Weight Isn't the Only Thing I Lost on Keto
I've tried a lot of shit to get thin. I used to eat exactly seven almonds to stave off hunger before bed. I finished my last meal at 4pm and my breakfast at noon. I passed on croutons. I worshipped fitness influencers so much that my ex photoshopped a photo of Tim Ferriss and I cooking together. I swore by kettlebelling. I peed on test strips at the drug test clinic I worked at to measure my ketone levels. I put MCT oil and butter in my coffee and avoided bread for nearly three years. I thought about making an Instagram of myself dumbbell lunging on a weight bench with the reps in the description. To some people, I was #goals.
Then one night, it all changed. I poured honey and water into a 42-ounce canister of Quaker oats and kept spooning because there was no other carb source in the house. Something strange had possessed me; I would later hear other binge eaters call this “blacking out,” or feeling such intense relief and disinhibition that you consume ridiculous quantities of food without fully realizing or experiencing it. At the time, I remember thinking something was very, very wrong, but the thing that was wrong was my lack of self-control and that I would be better -- keto!!! -- forevermore. And then I did it again a few nights later. I gained weight. I gave up on dieting eventually, but it took me years to reestablish a healthy relationship with food.
I was the extreme, but you are not immune to the consequences of restrictive eating.
Radical diets like keto bring radical change, and I’m not referring to pounds you might shed from depriving your body of an essential macronutrient; I’m talking about changes in your social world, your relationship with food, and your mental health. I’m talking about the diet industry convincing us that if we pass on eating out with friends to do our at-home cardio fat-busting workout before roasting another variation on a chicken dinner, we’re going to feel joyous and at peace with ourselves once we reach our fitness “goals.” And we’re actually going to keep the weight off.
For most people, it's an illusion. And for many, that illusion is self-destructive.
Keto becomes the hot new "diet"
I knew keto had been on the The Today Show when relatives began dropping the term in the same charming way your grandmother might refer to “the Instagram.” They knew it was low carb and that it worked, because that’s what the show told them. But they couldn’t explain the state of “ketosis” or why their Yummy Yummy Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Breakfast Replacement Keto Bar was a better choice for weight loss than, like, cutting back on alcohol.
But don’t go blaming Savannah Guthrie for the mass commodification of keto. The network knew that most consumers didn’t really care for all the details so long as it worked. Even Savannah and Al Roker were on the diet, which you might have learned after Roker slammed ex-Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels for speaking out against it.
Keto is short for ketogenic. If you didn’t already know, it’s a high-fat, low-carb diet. The goal of the ketogenic diet is to get your body into a “ketogenic state,” or a physiological state in which your body is not burning carbohydrates -- which break down to glucose -- but an alternative energy source called ketones, which are produced by the liver when your body is depleted of glucose. Ketones are formed from fat stores. In order for your body to start producing ketones, it needs to first run out of glycogen stores. After you deprive your body of carbs, it takes a bit of time for the glucose to clear out.
Keto’s super hot right now, but it’s nothing new. It started in the 1920s after it was proven to reduce or eradicate seizures in individuals with epilepsy. This was well before fitness gurus and low carb and Jenny Craig. It was a time when the hot fad diets involved grapefruit gut-busting and cigarettes. People were counting calories, not carbs.
Decades later, when low carb became the best thing since sliced bread, people were calling it the Air Force Diet and the Drinking Man’s; Atkins and Paleo; Comet and Cupid. Then, in 2016, podcaster and MMA commentator Joe Rogan discussed keto once on his show and his loyal following of fitness enthusiasts and life optimizers took it and ran (literally, especially in the mornings, to increase fat burning during the fasting state).
Before long, keto was everywhere. Grocery stores were filling their aisles with bars. Restaurants were touting keto-friendly options. "Keto" has joined "Dinners," "Healthy," "Slow-Cooker," and "Cookbook" among the tabs on beloved food site Delish. Other food sites -- this one included -- dog-piled on the SEO potential, going in on hot keto content. The chain reaction was swift and all-encompassing. And as it went viral, keto began appealing to vulnerable minds everywhere. My mind included.
The thing is, for keto to work, it can’t just be treated like any other diet, which is really confusing considering all the pundits touting the “keto diet.” Eating a balanced diet in daylight hours and night capping with a “keto bar” from Whole Foods is not going to put you in a state of ketosis, nor is eating keto religiously and bingeing the family sized bag of Doritos twice a week. Putting the word “diet” beside “keto” is a bit misleading because it downplays the outrageous restrictions required to put your body in an unnatural fat-burning state. In order to accomplish the “ketosis” most diet plans talk about, you need to radically change your lifestyle -- and, unlike switching to a balanced diet of whole foods, you must be fairly religious about carb restriction in order to reap the benefits.
If you don’t have a legitimate reason to deprive yourself of an entire food group -- such as a crippling intolerance to gluten or sporadic, carbohydrate-induced seizing -- you’ll likely struggle to embrace this new lifestyle. By struggle, I mean that you’re likely to fail in a big way.
"But keto works and is healthy because lowered insulin and stuff?"
Before I highly suggest that you don’t purge your bread products, I’m going to play devil’s cautious-and-hardly-audible advocate and say, yes, drastically cutting carb and sugar intake can have health benefits: it can increase levels of good cholesterol, reduce blood sugar, and all that stuff. But you can accomplish these same goals by, for example, replacing Wonder bread with a healthier carb. There's no need to side-eye the croutons your server forgot to omit like they’re a physical manifestation of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Let’s meditate for a second. Close your eyes. What do you see when you picture yourself on keto? Naturally, carb deprivation has carved out Michelangelo's David from your block of pudgy carrara marble. You have so much more energy now, thanks to the chunk of grass-fed butter (or ghee!) you’ve slid into your morning coffee. You're so spry, in fact, that you’re considering investing in bitcoin even though you’re late to the game, or writing a novel even though you don’t read, or getting into a relationship just because you’re overwhelmed by the trove of eligible suitors now bashfully small-smiling at you on public transport.
Now open your eyes. Unfortunately, you still have the same amount of self-control as you did before. Your roommate still wants to get margaritas and tacos next week. Butter still doesn’t taste good in coffee. Small-smilers on public transport are almost never going to say anything to you. The ketogenic diet is an empty promise, propagandized by brainwashed influencers and companies that want to profit from you. There’s no need to meditate on what being keto actually looks like -- just observe closely as the people around you, without apprehension, recreate their world based on diet blog listicles and tell you that you should, too -- until they wake up to the myth and quit and say nothing about it ever again.
"People hold it up like it’s some kind of Bible..."
It’s tough to find keto criticism in a world of trend-driven search engine optimization, so I was positively delighted to find James Fell’s article “Keto Is the Dumbfuck Diet Du Jour, But That Won’t Last.” Fell is a health and fitness columnist and author of the book, The Holy S— Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant. He’s been featured in The Washington Post, The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, and Men’s Health, and has committed a decade to diet myth-busting after watching his mother struggle with her weight all his life. I gave him a call after reading his poem “Much Ado About Stuffing.”
We discussed why people lose weight and have health benefits on the diet. “It’s because of the low-rule complexity,” he said. In his article “Why Your Diet is Doomed to Fail,” he mentions a 2010 study that highlighted how people are most likely to stick to diets that have fewer rules… Which brings us back to carb cutting.
"They cut out a massive food group,” Fell said. “Carbs are likely problematic for them -- pastries and donuts and pizza and what not -- and that creates a de facto restriction of calories. It's not miraculous.”
We then discussed how dietary restriction can become somewhat of a religious ideology.
"There are people who follow keto who aren’t crazy,” Fell said. “But some of them think that it is a miracle cure to everything, that it violates all sorts of proven science.”
He likened ardent keto followers to extremely religious people's tendency to look beyond politicians' moral shortcomings: As long as they get them closer to the overall results they're looking for, they're willing to look past even glaringly negative characteristics.
Basically, the proven science is in the pudding. A highly cited low-carb study from The New England Journal of Medicine concludes with the statement, “The low-carbohydrate diet produced a greater weight loss (absolute difference, approximately 4 percent) than did the conventional diet for the first six months, but the differences were not significant at one year.” The study mentions health benefits from the low carb diet, of course, but that it’s largely unsustainable.
And it’s not an easy diet to stick to, even in the short term. Fell pointed me to a series of articles he’d written after talking to scientists about low-carb diets. As a former track runner myself, I wasn’t surprised to hear him say that carb depletion is terrible for athletes, nor did it come as a shock to hear that fat isn’t necessarily going to make you feel “fuller for longer.”
You could hear a decade’s worth of frustration in Fell’s voice. “People hold it up like it’s some kind of Bible. ... We've got Dr. Oz, and tons of doctors that don’t know what they’re talking about … but have that beloved M.D.”
He went on to talk about how even though physicians often support keto/paleo, or even write books about the diets, he's skeptical of their authority on the subject. Fell’s wife is a physician. “Nutrition education is practically non-existent in medical school,” he said. “You can fail every nutrition exam you get in med school and still be a doctor."
This means, when it comes to diet information, many medical professionals are largely in control of the sources they choose to rely on, making it easy to ignore the reality of keto.
The harsh reality of keto
People seem to expect, based on fitness guru promises, that being in a state of ketosis feels like a cognition-enhancing, energy-stimulating power hour whereby your waist measurement is negatively correlated with your IQ. I usually just felt fatigued as hell if I tried to exercise, beating my body to death on an aged and grating stair climber at 6am. Then I went about the day eating random assortments of protein and fat, felt totally out of control at the sight of brownies in the office, overdid coffee to suppress my cravings and increase my metabolism, and went to bed feeling the dull ache of deprivation underneath my dieting high. And that was only the beginning.
I asked a few former keto dieters what their experience was like. My friend Anthony said he lost a ton of weight because he was no longer allowed to have basically anything unhealthy he had previously enjoyed, which ties back to “low rule complexity.” But he eventually stopped losing weight, started craving the foods he’d removed, and was nervous he’d gain weight again without these restrictions. A former professor of mine found herself in a state of general malaise that never passed (more on that later), and felt much more energetic overall when she dropped the diet.
Me, I was a lot of things before I was keto: vegan, high starch, skinny, an Adderall abuser, paleo, Catholic, raw till 4, pescatarian, etc. The reason I went high fat/low carb was because some very smart-sounding people on the internet told me that I could “hack my body” and eat some fun things (bacon) if only I’d cut out a food group that was probably giving me constipation and cancer anyway.
My keto journey began with chicken and avocado, like many high-fat brethren before me, until I eventually found the paleo cookbooks and created a little diet-friendly life for myself, devoid of family party-friendly foods but productive and communal in its own way. I was joining the online forums. I was reading studies about the health benefits of keto. I was drinking the bone-broth Kool-Aid, believing my fasting states and butter coffee were catapulting me towards some sort of psychophysiological excellence. I lost around 15lbs in 2015 because I didn’t allow myself most of the foods I usually “overdid” and was motivated not only by the progress but by the exclusive, cultish energy of ketosis. We were not the Google diet generation -- we were Google scholar. We treated epilepsy, after all, and our fearless keto leaders preached the Good News to all who would listen, then verbally abused well-meaning bloggers and medical professionals who suggested that extreme dieting might be unhealthy and unsustainable. Amen?
"Some people stop working with me because they're not going to be proven wrong."
Keto gurus and dietary heretics
As with any religion, the keto faithful are a defensive bunch, and naysayers are met with the fitness world's version of fire and brimstone. As such, it's hard to find people in the health industry to openly chat about keto's negative impact.
"Some people stop working with me because they're not going to be proven wrong. You’re dissing their religion," said Libby, a registered dietician who asked that her full name not be used because of the private hate messages she's received from the community. “If there was a diet or a pill or something that really was this miracle diet weight-loss thing that lasted and was healthy for you, we wouldn't have all these different diets all the time, there wouldn't be health complications, there wouldn't be so much controversy about it and the first time that you'd be learning about it wouldn't be on a 3pm talk show."
For the keto gurus who serve as it's staunchest evangelicals, conversations swirl around oft-repeated talking points, and any sense of negativity is quickly batted away. I spoked to several "gurus.” The claims they made are already on most low-carb blogs: It’s gonna suck at first, but it’s Worth It. Fat makes you full. Blood sugar will go down. Insulin will be on point. You’ll realize that which has sat dormant in your body for too long -- a demigod. Devoid of carbs, your body will reconstruct in such a way that Zeus will descend from parted clouds to congratulate you on your blood test results.
An actually reasonable-sounding man named Craig from a keto website told me that the keto diet is a natural diuretic, so you’re losing more water and, consequently, micronutrients. He told me, “This is especially apparent when you start keto, where you will likely go through what is known as 'keto flu.' This is fatigue, tiredness, headaches ... .”
I followed up about the keto flu. Healthline says it's actually carb withdrawal. Libby, the dietician, just laughed at the “keto flu,” saying that any diet that gives you feelings of malaise is not a diet you should stick to.
But the physiological impact of low carb wasn’t even my biggest concern about the diet. I asked Craig how he recommends people cope with the social isolation brought on by hyper-specific dietary restrictions. See, food is communal; grandparents cook traditional dishes for their families, friends opt to share a large pizza or pitcher of beer, and so on. Keto doesn’t really allow for spontaneous cheat meals. Craig responded, “I think dietary restrictions are becoming commonplace in today's world,” and then talked exclusively about how restaurant menus can be tweaked.
This answer made me sad. Having lived in New York all of my life, I've seen loved ones fall victim to spontaneous gluten intolerance and restaurants run to their rescue with accommodating menus. This is why I get annoyed. What’s a dietary prescription for someone who wants to go to a dinner party and be able to eat a meal that was prepared for them?
Keto is cultish not only because of its members’ radical commitment to a dietary restriction, but because it inhibits their full participation in the outside world.
The last thing you need is a diet that is going to further fuck up your relationship with food.
"But plenty of people have dietary restrictions," you say. And you're right. Plenty of people have allergic reactions or seizures if they don’t restrict their diets -- that’s why you don’t often find someone allergic to peanut butter spooning a jar of smooth Skippy at midnight to get that fix. Diets are largely psychological; there must be a big, sustainable answer to why am I dieting? And fear of dying is, obviously, a lifelong motivator.
First I’ll say this: In the event that you’re overweight to the point where you need to lose weight to be healthy (excluding those with legitimate medical conditions) the last thing you need is a diet that is going to further fuck up your relationship with food.
And for everyone else, your desire to get slim and toned isn’t going to hold up -- it’s going to hurt you. If or when you get to the body that you believed you desperately desired you’re probably still not going to be answering “why?” with “I want to have a healthy relationship with food” or “I want to be healthy.” Your answer is going to be “I am restricting my eating because I think a certain weight or aesthetic is going to make me happy,” and when that weight doesn’t make you happy (because life is filled with highs and lows that physical attraction cannot control) you’re going to break and return to your previous relationship with food, only then the cravings will be twice as vicious because you have deprived yourself, and because you are ashamed.
Life after keto
Two years after my first oatmeal binge, I found myself in an All Ages and Genders eating disorder support group, sandwiched between a bulimic father/bodybuilder and a teenage girl who had to drop out of high school for inpatient treatment. We would sit around and discuss incentives to eat normally, such as “I don’t want to die of osteoporosis” and “I’d like to have a friend or two sometime in the future” and “I want to enjoy a croissant again.” Together we relearned how to eat, because we had a new and sustainable goal -- we wanted to live a life without shame and obsession.
During my private and group therapy sessions I learned a lot of information that would be beneficial to the average dieter. (You can find all of these materials online.) My first therapy assignment was to go out and buy a food I used to enjoy, so I purchased M&Ms and relearned how to allow myself a little bit each day. I learned that binges are triggered not by enjoyment of a food but by the feeling that you should stop eating and can’t. I was taught about intuitive eating, which helped me break down my regimented eating schedule and lean into my natural inclination to seek variety of foods in order to reduce cravings.
I asked James Fell if he had some practical advice on sustainable dieting. “When it comes to weight loss,” he said, “the only thing that matters is caloric deficit. However, quality of diet affects quantity. A higher quality diet is more likely to be one that allows you to eat a lower quantity of calories and still be satisfied. That being said, there are many different ways to find a high-quality diet.”
Health isn’t sexy, I realized, nor is it profitable for the media and keto companies. Extremism and restriction and cheat days and fast results and empty promises are sexy because they remove complexity from life and give us a false sense of control over our bodies and lives.
Don’t fall for it. The keto fad will perish and be replaced by another miracle diet, and another and another, each with a different set of promises that are similar in that they are empty. Believe me, there exist human beings without killer metabolisms that are still able to eat the foods they enjoy while maintaining a healthy weight. In fact, the reason they are healthy physically is because they’ve chosen not to kid themselves in terms of what is sustainable for them, and instead choose to keep active, toss the Wonder bread, and get in touch their bodies in a way that allows them to eat intuitively. As someone who used to believe this could never, ever be possible for me, I promise that it’s more than possible for you -- it’s essential.