When Rinku Dudani first heard about a nutritional plan that would let her burn fat while eating fat, she needed no further convincing — eager to lose a few extra kilos without depriving herself of her favourite foods, the 27-yearold Andheri-based marketing professional quickly consulted her nutritionist about how she could make the keto diet work for her. And it worked well, at least for a while — she shed weight faster than she had ever done before. Nibbling on nuts and cheese wasn’t too terrible and she found she could live with the strong shots of ‘bullet-proof coffee’ that she began her mornings with. But then, things changed.
Dudani began to suffer from nagging headaches and frequent bouts of acidity; she felt low and depressed. She could not muster up enough energy to exercise, and stopped sleeping well. “Over time, I realised that all of these were linked to my adoption of the keto diet,” she says.
“As a vegetarian, my sources of protein (a moderate amount if vital for the keto diet) were limited to paneer and the occasional boiled egg, and I soon grew tired of bingeing on these. I was also drinking more coffee to subdue my appetite and this was causing a lot of acidity. Eventually, I gave up, returned to my normal diet, and though I felt better soon, I put the weight back on too.”
Nutritionist Karishma Chawla is all too familiar with such accounts. “Most people love that the keto diet allows you to eat things like cheese and cream, since these are usually off-limits in most weight loss plans owing to their high fat content. What they fail to recognise, however, is that the keto diet is very restrictive, inherently imbalanced and hence, cannot be considered sustainable in the long run. There is also a very specific way to transition into and out of the ketosis state, which most people aren’t aware of. As a result, they end up doing themselves more harm than good,” she observes.
The boomerang effect
“The keto diet is a very high fat, moderate protein and low carbohydrate diet. It first came to the fore in the 1920s, when it was recommended as a treatment for epilepsy in children. Over the years, the diet came to be adopted by certain health practitioners as a quick and easy means of weight loss,” says Riz Sunny, a certified sports nutritionist and fitness trainer. Sunny who also runs a popular YouTube channel called My Bollywood Body, claims he has received several requests from viewers to talk about this fad diet. “The keto diet recommends consuming 70-75 percent fat, 20 percent protein and 5-10 percent carbohydrates.
The idea is that when starved of carbohydrates, the body turns to fats as a source of fuel by kick-starting a process called ketosis. This usually sets in, in about a week.”
It seems to do the trick at first. “As you’re restricting your calorie intake, the first few kilos drop off relatively quickly,” says Sunny. However, he points out, “The brain depends primarily on carbohydrates for energy. Given this and the fact that the typical Indian diet includes a lot of grains (rich sources of carbohydrates), the temptation to return to one’s normal diet is quite high.”
A lack of carbohydrates typically elicits the starvation response in the human body – this is an evolutionary metabolic function designed to help the body survive a period of food shortage. When carbohydrates become available after a period of starvation, the body responds by packing away as much glucose as it can, in the form of fat. This is also the reason why cheat meals can potentially have a disastrous impact on a keto diet plan, as even the slightest deviation can bring the process of ketosis to an abrupt halt. “Unsurprisingly, many people who go off the keto diet, without proper guidance as to how to wean off it, find that the weight quickly returns,” says Chawla.
“At best, the keto diet is useful for people who are following it for medical reasons and under strict supervision,” Sunny allows, “But weight management has to be a way of life, not a short term plan.” Chawla agrees, “Keto diets should only be followed for eight weeks at a time at the most,” she shares. “After this period, I wean people off the diet, and warn them about the implications of following this further.” The keto diet can be detrimental to well-being in other ways too.
You may suffer from constipation: “Vegetables are rich sources of both, carbohydrates and dietary fibre. Since the keto diet also limits the amount of vegetables that can be consumed, people may experience severe constipation. Individuals suffering from chronic dietary conditions may find that these flare up, while on the keto diet plan,” Chawla says.
Expect nutritional deficiencies: “Cutting carbohydrates from your diet means drastically cutting back on proven health-promoting foods, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which contain a number of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. These are essential to maintain optimal health and to ward off a host of chronic diseases,” says dietitian and nutritionist Kashish Alimchandani.
It’ll be harder to get fit: Sunny says, “It is impossible to bulk up or get lean on a keto diet. To gain muscle mass, your body needs high-intensity, anaerobic exercise. To perform this exercise, your body depends on glucose from your bloodstream, muscle glycogen and hepatic glucose output, and the process of gluconeogenesis for fuel. Since ketogenic diets reduce muscle glycogen, you will find it much more difficult to train hard. Your body requires both protein and carbohydrates for optimal muscle gain.” Further, loading up on protein to gain muscle mass can actually be counterintuitive. “Ingesting more than .8 grams per pound of protein is glucogenic and will prevent you from staying in the ketosis state.” This is problematic because lean muscle mass boosts your metabolism and gets you fit faster. Depleting muscle glycogen can also cause a proportional increase in muscle fatigue, causing your body to break down the protein content of your muscles into glucose. As you lose muscle mass, your body will struggle harder to burn calories.
Say goodbye to good health: “Following a keto diet for extended periods of time could lead to progressive loss of bone mineral content by making your body more acidic. Elevated body acidity can lead to low blood phosphate levels, decreased brain function, and an increased risk of osteoporosis and kidney and gall stones,” says Alimchandani.
“Hypoglycemia is a common side-effect and can lead to excessive thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, hunger, anxiety, sweating and chills,” Alimchandani continues. “Other side-effects include poor hydration and mineral balance, low platelet count, impaired mood and potential heart damage. Not to mention that the high levels of saturated fat can raise your cholesterol levels, if consumed for a longer duration of time.”
It can disrupt your hormones: “The keto diet affects hormonal levels by reducing thyroid function. For men, this means a lowered production of testosterone. For women, this means lower levels of progesterone,” Alimchandani says.