Dear Nutritionist, I’ve been trying to lose weight. I’m a middle-aged female (54) and have done Weight Watchers, but didn’t keep the weight off. I’m interested in giving Keto a try. so I would like to know if you think it’s a fad and also is it safe? — Betty
I get asked this question a lot actually. I will go into my reasons below, but the short answer is no, it’s not a fad and yes, keto is safe for almost all people.
There are some medical conditions that make keto problematic, but that is not the vast majority of folks. Let’s unpack the keto diet a bit to understand why it’s not a fad.
We have all seen diets come and go. Across the board it’s safe to say they would be unnecessary if we ate only natural food that we are biologically adapted to eat, in the right proportions, with some moderate movement in our daily lives.
It’s a myth that dieting is natural. If we look at the vast majority of our history as a species, it’s food scarcity and not overeating that impacted mortality. In the developed countries to varying degrees we have now gone in the other direction.
It’s also a myth that we need to be gym rats to be fit. Just look at 80-year-old farmers around the globe. Staying fit has to do with staying active — and that can be any activity from work to house keeping to gardening to walking the dog to my personal favourite — dancing around the living room. Movement keeps us fit. But diet keeps us slim.
Please read that again if you are interested in losing weight. Body composition is determined by your diet. You can not exercise off a bad diet. And trying to will leave you frustrated and often injured.
Consuming a healthy, biologically appropriate diet will get you to a good body composition — meaning the fat to lean tissue ratio, which is what we are talking about when we talk about weight loss. If you are short and stout by nature, with a lot of muscle, you are never going to diet yourself twiggy. But you can be lean, with a nice shape and healthy fat distribution.
What does that mean?
Well, a healthy person has a little fat just under their skin all over their body. An unhealthy body holds fat in the middle. That is the primary indicator of longevity, heart disease, diabetes, and a whole host of other disease states.
If you want to know your risk, look at your waist to hip ratio. If the waist is bigger or even close to your hips, you’re in trouble. If you have a muffin top over your jeans or look pregnant when you’re not, you can stand to lose fat, no matter how thin your overall frame is. This will reduce your disease risk more than anything you can do.
This is where keto comes in.
Historically, our ancestors had periods of plenty and periods of scarcity. They would migrate to follow food. They never got to choose a diet, as we do today. They never had processed foods.
Even growing crops and using grains is relatively new in terms of our development! For the vast majority of our development as a species, we existed on what we could pick or dig and what we could hunt and catch in terms of animals.
It’s also noteworthy that we used the entire animal in times of scarcity and in times of plenty there is evidence that dogs (which co-evolved with humans) ate the muscle meat while we ate the organ meat and bones. The organs were often consumed raw after a kill. Today (when dogs and humans eat natural food) that trend is reversed.
In this respect, our paleolithic ancestors would have naturally had cycles of ketosis because ketosis is what happens when the body runs on fats for fuel rather than carbohydrates or protein.
When game is the primary source of sustenance, fat becomes the natural fuel source for the body. Healthy human bodies don’t use protein for energy in the presence of fat. And they don’t burn fat in the presence of carbs. In a time when carbs were scarce (fruit in season, which was far less sweet than it is now, and a few tribes that used tubers more often) the body would naturally default to using fats for energy. This is ketosis. It is our natural state of being.
And it’s why the body stores energy as fat (the primary human fuel source) for times of scarcity. If we look at this even a century ago, we can see that even agricultural societies — before the advent of modern food production and storage technology — would lend itself to ketosis because carb-rich foods are ready in the autumn and would be consumed to pad the body for the famine of winter. Then, when winter scarcity set in, the body was using its own fat to survive. This is ketosis.
With a keto diet, the body becomes more efficient at using fat for energy because during that time it burns its own fat stores, which many people now want to take advantage of. It also decreases the strain on the digestive organs and decreases inflammation (as insulin and adenosine are both highly inflammatory and both are down-regulated with this diet).
A keto diet is also very low in allergens and does not contain anti-nutrients that vegetarian proteins contain. It’s easier to digest. And it contains bones, the perfect source of minerals. No other mineral source is as healthy or as sustainable. And no other nutrient group is as essential for human health and longevity.
Weren’t there carbs historically speaking?
For the most recent agrarian part of our development there have been carbohydrate-rich foods but there were ways of consuming the carbs that made them healthier for us than what we do today.
First of all, there were no factories and processing them was lengthy so they were less plentiful. Bread was not the sticky, glutenous gooey nonsense we have today. The crop was different and the processing was different. Access was minimal due to the work to process it.
Maize (corn) was not the sweet crop we know today and it was always processed with lime or ash. This process is called nixtamalization. You can read more about it here. When this was not done there was an upsurge in pellagra, which causes psychosis, thinking problems, skin rashes, photosensitivity, and aggression.
Is it a coincidence we now have improperly processed corn in so many of our processed foods and are experiencing so many mental health conditions with these features today? Hmmmm…
Thus, returning to a diet that mimics the natural, evolutionary state of being adapted to using fat for energy (ketosis) is natural and healthy. It’s often dismissed as a fad by people who say it’s not balanced enough or simply because it’s popular.
But that’s what people thought about the automobile when it first came out. A fad. And dangerous. Totally impractical technology. But just because something becomes popular does not make it transitory in nature. Look at televisions. Look at industrialization. There are many many more examples.
The idea that ketosis is dangerous is fuelled by people who don’t understand metabolism. They confuse it with ketoacidosis, which is very dangerous. But it’s an entirely different thing. The truth about the keto diet is that it can reverse a host of health conditions that other diets can’t. Diabetes and metabolic syndrome alone are good enough reason to hail this diet, as it does more to reverse them than any other.
The only time a keto diet is unhealthy or dangerous is when it’s composed of processed fatty foods like processed meats and bars and keto snacks. You will still lose weight on them, but they are not natural foods.
In the industry we call this dirty keto. It’s far superior to return to a minimally processed animal based diet with natural animal fats and healthy veggies and occasional fruit.
This naturally puts us in and out of ketosis cyclically, with ample nutrients. This is the diet I advocate in my practice, not because it helps with weight loss (although it does) but because it reverses many disease states — even serious mental health conditions like psychosis and seizures. Weight loss is actually just a side effect of eating for health. It’s really not the goal.
Thank you, Betty, for the great question. I hope you have a better understanding of it now. As always, if readers have a health or nutrition related question, I welcome you to write to me at [email protected]. And if you’re looking for more specific health information, check out my website at nonienutritionista.com, where I provide 1:1 health coaching for those who need it.