Ketogenic Diets: What Are They, and Do They Actually Work?

Ketogenic Diet

This post is not meant as medical or health advice. Before embarking on any weight loss plan, consult your health care provider and do your own research. Not every diet or weight loss plan works for everyone, and there are situations where certain plans can be dangerous to your health.

What is a ketogenic diet?

Note that I am saying a ketogenic diet, rather than the ketogenic diet. Ketogenic (sometimes abbreviated as keto) is not a specific diet or plan per se, but rather a way of eating that combines very low carbohydrate (or carb) intake with higher protein, and even higher fat intake compared to ‘normal’ or everyday eating. A high-fat diet is counterintuitive to most of us who want to lose weight. So let’s break it down a little. The concept of a ketogenic diet is not new. In fact, it has been used for almost 100 years as a treatment for what is called refractory (meaning not responsive to treatment) epilepsy.

The diet gained national attention in the mid-1990s when the story of Charlie Abrahams, the son of a Hollywood producer, was profiled on Dateline. Charlie was a two year old whose uncontrolled epilepsy responded rapidly to the diet. His story was then made into a TV movie called First Do No Harm, starring Meryl Streep. From there, the diet continued to gain momentum, and over the years it has been evaluated for its effect on many disorders, including obesity. If you’re into the science, here is a great review of the medical literature .

Normally, carbohydrates (which contain sugars) are the first source of energy the body uses, because they are the easiest to convert to energy (that’s why people ‘carb load’ before and during endurance races and other types of intense workouts). When we take in carbs, our pancreas produces insulin (a hormone), which attaches to the sugar and brings it around the body so it can be absorbed by the cells and used for energy. If we take in more sugar than our body needs, the liver will store it for future use. As long as our pancreas is working correctly, insulin well help keep our sugar levels in balance, even in between meals. And because the body uses carbs as its first energy source, the fats we take in are then stored for later use.

A ketogenic diet switches things up. By eliminating or strictly cutting back on carbs, the body will go into a metabolic state called ketosis, which is a basic survival mechanism (this is very different from ketoacidosis, which can be life-threatening). When in ketosis, the body produces ketones from the breakdown of the fats that are stored in the liver (hence the term ketogenic, which literally means the production of ketone bodies). A ketogenic diet will force the body into this metabolic state, which will then cause us to use ketones (the breakdown product of fats) instead of carbohydrates as its primary energy source. Simple, right? It’s actually pretty complex, but you get the idea!

My Experience with a Ketogenic Diet, and Some Tips and Caveats

I first tried a ketogenic diet (specifically, The Atkins Diet) about 15 years ago, and lost 11 pounds during the two-week Induction. Since then, it has been my go-to diet to quickly knock off a few pounds. Atkins is just one of many ketogenic diets out there. The South Beach Diet  is another example. It’s a little more forgiving than Atkins on the carb counts. A quick Google search and you will find loads of information and recipes so you can find the plan that works best for you. The first caveat is that you have to strictly adhere to the diet, or it won’t work (at least not very well). A little cheating can throw the whole thing off. For example, did you know a stick of sugar-free gum has a gram or two of carbs? Pop a few sticks in your mouth throughout the day, and you could blow the whole thing. The reason being, it takes a few days of strict adherence to the diet to put your body into ketosis.

Now let’s be clear. It ain’t easy being green. Or carb-free. They’re everywhere! Some examples include sugary foods/drinks, bread, rice, pasta, cereal, fruit/fruit juices, beans, root vegetables, sauces, salad dressings, alcohol, and many low-fat ‘diet’ foods (because their calories come mainly from carbs!) You can eat all the meat, fish, poultry, eggs, butter, and oil you want. Yes, please! You can also have some cheeses, and even some nuts and seeds. You just have to be very careful with the carb count—it adds up quickly. Luckily I don’t like sweets (I know, I know!) so that makes low-carb pretty easy for me.

There are some side effects to a strict low-carb diet, especially in the first several days. My first time around I experienced most of them:  What is sometimes called ‘keto flu’ (basically just feeling like crap a few days in; I struggled through it and by the next day I felt fine), fatigue, headaches, nausea, constipation or diarrhea, fruity or bad breath, high cholesterol, and a few more. Luckily these will generally go away after a few days, once your body adjusts. My cholesterol went up the first time around, so I’ve learned to limit the amount of eggs and cheese I eat, and it hasn’t been a problem since. Drinking plenty of water will help with the GI issues and that basic ‘crappy’ (pun intended) feeling you can get.

I don’t strictly adhere to a low-carb diet all the time, but I do look at carbs and fats very differently than I did before trying a ketogenic diet. I usually take a pass on rice, bread and pasta, and I’ve learned which fruits and vegetables are the lowest in carbs and stick with them. I also choose wine over beer (which is much lower in carbs), and will grab a handful of nuts as my go-to snack. Let’s face it, most any diet works, as long as you stick to it. And of course as with any weight loss plan, you have to incorporate exercise as well. The ketogenic diet is not the magic bullet, but it’s what works for me. So if you’re considering a ketogenic diet, do your research and see if it’s right for you. Even if you can just cut back on the carbs in your diet, you will likely see some benefit over time.

Linda Head ShotLinda is a wife, nurse practitioner, and mother of 3 young adult men. She has spent much of her life finding the right ‘diet’. Though she has exercised much of her life, she started taking her health seriously as she entered her 50s. Since that time, she has completed four marathons, several half marathons, and multiple smaller races. You can read about her adventures at http://www.theaccidentalmarathoner.com or contact her at linda@theaccidentalmarathoner.com

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