From its fat loss potential to those cancer-curing claims, we spill the (low-carb) beans.
Unless you've been living a media- and Netflix-free existence, you'll have heard the whisperings—nay, bellows—of the diet that's said to secure speedy fat-shed and protection against multiple deadly diseases. You guessed it, we're talking about the keto diet.
Developed in the 1920s to help epilepsy sufferers manage symptoms (yes, really), the low-carb, high-fat keto diet has rapidly gained interest over recent years as word has spread of its potential to aid in fat loss and assist with medical conditions.
But are the rumours true? And if so, is this diet for you? Before you tip the contents of your cupboards into the trash can, it's best you familiarized yourself with the benefits and, indeed, the side effects of the keto diet.
What is the keto diet?
Short for ketogenic, the keto diet comprises of a very low-carb, high-fat meal plan. The science? Glucose (found in carbohydrates) is your body's primary source of fuel. When you starve your body of glucose by reducing your intake of carbohydrates, it adapts by producing what are known as ketones from stored fat, which it then burns as an alternative source of fuel.
Generally speaking, those who follow a keto diet will consume 60-75%+ of their daily calories in fat (think nuts, avocado and the like), 15-30% in protein and only 5-10% in carbs. However, macronutrient ratios vary from person to person. For your body to enter ketosis (when you begin to burn fat for fuel) you'll likely need to be consuming less than 50g of carbs per day, which is roughly two slices of bread. To put that into perspective, it's advised that the average 1,800-calorie diet contains somewhere between 210-290g carbs. So, can all that carb cutting help you lose fat?
Can I lose weight on the keto diet?
The short answer: Yes. In fact, a study by the British Journal of Nutrition found that the keto diet can be a helpful tool for fat loss. But it's not quite that simple. "The keto diet promotes short-term weight loss as it removes glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates), which requires 4g of water per every 1g of glycogen stored. Therefore, initially you're losing water,' says Jenna Hope, registered nutritionist. "The problem is that the diet is incredibly restrictive which can lead to binges, meaning it's unlikely to be sustainable for a prolonged period of time."
It's also worth remembering that when working towards losing "weight," shifting excess fat—which is what puts us at risk of life-threatening illnesses— should be the target, not water.
What are the benefits of the keto diet?
"The science surrounding the keto diet is mainly positive for the management of epilepsy," says Hope. "In addition, it can— when used correctly— assist with short-term weight loss, and it may help to control blood sugar. Plus, a diet that's lower in carbohydrates may be beneficial for the management of type 2 diabetes. However, that isn't to say you have to be in a ketogenic state to reap the rewards."
And, as for the rumours surrounding the keto diet's ability to cure cancer? More research is needed, according to Hope. "Cancer is extremely multi-factorial and there isn't enough evidence to be able to suggest that this one diet can reduce the risks. Any health benefits are likely to come from eating less sugar and ultra-processed foods than the diet itself."
What are the side effects of following a keto diet?
For starters, removing an entire food group from your diet—which any nutrition expert worth their weight would discourage without the guidance of a professional—could seriously affect your health.
Nutrient deficiencies and poor gut health are likely to occur since even fruits and vegetables contain carbohydrates, alongside side effects such as reduced libido, irritability, bad breath (caused by the ketones) and what's been branded "keto flu," which can trigger flu-like symptoms in the first few days of carb elimination.
Is the keto diet for me?
Ultimately, there's no one diet that works for everyone. If it's fat loss you're after, then there are less restrictive routes to explore. "Whilst we could likely all do with eating a little less sugar, there are huge benefits from fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, all of which are restricted on the keto diet," says Hope. "And fat loss can be obtained from a healthy balanced diet without the need for such restriction."
Plus, according to Hope, there are a few who should steer clear of the diet altogether due to possible negative side effects. "Pregnant women and anyone with depression, anxiety, stress, low mood, a history of eating disorders and people on any kind of current restricted diet should avoid the keto diet," she advises.
Should you believe the keto diet to be of benefit to you it's crucial to get an expert's opinion—and a personalized meal plan—before proceeding to permanently ban pumpkin from the menu. Enlisting professional help will ensure you continue to consume vital nutrients to prevent your health from deteriorating.