Necessary medical disclaimer: This post is for educational purposes only and is not meant to diagnose, treat, or cure any medical condition. Consult with your doctor about making any changes to your diet.
I’ve been getting a ton of questions about keto lately that I wanted to address here on the blog – what is it, is it good for me, is it sustainable, will it really help me lose weight and allow me to feel my best, healthiest self?
This post will cover all of that. I’ll get into some of keto’s benefits and drawbacks and give you my overall take on whether you should give it a try. My main focus is always on helping you live a healthy lifestyle that you can do forever, so that’s the lens from which I’ll be looking at this.
Overall, keto’s got a certain appeal: legitimate science to back up *some* of its benefits and a clear cut methodology to follow. In fact, “keto” was the top health-related search term on Google in 2018 (in the U.S.).
But the bottomline is this: research suggests that keto is a helpful treatment for some medical conditions, including seizures, traumatic brain injuries, and diabetes. If you don’t have any of those health problems, however, I’d recommend passing on it without thinking twice. For most people, eating extremely low carb isn’t sustainable whatsoever – and even if keto’s used as a temporary weight or fat loss program, it doesn’t teach you best practices to keep up once you reach your goal.
At the end of the day, we all have to do what’s right for us. I hope this post helps you do just that.
What’s keto and how does it work?
If you’re already fairly familiar with keto, go ahead and skip to the next section.
“Keto,” short for “ketogenic diet,” is a nutritional protocol that calls for eating foods with very high fat, very low carbohydrate, and medium-high protein content. On the keto diet, carbohydrates usually make up around 5-10% of your daily calories, compared to the 25-50% that many other eating styles adhere to. (Are red flashing warning lights going off in your head yet? This is extreme!) There are a few different variations of the keto diet, but in general, they have that trait in common.
For example, if you were following keto, you’d expect to nearly avoid foods like grains, fruits, beans, and sugary foods in favor of meats, poultry, fatty fish, greens, non-starchy veggies, and nuts.
The goal is to enter what’s called “ketosis,” or a metabolic state in which you have heightened levels of ketones (compounds made from the breakdown of fats) in the blood. When you’re in ketosis, you tend to feel more mentally focused and you’re more efficient at burning fat because your body’s breaking fat down for energy. Being in ketosis also lowers blood sugar and insulin levels, which has a whole range of health benefits that go beyond the scope of this post.
Keto was actually developed about 100 years ago to treat epileptic seizures in children. These days, it’s made a comeback as a medical protocol, but also as a diet marketed to the general public… which is where things get a little sticky.
What does the research say?
There are three camps to consider here: keto’s benefits for medical conditions, weight loss, and general health. The research is still ongoing and relatively new, with some promising factors.
As far as medical conditions go, keto has been shown to be helpful for some cases of:
Diabetes and prediabetes
Traumatic brain injuries
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
Definitely work with your medical professional if you’re interested in exploring keto as a medical intervention. My education is in food and fitness – I’m not a doctor!
How about keto for weight loss? Multiple significant pieces of research (including a review of studies on the topic and a 600+-person research trial) have concluded that a low carb diet isn’t better than a low fat diet, or vice versa, for optimal weight loss. Why? Weight loss results from being in a calorie deficit, which can be achieved by eating either low carb or low fat. So the takeaway is to choose whichever type of diet you can maintain. Sustainable weight loss comes from being able to eat in a way that’s relatively healthy over a long period of time and improves your quality of life.
So why’s keto everywhere these days?
A few reasons:
It plays into (unwarranted) carb phobia. Just like fat was villinized in the ‘80s, carbs have gotten an unfair bad rap. The truth is, they exist in nature for a reason.
It’s extreme – and there’s an appeal to that. For some, that extreme might appeal because they’re willing to do whatever it takes to be healthier. For others, the extreme could appeal because it promises instant gratification. In any case, intensity is often sexy.
There’s solid science touting its benefits. This isn’t just your next made up magic pill – it’s backed up by convincing science, which makes it harder to recognize as a fad.
My take: keto doesn’t teach best practices and it’s not a way of life
As I mentioned earlier, the research showing keto to be an effective treatment for some medical conditions is pretty promising.
But would I choose eating around 5% of my daily calories from carbs as the first line of attack for losing weight and living a healthy lifestyle, either as a short or long term strategy? Absolutely not. I’m wary of any approaches that nearly cut out entire categories of foods and I think you should be too.
As a short term approach, keto might work to lose weight and improve other health markers, like insulin sensitivity. But what happens once we lose some weight? How do we eat after that to maintain it? We’re sort of back at square one because keto doesn’t have any built in guidelines for sustainability or forever eating. There are better ways to lose weight short term that do teach us best practices for care and nourishment and that help us maintain them over time.
As a long term approach, it’s worth considering if eating severely low carb is truly a way of life for you. Ask yourself: is it really realistic to imagine spending the rest of my life eating almost all proteins and fats with hardly any carbs (remember, that’s not even just no pasta or sweets – that’s also little fruit and tons of protein and fats for life)? Then, there’s the question of whether it’s healthy to nearly cut out an entire category of food over the long haul. If you ask me, sure, there are some people out there who can maintain keto and have a high quality of life with great health markers over time. But that’s just not most people.
In general, many of keto’s benefits can be approximated with a sensible, healthy diet – and without all the drawbacks.
Consider the benefits of keto:
Mental clarity – can be approximated with adequate quality sleep; drinking enough water; eating meals of proteins, healthy fats, veggie carbs, and sometimes starchy carbs; and meditation.
Fat loss – can be achieved with a sensible diet and without cutting out entire categories of food.
Lower blood sugar and increased insulin sensitivity – again, can be achieved by eating mostly whole foods, adequate protein, healthy fats, veggies, and some starchy carbs.
And now think about some of the drawbacks:
Food obsession – we all know how it goes when we try to rigidly abstain from certain foods for a prolonged period of time. It takes up tons of mental energy and often results in us sacrificing other important areas of life.
Low energy and poor workouts – after a while, eating low carb will probably compromise your energy and your workouts will suffer.
Compensatory eating – feelings of deprivation often lead us to swing in the other direction and even binge eat. Even if you can maintain keto for months or years at a time, there’s still a significant risk of compensatory eating on the other side. Not worth it, if you ask me.
In sum, keto has recently and understandably been in the hot seat of many weight loss conversations, both for and against. But ultimately, if you’re looking for the most strategic, efficient way to lead a healthy lifestyle forever, I’d say skip keto and get back to the basics.
What are your thoughts on keto? Tell me below!
Keto was a top health-related search term on Google in the United States in 2018:
Keto may be beneficial for people with certain medical conditions, including epilepsy, diabetes, and gut imbalances:
Carbohydrates usually make up around 5% of daily calories on the keto diet:
Keto diet basics, including what to eat and what not to eat:
Keto was developed approximately 100 years ago to treat epileptic seizures in children:
Low-fat and low-carb diets produce similar weight loss results:
Finding a diet that is personally sustainable is significant for weight loss:
Keto is likely not sustainable for the average person:
Food deprivation often leads to binge eating: