Should I Do Keto?

Image: Heather Anne Campbell

dear swole woman!

okay, so i’ve gained some weight this past year and i can’t seem to shake it. i am eating more than usually but i am trying to be healthy. sometimes i succeed.

i find myself getting hungry throughout the day and super physically tired, which is strange for me because i used to train a few times a week in martial arts, mainly muay thai.

so i looked up some diets to eat healthier, while looking at adding martial arts back into my lifestyle. i want to be fit, not thin.

what’s the deal with keto? a lot of people are talking about it, including my room mates. is it healthy, safe? what happens when you go off keto?


c for confused

Man, I so strongly hesitate to wade into these waters except that hearing about different diets, like hearing about lots of different exercise routines, just makes me very tired. I want to strenuously remind everyone that I am not a doctor or dietitian and that this is an advice column you receive for free at the cost of only your time and attention. That said, I’m going to cite a lot of sources so this is at least as of good of journalism as you’re going to find in any magazine at the supermarket checkout. has not only some nice overviews of existing research, but they contextualize it well — for instance, they take studies that rely on people self-reporting their food with more of a grain of salt than studies that keep people in a controlled environment. These things matter and and are often overlooked when reported by science sections even in otherwise reputable publications. Another good source is Layne Norton, who does similar analyses debunking trendy food and fitness stuff. Likewise, I’ve mentioned it before, but Renaissance Periodization’s book on dieting for women, not only to lose fat but to gain muscle or maintain weight, is the best resource I’ve ever read and it’s very hard for me to not just reproduce the whole thing here.

Image: Matt Dobson

First, a quick definition of “keto”: the standard version of the ketogenic diet is where you eat a lot of fat, moderate protein, and very few carbs (about 5% of your caloric intake). Some people use “keto” as a general term for a low-carb diet, but keto specifically, medically refers to the state of “ketosis,” when your body has no stored carbs or energy left to burn and it starts burning fat (to be clear, being on a keto diet is not the ~only~ way of losing fat).

Keto can help people with epilepsy, diabetes, possibly MS, and a few other conditions manage them a bit better. That is what it is designed to do. For a normal person trying to lose body fat, there appears to be nothing special about keto, especially not compared to a regular low-carb diet, outside of the fact that that it gives you an arbitrary restriction. People plateau on keto, they gain weight on keto. Studies that show greater weight loss from low- or very-low-carb diets often don’t account for the fact that eating fewer carbs depletes glycogen in muscles so subjects retain less water, which yields a couple-few extra pounds of weight “lost.” As soon as you start eating carbs again, that weight (not all of the weight lost, but that kind of water weight) comes back.

If you think the strictures of keto would work for you, then great. But keto sounds like a nightmare to me, and it’s very likely you could be doing something that would make you a lot more comfortable and get the same results.

I know part of the reason people love elimination diets is that it can feel easier to give up dairy or “sugar” than trying to eat a “balanced diet” by keeping track of what you’re eating and how much. Dietitians love to tell people to “eat a balanced diet,” and that is, admittedly, a much more uphill struggle than it sounds.

But the trick to all diets for weight loss, the irreducible fact of them, is that they work by getting you to eat less, and I prefer to operate from that one truth than dick around vilifying this or that food group. South Beach, paleo, clean eating, Atkins, intermittent fasting, keto, and so on are all pretty much the same in that regard. Let me specially recommend my patented Upside Down diet — you can eat

Image: rpavich


As long as you’re doing a headstand while you’re eating it.

Do you see what I mean?

You may not have my hangups about either being tricked or being told that I cannot have Oreos ever again. And that would be fine. But the fact is that if you eat keto without also capping your caloric intake, you cannot be sure you will lose weight. If you eat “clean” and still eat forty avocados a day and don’t cap your caloric intake, you cannot be sure you will lose weight. These restrictions may make it harder, initially, to overeat, but experience suggests that you will eventually figure out the loopholes. There is no loophole to caloric intake; it is an inviolable truth.

I’m not a dietitian, obviously, but look:

1) Research shows that caloric intake matters more than anything else (more depth about how much to eat and what here). (I’m sad that this is now so many hundreds of words into this column but diet talk is literally this much of a nightmare and I am ALREADY sorry.) It can get a bit more complicated than that if you’re dieting very long term trying to lose hundreds of pounds, but it doesn’t sound like that’s where you’re going.

2a) That which allows you to adhere to (1) is going to be the best diet for you. If you like fats and it’s easy to eat fats, a high-fat, low-carb diet might be easiest. If you like carbs, higher-carb and lower-fat might be easiest. You can also just have a balance of both! If you do high-intensity sports, like lifting, carbs are what give you energy and trying to operate without them for very long may make you wildly tired. It makes me wildly tired. You can technically live without them, but if it would make you feel less bad to not… do… that… why wouldn’t you, is my question.

2b) A big part of adherence to a specific calorie intake is making sure you are satiated. You could eat only Cadbury eggs, but you would probably be miserable (ish, I mean you are eating candy). Part of why low-carb (but not specifically keto) sometimes seems to work better than low-fat is that fats tend to be more filling and carbs are easy to binge on. But another reason these diets seem to work in studies is that they often raise protein intake; it may not even be the carbs or fats that matter. Higher protein is universally helpful in moderating calories because it’s hard to overeat, gets digested slowly, and helps maintain lean muscle mass.

3) This is sort of an aside just to give ourselves a lower limit, but just because lowering your caloric intake works does not mean lowering it more works even better. General concepts of health and self-care aside, there are practical limits and diminishing returns on how aggressive you can be about dieting where the tradeoffs just aren’t worth it. If an elimination diet results in you eating basically nothing, that is unnecessary suffering. If this is something you can’t do in moderation and be relatively gentle with yourself, a therapist and/or dietitian can be immensely helpful.

Ask A Swole Woman: Is Tracking My Food Necessary?

You’d also probably have to track your food if you were doing keto. Getting to know what you’re eating and what works for you is an investment in making your day better. If you zero in on what you like to eat and what makes you feel best, the overall experience can be much less painful. If you fly blind or guess on whether you’re eating enough of the right things, you are putting the inconvenience on your body and long-term schedule. Tracking food is not ideal for some people logistically, and it is never not tedious and boring, but if you do it you are not tied to it forever.

Also, I’m always left wondering, when you do some arbitrary restriction diet, what do you do when it’s over? You go back to how you were eating, probably, and end up as you were pre-diet. This may be fine if you are trying to circumstantially, temporarily lose fat, but if that’s not what you’re after (and crash dieting is never a good idea anyway), you either end up on a diet forever (which can have negative, counterintuitive consequences long-term) or back where you started. There are plenty of people who have just given up certain food groups forever; I couldn’t do that, personally.

I know this isn’t an easy answer, but the real takeaway is, if you want to lose fat, do that which puts you in a caloric deficit. The sort of better answer is, if you want to lose fat and make it as easy on yourself as possible, do that which puts you in a caloric deficit and works the best with your tastes and lifestyle. Is that keto? It could be! But maybe also not.

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