Why I Think Keto is Bullshit
Updated for 2019
*originally written in December 2017--updated May of 2019.*
I tend to shy away from hard stances when we're talking food, or really anything, because I believe they oftentimes do more harm than good. No one wants to be told how to live. Ever met an angry, self-righteous vegan? It can turn you off to the whole movement. This doesn't just happen with food. Studies have shown graphic anti-smoking campaigns (think diseased lungs, babies with birth defects) have actually just driven cigarette purchases UP. In other words, telling someone what not to do too harshly can oftentimes send them running toward that very thing. (Google "reactance theory.")
Having said all that, sometimes, I can’t keep my mouth shut.
Like with the "keto craze."
If you've been living under a rock, keto is the latest craze in the dietary world. It preaches a low, low carb, moderate protein, highhhh fat diet. It's a lot like Atkins, but even higher fat and less protein.
Unless with the Atkins craze though, Keto hit the scene during the era of social media. Meaning, I’ve seen health “professionals” I used to look up to, taking to the 'gram to share pics of butter in their coffee, cream cheese rolled up in processed lunch meats, bacon bacon bacon, and heavy whipping cream in everything. And with the voice they have thanks to social media, the keto craze has run rampant. After all, who wouldn't want to hear, from someone with a six pack and round booty, that they've been lied to and they can have all the cheese and bacon they want!? It's those sneaky CARBS that have been the problem, all along! You needn't deny yourself of fat to lose weight, so load up on cheese, sour cream, bacon, heavy whipping cream, and all the burgers you could ever want. Just hold the bun!
But before I go any further into why keto infuriates me, I want to start in the spirit of agreement. I didn’t go to school at a research university for 6 years just to write a post that doesn’t acknowledge both sides of the fence–don’t worry.
So here's the thing: In no way do I argue one of the basic keto claims; that cutting out sugary, processed carbohydrates (keto says cut all carbs, but more on that in a sec) does a body good. Donuts aren't health foods nor is white pasta. Also it's true, that cutting carbs in general, good or bad, can for sure lead to weight loss! Cut any major food group and you’re bound to see weight loss–so, stop eating protein or fat and that’ll happen too. But when you cut carbs, your body is forced to burn something for fuel, and without glucose, its preferred energy source, it begins to burn fat stores.
So cutting carbs can totally = weight loss. And as the dietitian for the Stanford Health Care Network notes, when you lose weight, from any diet, initially your health will seem to be improved, across the board.
So why do I call bullshit?
For one, I could write an entire post on why complex carbohydrates are essential. Why they’re a building block of all human civilization. Why they’re a macronutrient for a reason, and people have been eating them since the beginning of time. I could talk all day about how complex carbohydrates (oats, sweet potatoes, brow rice, whole grains, legumes) are recommended by all major health organizations for energy, brain function, digestion, etc. (Another time.)
I could also talk about the unsustainability of keto. Are you truly never having a solitary french fry the rest of your life? No beer or wine ever again? You're telling me you'll never again bite down into a sandwich, enjoy a crispy piece or toast or bagel, nor will you have birthday cake ever again, or heck, even a big juicy slice of watermelon? Okay.
But let’s assume you have the willpower of a military Seal, and more importantly, don't care about joy and happiness. Ok cool. But let's talk about fat - the main star of your new keto diet. Let’s talk about all that cheese, bacon, cream cheese, processed meats (which the World Health Organization has classified as a carcinogen, so there’s that), and other high-cholesterol, inflammatory foods the keto darlings of Instagram are surviving off of.
I ask you, do we really believe, in our core, that anyone will lose weight and get healthier long term thanks to a miracle diet of bacon and cheese wrapped cream cheese, or pickles and cream cheese wrapped in salami, or pork rind nachos (not kidding–real examples I’ve seen from top keto-ers on Instagram, posting these meals with hashtags like #weightloss and #health.) Don't we think this news would have been well-known for centuries if it were true?
Here's the thing. You don't really know the answer to that.
Research on long term health impacts on humans from keto is scare–so keto dieters, you're the guinea pigs.
However, there is some. Dr. Marcelo Campos, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and clinical assistant professor at Tufts University notes that he often treats long-term keto dieters for incredibly elevated cholesterol levels, thanks to increased intake of butter, cheese, and saturated fat.
File that under, no one is surprised, because what we DO know, what all the studies point to, is that increased consumption of saturated fat wrecks total havoc on our LDL, the bad cholesterol, and in turn, our arteries/hearts. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 13 grams per day of saturated fat, such as from butter, cheese, dairy products, egg yolks, and meats. Harvard researchers found a 18% increase of coronary artery disease with high intakes of saturated fat.
One 10-year study conducted on using keto to manage pediatric epilepsy found the following GI side effects over time: constipation, high triglyceride levels, high cholesterol, diarrhea, lethargy, iron deficiency, vomiting, and kidney stones.
A number of studies suggest keto can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in your GI tract (a condition called dysbiosis) due to high saturated fat intake and eating less fiber.
In late 2018, a 25,000-person study presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Munich showed that people on the lowest-carb diets had the highest risk of dying from cancer, cardiovascular conditions, and all other causes. Another study of over 15,000 people similarly found that people who followed diets that were low in carbs and high in animal proteins had a higher risk of early death compared to those who consumed carbs in moderation. (The opposite was true, however, for low-carb dieters who opted for plant-based proteins over meat and dairy - they lived longer.) Low-carbohydrate, high-animal product diets are likely to cause inflammation, biological ageing, and oxidative stress, the researchers said, adding that such diets are linked to a shorter lifespan and “should be discouraged.” In contrast, they noted that when reducing carbohydrate intake, using plant-based fats and proteins as substitutes could “promote healthy ageing.”
You’re probably by now thinking of those headlines you’ve seen though, like, “Butter is Back!” or “Dairy Lovers and Carnivores, Rejoice!” Unfortunately, unless you have a degree in deciphering and reading between the lines of clickbaity-headlines, you might have believed those statements. I know I did, at first.
However, if you were to actually read those studies, beyond the headlines, the author himself of one of those most-cited writes within the study, “we should not ignore stronger and consistent evidence from better-designed studies that eating less saturated fat … reduces the chance of developing or dying from heart disease,” and says for greater health, replace saturated fat with plant based foods. That doesn’t make a great headline though–that’s old news. Eat your veggies.
The biggest and baddest study in the fat vs. carb debate, known as the PURE study, claimed to finally put to rest the notion that fat is bad. If you wanted to reach for one study to backup the premise of keto being healthy, this would be your MVP.
The PURE study essentially claims that increasing carbohydrates is without a doubt the culprit for mortality–and that increased fat consumption is the good guy The problem? Well that study doesn’t look at specific types of carbs–there’s no differentiation between good and bad, sweet potatoes vs. donuts. And it also doesn’t show causation, only correlation, meaning that sure, maybe some of the high-fat, low-carb eaters in that trial are healthier! But are they also marathon runners? Are the high-fat-eaters genetically better off? More health conscious in general? Are the high-carb-eaters living off of donuts and bagels, or whole grains and oats? Who knows, because they can’t isolate just one factor. The PURE study is fundamentally flawed in other words, as pointed out by Dr. Kim Williams, former president of the American College of Cardiology and current Chief of the Division of Cardiology at Rush University Medical Center, on an episode of the Rich Roll Podcast. Dr. Williams also points out a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association that showed "the people who had had a heart attack in the past, the cardiology population that we’re seeing, and they were doing a ketogenic diet,” he said. “It was a 53 percent increase in mortality. No one should be doing this.”
Beyond the issue of the content telling a very different story than the clickbait-y headline, what about who's funding these misleading studies? I invite you to look at other recently published studies, like one looking comprehensively at dairy and its link to mortality and overall health. Sure, it proclaims saturated fat is fine! It has no impact on mortality whatsoever! Ok, but look at the footnotes and notice that every single author received funding from the Global Dairy Platform, Dairy Research Institute, Weight Watchers, and Dairy Australia. One also serves on the board for McDonalds. Guys…follow the money. Do we still believe all peer-reviewed research is fair and true, unblemished by corporate lobbying power and funding?
Look at Coca Cola, who was caught red-handed hiring a team of "scientists" to cherry pick "findings" proving that lack of exercise, not sugary sodas, is what's causing obesity. The "organization" they funded to prove this point was disbanded and shut down. A study published in the Journal of Public Health Policy looked at 87,000 documents from Coca Cola and found they've been purposely hiding and controlling research data and failing to disclose corporate funding for years. Monsanto does the same to shed a positive light on GMOs. The National Confectioner's associated funding a freaking study showing that "children and adolescents who eat candy are less overweight or obese." OKAY.
At the end of the day, our confusion is what the diet industry is banking on. Ask 10 people if eggs, butter, or carbs are good or bad, and you’ll get 10 different answers. I see people leaping at keto, because you know what’s an easy pill to swallow? Eat more bacon, and pile on the heavy whipping cream! You know what’s not? …You need to eat your vegetables. No one wants to hear that. That's not sexy.
And who benefits from the American public staying hella confused about what to eat, if fat is good or bad, or if carbs really are the enemy? Why, every single dietary, health, fitness, and food company, who are then able to conveniently swoop in with a new proposed solution, diet plan, or supplement, promising to heal us all!
You know who has billions of dollars of PR and marketing and lobbying efforts backing them? The people who make your bacon and heavy cream. You know who doesn’t? The broccoli farmers.
Keto sounds fun and eating fat is yummy. These are things no one argues. But you have to ask yourself, who is telling us what to eat? Who is benefiting?
A few closing bullet point FACTS:
I’ll close this rant with this: I'd love to be able to tell you, just reach out to your doctor and ask for their dietary advice! Unfortunately, I've had more nutrition training than many western doctors. Most doctors have taken nothing more than one semester of basic nutrition, since that is all that’s required. So I’ll just say, do your own research, and if you ever need any advice, message me any time!
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