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Breaking Down the Benefits of the Keto Diet

There are thousands of ways to lose weight. Ask 100 different people and you might get 100 different diets that they’ve found beneficial in helping shed some pounds.

The “keto” diet is the most extreme example of the low-carb diets, which have been popular in various forms for the past several decades. Carbohydrates (i.e. carbs) are one of the three types of molecules in food – along with protein and fat – that give us energy. The average American gets about 15% of their calories from protein, 35% from fats, and 50% from carbohydrates. Anything below 50% carbs can be considered a low-carb diet, and some diets in the range of 40-50% calories from carbs market themselves as low-carb. There is a lot more to a diet than the percentage of calories from carbs, but this has been a major focus of many diets in recent years.

Diets & Weight Loss

It’s not all about calories either, but diets that significantly cut calories do result in weight loss over time regardless of the composition of the diet. This is why diets based on almost anything, including alcohol, have been (somewhat) effective and popular. The Drinking Man’s Diet, Robert Cameron’s 1962 book that allowed for martinis and meat, was effective enough to sell several million copies in America. Effective, that is, for losing weight for a time – provided people actually ate less overall.

The mark of a good diet isn’t just about whether it makes the number on the scale go down temporarily, though. Many diets can do that. Weight and lifestyle go hand-in-hand, and a person must focus on both in the long term. If someone says they want to weigh less, they usually don’t mean just for the next two weeks. A good diet should do several things: be realistic and easy to follow, be sustainable over time, make people feel good, and help prevent disease and promote longevity. We’ll get into how the keto diet scores, but first let’s look at a little history.

Keto History

The ketogenic diet began decades ago as a treatment for rare cases of intractable epilepsy. Neuroscientists are still discovering how it works, but some type of metabolic shift in the brain is the likely reason. The normal healthy brain runs on sugar (glucose), but in cases of pathological hyperactivity (epilepsy), switching to running on ketones seems to dampen down the overactive neurons.

What does this have to do with weight loss? Diets where large groups of food are restricted, (like cutting out nearly all carbs or fat) often lead to weight loss even when people don’t count calories. One reason is termed sensory-specific satiety, which basically means that people get tired of eating the same things again and again and therefore eat less. It can be hard to stay on a true keto diet indefinitely, because even fruits, vegetables, dairy, most sauces, and drinks are severely limited. Often, dieters need to eat pure fat or oil to keep their calories up during the weight maintenance phase.

Like The Drinking Man’s Diet of the 1960s, the keto diet works off the idea that carbohydrates lead to weight gain and metabolic problems. People should be able to eat what they want as long as they keep their carbohydrates low enough. Many low-carb diets allow a lot of flexibility in food choices and can take many different forms. Keto diets are different. Ketosis usually only happens during starvation, but without carbohydrates in the diet for long enough, the body eventually has to switch from burning sugar to using ketones for much of its energy needs. In order to stay in ketosis, most people must eat fewer than 20 grams of carbs per day (a gram is the weight of a paperclip). An apple, for instance, would be enough to get to 20 grams and pull the body out of ketosis.

Low-Carb Weight Loss?

Keto diets can work for weight loss just like other diets that restrict foods or otherwise motivate people to significantly reduce their caloric intake. More studies have been done on low-fat and low-carb diets than keto diets. Some health issues like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and elevated blood sugar arise mainly from carrying excess weight. At least in the short term, these indicators go down with weight loss regardless of what type of diet people follow.

As for the amount of weight loss, different forms of low-carb diets typically show similar – or slightly better – results in the short term. The outcomes aren’t really better though, since the extra weight loss comes from the loss of the body’s natural muscle energy reserve, glycogen. When the body is starved of carbohydrates, it first uses up glycogen and the water associated with it. This corresponds to several pounds of weight loss without necessarily any fat loss. But the muscles have lost a major source of energy, which is why exercise performance significant diminishes during low-carb intake. Overall, the best weight loss in the long term will likely happen when an individual has a specific plan and follows a diet that feels sustainable to them.

There are two important questions to ask before embarking on any lifestyle change:

  1. Is it healthy?
  2. Can I realistically maintain it over time?

At Structure House, we provide a personalized approach because we believe everyone is unique. We also offer boundaries and guidance because we believe most people respond to a diet that’s balanced, not too restrictive, and simple. We also do this because there’s substantial evidence that a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats helps people stay fit over time.

There’s a lot more to food than how many grams of carbs or fat it contains. While the keto diet is undoubtedly one way of losing weight, I would recommend choosing a method of eating that is more balanced, less restrictive, healthier in the long run, and more sustainable.

Learn more about Structure House’s nutritional approach.

About Benjamin White, RD

In addition to nutrition, Dr. White has a background in public health and scientific research. Ben is excited about translating research into practical knowledge that people can use to improve their overall health. He teaches a variety of classes, ranging from online nutrition resources to meal planning to controlling  your  food environment. He oversees the nutritional components of the program to ensure that guests are equipped with the necessary skills, resources, support, and knowledge to succeed after leaving Structure House. Restaurant outings, individual nutrition counseling, and workshops are also key parts of the program overseen by the nutrition team. The chefs and dietitians at Structure House work in tandem to provide guests with a menu that is appealing, balanced, satisfying and healthy.

Ben earned his Master’s degree in Public Health Nutrition from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has experience in weight loss counseling, motivational interviewing, diabetes management, vegetarian diets, teaching, and scientific research. Dr. White joined Structure House in 2016 as a Registered Dietitian.

View all posts by Benjamin White, RD