Should You Do the Keto Diet? (Should Anyone?)

One of the more popular diet trends of the last couple of years has been the ketogenic diet. Usually just shortened to the “keto” diet, it was found to be one of the most popular diets among Americans in surveys taken in 2020 and 2021. The basics aren’t hard to follow: It’s a strict diet that’s high in fat. Protein is allowed, but only in moderate amounts. What you’re really cutting out in any keto diet is carbohydrates. Breads, fruits, even some vegetables: Any food source that contains carbs is on the chopping block, since the daily total intake of carbs is supposed to hover around 50 grams, max. To put that perspective, that’s the equivalent of eating three slices of bread per day, or one cup of rice.

“For most people, this is a big change in how they might normally be eating,” says registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator Amy Kimberlain.

Many people who go on the keto diet will lose some weight over the short term. But the diet’s long-term health effects are still being worked out. For that reason, many dietitians tend to steer people away from keto. Earlier this year, a panel of experts even ranked keto as the worst diet among a group of 40. This prompts the inevitable question: Should you even do keto?

Bust Out the Bacon

Carbohydrates are a macronutrient that helps our bodies perform, especially because they’re a main source of glucose. Otherwise known as blood sugar, glucose is the fuel that powers our cells and gives us energy. That’s what your body burns to help you finish that run or hit the weights at the gym.

In the absence of carbs, the body has to turn to other sources of fuel. That’s what keto is supposed to stimulate. When there isn’t enough glucose to burn, the liver goes to work. It takes fatty acids in the body and breaks them down into ketone bodies (hence the diet’s name), which now become the body’s main source of fuel. Ketone bodies can provide energy for the heart, the kidney, and even the brain, as well as other muscles.

That’s why the keto diet emphasizes eating more fatty foods and fewer and fewer carbs: Ketones are now the energy source, instead of glucose. Fish, low-carb vegetables like broccoli and spinach, avocados, eggs, and plain Greek yogurt are just some of the keto-friendly foods you can keep eating. Coffee is allowed, as long as it’s unsweetened. So is bacon. And you can still eat poultry, too, although consuming too much protein is to be avoided, since the amino acids contained in protein can be converted to glucose.

Beware the Keto Flu

In the first few days of going on the keto diet, you’re bound to experience some flu-like symptoms. An upset stomach or headaches are fairly common, since your body has yet to reach full “ketosis”: the state of relying on ketones for fuel.