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World’s Best Diet Part 1–Ketogenic Diets

If you google the word diet, you will come up with over 200,000 results.  Every week, month, year, and decade a new study or article comes out claiming certain foods are killing us, or that some other food or nutritional approach will lead us to the promised land.  Unfortunately, articles are written to create traffic, so scientific research is often misreported or spun to sell magazines or generate website traffic.  The truth is, there are many ways to skin a cat.  All of the evidence on nutrition (in regards to weight loss) points to two undeniable truths.  First, that dietary adherence is king.  It doesn’t matter how perfect or evidence based a nutrition plan is, if you can’t follow it, it doesn’t matter.  Before starting any eating plan, you must ask yourself how easy it will be to maintain long term.  Second, you must achieve an energy deficit to lose weight (eat less energy than you expend each day).  Though “calories in, calories out” may be slightly over simplified, it is still the underlying rule to any weight loss success.   For any weight loss plan to work, you must consistently follow the pla, and you must be in a caloric deficit.  This series will highlight the nine most popular current nutrition approaches, and the pros and cons of each.

 Ketogenic Diets (e.g. Atkins)

Claims: Ketogenic diets strive to change your brain’s primary fuel source from blood glucose (sugar) to ketone bodies (broken down from fat).  To achieve this state of ketosis, most prescribe limiting carbohydrate intake to 25-50 grams per day.  Claims are endless with this diet–ranging from better mental clarity, improved performance, curing cancer, decreasing inflammation, superior weight loss, treating diabetes, etc

Reality: Ketogenic diets often do work.  They work for the same reason every successful diet works.  By virtually eliminating all carbohydrate intake, caloric intake naturally decreases.  When this happens, weight loss ensues.  Initial weight loss on ketogenic diets is fast because your body loses glycogen stores (the way your body stores carbohydrates in the muscle) which hold water.  The fast weight loss is not because of greater fat loss, you simply lose more water.  Virtually all of the claims that keto proponents make are unfounded or at least over inflated, with some being outright lies.

Pros: Most people are able to successfully lose weight during the initial 6-12 months on this diet.  It is relatively simple to avoid carbohydrate dense foods in one’s diet, and the initial success tends to motivate individuals.  It doesn’t require a lot of meal planning or counting/measuring food quantities for many people during the initial 6-12 months.

Cons: Long term studies tend to point to adherence being difficult long term.  Over a 12 month period, carbohydrate intake tends to increase over time.  Since there is no portion control built into this approach, many learn to simply overeat high fat and protein dense foods.  From a performance standpoint, the research has consistently demonstrated that ketogenic approaches, at best, are equal to a traditional diet approach, with several long term studies showing a keto diet to be inferior.  Several studies have also shown a greater amount of muscle loss when following a ketogenic diet.  Last, because of the severe restriction of carbohydrates, it is easy to miss out on vital nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Jeff Tirrell, CSCS, CFSC, Pn1