Updated: Jul 2
Medically reviewed by Serena Benali, Registered Dietitian.
The ketogenic diet is all the rage right now. But is it really a healthy way to live your best life? Or is it just another fad diet that will leave you feeling deprived and starving?
As a registered dietitian, I'm here to tell you that the keto diet is not a healthy or sustainable solution for weight loss. In this blog post, I'll explain what the keto diet is and why it may be causing more harm than good…including ruining your relationship with food.
First of all: what is Ketosis?
Your body needs fuel to operate day-to-day. You get energy from a lot of different foods…and it is safe to say that your body has its favorites.
When your body has a variety of foods and enough energy overall, each cell prefers to use glucose as its fuel. Glucose is a simple sugar that comes from any kind of carbohydrate, from fruit to cookies, grains, and beans.
But what if carbs are scarce? Your body has an adaptation to get through these times; this is ketosis. Instead of carbs for fuel, your body uses fat for energy instead. While in ketosis, your appetite goes down as your body muddles through with less energy.
As soon as carbs return to the scene, your body switches back to its preferred energy source: carbs. Your hunger comes back fast, too.
So…where did this diet come from?
A quick history of the ketogenic diet
The ketogenic diet – sometimes referred to as “keto” – has been around for a long time. At it’s core, the keto diet is planning your meals and snacks to be high in fat and with as few carbs as possible in order to force your body into ketosis. To stay in ketosis, you have to keep an eye on protein as well; too much protein can pull you out of ketosis.
Did you know that the ketogenic diet was not intended for weight loss, to begin with?
It was actually developed in the 1920s as a treatment for epilepsy (3). The keto diet is effective for reducing seizures by drastically reducing carbs and increasing fat intake, which puts the body into a state of ketosis.
The ketogenic diet is also being explored as a possible therapeutic option for other conditions, including diabetes, PCOS, chronic pain, psoriasis and acne (4, 5, 6, 7). The research is still developing! As a registered dietitian, I am open to any option that can offer a long-term, sustainable solution for my clients.
Having said that: I don’t advocate using the keto diet for weight loss. Let’s explore that, next.
Keto for weight loss
These days, keto is promoted by weight loss enthusiasts. And while following keto can result in weight loss, it's not a sustainable or healthy way to lose weight. In fact, the keto diet can actually come with some health risks.
…and ruin your relationship with food.
Remember how we mentioned that being in ketosis can squash your hunger? That can make it seem doable to follow the program when you’re not plagued with cravings and hunger.
But what about if you actually eat something with carbs? That hunger is right back where it was.
You’ll be hungry like the wolf.
You might feel guilty and ashamed for eating in a way that feels out of control. This is not a failure on your part; you’ve been trying to hijack your own biology but you just can’t, long term.
Weight-loss diets are not sustainable
As a registered dietitian, I can’t advocate for any program or intervention that won’t help or won’t last. It just isn’t fair to you! And weight-loss diets are at the top of my no-no list.
Why? They just don't work long-term.
This can seem surprising when it is so easy to find people enthusiastically sharing how their life is better following keto and how easily the weight seemed to fall off.
But, one question I would ask you to consider is how long they’ve been on keto.
While weight loss might seem easy at the beginning, it is not usually going to last. Not only are restrictions stressful and difficult to maintain, but the ketosis will also only quell hunger while you’re sticking to a very low-carb diet.
Diets not working is a failure of diets, not something you did wrong.
Weight loss diets cause harm
Here’s the kicker: not only do weight-loss diets not work the vast majority of the time, they actually can cause harm.
Weight loss diets, including keto, don’t come without their own risks.
The keto diet is particularly harmful because it's a low-carb, high-fat diet. This combination can lead to health problems like:
Bone loss (10)
Micronutrient deficiencies (11)
Increased LDL cholesterol (12)
“Keto flu” – fatigue, headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms that feel like the flu but are actually related to your body entering ketosis (13)
Restricting foods on any kind of weight loss diet can lead to binge eating and late night cravings. If this sounds familiar, I can help. Check out this blog post for more details: How to Curb Late Night Cravings: 7 Science-Backed Hacks.
Not only can diets cause harm to your physical body, but diets can also damage your relationship with food, eating, and your body image.
Diets can ruin your relationship with food
Diets restrict a lot. They might cut calories, certain food groups, or even a whole category of nutrition.
The keto diet basically eliminates all carbs. Oof.
Food is meant to nourish not only our bodies but also our spirits. It is OK -- wonderful in fact -- to enjoy the foods that you're eating.
With diets – including keto – you can ruin your relationship with food by categorizing foods as "good" and "bad" or "allowed" and "forbidden".
If you’ve been following a diet for a while, you might be full of zucchini noodles instead of a bowl of pasta. You might have a fat bomb instead of dessert. You’re supposed to be happy and satisfied.
But instead of pleasure from your meals, you feel deprived.
Where’s the joy?
This is not a way to sustain true health.
With diets, you restrict the bad foods because you’re not supposed to eat them.
They’re against the rules.
But restricting foods actually just makes you want them even more.
Let’s discuss…with a milkshake.
My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard
There is a well-known study from the 1970s that is often referred to as “the Milkshake study” (14). In this experiment, the researchers measured how much of a milkshake the participants ate when they were asked to enjoy them without limits.
Who drank the most?
In other words, those who came to the experiment who were on a weight loss diet were more likely to have a lot more of the milkshake than those who weren’t restricting their eating.
To think about this another way, we tend to think of ourselves as not being able to control ourselves around certain foods. I used to think that I could not control myself around chocolate fudge cookies. And so because of the fear of being out of control, I would not let myself buy any.
And then sometimes I would buy it…and eat far more than felt comfortable…usually until I had finished the entire box.
Enter: guilt and shame.
Now that I have a far better relationship with food and eating, I know that the chocolate fudge cookies – or any other forbidden foods – weren’t actually the problem: it was the restriction.
And you know what else wasn’t a problem, to begin with? Your weight.
Weight is not a stand alone measure of health
People pursue weight loss for many reasons – wanting to improve their body image, to have less joint pain, to improve biomarkers of health (such as blood sugar or cholesterol), and to be healthier overall.
What may surprise you is that your weight isn’t actually a good way to measure if you're healthy or not.
I know, this is probably not what you expected to hear from a registered dietitian, but hear me out.
What the research finds is that what actually matters are your health behaviors (15).
No matter what the number on the scale is, it matters that you eat fruits and vegetables.
It matters that you move your body in a way that you enjoy, whether that’s hiking in the woods or crushing a Peloton ride.
It matters how often you get a good night's sleep, eat fiber-rich foods and reduce stress.
You do not need to be on a weight loss diet, even keto.
You deserve to have a better, long-lasting relationship with food, your body, and your health.
Key Takeaways: Keto ruined my relationship with food
Eating healthy these days can feel more complicated than ever. New diets pop onto the scene, including keto, and sound so appealing. You may find yourself thinking, is this the diet that will finally allow you to achieve your health and weight loss goals?
Keto is more likely to contribute to yo-yo weight changes and ruin your relationship with food.
You deserve better than that. I can help.
My mission is to help you reach your happy, healthy place with food and body. Kickstart your journey to a healthier relationship with food and body with this FREE guide: Healthy relationship with food Starter Guide. I would love to empower you to a freer, healthier, happier relationship with food and body!