If losing weight is one of your New Year’s resolutions, you may be searching for a specific diet to accomplish that goal. There are countless diets out there that claim they can deliver quick and long-lasting weight loss. Among the leading contenders is the keto diet.
However, it must be stated upfront, that very few dietary and nutrition experts recommend eating this way. In fact, most caution against any eating plan that has a name attached to it. All of these plans are based on restrictions, some of them severe, and these restrictions are almost always impossible to sustain. Worse, these plans do not teach you the safe, healthy and most important enjoyable ways to eat and still lose or control weight. And they can be harmful to your health if followed for too long.
Still, some diets like these, including keto, may work in the short run. “It’s fine for a quick fix, but there is no scientific backing for it being safe and effective long term,” says Abby Greenspun, a registered dietitian in Westport, Connecticut. She never recommends it for any of her clients, “and I don’t know any registered dietitians who would promote it for anyone who doesn’t have epilepsy.”
About the Keto Diet
This type of eating, first described a century ago, was used to treat certain severe cases of epilepsy. Keto is short for ketogenic. In a biological state known as ketosis, the body breaks down fats instead of carbohydrates to create the energy necessary for survival. To reach this state, people need to drastically reduce the amount of carbs and sugars they eat, forcing the body to turn to fat-burning for energy. Thus, the keto diet requires at least 70% of daily calories come from fat, about 25% from protein and only 5% to 10% from carbohydrates. For as yet unknown reasons, ketosis reduces the occurrence and severity of seizures, especially in children. Today, medication has mostly supplanted ketosis as a treatment.
But over the past few years, it has been promoted as a weight-loss tool. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it can result in quick and significant weight loss. And it may have other short-term benefits. A 2012 meta-analysis in the journal Obesity Reviews concluded that a low-carb diet had “favorable effects” on major cardiovascular risk factors like body weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels. However, “the effects on long-term health are unknown,” it says.
The main reason: It is extremely difficult to eliminate virtually practically all bread, cereal, pasta, sweets and other high-carb foods from your diet for more than a short period. It also carries long-term risks, including hair loss, and it may be dangerous to women who are breastfeeding.
How to Start
Now that you know the drawbacks and dangers, there are ways to start the keto diet safely and try it for a short time. Here are 10 tips to get you started:
Research. It’s important to first familiarize yourself with the diet’s basic principles and understand which foods are considered low carbohydrate and high fat, says Kristen Smith, a registered dietitian and the bariatric surgery coordinator for Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta. That list includes meats, fish, low-carb vegetables and healthy oils. The keto diet eliminates whole and refined grains, baked goods, fruits, starchy vegetables like peas and corn, milk, yogurt, beans, legumes, pasta, bread and sweetened beverages.
Strategize. “Once you are familiar with foods included in the keto lifestyle, you can start creating a plan, deciding what foods you need to purchase at the supermarket or what you can eat out at restaurants,” Smith says. “Yes, you can eat at restaurants when following the keto diet, but it will require researching the menu to find foods that fit into a keto lifestyle and planning ahead.”
Start slow. Consider easing into the diet, by gradually decreasing your carbohydrate intake. Try one carb-free meal a day, then two and so on until you can make it through an entire day.
Plan meals ahead. Always have a plan of what you will eat. “I recommend all my clients plan meals and snacks at least a day in advance, but most of my clients are more successful when they have a meal plan for the entire week,” Smith says.
Think long term. You should choose a version of the keto diet you can maintain for a longer period of time. The Atkins diet, for example, is similar to keto, but it’s a bit less strict and gives you more food options.
Buy the right foods. Make sure you keep your kitchen stocked with nutrient-dense, low-carbohydrate foods. “Find foods that are part of the keto diet that excite you and you look forward to, and make a list of these foods,” Smith says.
Consider the big picture. Look at the keto diet as one part of an overall lifestyle change. Successful weight loss must also include more physical activity, proper sleep and stress control along with diet.
Don’t focus only on carbohydrate counting. “It’s important to ensure you are still eating a well-balanced diet. Seeking the help of a registered dietitian nutritionist may be helpful to get started,” says Smith, who is also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Focus on the quality of the fat content. “Choose foods containing unsaturated fats with anti-inflammatory and heart health benefits such as salmon, olive oil, avocado or flax seed,” Smith says.
Don’t scrimp on the vegetables. “I’ve seen people (on a keto diet) tend not to consume enough vegetables with the false assumption that they all have a tremendous amount of carbs,” says Wesley McWhorter, the director of culinary nutrition for the Nourish Program at the Dell Center for Healthy Living at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health. “My main suggestion is to load your plate with veggies.” A professional chef, McWhorter recommends roasted vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, as opposed to bland-tasting boiled or steamed veggies, which “make perfect side dishes if you’re on the keto diet.”