You may have heard about the keto diet being referred to as a the low-carb diet or even “the bacon diet,” but what does it actually entail?
Short for the ketogenic diet, it mainly consists of eating low-carb meals with high fats — typically, keeping your carb intake less than 50 grams a day, says Jessica Begg, a registered dietitian of Shift Nutrition based in Calgary.
But Begg adds the diet really doesn’t have any scientific definitions, and some will cut out gluten, sugar, starchy vegetables and fruit, altogether. And sometimes, she adds, people don’t realize carbs are basically in everything.
Breaking down the diet
Abbey Sharp, a registered dietitian and blogger of Abbey’s Kitchen based in Toronto says our bodies run on glucose (a form of carbs) that gives us the energy we need to function on a daily basis.
“When our body doesn’t get enough glucose, either because we’re cutting carbs too low, or we haven’t eaten in too long, our body freaks out and looks for other forms of energy,” she tells Global News. “That’s where the fat comes in. Without carbs, our insulin levels drop and fat is released from our cells. The fat overwhelms the liver which turns it into ketones, our body’s second choice to carbs for energy.”
Ketones are produced when our bodies burn fat for energy or fuel, the Joslin Diabetes Center notes, and can also be produced when you lose weight or if there isn’t enough insulin.
The pros and cons
Sharp says in the 1920s, the diet was used to treat childhood epilepsy and it’s still being used today for that purpose.
And while there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence to back up the diet’s benefits, Sharp says there has been some research in benefits in the areas of triglyceride, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
But there are also major downfalls.
Experts say muscle loss is the biggest one.
“Research has found that those following a low-carb diet experienced increased muscle breakdown,” Sharp says. “When we skip the carbs all together, muscle glycogen stores get depleted, we lose out on those muscle-building opportunities. Forget about high intensity training, a depleted glycogen store also means our workouts will suffer because we just don’t have enough oil left in the tank.”
Begg says it is also not sustainable. You can’t do high intensity workouts, take part in sports or circuit training.
Sharp adds the diet can also cause the “keto flu” (brain fog, fatigue, headaches, nausea and poor endurance), as well as risk of high cholesterol, kidney damage and constipation.
“You can only eat so many salads,” Begg adds, adding it can also get difficult to maintain the diet when you go out.
The keto experience
Deepika Gauba, a 26-year-old project manager of Toronto began the diet in September 2016.
“I wanted to start cooking more and eating out less,” she tells Global News. “I had read that keto and fasting clears ‘brain fog’ and improves focus, so I thought that I’d give it a try.”
Originally reading about the diet on a thread on Reddit, she set herself a goal to lose five pounds.
“I’ve always had to say that, it’s not that I ‘can’t’ eat pasta/pizza etc., it’s just that I choose not to eat it,” she says. “Viewing this as a diet will make you feel deprived — instead if you want to successfully practice this, view it as something that helps you take control over your eating habits and helps you take care of your body.”
On a typical day, Gauba has poached eggs, bacon and avocado for breakfast, salad with a protein for lunch, and steak and vegetables or a baked casserole for dinner. For dessert, she opts for sugar-free chocolate or keto muffins and cheesecake which are both gluten and sugar-free.
And there are many who live by this lifestyle. One report from Men’s Fitness found the diet was able to reprogram some people’s metabolism, but it also took a lot of dedication to eat less than 50 grams of carbohydrates a day.
READ MORE: Health: What is the ketogenic diet?
Gauba said at first, she noticed weight loss within the first two weeks and her headaches had disappeared (although she believes this could also be a placebo effect).
But she still says yes to cheat days.”Whenever I travel, I can’t resist trying the local cuisine. It takes me about two days to get back into ketosis and has never been an issue.”
Is it safe?
Begg says before trying any diet, talk to your doctor about any safety concerns — cutting out a majority of carbs may not be the best route for everyone. Also, do your research. Since a lot of keto is word-of-mouth, Begg says people can come up with their own conclusions on what and what not to eat.
Sharp, on the other hand, does not recommend it.
“Diets don’t work and any weight lost will quickly be regained and often with extra pounds for reassurance,” she says. “I’m a big believer that everything – especially carbs – can be enjoyed in moderation and the best diet is just whatever eating pattern you find most pleasurable that also meets your body’s unique needs.”