American society is in the greasy grip of fat, sugar, and empty calories. This unhealthy lifestyle saturates our culture like a paper napkin floating in a vat of deep fried hamburger grease.To cope with our absurd food culture, Americans have tried all kinds of diets. One diet that is gaining popularity in 2019 is the keto diet. While many write this diet off as over the top, risky, or just another fad, others claim it to be life changing. One American from Springfield, Illinois, Ken Parker*, tells the Komorebi Post that this diet changed his life.
Results are hard to argue with
The keto diet is simple: Low carbs, high fat, lots of protein and leafy greens. People on this diet avoid carbs like the devil, and eat mostly eggs, meat, and vegetables. Quiche anyone? But many are wary of the diet, partly because it also involves eating fat. Lots and lots of fat.
Up until recently, Ken had never been very opinionated about the ketogenic diet. He wasn’t ever one to jump on the fad diet bandwagon. Most of his life, his metabolism would keep him thin as a twig, regardless of how he ate. Until it didn’t. As he entered his forties, his true blue American diet of buttery carbs, and chocolatey indulgences caught up with him and he developed sleep apnea and type two diabetes. Now in his sixties, he accepted it as the fate of aging. Until his wife, Lynn,* decided to go on an Atkins style, keto diet.
Lynn, a tall woman with high cheekbones and greying brown hair, told the Komorebi post, “I had tried [a keto diet] when I was 18 years old and I lost 100 pounds and kept it off for three years until I started having babies.”
“There was this guy that I really liked,” she continued, “and I wanted to lose weight so that he would notice me. When I was 18 that was my reason. And now I want to be healthy. I always want to lose weight. Always. It’s always on my mind… I just had a lot of health problems and I decided I wanted to be healthier.”
That’s when she decided to give the keto diet another go. This was two years ago. Ever the supportive husband, Ken decided to join her in her efforts. And so they began the keto diet together, not knowing where it was going to take them.
“I’ve never attempted a diet systematically before because there’s a lot of social pressures not to,” Ken said. “But my wife decided to go on the diet with me, so we decided we’re going to disregard all other social eating pressures and just be our own sociality for eating. So we made a project of learning about the ketogenic diets, learning ketogenic recipes, and together, between the two of us, lost 100 pounds.”
Shedding pounds together, however, was only one benefit of the keto diet.
“I no longer have to wear my sleep apnea CPAP mask, I am no longer diabetic — these are huge! I was taken off my diabetes medicine. I don’t have to take my diabetes medicine anymore. My health exam says that my cholesterol levels are good. I fit smaller clothes,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “Everybody compliments me, ‘Congratulations!’ That feels good.”
Lynn, who lost and kept off 50 pounds since she started, added that Ken’s A1C, a long term indicator for risk of diabetes, is now low. This is a good result, indeed.
So, what’s the keto catch?
If the keto diet has so many positive outcomes, why is skepticism still so pervasive? I asked Ken about the concerns outlined by the health community, specifically the claims of registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital as laid out in “Should You Try the Keto Diet” in a Harvard health article.
Keto nutritional deficiencies?
One claim McManus makes is that the keto diet deprives you of certain nutrients. As a researcher himself, however, Ken is not inclined to take authority at its word.
“First of all,” he says in a friendly, yet scholarly tone, which makes me feel like I’m at a college lecture hall, “the article made some valuable points. And I want to acknowledge the valuable points first — in that there are, with any diet, risks; in that if you reduce your food intake you are going to diminish your exposure to nutrients associated with whatever it is you don’t need anymore.” This makes logical sense. Take something out of your diet and any nutrients it contained are leaving with it.
“And so low fat diets,” diets quite unlike the ketogenic diet, “risk losing out on the nutrients associated with fats like vitamins A and E, and low carb diets,” very much like the keto diet, “run the risk of missing out on vitamins B and C,” he added, pointing out that there are always nutritional supplements available for any dieter if this is a major concern. Fair deduction.
“The solution is just eat a lot of variety,” he said, speaking of what seems to be consensus among health experts. “And eating a lot of variety is good advice — especially if you are not overweight. However, if you are overweight, the health consequences are enormous. Way bigger than the ‘perhaps micronutrients’ that you might be missing by having a lopsided diet.”
Indeed, it is a well established fact that being overweight comes with many serious health issues such as kidney, liver, and heart disease as well as diabetes. This is one reason Ken brushed aside McManus’s claims that keto diets are bad for your kidney and liver – could the diet be worse for your kidneys and liver than being overweight is?
“I was overweight, I had diabetes. I had sleep apnea, which stresses my heart,” he said. “By the way, since I’ve been on the atkins diet, contrary to [Harvard’s] article, which says that it’s associated with bad LDL levels my bad LDL levels have gone down. So my cholesterol problems are over because I lost weight.”
“Now, if you just go on the diet and don’t lose weight that could be a problem. I don’t know about that because that’s not the experience I’ve had. So I’m very skeptical of research that says that bad LDL cholesterol levels are associated with keto and I would like to see the research and how generalizable it is and which keto diets it generalizes to. I’m skeptical of that.”
Keto encourages high fat intake. Isn’t that bad?
Ken didn’t seem phased by McManus’s suggestion that the fat in the keto diet could be bad. “The next thing is that it cites the tired cliche that saturated fat is bad for you and has been proven to be associated with heart risk and other problems,” he says, gesticulating with large hand movements as he speaks.
“I haven’t heard of any research showing that nutritional fat of the saturated sort is the problem. And the keto research that has been done suggests that it isn’t. I’m not an expert in the area so I can’t cite that research. But I understand that there’s research that shows that it’s fine to eat saturated fats as long as your blood [fat] level stays low.”
It seems, however, that he has read the research. At least, the research according to “The New Atkins for a New You: The Ultimate Diet for Shedding Weight and Feeling Great,” by Dr. Eric C. Westman, Dr. Stephen D. Phinney and Dr. Jeff S. Volek, the book which inspired Lynn and Ken, guiding them on their dieting venture over the past two years.
The book states: “A recent metastudy made up of eleven American and European cohort studies that followed more than 340,000 subjects for up to ten years came to the conclusion that replacing saturated fat with carbohydrates increases the risk of coronary events. Yes, according to the best scientific evidence, the very recommendation made by most health experts to reduce saturated fat actually increases your chances of having heart disease…If your carbohydrate intake is low, there’s little reason to worry about saturated fat in your diet. However, if your carbohydrate intake is high, increasing the levels of saturated fat in your diet may become problematic.”
In other words, the keto diet cuts back on carbs allowing the consumption of more saturated fat without the health risks. More fat, less risk. At the same time, the fat provides a feeling of fullness, making it easier to curb cravings.
“This kind of diet is the only thing that ever works for me to sustain weight loss,” Lynn said, “When I’m in ketosis I’m full. I’m not hungry…There are food triggers that when you’re not in ketosis seems to be more powerful… But when I’m in ketosis I just don’t have an appetite for them…It reduces the effect of triggers.”
Or, as Ken put it, “If you reduce fat, you increase hunger. Because fat is more satisfying. Period.”
What about constipation and brain fuzz?
Ken was not impressed that constipation was included as a major risk factor, stating that most people can tell if they are constipated and address this quite easily without seeing a doctor.
As for the claim that the diet makes your brain fuzzy, he was equally unimpressed.
“This idea that you’re going to get fuzzy brained because your brain needs sugar is scientifically proven false. You can get fuzzy brained for a variety of reasons. But not for lack of sugar…The whole point of the ketogenic diet is to be low on sugars. [On the keto diet,] your brain gets its sugar from fat. It doesn’t get it from nutritional sugar or carbohydrates that you eat. It gets it from the fat that is in your body so that your body converts fat into sugar and provides your brain with sugar that way. That’s the whole point of it.”
It doesn’t seem anyone is going to be talking Ken or Lynn out of their ketogenic ways anytime soon.
“Critics of ketogenic diets in general, they say there isn’t any research on long term effects. There is research that people stay on ketogenic diets longer, three times as long as they stay on other diets. And to me, that’s the reason that it’s advantageous, is because people on ketogenic diets have more staying power, have greater ability to stay on the diet,” Ken said.
“And I think that it is good that they’re calling for research on the long term effects because we really don’t know what the long term effects are, and there could turn out to be some problems. But we know that there are short term and long term risks for obesity, for diabetes, for sleep apnea — the stress on your heart is immense.”
“And so the hypothetical, ‘there might be some long term [risks]’ isn’t compelling. So, yeah, get research, maybe we’ll learn a better way to do things through that research. I’m open to that. But I don’t think you should immobilize people and scare them away from something that works because you don’t know what might be discovered later.”
*Name has been changed
By Valorie Broderick