Why the ketogenic diet has become so popular
The ketogenic diet is all the rage. It is also called “keto”, short for ketogenic. It is the new “pill” to lose weight without suffering. Recipes for desserts made with erythritol, almond flour or coconut oil have proliferated on social networks, and many people now drink coffee with butter instead of milk for breakfast. Some of the messages being spread about it on social media are:
- Keto sweets are less fattening
- On the keto diet, you can lose weight by eating a lot of meat and fat without being hungry.
- The keto diet is healthy and can be followed by everyone.
- As long as you consume local food, it is “caring” for the planet.
But what’s the truth in all this?
What is the ketogenic diet?
The ketogenic diet is a dietary intervention that limits carbohydrate intake to a maximum of 25-30g per day, so that the body, once glucose reserves are completely depleted, begins to produce ketones from fats, and these become the body’s source of energy.
The aim is to eat protein, quality fats (EVOO, avocado, nuts (in small quantities) and only a few vegetables. Fruit consumption is limited because they are rich in sugars and also vegetables with a higher starch and sugar content. Pulses and cereals are completely removed from the diet, or there will be no ketosis. Exercise and intermittent fasting accelerate and support the process.
The most recommended protein sources are chicken, turkey, fish… but not bacon, sausage or cheese in large quantities. The latter are rich in saturated fat and this fat should be limited, in any eating style, because it has been shown to raise LDL and triglycerides.
Some doctors prescribe a ketogenic diet to patients with obesity, type II diabetes or insulin resistance because it mobilises fat deposits if done correctly, of course. Consistently and under medical supervision. It also helps with certain digestive conditions.
The reality of the ketogenic diet
To stay in ketosis, as you cannot exceed that small amount of carbohydrates each day, the amount of any keto dessert you can have is minimal. Therefore, being on a keto diet and eating biscuits is incompatible.
Those who have followed it coincide that hunger is greatly reduced and that is because the protein- and fat-rich foods are satiating. But if you overeat protein and fat, you won’t lose weight either. It’s all about burning the fats that the body has stored, but if we eat indiscriminately, this is not going to happen. To lose weight, on the ketogenic diet or any other diet, you need calorie restriction and fats contain 900 kcal/100g so you need to watch how much fat you eat.
From the above it seems easy to infer that the ketogenic diet is not for everyone, because it involves nutritional deficiencies and is not a style of eating that should be extended indefinitely. And it is definitely not an “open bar” to eat and not gain weight.
And finally, as much as its followers insist on defending that they eat locally sourced food, this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of caring for the environment.
Any diet rich in animal protein does not contribute to environmental protection.
Local food has a lower carbon footprint than the same food if it is transported from further away. But factory farming has other intrinsic problems that do not make it sustainable for large-scale human consumption:
- High resource costs to produce each kg of meat (cereals and water).
- HUGE amount of waste (slurry) that pollutes the subsoil and aquifers, and the gases released into the atmosphere by the animals and by this waste.
- Animal abuse. Animals are kept in overcrowded farms, with limited movement, no fresh air, no sunshine. They are treated with antibiotics prophylactically because when individuals of any species are subjected to these conditions they get sick.
What if instead of factory farmed meat we eat pasture-raised meat?
Grass-fed animals enjoy a higher quality of life, and therefore better health. Feeding on grass provides them with many more natural vitamins and minerals (such as B12, which farm animals are suplemented with) as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Moreover, their meat is tastier.
The consumption of resources does not decrease in this case, but makes it even more unsustainable for large-scale human consumption, because there is no grass to feed all the cows that are currently in farms. That is why it has such high prices, which very few can afford.
And finally, the waste from pastured animals is the same as the waste from those raised on mega-farms.
More about the sustainability of our food in this article :
Fish consumption does not protect the planet either
Fish consumption also has its difficulties. On one hand, fish contains heavy metals, because they are raised in a polluted environment. For this reason, national food safety agencies such as EFSA (European Food safety authority) recommend fish intake but with limits.
But from a sustainability point of view, fish consumption on a planetary level is the main human activity that causes the oceans being full of plastic (40% of micro-plastics come from fishing nets) and of all species being depleted for human consumption. Many other species are accidentally caught in trawl nets and then discarded and thrown back into the sea dead. Therefore, bycatch is another collateral damage of industrial fishing.
Farmed fish suffer the same living conditions as other farm-raised animals: overcrowding, disease, and the waste from fish farms is highly polluting.
So if you care about the environment, the best thing you can do for the oceans is to stop eating fish and support organisations like Sea Shepherd or Greenpeace that are working hard to expose the constant violations of the global fishing industry and protect the marine environment.
The most interesting nutrient in fish (not contained in other animal protein sources), is omega-3 fatty acids, which fish obtain from algae. Therefore, algae-based supplements make it possible to obtain the nutrients without sacrificing the fish.
Does it make sense to eliminate carbohydrates altogether?
Humans have metabolic flexibility and can obtain energy from carbohydrates or fats in the total absence of carbohydrates. This allowed prehistoric man to survive in times when it was very difficult to find fruit on the trees.
Avoiding carbohydrates means sacrificing many of the nutrients found in fruit, vegetables, pulses and cereals, which makes no sense in the long term, and even less so in the name of weight loss, which can be achieved in other ways. What we can live without is cereals, which are a type of carbohydrate.
In my practice and in the workshops I teach, I often recommend that people use the Harvard Plate as a guide in designing their dietary style. I think it’s a good starting point and then it needs to be personalised. It recommends that half of your intake should be fruit and vegetables without limitations. Fruit and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, fibre, starches and sugars.
It also recommends that another 25% should come from whole grains. For people with a high level of physical activity, this is perfectly healthy, as long as the cereals are whole grains and no free sugars are added.
But for other, more sedentary people, replacing cereal intake with other carbohydrates (legumes, nuts, etc.) has benefits. For example, maintaining more stable glucose levels, which is already very beneficial for people with insulin resistance, because in the medium term they can reverse this condition.
In addition, stable glucose levels lead to less cravings, because they promote satiety for hours, so you could say that when you give up bread, pasta, and sweets, hunger is reduced.
Why diets don’t work
There are times in life when we need to follow a medically prescribed diet, such as the Fodmap diet for some digestive disorders, or a gluten-free diet for coeliacs and even a ketogenic diet in cases of obesity and type II diabetes.
But following a ketogenic diet at home, without medical supervision to lose weight, can lead to the opposite of what we are aiming for.
Weight loss diets do not work in the long term for two reasons:
- Lack of adherence: Calorie restriction is not sustainable in the long term, we cannot starve ourselves indefinitely. It causes us a lot of discomfort and we end up abandoning the diet.
- The body’s metabolic adaptations: Even if we were able to stick to the diet, our body will adapt its energy consumption to our intake. It will slow down the metabolism, so that weight loss will be progressively less, and we will have to make greater sacrifices to maintain this rate of weight loss. We do not want a slow metabolism, quite the opposite.
When one eats well-balanced food and moves, weight loss comes, without the need for great sacrifices. Perhaps it would help to have more realistic expectations about what is the right weight for our age and condition.
My recommendation would therefore be not to eliminate carbohydrates but to choose those that are more nutritious and have less effect on blood glucose. Plenty of vegetables and fruit (whole fruit, not mashed or in juice). If you eat cereals, make them wholegrain, of high quality and as a complement, not as the basis of your diet. Healthy fats and healthy sources of protein should be present in all our meals, because this will keep us satiated for more hours, avoiding snacking between meals. Sugars should be avoided, and salt and saturated fats should be limited.
Having said that, we are bio-individual beings and we cannot all eat the same way. Depending on age, activity level, digestion, hormonal status, intolerances, allergies and personal preferences, everyone must find a way of eating that helps them to be nourished and at the same time enjoy their food. Do you want me to help you find yours? Contact me.