The ketogenic diet is the dieting culture’s latest craze. Many people see quick results, which is a reason it has caught on like a forest fire in recent years. Are there reasons to think twice before resorting to this restrictive diet? I believe so!
Let’s start with some basic biology.
There are three inputs you need to make ATP (energy) in your cells or, in other words, support your metabolism:
- Sugar, in the form of glucose
- Oxygen, by breathing
- Thyroid hormone, which is supplied by your thyroid gland that sits right below your voice box
Using sugar is your body’s preferred method of making energy. The more efficient your body is at using sugar, the higher your metabolism. A high metabolic rate directly correlates with good health because all the cells of your body are happy and producing energy.
What is the Ketogenic Diet?
It was originally introduced as a treatment for epilepsy/seizure disorders in the 1920s and is still used today for this purpose in medical contexts. However, it has also been picked up by the wider health industry and is often advocated for its weight loss benefits.
The ketogenic diet requires a high fat, low-carbohydrate, and moderate protein consumption. If done right, carbohydrates are sometimes restricted to less than 50 grams, or even 20 grams, a day. Twenty grams of carbohydrates is the equivalent of less than 1 tablespoon of sugar or 1 small banana. Fifty grams of carbohydrates is slightly more than that, ~2 bananas and 2 tsp of sugar.
Now, here’s why you should probably avoid it!
#1 – It will wreck your metabolism
What is metabolism and why does it matter? Metabolism can be defined as your body’s ability to efficiently make and burn energy (i.e. burn sugar). When metabolism declines, it can result in many undesired symptoms, including weight gain, hair loss, poor digestion, sleep issues, and more.
So how does the ketogenic diet reduce your metabolism?
By not providing your body with one of the three main ingredients for energy production: sugar.
You may be able to explain restricting a macronutrient (i.e. carbs, fats, protein), as done in this kind of diet, to yourself logically. But, your body’s interpretation of restriction on a physiological level is only in the context of stress or no stress. When you restrict, your body thinks it is starving…in a famine. When you do not give your body what it needs to survive (sugar), it can become a stress on the body. That could be said about nearly any diet including some vegetarian, vegan, and low-carb diets.
When the body senses a stress, it will work to conserve energy and resources for vital processes, which may not include digestion, hair growth, and warmth of your body. Since the body is conserving energy, it is in no state to get rid of that energy and any calories coming in through your diet can slow your progress of weight loss and cause weight gain. More immediate negative symptoms include irritability, agitation, dizziness, and severe cravings–all signs of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.
On a daily basis, on forums I am a part of, I read testimonials by individuals who have tried the ketogenic diet and have come out with a slowed and damaged metabolism. My own experience with this diet was very similar: I lost weight, but my hair started falling out, I was exhausted all the time, and my digestion was abysmal. And as soon as I stopped following the diet, I gained back all the weight I lost + an extra 10 lbs.
#2 – Fat or protein – your body turns it all into sugar
What really happens when you don’t consistently have carbohydrates?
Your body recognizes this as a stress. In order to get the carbs your body needs, it will convert fat and protein into useable carbs (glucose). The body functions best on using carbs as fuel–this is why it will do anything in its power to get the carbs. Even if it means breaking down your body’s own muscle and organ tissues to do it.
In a low-carbohydrate state, your body uses stress hormones, known as adrenaline and cortisol, to breakdown your fat stores and muscle, respectively. Stress hormones allow your body to maintain its energy at the cost of long-term health, body composition, and energy.
One of the reasons why individuals initially feel great on a ketogenic/low-carb diet is because of a surge in stress hormones. This effect tends to fade over time because the body cannot sustain itself on adrenaline and cortisol.
When you eat enough carbohydrates through your diet, your body is able to use the fat and protein you eat for other functions (like making hormones and transport proteins) and is able to produce energy. It is happy!
Why force your body to use its stress response to make sugar from fat and protein when you can just feed it carbohydrates, stop craving sugar, AND be happy?
#3 – It’s unsustainable
Not only is the ketogenic diet super stressful on your body, it’s also unsustainable. It is not a lifestyle change you can continue for more than a few months. It’s simply too hard, not necessarily due to a lack of willpower to sustain it, but because it’s creating a huge stress going against the energy needs of your body. Your body is FIGHTING your choice of restricting carbohydrates because it thinks it’s in danger.
This is comparable to paddling a canoe upstream. It takes more energy and time than paddling with the flow of the river. The same can be said when you give your body the carbs it needs to survive. Everything just works better!
#4 – You’re missing out on important vitamins and minerals
Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals, which are crucial for optimal health. People following a ketogenic diet consume non-starchy vegetables in higher quantities because of their low carbohydrate content. Non-starchy vegetables, like cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, kale, and others can also create tremendous digestive distress if consumed in large quantities. This can exacerbate digestive problems. These vegetables are high in fiber that, when introduced to a poorly functioning digestive tract (common in individuals with low metabolism), further slow digestion. Bacteria in the gut then ferment the fibers and cause undesirable symptoms, such as excess gas, bloating, and even acid reflux. Yes, these foods are often rich in nutrients, but there are superior ways of getting those nutrients without having to deal with the side-effects–especially when your metabolism is low.
Fruits and starchy vegetables, including pineapple, melon, sweet potatoes, and squash are much easier to digest and a great substitute for non-starchy vegetables. They are an important source of many minerals and vitamins, such as vitamin C, vitamin K, B vitamins, potassium, selenium, zinc, and magnesium.
The end lesson? There are no easy or quick fixes to weight loss or health. Losing weight and getting rid of stubborn symptoms takes time, patience, consistent effort, and slow, sustainable changes.
At Hayat Nutrition & Wellness, we advocate getting healthy to lose weight, not losing weight to be healthy. If you’re ready to feel better without extreme dieting, schedule a FREE consultation today!