Diet Fads: The Ketogenic Diet

Summer is here, and tis’ the season for quick dieting, painful workouts, and anything that’ll make one feel thinner at the beach. It’s around this time that many people are desperate for something that works – and fast! You and I are smart enough to know that there is no quick fix to shedding weight. But, we’ve also seen all the headlines and the photos that you have, and realize how convincing one can make it look to be able to lose weight quickly, tone up, and feel good checking that RSVP box “YES” for the beach bonfire your friend is having. Over the next few weeks, we want to help you understand the dangers of many diets being practiced and encouraged by the weight-loss industry in an effort to abolish this diet culture many of us have so kindly adopted into our lives. The one I see over and over again lately is the Ketogenic Diet. This diet uses a low- or no-carb approach, forcing the body to burn fat for its energy source, and resulting in pretty rapid weight loss compared to others out there.

History of the Ketogenic Diet

The Keto Diet, though it’s been traced back to the early 1900’s, is generally speaking, newer to the diet game than many others (Low-Fat, Weight Watchers, etc.). It was used to treat those living with epilepsy until the 1940’s when anti-seizure medications hit the market. The diet lost most of its traction then, but for those in which the medication was unsuccessful, they turned to the ketogenic diet and saw better results. When fat is broken down in the liver, it elevates ketone bodies in the bloodstream. Many researchers still don’t understand why, but this elevation causes a reduction in the occurrence of seizures. One of the side effects (not usually deemed a positive term, medically speaking) was weight-loss, so medical and nutrition professionals had to monitor these patients very closely to ensure they were getting adequate amounts of energy via fats, protein, and the little amounts of carbohydrates they were given.

The “How”

In order to fully understand what the ketogenic diet is, and why it’s so “successful” in weight loss, you have to first understand the body’s metabolic mechanisms it undergoes when digesting food in the first place. We all know that food, any food, is essentially just energy right? In fact “calories” (or kilocalories) are literally units of measurable energy, like light-bulb watts. Our bodies need food (energy) to survive, and it’s preferred use of energy is the carbohydrate. It’s what our brains run on, it’s what feeds our muscles, and keeps us energized. Fat is also very important to our bodies. We store fat as a mode of survival. For thousands of years, food was not readily available like it is today, so humans would undergo periods of feast and periods of famine. Fat was key for those periods of famine because the body would use those stores (from the previous feast) to get it to the next feast. We now know that periods of feast and famine (aka dieting) actually cause the body more harm than the promise of weight loss causing the body good (more on this later, way more). I think our early ancestors were more worried about avoiding getting eaten by sabre tooth tigers back then though, not that they really had a choice in the feast/famine cycle anyway. Bottom line here, our bodies turn to burning fat (ketosis) as a mode of survival when carbohydrates are not available.

I’ve done a lot of work with the youth type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes population in my area. Each year, we put on a camp for over 200 kids with type 1, and each year it’s just as terrifying as the last. Keep in mind that because a person living with type 1 (or insulin-dependent type 2) diabetes can’t use the carbohydrates they eat without injecting insulin, their body thinks its starving and turns to burning its fat. They could eat a loaf of bread, but without supplementing with the right amount of insulin to deliver those broken-down carbohydrates to the brain, muscles, etc., their body enters survival mode. Ketosis is one of our worst fears; ketosis in diabetes is generally what’s happening right before a child may pass out. Once ketosis moves into ketoacidosis (a further stage of starvation) one can enter a coma from this severely low blood sugar. Ketoacidosis is the leading cause of death in people with diabetes under 24 years old.

Diet Culture

Alright, so we know the Ketogenic Diet is essentially a low- or very low-carb diet treatment for epilepsy, it’s feared in those living with insulin-dependent diabetes, and if used, requires great amounts of medical intervention to ensure adequate energy and reduce weight loss. But, living in the society we do, the weight-loss industry sees a pretty penny and markets the heck out of it. This is how one of the five levels of the diet, the Atkins diet, has come into play. According to their website, guidelines promote plenty of fish, poultry, red meat, eggs (LOTS of eggs), oils, non-starchy vegetables like alfalfa sprouts, olives (but only five), and spinach. You can have a little cheese, but only a little. Atkins is considered a modified version of the true Ketogenic Diet; this is because in a true Ketogenic Diet, patients will receive a wider variety of proteins (like organ meats, which contain tons of vitamins and minerals), and raw dairy (which is much easier on the digestive system and offers a lot more nutrients). The Atkins diet is the only version professionals say you may do without consulting a doctor, but given the side effects, I guarantee you’ll be in that office soon.

The “Keto Flu”

So what are the side effects? Supporters of this diet like to refer to the side effects as the “Keto Flu.” Is that supposed to make one feel better? I don’t know, but I personally don’t want a flu of any kind. In any case, the “Keto Flu:”

When you eliminate grains, starchy vegetables, and fruit from your diet, you’re essentially limiting fiber and replacing it with fat in the form of dairy and animal-protein. These two foods are already hard enough to, ahem, expel from your system (if ya know what I mean). Now we love our dairy and saturated fats here, so much that we write a lot about them. However, without the help of fiber, let’s just say you’re going to spend a lot of time of in the bathroom, with little to show for it. Constipation on this diet is inevitable. You can try and try, but you’re not going to poop like you’re used to, and if you do, then you’ll have had quite the workout to get there. Which brings us to our next point! That’s probably the only physical activity you’ll get during your bout of the Ketogenic/Atkins Diet due to the fatigue and weakness one feels when they aren’t consuming carbohydrates. Remember, our bodies thrive on carbohydrates, they survive on fat. If you do muster up the energy to workout, forget a long run, personal record in the weight room, or energizing spin class, you will simply be too tired, and your muscle recovery afterwards will pay for it. At least you’ll sleep well at night, right? Unfortunately, wrong. Carbohydrates help the body produce serotonin through improving the entry of L-tryptophan to the brain. Eliminate carbs and you essentially eliminate your brain’s nighttime lullaby. You’ll miss out on essential nutrients like vitamin C, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and potassium due to the inadequate fruit, vegetable, and grain consumption; and additionally have a harder time absorbing fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) regardless of the excessive fat intake. Other side effects include craving carbohydrates (duh), being moody or irritable, losing libido, bad breath and most important (but least noticeable) muscle damage. Your heart is the most important muscle in your body, and it eventually will take a hit with prolonged periods of starvation. Why do I keep referring to this diet as ‘starvation?’ Remember, ketosis is the body’s mechanism of survival once carbohydrate stores are eliminated, meaning your body is starving for it’s number one source of energy, and burns fats only to fuel the liver to convert fats to glucose (gluconeogenesis). When it does this over and over again, toxic amounts of ammonia (that’s what causes the bad breath) are produced, and your body has a much more difficult time producing anything else – essentially compromising the immune system and beneficial sources for cellular function.

Need more convincing?

I’m sure we can all agree that the side effects and stress the guidelines of this diet causes our bodies simply aren’t worth it. But, I also realize that the desire for weight-loss can be stronger than anything we read on safety. The diet culture in this society has pushed people past a point of logic and reason when it comes to their body image, and that’s just downright wrong. However, you know my story, and you know I’ve been there. If you’re still considering the Ketogenic Diet as a means to weight-loss, I first encourage you to get professional help through a licensed therapist and registered dietitian, because it probably means your desire for weight-loss has waded into emotionally unhealthy waters. You owe it to yourself to feel good both physically and emotionally. Your therapist and dietitian can help you achieve a healthier lifestyle that you feel good about. Secondly, if you’re still considering incorporating this diet as a means to weight-loss I’ll tell you this (and I’ll keep telling you throughout this Fad Diets Series), that putting your body through this famine, this starvation, will only make your body grasp on even harder to the carbohydrates once you hit your next feast, and you will eventually feast again. However, it won’t be on a woolly mammoth, it will be on processed carbs, trans-fats, and all of the foods you pinned to Pinterest late at night (when you couldn’t sleep). Your feast will actually be a binge, because unlike our ancestors, these foods (among with a plentiful amount non-processed foods) are readily available to us at all times, therefore eliminating the need to famine at all. Your body does not want or need to be starved, doing so puts it through a huge amount of stress, which research shows just causes more weight gain in the end.

The Ketogenic Diet has a purpose in the medical field for those suffering from the debilitating disease of epilepsy. It is used only in extreme circumstances, and should not be practiced otherwise. I tell you this from two points of view: one being a person who was so desperate for weight-loss, she did suffer the consequences this diet promises to deliver; and the other being the educated professional-ish person who so badly wants to help those (and there are a lot) effected by the money-hungry weight-loss industry that pounds (pun-intended) diet culture motives into our self-esteem every chance it gets.

I truly hope you learned something from this excerpt in the Fad Diet Series. Next week we’re going to touch on the Paleo/Whole-30 Diet, so stay tuned! As always, please contact us if you have any questions. In fact, now would be a great time to do so, because we have a special one-week unlimited texting plan, where you can get all of your questions answered, when and where it’s convenient for YOU! Email us for more info on that. Until next week!


    Written by Madeleine White








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