We don't often talk about diets because to be honest we're not big fans of short-term solutions that can be damaging long-term. We're interested in long-term sustainable nutrition and lifestyle changes that help you feel good again. We see the people with disordered eating and eating disorders who are suffering at the hands of those that promote diet culture so we know the damage that diets can do. Having said that with so many speaking about the keto diet we felt we had to review this diet. This blog covers the findings of one of the team of New Zealand Dietitians after reviewing the literature on this controversial topic.
You may have heard your friends and family rave about it. You may have seen them drop off weight and heard them say they’re feeling healthier. There are plenty of people in the world talking up the keto diet. Whether through google or social media, you don’t have to look far to find people talking about all the amazing benefits of keto. In their defense, they’re not completely wrong. The keto diet has been shown to reduce weight and even improve some health markers such as blood glucose levels. But here’s the kicker, it’s only been shown to work for about six months. Studies have shown that after six months, weight loss and other health benefits no longer have any statistical significance against control diets and in MANY of the studies the drop out rate is alarming.
The keto diet is an extreme version of the low carbohydrate diet. Low carbohydrate diets are nothing new. At first it was the Atkins diet but as time has gone on, the same old low carbohydrate diet has been rebranded and resold multiple times. The keto diet was originally developed as a treatment for epilepsy in young children but as a variation of a low carbohydrate diet, Keto quickly turned into another weight-loss treatment.
Carbohydrates are our usual source of energy for our brain, blood cells and the rest of our body. When carbohydrates are restricted, the body is first forced to use all the stored carbohydrate (glycogen). Once the body runs out of carbohydrate stores it turns to the break down of fat. The breakdown of fat creates ketones, and a high level of ketones means we are in ‘a state of ketosis’. In order to get to this state of ketosis, you need to be eating a very low amount of carbohydrate. Specifically, 20-50g per day! That’s the equivalent of a large banana across the whole day!
So, there are reasons we see people lose weight in those first six months. In the body, carbohydrates are stored with water. One of the first outcomes in keto is loss of water weight. For anyone who does start to lose actual weight, it tends to be because people are consuming less ultra-processed foods than usual and generally choosing more whole foods. When the body creates ketones, it doesn’t distinguish between dietary fat and our own fat. People often feel defeated when they replace carbohydrates with fat and don’t lose any weight. Dietary fat is very high in calories so the keto diet can easily be a higher calorie diet which can result in weight gain and even worse health markers such as high LDL cholesterol in the blood. So when people lose weight in that first six months, its usually because they start to get active and pay attention to what they’re eating.
While it sounds tempting, don’t get lured into the hype. Keto isn’t your golden ticket to weight loss. It’s not that keto completely doesn’t work, it’s that it doesn’t work for very long. After about 6 months this weight loss tends to plateau. And after 12 months (if you’ve stuck it that long which is a big if) there’s no statistically significant difference in weight loss. In fact, all the latest diets have one very important thing in common. They’re very unsustainable. When we don’t continue to see change or inevitably 'fall off the bandwagon' its normal to lose hope in ever getting control over your weight or your health.
Restrictive diets, such as the keto diet, which restricts carbohydrates, are difficult. First of all, it can be expensive because you can’t just eat the same food everyone else is eating. Special branded food in the supermarkets or items in the café labelled as ‘keto-friendly’ tend to have a little bit more of a cost. But more notably, restrictive diets require the sacrifice of mental energy and social ease. You may have seen how your friends and family members find it difficult to eat socially. You might find they’re fixated on their food that it’s taking a lot of their thoughts. You may have experienced it yourself. The awkward “I can’t eat that” or “I want to but I’ll be good” thoughts that take up space in your mind. Time and time again you miss out on enjoying social situations, eating out, enjoying a meal with friends or family. You crave your favourite foods, but you stop yourself for fear that you’ll mess up all your hard work.
Food is important fuel for our bodies and plays a crucial role in our health. However, food also brings joy, satisfaction and it’s involved in our social and mental health. Restrictive diets restrict this too. Having a bit of cake at a celebration is important for happiness and connection. It certainly is not going to cause negative health outcomes or even weight gain. Restricting these foods only sets us up for a difficult relationship with food. It’s not only inconvenient but it can actually make cravings worse and drive you to break the diet. When you inevitable do break the diet, you end up feeling defeated. But let me uplift you: It’s not because you are a failure. It’s anormal response to restriction. The research shows that dieting doesn’t work for most people. It starts a cycle where we restrict, fail, feel guilty and then try to restrict again. Ultimately, you don’t get the results that you dreamt of and find yourself in a situation where you’ve gained weight again. Ugh. But you’re not alone, studies have shown up to 2/3 of dieters gain more weight than they lost from a diet!
Restrictive diets, including the keto diet, also put us at risk of not getting all the nutrients we need. If you imagine you must cut out the majority of the carbohydrates that you currently eat, think about what you would be cutting out. Foods such as breads, grains, pasta, rice and starchy vegetables are off the table. I don’t know about you but that sounds sad. Firstly, because bread is delicious but more importantly because these foods are rich in fibre and essential micronutrients. This supports our microbiome, our gut health and even our nervous system which effects our mental health. Carbohydrates benefit our whole body and give us the energy we need to think and move.
Wanting to take control over your health and manage your weight is a very real desire. We want to help you get physically healthy without sacrificing your emotional, mental or social wellbeing. Long-term, sustainable nutrition-related changes have been found to be successful with the support of a trained professional. Fad diets and extreme lifestyle overhauls, DIY, have been found to actually increase the risk of weight gain and a poor relationship with food. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We’re experts when it comes to food and how it effects our bodies and we’re here to help.
One of our values at Nutrition & Life is sustainability. This is not only sustainability in the food we eat but also how we eat. We want your healthy improvements to be sustainable. The best thing about working with a Dietitian is that we’re not only focused on weight. We know that getting the right nutrition can help improve your mood, your stress, and your life.
This informative blog was written by Amy Richter an Auckland-based Dietitian.
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