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The keto diet is taking the fad diet arena by storm. Folks are turning to the diet as a means of weight loss, and some believe that it can also help with a slew of health conditions. But even though you may know someone who swears by it, as a dietitian focused on healthy, delicious food, I’ve never been able to condone such an extreme diet (whether used as a way of life or as a timebound diet to “reset”). (Related: Is the Keto Diet Bad for You?)
Here’s a dive into this high fat and virtually carb- and sugar-free diet, and why I am just *not* a fan.
It takes the enjoyment out of food.
To me, food is fuel but it should also be enjoyed. I just can’t get past the fact that many keto recipes (and I’ve developed many) don’t leave me satisfied—and all the substitutes and high-fat ingredients tend to give me (and clients) a stomachache. The keto diet is more like feeding the body “medicine” to trigger a process (ketosis—using fat as fuel instead of carbs) than it is about the enjoyment of it.
But it’s not just the flavor factor. This high-fat, moderate-protein, and very low-carb diet (which is usually broken down as 70 to 75 percent fat, 20 to 25 percent protein, and 5 to 10 percent carbs) can actually leave you feeling physically ill, especially in the beginning. After a week or two on the diet you will enter full ketosis. But until you get there, symptoms like extreme fatigue (the feeling like you can’t get out of bed) and the keto “flu” may occur. The keto “flu” is the time where your body is adapting to using ketones as energy, which can leave you feeling nauseated, with headaches, and a foggy head.
It sets you up for failure.
To maintain ketosis, you must continue to eat a very low-carb diet. While every person’s threshold for carbs slightly differs (which you figure out as you go along), this diet simply leaves no room for flexibility—it’s a plan that you must stick to without fail. (No 80/20 balance here!)
This can be tough for folks who need a “cheat” day, but it can also take a mental toll on the dieter. In a usual diet plan when you go off of it for a day or two, you just get right back in the saddle and start again. With keto it’s more than that: You need to start from scratch to get yourself back into ketosis, which can take a few days or weeks. This can really make you feel bad about yourself and take a psychological toll on your well-being and self-worth. (Related: Why You Should Give Up Restrictive Dieting Once and for All)
It makes cooking really difficult.
If you’re a protein-lover, you may think this diet is for you considering all the other foods that are eliminated. But the diet requires that protein make up 20 to 25 percent of total calories—so eating too many eggs or chicken breasts can make you top this protein amount pretty easily. (Related: 8 Common Keto Diet Mistakes You Could Be Getting Wrong)
And say goodbye to eating all the low-carb veggies that you want—because every gram of carbs count and have to be tallied or again, you’ll fall out of ketosis. Most keto recipes have no more than 8 grams of carbs per serving (and even things like dried herbs can add 1 or 2 grams of carbs).
Bottom line: If you don’t measure and calculate exactly each food and ingredient, you won’t be able to get into ketosis or maintain it. And who wants to be sitting around measuring and counting everything? Again, this diet really takes the enjoyment out of cooking and eating. (Related: I Had Keto Meals Delivered to See If Sticking to the Diet Was Any Easier)
It leaves you short on nutrients.
Many have lost weight on the keto diet—but that is no surprise. If you’re cutting out processed foods and limiting your carbs and protein, it’s really tough to eat fat on its own. Think olive oil or butter—how much can you really take in? Those on ketosis do experience a decreased appetite due to higher amounts of ketones in the blood, which can also enable weight loss. But that doesn’t mean you’re doing it healthfully.
The reason you eat a balanced diet, which includes fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, is to get a variety of nutrients your body needs to stay healthy. You can do so on a lower calorie diet *and* successfully lose weight. However, on the keto diet, grains, legumes, and fruit are pretty much eliminated (berries, watermelon, and apples are allowed sparingly). These food groups provide a ton of nutrients including fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants like vitamins A and C. Keto dieters are also known to have constipation because of the lack of fiber in their diet. (FYI, here are the supplements you should take if you’re on the keto diet.)
There are also issues with electrolytes including sodium, potassium, and magnesium. During ketosis, your kidneys excrete more sodium and water, which can lead to dehydration. Plus, the lack of glycogen (or stored glucose) means that the body is storing less water. This is why drinking lots of fluids is important while on keto, and why you need to add lots of sodium to dishes.
There are no long-term studies of what happens to the kidneys, or to the body in general, if you stay in ketosis for a long period of time, or even if you choose to go on and off the diet in cycles. (Related: More Science Suggests the Keto Diet Isn’t Really Healthy In the Long Run)
Here’s the bottom line.
With all the side effects and complications this diet has, I’m truly surprised by the popularity it has gained—it’s just so darn unhealthy and unappetizing in so many ways. (Not to mention the fact that it’s tough to get into ketosis, meaning many people don’t even truly accomplish it.)
For clients who want to clean up their eating, I’ll recommend a balanced, nutritious diet over a restrictive, potentially dangerous one filled with red flags any day.