deal. But it’s probably not going to correct your insulin resistance problem. It actually will probably make it worse in the long run because 99% of those who go on this type of diet will regain all their lost weight back. You know what I’m talking about, you’ve probably lived it.
The last thing that really gets to me is the notion that the Keto diet is “dangerous.”
Now, by all means, I don’t recommend this diet for everybody. You have to be very dedicated, have excellent planing skills, and be bold enough to stand up to social pressures when temptation comes. But when someone says a high fat, moderate protein, low carb diet is dangerous, they aren’t talking about ketosis. They are thinking of ketoacidosis and yes, that’s a dangerous state to be in. But understand that ketoacidosis is a totally different thing from ketosis and unless you are diabetic on insulin, you are at very small risk of experiencing this.
Ketosis is a normal thing that we all go into on a regular basis at least mildly. For example, you ate breakfast today but got busy and skipped lunch by accident, so eight or nine hours passed by before you ate again. Your body may go into a little bit of a ketosis once you’ve depleted your glycogen stores (i.e. sugar stores.). Let’s say you had a little bit too much ahem, alcohol, to drink last Friday night. Your body will naturally go into ketosis because it’s attempting to restore balance and burning ketones (fat) for energy because it can’t metabolize alcohol as well (hello, it’s a toxin). We are always going into ketosis, we just don’t stay in it for very long and it’s more of a mild versus a moderate ketosis, which is the Keto diet.
However, if you go into a severe high ketosis, which means ketones levels are too high, then you’ve gone into ketoacidosis and that’s a medical emergency. It happens in people who have diabetes who aren’t receiving enough or any insulin and aren’t able to metabolize anything at all. It can cause confusion, electrolyte imbalances, coma, or even death. So yes, if you are diabetic and you take medicine, especially insulin, to lower your blood sugar levels, you should speak with your doctor first before making any drastic changes to your medications, diet, or otherwise.
Lastly, Keto may still not be for you and I will be the first one to support you if and when you do find that diet plan that helps you gain control of your health long term. One thing that we do know is that telling somebody to restrict their calorie intake to lose weight doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. But it helps to have to have an open mind to what other things there are that are out there and Keto is just one option.
P.S. If you’re looking for online support with like-minded women striving to live a healthier lifestyle, you may be interested in joining my free support group here.
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Jillian McMullen, RDN, CSOWM, LDN