The Ketogenic Diet: Does it live up to the hype?

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If you believe the buzz, ketosis—whether via the almost-zero-carb ketogenic diet or via ketone supplements—can curb appetite, enhance performance, and cure nearly any health problem that ails you. Sound too good to be true? It probably is.

One of the biggest hurdles of going keto is putting and keeping your body in ketosis. Ketosis is a natural metabolic state that tricks your body into burning fat instead of carbs for fuel (when it doesn’t have enough carbs). So, naturally, to achieve ketosis, you’ll have to say goodbye to carbs and hello to fat — and lots of it.

If you’ve decided to do the keto diet to lose body fat or improve your endurance, here’s a tip: commit to it. It won’t work unless you’re really serious about making it work. The first month is the hardest. Keto food is delicious. If the food you’re going to eat isn’t tasty (without being sweet), there’s something wrong with it. Do not follow random internet advice on the health benefits of any particular food item. The only truth is in the macronutrient breakdown of nutrition facts. If in doubt, do not eat. Beware of nutrition facts labels on food items sold in India. There’s no quality control. Look for USDA data available via Google instead.

Abstain completely from the primary carb ingredients of our diets:

  1. All sugars including natural sugars such as jaggery and honey.
  2. All grains (rice, wheat, maize/corn, jowar, ragi, oats, even exotic cereals like quinoa) and cereal-based products (bread, chapati, roti, parota, dosa, idly).
  3. Lentils and dal. Don’t believe it? Look up the nutrition facts.
  4. All fruit. You can get your fibre and vitamins elsewhere, without the sugar and carbs.
  5. Starchy root vegetables (tubers) like potato, yam, tapioca and sweet potato. Other roots like carrot and beetroot are fine in limited quantity, as garnishing. Nutrition facts are your friend.
  6. Avoid onion-based gravies as they contain a rather large amount of the base ingredient, and the carbs add up. Onion is about 7% net carb. A medium-sized onion is 100g (so 7g of your 25g quota, one third). An onion and tomato gravy (a kadai) could contain several onions, so one meal could easily get you close to your 25g a day limit.
  7. If you haven’t realised this yet, “diet” and “low fat” foods, “skim” milk and other such foods marketed as being healthy aren’t actually so. Count the carbs. You want to eat fat, not to avoid it.
  8. Beware of sauces and soups. Many are thickened with starch (usually cornflour). If it’s a packaged sauce, check the ingredients label.
  9. Alcohols: Beer is liquid bread. It’s high carb. Avoid. Wine too. Distilled spirits (vodka, rum, whiskey, etc) don’t have carbs, but they do invoke a distinct metabolic pathway that takes precedence and inhibits fat burn. Avoid alcohol until you’ve made decent progress on your weight loss goal.

Understanding and internalising keto requires having a good sense for what’s in your food, which is why cooking for yourself is important, at least in the first month.

A ketogenic diet could be an interesting alternative to treat certain conditions, and may accelerate weight loss. But it is hard to follow and it can be heavy on red meat and other fatty, processed, and salty foods that are notoriously unhealthy. We also do not know much about its long-term effects, probably because it’s so hard to stick with that people can’t eat this way for a long time. It is also important to remember that “yo-yo diets” that lead to rapid weight loss fluctuation are associated with increased mortality. Instead of engaging in the next popular diet that would last only a few weeks to months (for most people that includes a ketogenic diet), try to embrace change that is sustainable over the long term. A balanced, unprocessed diet, rich in very colorful fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and lots of water seems to have the best evidence for a long, healthier, vibrant life.