This has been the biggest fad in the fitness industry for the past couple years. I get asked about the keto diet at least 5 times a week, it’s got lots of people curious, and it’s easy to see why! Everybody and their mama has heard, tried, or read about going keto. They sell keytones, keto coffee, keto diet plans, keto recipe books, and even keto cupcakes!
So, what is keto anyway?
Keto (or more formally known as The Ketogenic Diet) is a diet that is comprised of high-fats, moderate-protein, and low-carbohydrate (carb) diet.
Generally speaking, carbs are your body’s main source of fuel. When you consume carbohydrates, they are converted into glucose to get transported around the body to fuel various functions from metabolic to brain. However, when there are low carbohydrate stores in the body – similar to those who partake in the keto diet – your body’s liver begins to convert your consumed fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies. These ketone bodies act as replacements for glucose and replace it as an energy source. This allows for more dietary fat to be burned off during activities since the body won’t have many carbs to fuel its process.
Is this healthy?
Well, it depends how you define healthy and for who. The keto diet affects the body in several different ways that could be beneficial to different groups of people.To see if keto is going to be right for you, let’s dive in and see what you might be experiencing if you choose to follow this diet.
- The excess fat improves brain function
- Could improve insulin sensitivity
- Energy levels could stabilize or even increase
- Could reduce inflammation (depending on the types of fats consumed)
- Improves the symptoms of epilepsy in children and adults
- **Immediate weight loss**
- Improved appetite reduction
**I want to make a point out of “immediate weight loss” as being a “pro” for going onto the keto diet. More often than not, if you were to reduce your carb intake you would lose several pounds in the first week alone, which makes it easy to point the finger at carbs as the evil macro that’s been keeping you fat. Once you take a look behind the scenes though, we find that each gram of carbs that get stored in your body as glycogen holds 3-5g of water per gram of carb. So even though the immediate weight loss is nice to see it’s actually completely misleading because although you dropped weight on the scale you probably didn’t lose much, if any, actual body fat just yet. You really just dropped a large chunk of water weight.**
While these are all great claims that come from doing keto, you would probably experience similar pros if you were to simply increase your dietary fat intake, regardless of whether or not you cut out the carbs.
That’s the thing about this whole keto trend, you get all the pros of increased fat intake because you’re consuming more fat!
With increased fat intake comes increased rate of fat burn, which sounds great except for the fact that fat burning IS NOT the same as fat loss!
What really happens on a high fat diet is that you start to burn more dietary fat (not body fat) because that’s what you’re fueling your body with, it has no choice but to use the fats you’re consuming to burn for energy. A lot of the hype from being on keto comes from it being able to burn fat because there’s no carbs in your system, and while those claims are TECHNICALLY true, they are misleading to the general public.
So what does science say about keto for fat loss?
There have been dozens of studies conducted on the effects of fat loss between the keto diet and mixed diets (mixed diets are those comprised of moderate portions of fats, carbs, and proteins). The results have conclusively shown that when calories are equal between the diets, there is no significant difference in fat loss between the two diets. This suggests that the most important factor for fat loss isn’t going to be carbs or fats but rather energy balance aka your total daily calorie intake. So long as you are in a deficit, you will lose fat regardless of your macronutrient ratio.
So how does it compare to a high carb diet? Well if we go back to the point about burning dietary fat as opposed to body fat it’s important to note that burning fat is only half of the battle of fat loss, you also have to account for fat storage. Your net fat balance = fat stored – fat burned. So while you may be burning more fat on a low carb-high fat diet like keto you are also storing more fat. Whereas on a high carb-low fat diet you will be burning less fat due to the spike in your insulin levels AND ALSO storing less fat. Why is that you may ask? This is due to the fact that dietary carbohydrate only contributes only about 1-2% of actual stored fat in adipose tissue whereas the remaining 98-99% comes from the dietary fat you eat.
So to recap, keto has no real proven advantage to fat loss when compared to a diet with moderate or high carbs. Does that mean you shouldn’t be doing keto? Well, it depends. If you are less active and enjoy foods high in fat as opposed to carb dense foods then by all means try out keto! However, you do NOT need to cut out carbs from your life to lose fat, and I would especially advise against it if you are an active individual or training to fuel performance. Carbs are vital for recovery and fueling the best performance from you in these circumstances. Not to mention it’s regulatory process in your endocrine system since carbs are the precursor for several steroid and sex hormones.
The nutrition heirarchy goes through the order it does for a reason. Calories In vs Calories Out will determine 80-90% of the results you see from your diet. Focus on your total calorie intake first and that’ll lead your body toward either fat loss or weight gain.