Last year, I made a Facebook Live video about the ketogenic diet, mostly to explain what it is, how it works, and what my recommendations would be for incorporating its strategies into your life.
What hasn’t changed since that time is my attitude towards the ketogenic diet (or any diet like it) – I think it does work for people, but that there are smart ways to do it, “less smart” ways to do it, and alternatives that are easier but get basically the same, or better, results.
What has changed since I made that video, however, is that the ketogenic diet (“keto”) has exploded in popularity over the last twelve months, to the point that people ranging from elite athletes to tired new moms are trying it out, and promoting its results. I can’t push my cart through the grocery store checkout without Woman’s World and Shape Magazine telling me why I should try it.
In other words, no one is wondering “What is this keto diet?” anymore… everyone knows what it is, and it’s turned into a silver bullet solution (with a backlash of anti-carb hysteria).
But, just in case you do need the info, let me provide a little detail:
In short, the ketogenic diet is an extremely low-carb diet, in which you keep total carbohydrate intake to roughly 40-50 grams or less, per day. In practical terms, this means that you are truly eating almost no carbohydrates – these 40-50 grams are coming mostly through vegetables and dairy. When you eat such a small amount of carbohydrates each day, your body shifts to using fat for energy instead of carbohydrates. This is called ketosis.
Why is it so popular?
- First of all, many people report feeling less food cravings, less “ups and downs” in mood and blood sugar, and easy weight loss when they eat low-carb.
- Secondly, it is a great example of a “single-rule” diet – these types of diets tend to be easier to follow than diets with lots of rules or nuance.
- Finally, this particular single-rule diet allows people to eat things that would often be “off limits” in a traditional calorie-controlled diet – bacon, cheese, egg yolks, etc.
But single-rule diets are not without their weaknesses. Yes, they’re easy to follow because the guideline is so clear and immovable, but they suffer from a few key problems:
The Single Rule is Also a Single Point of Failure
First, their strength is also their weakness. Because they only have one guiding rule, falling “off” can result in a spectacular return to former poor eating habits. There aren’t necessarily other dieting “skills” there to step up and soften the fall.
I think this can be particularly problematic for people who would self-identify as having “all-or-nothing” personalities.
For someone who is pushing themselves hard to follow the ketogenic diet for weight loss, for example, a “slip” out of ketosis through a guiltily-eaten bagel can result in the feeling of, “Screw it!”
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?
- “Well, I’ve already blown it today, so I might as well ________________.”
- “I’m just going to take today ‘off.'”
- “This week is a wash.”
The Specificity Can Make it Economically Challenging
Secondly, dietary flexibility is often helpful if economic insecurity plays a role in someone’s eating decisions. For example, low-carb diets can mean high-ticket grocery bills – instead of inexpensive, easily-portable, and good-for-you carbohydrates like bananas, rice, or beans, someone may feel pressured into buying more meat and expensive low-carb snacks to make their keto diet work. This can be unsustainably pricy for someone who has budget considerations, as carbohydrates tend to be cheap and easy to find. I often hear this objection about “healthy eating,” that it is “so expensive” – I have to point out, “healthy eating” is not expensive. A diet with strict rules that leaves out huge food groups, however, can be.
Watch Out for Paranoia
Also, the rigidity of the ketogenic diet can easily fall prey to conspiracy-theory-esque reasoning. If you’ve just embraced the ketogenic diet and you take a look at the USDA food pyramid, seeing grains occupy the largest swath of the graph could easily cause you to say: “Looks like Big Grain paid someone off for this chart!” This flavor of suspicion laces many of the online conversations that I see about low-carb dieting. The national medical “establishment” being in the pocket of Big Pharma (i.e. “what your doctor won’t tell you”) is a common trope in extreme diet literature. Allowing healthy skepticism to flower into full-blown conspiracy theoryism blocks you off from exercising reasonably unbiased logic.
Broad Rules Destroy Nuance
Finally, following an extremely low-carb diet can ultimately distort someone’s sense of what is “healthy” or “unhealthy” to eat, as carbohydrates, through habit, can become automatically grouped with “unhealthy.” Many times, more than I can count, I have had clients struggle to figure out what to bring for an easy, packable snack, when the obvious answer would be an apple, or what to bring for an easy, packable lunch, when the obvious answer would be a sandwich. By focusing so hard on a carb-free paradigm, it’s easy to lose perspective. When steel cut oatmeal or lentils is grouped with Captain Crunch, for example, it’s clear that nuance has been stripped from reasoning.
To be clear: it’s not that diets like keto or Atkins don’t work – it’s that they don’t naturally infuse someone’s behaviors and mindset with the soft skills needed for long-term food, exercise, and self management, which I would summarize as:
- Differentiating between types and sourcing of carbohydrates
- Differentiating sugar from carbohydrates
- Differenting whole foods from processed foods
The Benefits of Going Lower-Carb
But now that I’ve given you a litany of reasons to be skeptical of the ketogenic diet, I’m going to switch gears – why is a lower-carb diet helpful? What are the benefits? What is actually happening in your body? Without going to the point of ketosis, why do I recommend a low-er carb diet for my clients, after all?
- A lower carb diet can automatically get you eating more vegetables, if you exercise common sense in your food planning. More vegetables means more nutrients and more fiber every day.
- A lower carb diet will often create a caloric deficit by taking lots of “extra” snacking off the table (i.e. the bagel in the conference room). This results in easier weight loss and weight management.
- A lower carb diet often includes more protein, which serves to keep blood sugar more stable, to help with muscle gain (i.e. physique goals) and to reduce the likelihood of cravings.
- A lower carb diet, specifically one that is lower in sugar, will create less spikes and drops in blood sugar, which will help you have more energy and experience less cravings between and after meals.
Especially for women who are 45+ and starting to really feel the blood-sugar-rattling (and midsection-thickening) effects of perimenopause and menopause, focusing on being nourished by food and getting blood sugar stable can be a game changer for not only physique change, but for health.
So how do we harness the power and ease of a single-rule diet like keto, without the accompanying risk of an all-or-nothing approach?
The strategy that I use with many of my clients is to go “low-er carb.” It’s not technically low-carb, and it doesn’t put you in ketosis, but it’s enough of a shift in eating to generate impressive results without the commitment to cutting out food groups that can make life difficult.
(Because we know when something’s too difficult, we can start out with great intentions but not stick with it very long…)
There are four key aspects to going “low-er carb,” and I’m going to break each one down for you:
#1: Focus on getting your carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
When many people think of “carbs,” they immediately picture donuts, pastries, French fries, and pasta. The misfortune of keto is that foods like apples, lentils, bananas, and brown rice get unnecessarily grouped in.
Instead of cutting all carbs, focus on limiting processed carbs. It’s not that you’re never having pizza – but maybe it’s just a treat every once in awhile, and the serving size is small or moderate. But – ultimately – you would be surprised at how fewer cravings you experience when the majority of your carbohydrates are fiber-rich, low in sugar, chewing-intensive, and not also high in fat. Eating more low-calorie “natural” foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains has an enormously corrective effect on appetite.
#2: Use measuring cups.
When you are cooking at home with whole grains, or even pasta, simply using measuring cups can be a mind-blowing game changer.
For example, a serving of quinoa is about 1/4 cup of dry quinoa (roughly 3/4 cup cooked). A serving of cooked pasta is about 2 oz of dry pasta (roughly 1 cup cooked). If you actually use measuring cups for these foods and stuck to this one habit diligently (and you eat mostly at home), you will be shocked at how small these serving sizes really are and how much less you eat. It can illuminate why “carbs make you gain weight.” It’s not the carbs – it’s the portion size.
Restaurants have trained our eyes and our appetites to estimate portions as larger than they really should be. By using measuring cups, even if it’s just for the carbohydrate portion of a dish, we can recalibrate.
#3: Limit sugar.
In many cases, sugar is often what people are ultimately reducing when they dramatically cut carbohydrates, because high-calorie foods like pastries, donuts, desserts, and other sugar-rich starches are eliminated from the diet.
By simply focusing on sugar specifically, it can be easy to use the “single-rule” strength of keto, but without all the life-changing restrictions.
The number that I recommend clients look for on a label is 10 grams. Read the label. If a food has more than 10 grams of added sugars per serving, I wouldn’t recommend that it be one of your daily staples. For example, if a yogurt as 24 grams of sugar, I wouldn’t use it as your go-to.
The exception would be fruit, for two reasons: the fiber content, and the self-portioning nature of most fruits. We usually eat one apple, or one banana, or one orange. Just watch out for fruits that come in larger quantities (like grapes), and be mindful of processed fruits, like fruit juices or dried fruit.
#4: Limit alcohol.
Many women – again, especially as they near or pass menopause – can completely underestimate the effect that alcohol is having on their wellbeing, and hand the blame down to carbs.
I’ve written in another blog post about guidelines for the enjoyment of adult beverages, but I also wanted to share an article that a member of my private Facebook group shared with me. It anecdotally shares how a woman in her 50’s experienced extreme relief from the negative effects of menopause by (mostly) quitting alcohol.
Again, the single-rule advantage can come into play here. By only avoiding alcohol (and maybe not even all the time), you also avoid:
- The overeating that often accompanies drinking
- The poor-quality sleep that often follows alcohol consumption
Ultimately, with most of my clients, I advocate making small changes instead of big changes, and here’s why:
Have you ever heard of the Pareto Principle, that 80% of your results comes from 20% of your work? This holds true when it comes to “cleaning up” your nutrition.
Going really low carb is a lot of work, necessitating a lot of big changes in shopping habits, dining habits, and snacking habits. It also can impact how you feel during exercise, creating an illusion that you are working much harder than you really are.
Going low-er carb is a little work, necessitating some small changes in your habits, but will leave enough carbohydrates in your diet to maximize the time you spend exercising, in terms of energy output and muscle gain. It also makes it more likely that you won’t have to eat differently from your family when you sit down to a meal.
The magic of the Pareto principle is that if you focus just a little bit on the “right” things (like the four strategies that I suggest), you could get as good or better results than you would making huge, sweeping, difficult changes.
In other words, you’re dialing into the 20% effort that makes the 80% difference.
As I tell my clients, any change is hard. But you don’t have to make it even harder, and you’re more likely to stick with it if it’s easier!
Want to join the conversation? Check out my closed Facebook group, Habits First!