Fatty cuts of meat. Thick slabs of cheese. Stacks of bacon.
These are a few of the keystones of the trendy “keto” diet, a high-fat, low-carbohydrate eating plan that’s sweeping the nation.
The diet is intended to alter your body’s metabolism, putting it into a state called ketosis, explained Melanie Boehmer, a registered dietitian at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
The human body normally relies on carbohydrates for most of its quick energy, but in ketosis the body shifts its primary focus to burning fat.
“When you put your body intentionally in ketosis, your body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat for energy,” Boehmer said. And that translates into lost pounds.
But nutritionists caution that the diet is challenging to follow and doesn’t include many nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits.
Also, it may pose possible heart risks, especially for folks who have heart disease.
The keto diet is newly popular, but it really dates back to the 1920s, when it was developed as a treatment for epilepsy. Back then, doctors figured out that forcing people with epilepsy into ketosis through a low-carb diet appeared to help reduce seizures, possibly by altering the energy supply to the brain, Boehmer said. This dietary approach to seizure management is still being used today, although most patients opt for effective anti-seizure drugs.
The standard ketogenic diet involves eating a lot of fat with moderate amounts of protein and very little carbohydrate, says Cat Taylor, a registered dietitian with Nutrition on Demand, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. The traditional breakdown is 70 percent of calories from fats, 25 percent of calories from proteins and 5 percent of calories from carbohydrates.
“I see a lot of people assuming that the keto diet includes all the fat and protein you want, but in actuality even proteins have to be monitored because the body can break down protein and turn it into carbohydrates,” Taylor said. “Fats are the only nutrient that the body cannot turn into carbohydrates for fuel.”
The diet sounds like a meat-eater’s dream, but it’s actually very complicated, Boehmer and Taylor said. People following the diet require intricate eating plans to get the correct amount of fats, proteins and carbs to put them into ketosis.
Because of this, people really need to approach keto eating as a full-fledged lifestyle rather than a quickie diet if they want long-term weight loss, Boehmer said.
“Any time we talk about diets, where there’s a beginning and an end, then automatically we’re kind of setting ourselves up to fail,” Boehmer said. “I would say if people want to try a keto lifestyle, that would be a better way to approach it, knowing that you need to educate yourself in terms of what those foods look like. There’s definitely a healthy way to do this.”