The keto diet has been making its rounds through the diet-sphere, gaining traction and a lot of attention. As the dos and don’ts of the diet get tossed around, like a game of telephone, the message seems to get a little jumbled along the way.
By the time it makes its way to you, it’s hard to decipher what’s worth noting and what’s better left alone.
Keto, short for the ketogenic diet, is really any diet that is high enough in fat and low enough in carbohydrates to trigger ketosis. Ketosis is the process by which the body it forced to break down fat for fuel, per one review in the Journal of European Nutrition. The process results in compounds called ketones that circulate in your blood and act as a stand-in for carbs (which are your body's preferred form of energy).
The idea is that achieving ketosis will help you reach your weight-loss goals. And it's not completely off base. After all, achieving ketosis means that your body has become “fat adapted" and is burning fat at a higher rate than it would otherwise, explains Toronto-based registered dietitian Andy De Santis, R.D. Plus, since a lot of people gain weight due to overeating carbs, especially processed ones, ditching carbs can be an easier way to automatically cut calories. And research shows that a keto diet can actually increase satiety and curb cravings, thanks to its high-fat content.
Still, it's important to realize that the diet was originally designed as a way to treat epilepsy in children, De Santis says. So when it comes to how to best use the diet for weight loss, well, there's a lot of confusion.
Here, we uncover five popular keto diet myths, and set the record straight to help you decide if the diet's right for you—and how to get the most out of it.
MYTH: KETOSIS AND KETOACIDOSIS ARE THE SAME THING
Ketosis, as mentioned earlier, is when your body is in optimal “fat burning” mode, and that can only happen once your body is using fat stores for energy and producing ketones. But this is not to be confused with ketoacidosis, says Jim White, R.D.N., owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach. Ketoacidosis is a potentially life-threatening state in which the body's blood is highly acidic, and is most often seen in people with diabetes.
However, ketoacidosis can occur in people following a ketogenic diet, as extremely high levels of ketones cause the condition, according to a 2017 review published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. Symptoms of ketoacidosis include abdominal pain, weakness, thirst, shortness of breath, confusion, and blurred vision. That brings us to the next myth…
MYTH: THE KETO DIET IS HIGH IN PROTEIN
In order to stay in ketosis and out of dangerous ketoacidosis, those on a keto diet must reduce rather than increase their protein intake, explains Kelly Roehl, R.D.N. a researcher and dietitian at Rush University who counsels patients on the ketogenic diet. As far as she is concerned, the misconception that the keto diet is a high-protein diet is the biggest and most dangerous myth around.
That's because when protein levels get high, the breakdown of the amino acids in protein can also lead to an increase in ketones. While that's all well and good in the average dieter, in a keto dieter who already has elevated levels of ketones in their bloodstream, that can plunge the body into ketoacidosis, Roehl explains. Plus, when protein intake gets too high, it can actually take the body out of ketosis. Lose-lose.
So, when you're on a keto diet, what's the right amount of protein? About 6 to 8 percent of your daily calories should come from protein in order to remain in ketosis and eliminate the risk of ketoacidosis, White says. (Meanwhile, carbs should contribute about 2 to 4 percent of your daily calories.) For the average woman (following a 2,000-calorie diet) that would mean eating approximately 30 to 40 grams of protein per day. That equals about two eggs and a 3-ounce chicken breast per day.
Hence why a keto diet may not be the best choice for people who are interested in building muscle, according to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
MYTH: YOU CAN EAT ANY TYPE OF FAT
The keto diet may seem like a dietary fat free-for-all (how else are you supposed to get 90 percent of your total daily calories from fat without bacon?), but experts emphasize that a keto diet doesn't give you the green light to fill up on saturated sources.
According to the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, replacing saturated fat (bacon, sausages, ham, etc.) with unsaturated fat (walnuts, flax seed, fish, etc.) is more effective in lowering risk of cardiovascular disease than simply reducing total fat consumption. Meanwhile, research links eating processed meats (like bacon) to an increased risk of cancer.
“Optimize your ketogenic lifestyle by putting a Mediterranean flair on it,” says Roehl. “Focus on getting the bulk of your fat from high-quality extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish.”
MYTH: THE BRAIN CAN FUNCTION OPTIMALLY WITHOUT CARBS
You know that time right before lunch when you're woozy and your head feels a little (or way) cloudy? If you’ve ever been “hangry," you know exactly how it feels when your blood-sugar levels bottom out. And when that happens, the brain is literally screaming for glucose, its preferred source of energy.
Especially in the beginning of a keto diet, you can expect for your brain to do a lot of screaming, White says. That's because, while research shows that the brain needs more than 100 grams of glucose (carbs) per day for optimal functioning, keto diets usually take intake as low as 50 grams.
So, in the process of becoming fat adapted, people may experience the same symptoms they do when they are “hangry” or passing the time before their lunch break. Once the body becomes fat adapted the brain can convert ketones as fuel, but White says that this can take weeks to months to finally happen.
MYTH: THE DIET IS A LONG-TERM SOLUTION
For people who love fatty foods, aren't big on counting calories, and can give up carbs with ease, the keto diet can be relatively easy to maintain over the long-haul. But the diet really shouldn't be followed over the long term, per 2017 research.
The main reason is that, the longer you follow a keto diet, the greater the risk of muscle loss, according to researchers. Apart from contributing to losses in strength and muscle tone, decreases in lean muscle mass also result in declines in metabolic rate—meaning that you would burn fewer overall calories than when you started to keep the weight off.
Researchers note that, while the diet can be beneficial for quickly dropping weight, it's best used for no more than a few weeks at a time. For instance, when you're not going hard in the gym. And, before you do increase your workout intensity, you need to increase your carb and protein intake as well, they say. They do note, however, that doing this can help increase "metabolic flexibility," or your body's ability to get energy from multiple sources, which is linked to better health and weight loss.
This article originally appeared on Women’s Health US.