Separating Health from Hype: The Ketogenic Diet

“It’s a diet but, like, I can eat all the bacon and cheese that I want. Just no carbs.”

My roommate grinned across the kitchen at me following her latest diet declaration, explaining that she had come across a bunch of online articles and forums raving about this new ‘ketogenic diet’ (keto diet, for short). According to what she had read, this was a diet approach aimed at substantial weight loss, even without the inclusion of any vigorous exercise regime.

She was sold.

As a coach and someone who is admittedly obsessed with all things health, the discussion of diet and training regimes engineered to supercharge physical progress, wellness, and longevity is kind of my shtick. Although my roommate’s venture into the world of ketosis was short lived, it inspired me to do a deep dive on this seemingly unconventional diet reform. And guess what? Since then, the ketogenic diet has exploded in popularity. Everyone wants a taste of this high-fat, low-carb diet that promises a shrinking waistline even after rage-eating half a brick of cheese when George R. R. Martin killed off another one of your favourite characters on Game of Thrones. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get my point.

As with anything in the health and fitness industry, increased interest from the public leads to a rapid increase in online literature, social media opinions, and grandiose claims. And that kind of information overload means a lot of people may end up lost in the noise while trying to separate hype from the facts, or blindly following a process that isn’t actually right for them. So, let’s break it down right now. Is the ketogenic diet a truly transformative tool for our diet and long-term health? Or is it a bunch of hype?

  1. The keto diet breakdown:

    1. What is it?

    The ketogenic diet is an approach that promotes the metabolic formation of ketone bodies by causing the body to use fat, rather than glucose/carbs, as its primary energy source. When glucose is used as a primary energy source and fats are not needed for energy, they are more readily stored. The ketogenic diet flips this traditional regime on its head.

The diet itself consists of foods that are high in fat and protein, but very low in carbs. Essentially, once your body transitions into ketosis (this can take anywhere from 2-7 days), it becomes a fat-burning machine.

The recommended macronutrient breakdown for a ketogenic diet is as follows: 75% fat, 20% protein, 5% carbohydrates. This process is only supplemented with a ‘re-feed day’ every few weeks, during which the individual is encouraged to eat whatever they like.

2. What are the advantages?

Once you enter a ketogenic state, your blood sugar and insulin levels will drop, which allows most individuals to shed excess water and sodium, leading to rapid weight loss in the first week or two. Weight loss can be expected to progress significantly, as long as that individual remains in a caloric deficit.

One of the noted benefits of the ketogenic diet is the way in which the prioritization of healthy fats helps to satiate appetite and cravings more effectively than carbohydrates. The ketogenic diet is a frequent recommendation for individuals suffering from Type II Diabetes due to its ability to decrease insulin production. Epilepsy.com also suggests that it is ketone production aids in controlling seizures. Further, most individuals report a significant increase in energy, mental focus, thermogenesis (the amount of calories you burn daily), and lower blood pressure.

3. What are the limitations?

Although the macro breakdown will vary based on a number of factors – age, body type, activity level, etc. – most individuals on the ketogenic diet will probably sit somewhere between 20-50 net grams of carbs per day. Since this is such a low amount, nutrient-dense dietary staples such as fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains are likely going to be the first to go – which can be a tough sacrifice for some. This may also mean that finding appropriate foods at social functions and restaurants can be a serious challenge.

The transition into ketosis can also be unsavoury for some individuals who experience the ‘keto flu’ (symptoms of fatigue, cravings, dizziness, brain fog, nausea, irritability, and more). And while the popular inclusion of those cheese or bacon-laden “fat bombs” in a “diet” may sound like a dream, it may not be a friendly concept to certain food sensitivities (those of us who are lactose intolerant or celiac). So while I’d surely chop off a limb before swearing off cheese in any serious capacity, I also know that some of the most appealing keto-approved recipes wouldn’t be the best match for my dairy-hating, fickle stomach. 

Lastly, most literature will suggest that athletes in sports with high anaerobic energy components aren’t going to have the high rate of energy production necessary for peak performance while using ketones as their primary energy source. For myself, as a kickboxing coach and someone who has a particularly demanding level of physical output, the ketogenic diet likely wouldn’t be a wise choice.

4. Keto and cancer 

Anyone with a penchant for Tim Ferriss’ or Joe Rogan’s podcasts has likely heard a number of high profile guests speak to the use of the ketogenic diet/ketone supplementation in the treatment of cancer. While there is still much research to be done, this much is certain: Cancer cells have 10 times more insulin receptors than normal cells, which means glucose becomes their primary fuel source. A low-carb diet will reduce your glucose level, which should assist in depleting cancer cells of their energy supply. With this in mind, the use of the ketogenic diet and ketones in cancer patients or those at high risk of developing cancer is an exciting area of interest.

4. Who is it suited for?

Perhaps the best advice for anyone looking to make a major dietary change is this: “The best diet is the one that you can stick to.”  Essentially, the ideal diet shouldn’t be seen as a diet, but rather a lifestyle shift that complements your health goals and your lifestyle in a feasible way. With that said, the ketogenic diet (while highly effective in certain cases) definitely isn’t suited to everyone on a long-term basis.

In a recent blog post, dietician Andy De Santis explained, “I have identified what seems to be a bit of a trend in the keto literature whereby the ketogenic diet is used as a means to “kick-start” weight loss before transitioning into a moderate balanced diet. It appears that researchers out of Italy (Paoli et al 2013) had weight loss success using an initial ketogenic diet that transitioned into a more sustainable mediterranean dietary pattern.”

The Keto Diet is also commonly praised for rapid weight loss in as little as 10 days. While this is an exciting concept to some, I can’t help but warn against the temptations of any diet that promises a quick fix. Anything easily gained is easily lost, which means the positive progress experienced via the keto diet can readily fluctuate if the individual doesn’t remain in ketosis. And while there is no shortage of compelling studies speaking to the value of becoming metabolically flexible (meaning that your body is able to switch between fuel sources, whether carbs or fats), that kind of adaptation takes time and strategic nutrition. Ultimately, inconsistency will be the enemy of any long-term progress, and kicking your body in and out of ketosis on a weekly basis while out with friends or attending a social event won’t do your body any good.

Verdict: Definitely not all hype, but not for everyone either

While I by no means claim to be a bonafide ketogenic expert, the research I’ve done has lead me to believe the ketogenic diet can be a compelling option for individuals looking to kick-start their weight-loss journey, as well as those suffering from Type II diabetes or cancer.

However, I think the best dietary suggestion for the general public can be simplified to this:

– Pay attention to where your food is sourced from
– Eat whole foods to fuel your body
– Don’t beat yourself up over moments of indulgence; it’s about balance, not perfection
– Limit refined sugars, carbohydrates and processed food wherever possible
– If your goal is to lose weight, remain within a caloric deficit through means of diet and exercise
– Prioritize sleep

If the ketogenic diet is suited for your lifestyle, then go for it. But don’t fall into the pursuit of specific, popular diet regimes without doing your research and talking to qualified professionals first. At the end of the day, remember that health is about longevity, so pick the diet regime – or, rather, lifestyle change – that best supports your long-term success and wellbeing.