Nowadays, there are so many different diet trends popping up that it can be hard to keep track of what's good and bad. And you'll likely find mixed reviews; while some experts tout the benefits, others shine a spotlight on what's bad.
Still, humans are curious by nature — it makes sense that you'll want to give some of the more popular diets a shot. A hot one many of you know about by now? The ketogenic diet.
Yet before embarking on any diet plan, it's important to prepare yourself for what you might experience throughout the journey.
Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD, NYC-based registered dietitian, bestselling author, and founder of The F-Factor Diet, has weighed in on the short-term and long-term side effects of going keto. So you can decide for yourself whether it's the right fit.
What's the Keto Diet?
First off, what the heck is the keto diet, anyway? Put simply, it's a high-fat, low-carb, moderate-protein diet that puts your body in a state of ketosis. When your diet is lacking in carbs but is high in fat, your liver creates ketones, which are substances made when the body breaks down fat for energy, says Zuckerbrot. The process of ketosis metabolizes fat to provide energy, meaning you're burning fat, as opposed to carbs. As a result, you might lose some weight, as your body is in fat-burning mode.
Potential Side Effects
Sounds like a diet with benefits, right? Sure, this way of eating can be spot-on for certain individuals, and it may even be easy to sustain, but there's no way to avoid the shaky transition, which can result in some unsettling side effects, often called the "keto flu," says Zuckerbrot.
When you stop eating carbs and replace them with a higher intake of fat and protein, your body needs time to adapt to the changes, and it can take days to weeks to recover, she says. You might experience brain fog, fatigue, muscle cramps, diarrhea, or nausea. And while eating protein will keep you fuller longer, it alone will not ward off hunger pains you may be feeling until your next meal. The lack of carbohydrates may cause your blood sugar to drop, leaving you feeling moody and tired, she explains.
What's more, you might also be hungrier and notice cravings for carbs as your body is working to adjust.
Also, don't be surprised if your breath starts to reek. "Acetone, one of the ketones [being produced], can cause your breath to smell like nail polish remover," she says. Also, on a more serious note, Ahmed Abdelmoity, MD, FAAP, director of neurology and chief of epilepsy and clinical neurophysiology at Children's Mercy Kansas City, cautions "other potential side effects that will need monitoring" and notes "early detection can be urinary tract stones, as well as weaker bones (osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis)." When you're not eating enough carbs and taking in too many fats and proteins, you could take calcium away from your bones. And when you're on keto, your urine pH levels become more acidic, which can deplete the body of calcium and increase the risk of kidney stones due to the added stress on the kidneys, he says.
While your workouts might suffer initially, you might find a boost after the transition period ends. Since your body is pulling energy from fat, it can be beneficial for athletes after the short-term, "flu-like" side effects subside, Zuckerbrot says.
"Since the brain is using a fuel other than glucose (carbs), the demand on muscle protein for gluconeogenesis declines, thereby reducing the rate of muscle catabolism. Decreased muscle catabolism reduces the amount of ammonia received by the liver," she explains.
In layman's terms, protein losses are minimized in the body, which helps you better sustain lean body mass. Fat also provides fuel for muscles and the brain when in ketosis, she explains. And when your muscles get fuel, they can grow and repair better.
You might also have better insulin and blood sugar levels since you'll avoid those spikes in glucose, as you would with a meal that's high in sugars or carbs. Because of this, the keto diet could be especially beneficial for those with diabetes, she says.
Proponents of the keto diet claim a wealth of benefits that go beyond increased energy. "People might notice better mood, better sleep, reduced acne, stronger hair and nails, and even a higher sex drive," say Rami Abramov and Vicky Ushakova, authors of the Keto in Five cookbook and founders of Tasteaholics. What's more, they added that "many preexisting conditions — like hypertension, high cholesterol, headaches, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and PMS — can be reduced after starting a ketogenic diet." Also, while it's restrictive in food groups, it's not a calorie-counting diet, making it more sustainable for the long term.
"The keto diet is not about cutting calories, like most other diets. It promotes eating fresh, whole foods, like meat, fish, veggies, and healthy fats and oils," they explain.
So it's up to you. If you notice any additional red flags or you find it unsustainable, you should get off the diet. But who knows? You just might find the best way of eating for your body's needs.