There are literally THOUSANDS of diets out there ranging from somewhat sensible to downright insane. I’ve seen it all: low calorie, low carb, low fat, low protein, vegan, carnivore, fruit based, shake and bar based…the list could go on for pages. The latest popular diet that has made the rounds is the ketogenic diet.
Although the ketogenic diet may seem new or cutting edge, it’s actually an old medical diet. The ketogenic diet was first used by doctors in the early 20th century to control seizures in epileptic patients. This medical ketogenic diet consisted of 80 percent fat, as little carbohydrates as possible, and a low to moderate amount of protein in the range of 15-20 percent of total calories. The incredibly high fat intake combined with the non-existent carb intake forces the body to produce ketones for energy since it can’t produce sufficient glycogen. It’s these ketones that seem to control or mitigate some of the effects of certain neurological disorders. For decades, this was the only way the keto diet was used.
While keto has medical benefits for select people, it certainly isn’t a magical diet for the masses. It doesn’t give you fat-burning powers, and it doesn’t promote performance improvements for most athletes. Like with all diets, there is always an individual variance with how people may respond to keto. For some people, it may feel the best. And for others, it won’t.
That being said, I have seen too many people gain MORE bodyfat because of the ketogenic diet than I have seen who have lost weight and kept that weight off. It’s not because the diet itself promotes fat gain. Fat gain comes from an energy surplus. If you eat more calories than you burn, you will store that excess energy in the form of body fat. Whether this excess energy is from carbs or not is irrelevant.
The reason I see people gaining fat from a ketogenic diet is due to the psychology behind the diet. We never consider the psychological component. It’s always about which diet works best, but never about which diet works best FOREVER. As a personal trainer, I’ve seen consistent patterns of rebounds in weight with clients who restricted too much too quickly. Like clockwork, if a client restricted anything in dramatic fashion, they’d lose weight only to find it right back on their body shortly after.
A ketogenic diet is extremely restrictive. Although all diets have a restrictive component, the ketogenic diet cuts out an entire macronutrient. Carbs aren’t essential, and you can live the rest of your life without them, but they are a HUGE part of everyday food for most people around the world and have been for thousands of years. There definitely are carbs that are better than others, and some are very healthy. The ketogenic diet says you can’t have any of them. EVER.
The ketogenic diet does seem to promote satiety in some people. Fats are more filling than carbs, and they tend to control appetite for much longer, but not eating any carbs forever severely limits your food choices. Being ketogenic simply FEELS restrictive, especially after someone has been on it for months. Once someone feels like the diet is too restrictive to maintain (which happens to everyone I have ever known on a ketogenic diet), they re-introduce carbs back into their diet. And this is when all hell breaks loose.
It’s not that carbs are so appetite stimulating that former ketogenic dieters lose control (although, some high carb heavily processed food choices CAN stimulate appetite), it’s that the breaking free from restriction creates a binge environment. When coming off a restrictive ketogenic diet, you are VERY likely to consume a LOT of carbs and go way over your calorie requirements. Every time I have had a client or known someone who went off keto, they gained a large amount of weight when they came off. Every single time. Again, I want to stress, it’s not the carbs but rather the overconsumption of calories that causes this.
Diets that are extremely restrictive work well in the short term because following them is pretty black and white. Just not eating carbs is easy to understand, but it’s a drastic step for most people and usually results in massive weight gain once people move out of it. In my opinion, the ketogenic diet may actually be doing more harm than good.
If you want to lose body fat and keep it off forever, your best approach is one that considers your personal psychology around food. You are trying to change a fundamental behavior. The only way to do this is with SLOW and STEADY changes, not with dramatic shifts. The key here is in understanding that your pace will be unique to yourself. Look at your diet and find something you can change that will challenge you BUT ALSO be something you KNOW you can stick to in the long term. It may be a small change, but odds are higher that it will be a permanent change. Once a dietary improvement has become a natural part of your eating behavior, add in another small change, and so on. Before you know it, you will have achieved permanent success.
The ketogenic diet is too much change too soon for most people. The average person eats a diet that is 60-80 percent carbs. Radically switching that out with fats is a sure-fire way of rebounding later on. If your goal is to lose fat the right way and to keep it off forever, I suggest most people stay away from the ketogenic diet.