Hey, Mitko aka Fitness Consistency Coach here and unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the keto (or ketogenic) diet.
Anybody with an Internet connection will tell you that the thing is literally everywhere. Browse a random website and there’s a banner for a keto cookbook in the sidebar. Scroll through your Facebook feed and there’s a video about the benefits of running on ketone bodies. Go to Instagram and it’s #keto after #keto.
In fact, there’s been such a spike in the interest towards low-carb diets that it oddly resembles the craze around bitcoin right now…
What is the keto diet?
The ketogenic diet is a low-carbohydrate diet where the liver produces ketone bodies for energy. Ketone bodies are three water-soluble molecules – acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate and acetone – that are produced from fatty acids during periods of low food intake or carbohydrate-restrictive diets.
In theory, when you restrict your carbohydrate intake, your body can’t get the necessary energy from glucose so it turns to ketone bodies, meaning it uses fat for fuel. That’s why the ketogenic diet is mainly marketed as a fat loss diet.
And, in fact, keto diets do seem to help some people with fat loss. But that’s not the whole story…
The science behind macronutrients and fat loss
While there are lots of success stories testifying to the effectiveness of low-carb diets for weight loss, correlation doesn’t always mean causation. Might there be something else behind these individuals’ successful fat loss efforts?
In moments of doubt, we turn to science. In a 2-year study among 811 overweight adults, scientists compared the effects of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates (including low-carb diets). In the end, they came to the conclusion that “reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize.”
In other words, as long as you’re in a caloric deficit (i.e. eating less calories than you’re burning on average), you will lose weight. That shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
You learned about the Laws of Thermodynamics way back in physics class. According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be transferred and converted. Meaning that if you eat less calories than you burn on average, you’ll tap into stored fat and glycogen for fuel.
Which raises a potent explanation to why keto diets might work for some people: when you tell somebody to lower their carboydrate intake to, say, 25 g a day, they simply start eating less calories in general.
That might also explain why some people struggleto lose weight on a low-carb diet – they’re probably intuitively increasing their fat intake to make up for the lowered caloric intake from cutting all those carbs out of their diet.
Of course, in defense of low-carb diets, you could point to the fact that dietary fat is more satiating than carbohydrate thus people will feel less hunger on a low-carb diet. But then again, let’s not forget that while 1 g of carbohydrate contains 4 kcal, 1 g of fats contains 9 kcal. So for a lot of people, those two factors will end up cancelling each other out.
Furthermore, protein is the most satiating macronutrient of them all AND it helps preserve lean muscle mass leading to better body composition AND it has the highest Thermic Effect of Food (the energy spent on processing food for use and storage), so, if anything, shouldn’t we focus on protein rather than carbs or fats? In the end though, it’s calories that matter for weight loss, not carbs or fats.
Keto and cryptocurrencies – what makes them so appealing?
First and foremost, both the ketogenic diet and cryptocurrencies are novel and exciting. Sad but true – people are suckers for “new opportunities”.
Today it’s keto and bitcoin, but yesterday it was intermittent fasting and the housing and stock market in the US. In fact, we can draw countless parallels between the financial world and the health & fitness industry.
Just before the 2007-2008 crash, everyone was crazy about stocks. Prices were rising and it felt like it was never going to end (just like bitcoin today).
Everybody and their brother started talking about what stocks they bought, etc. (just like what’s happening with cryptocurrencies today). Your hairdresser was now not only your hairdresser but also a stockbroker (or a crypto trader nowadays).
Everyone was talking about it -just like they are now. Until it popped, of course.
And, hell, aren’t diet fads the same. Everybody and their dog is doing keto right now. It’s everywhere – keto training, keto meal plan, keto cookbook, keto-this and keto-that…
And to those for whom it works – more power to you. But it’s important to remember WHY it works. It works because when told to cut down on the potatoes and rice, some people lower their carb intake without making up for the difference in calories by increasing their fat intake. Thus they end up in a caloric deficit and they lose weight.
Ketogenic diets do NOT produce fat loss results because of some magical property of ketosis or cutting out carbs from your diet. The above is an important distinction to make because there are a lot of people whom a low-carb diet does not serve. Some of these people might be considering giving it a shot while others have tried it and it’s failed them.
Which brings us to the deeper point of this whole article: nutrition is not black-and-white. Just by looking at the Blue Zones of the world (places where people live longer and healthier than anywhere else on earth), we can see that large groups of people are doing exceptionally well health- and body composition-wise while consuming a significant amount of carbs.
So, instead of watering down nutrition to “carbs are bad” or “fats are the devil” we simply need to acknowledge that different people with different genetic backgrounds do better on different diets. No single nutrition approach serves all people all of the time.
The problem is that this balanced approach isn’t sexy so it’s hard to market it. Again, people want the end-all-be-all answer to their problems. They want it to be simple and easy, and that’s why we see the rise of fad diets – and cryptocurrencies.
Does a low-carb diet work for fat loss. Yes – if you’re in a caloric deficit. Same for a low-fat diet.
If you’re able to operate in a nuanced environment instead of overly simplifying things, then you’ll see fad diets and cryptocurrencies for what they truly are – tools that are useful in some situations and not useful in others – not end-all-be-all solutions to all of your fitness and financial problems.