Keto Diet for Weight Loss: Is it magic or not?
There are several reasons that indirectly cause you to not lose weight on keto such as, eating too high of carbs kicking you out of ketosis, eating too much protein, eating too many nuts, too much stress, and not enough sleep to name a few. However, these all lead to the direct reason of why you are not losing weight.
Let’s not sugarcoat this; the real answer to why you are not losing weight on keto is because you are eating too many calories, period.
The big picture of weight loss seems to get lost in magical buzzwords that the keto diet offers. However, the inconvenient truth remains, calories always have been, still are, and always will be king in terms of weight loss.
What this means is that people on the keto diet need not to solely focus on eating extremely low carbs to maintain high levels of ketones in the blood, but rather need to control calorie intake as well. In other words, if anyone ever tells you “just eat high fat and very low carbs, and the calories won’t matter” it’s a bunch of beep beep!
What is Ketosis?
Ketosis is a state your body will undergo in the presence of very low carb intake for a prolonged period of time. Because carb intake is restricted, glucose will no longer be the primary source of energy for the brain. Thus, the body must respond by producing energy in other ways. It does so by producing ketones.
Ketones are produced from fatty acids that are released by our stored body fat. Ketones can be used by virtually any cell, but the brain will be the hungriest for them.
The key to reaching and remaining in the state of ketosis is to keep insulin low. Since carbohydrates have the most profound effect on the release of insulin, it makes sense to eat extremely low carbs in order to reach ketosis.
What does a ketogenic diet look like?
A ketogenic diet requires the restriction of carbs, typically around 20g a day. Due to the restriction of carbs, some of the calories are replaced by fat and protein. The diet will consist of ~75% of calories from fat, ~15% from protein and ~7% from carbs. The reason fat intake is the majority of calories is because there is practically no insulin response to fat ingestion, whereas both protein and carbs lead to the release of insulin (more on why this is important later).
Foods you can eat on keto:
A limited amount of protein, such as:
A large amount of high-fat foods, such as:
coconut and coconut milk or oil
olive oil and any other oil
nuts and nut butters
A small amount of non-starchy vegetables, such as:
broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprout, cabbage
Food to avoid:
Most dairy (except high-fat items like butter and certain cheeses)
Beans and legumes
As mentioned earlier, these food choices and macronutrient distributions (percentages of fat, protein, and carbs) are designed to keep insulin low. Let’s look at the over-simplified hypothesis of why this is important for fat loss.
The low-carb / insulin hypothesis:
Insulin is a hormone that signals the cells to bring stuff inside of them
When stuff enters the cell it gets stored as fat
Carbohydrates have the most profound effect on insulin release
Carbohydrates are the cause of fat storage by causing insulin secretion
Extremely restrict carbs and no insulin will be released and therefore, no fat will be stored
Magic! Weight loss occurs and carbohydrates are officially the devil and should be avoided at all costs
The biggest issue with this theory is that it actually sounds very logical to most people. Unfortunately, in nutrition 1+1 rarely equals 2. What it doesn’t consider is calorie intake. This hypothesis gets misinterpreted as ALL you have to do is eat high fat/low carb and it is impossible to get fat because insulin is low. However, fat will be stored as fat in the presence of a calorie surplus just like carbs or protein would. There is NO diet that allows you to eat unlimited amount of calories and still lose weight.
Why is the keto diet effective?
With all this being said, the keto diet is extremely effective at weight loss if you can maintain it. But, why is it effective? It is not because ketones have some superior metabolic advantage, or that butter in your coffee is some fairy dust that magically makes your body into a fat burning machine. Nor is it because fat can’t be stored as fat, or that carbs are inherently bad and if you don’t eat them you automatically lose weight.
You lose weight on keto for as simple as 2 reasons: calorie restriction and high fat/medium protein intake has the best appetite-suppressing effects that make you feel full longer (satiety).
Let’s see an example of how this works with an imaginary client.
AW is searching for a new diet. Her current diet consist of 3000 calories and 50% of those calories come from carbohydrates. In other words, 1500 calories are made up from carbohydrates.
She is recommended she goes on a keto diet. She agrees, and cuts her carb intake to 5% of her caloric intake and does not add in any extra calories.
Let’s look at the impact this had on her calories. 3000x.05= 150. Now, only 150 calories consist of carbohydrates.
Recap: She went from 1500 calories of carbohydrates to 150 calories of carbohydrates. This will bring her new TOTAL caloric intake down to 1650 from 3000. She just eliminated 1350 calories by going on keto.
This WILL cause all of the following:
Significant weight loss
High levels of ketones in your blood
Get you to believe carbs, indeed, are “bad”
Get you to believe keto diet is magic
Behind the scenes is the reality. The reality is that all you did was find a way that caused you to be in a caloric deficit, that’s it. The means of how you did that was by eliminating carbs. Let's make this distinction very clear. It is not the elimination of CARBS that caused the weight loss; it is the elimination of the CALORIES from the carbs that caused the weight loss.
This is true for all diets, not just keto. Every single diet is about restriction of calories in one way or another.
Atkins- restriction of calories via restriction of carbs
Low fat- restriction of calories via restriction of fat
Intermittent fasting- restriction of calories via shortened time periods to eat
Weight watchers- restriction of calories via point system
Paleo- restriction of calories by eating only “minimally processed, paleolithic foods”
At the end of the day, all diets just have their own unique buzzwords to make them sound different or better than the other, when in reality they all are doing the same thing- restricting calories.
An argument of keto-advocates is that ketones can only come from the breakdown of fat, therefore, your fat-burning potential is optimized. This is true, that ketones solely come from fat breakdown.
However, fat breakdown and whole body fat loss are not the same thing.
Fat breakdown (beta-oxidation) simply means that you are using your stored fat to supply the body with fuel in the form of fatty acids or ketones. So far so good, however, whole body fat loss requires a caloric deficit. In other words, just because you are breaking down fat for fuel doesn’t disregard the fact that you still need to be eating less fuel than the amount of fuel you are burning for whole body fat loss to occur. Otherwise, you are just putting in as much or more fat than you are burning, even if you are just burning fat.
Bottom line- Similar to any other diet, you still need to watch calories to make sure you are in a caloric deficit in order to lose fat.
Is the Keto Diet sustainable?
Let's first examine what sustainability even means. Sustainability of a diet requires an analysis of the diet itself i.e. what foods can/can't you eat, how many calories you can have, is it realistic, etc. Most importantly though, you need to be real and honest with yourself. Nothing else will matter more in the long-term of succeeding on a diet than asking yourself these 10 questions about it:
Can I see myself eating this way forever? How about at least 80% of the time?
Am I going to feel too restricted?
Is this diet going to make me feel guilty if I eat something I enjoy?
Does it allow any flexibility?
Is it realistic to MY lifestyle?
Can I still enjoy social events?
Can I really be consistent eating this way?
Can I be patient enough to see results eating this way?
Will it affect my exercise performance?
IS IT NECESSARY?
If you are new to dieting, keto may not be the best first choice for you.
For most people the keto diet is not sustainable. There is typically a direct inverse relationship between the degree of restriction in a given diet and its sustainability. That is, the more restriction the diet contains, the harder it is to sustain. With that being said, it would be difficult for anyone to argue against the fact that the keto diet is one of the most, if not THE most, restrictive diet out there.
Bottom line: With all the diets out there and the abundance of buzzwords, it may be confusing to know which diet is the best choice for you. They all, including keto, work by reducing calories in one way or another. If you truly enjoy a high fat, medium protein diet, such as keto, then it actually may be right for you. Just remember, there is no inherent magic to any of them. There is no “best diet”. The best diet for you is the diet that you can adhere to and enjoy long-term.
However, if you can do without carbs then give it a shot! But, if you could lose weight while still eating carbs, why wouldn’t you?