A Nutritionist’s Opinion On The Ketogenic / Low Carb Diet
Are you following a super restrictive or ketogenic diet? Cutting out all carbs? Looking to reduce your body fat percentage ASAP or sharpen up your abs? Then maybe you should read on…
What Is The Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet is very high in fat, adequate in protein and very low in carbohydrate (from limited amounts of vegetables and fruit). The diet attempts to mimic the effect of fasting/starvation, forcing the body to use fat rather than carbohydrate as it’s main energy source. An energy paradox exists as we are very good at storing fat but the brain cannot use it as a fuel. The brain requires 120g glucose per day. When this glucose is not available from dietary carbohydrate and our very small glycogen (stored glucose) store is used up, fat is converted into ketones by the liver to fuel the brain, muscle, heart & kidneys.
Uses Of The Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet was formulated to help manage childhood epilepsy. In the 1920’s, scientists observed starvation helped control epileptic seizures, however, as soon as food was reintroduced control was lost.¹ Typically an experienced dietitian will tailor the diet to the individual, depending on age and activity levels, to make sure it is safe and meets their nutritional needs.The ketogenic diet is also used by healthcare professionals to treat glucose 1 transporter (Glut1) deficiency and pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) deficiency.¹
Abs Are Made In The Kitchen
More recently due to the popularity of Atkins & other very low/no carb diets, more and more people are choosing to follow a ketogenic type diet. Yes I agree abs are made in the kitchen and this type of diet may help to reduce your body fat percentage quickly. However, if this type of restrictive diet is followed without proper supervision by a dietitian, problems may start to occur as it is unlikely to meet your nutritional needs. I recently worked closely with a personal trainer (PT) who had been following a very strict ketogenic type diet, only eating chicken and very limited salad & vegetables for around 6 months. The PT was suffering with gut pain, bouts of diarrhoea and also starting to look ill. When the body enters into ketosis during starvation the muscle starts wasting away. One reason for his gut pain could have been to do with the disruption of the balance of his gut bacteria.
Gut & Immune System Disturbance
Did you know there are 100 trillion bacteria in/on your body and there are 10 times more bacteria in your gut than there are cells in your body? More importantly, around 70% of our immune system is located in our gut.² Our gut bacteria is our first line of defence against infectious organisms and other invasions. The gut bacteria contributes to our immunity by inhibiting or blocking the growth of pathogens, removing harmful substances and creating beneficial conditions in the gut. There is a delicate balance between ‘good’ & ‘bad’ gut bacteria. Eating lots of meat/protein and little or no carbohydrate/fibre, can be toxic to our guts leading to an imbalance of the gut bacteria. This imbalance can result in discomfort, bloating and a sub-optimal immune system. Including carbohydrates and fibre in the diet is important as when they are broken down they produce more beneficial end products (compared to protein) eg. Butyrate², which is essential for a healthy gut and therefore for a healthy immune system.
Foods containing prebiotics, such as onions, leeks, asparagus and oats can be consumed to help restore the balance. Prebiotics such as galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), feed the good bacteria in the gut causing them to multiply. Probiotic drinks may also be a useful addition to your diet, as they introduce millions of live good bacteria into the gut.
The ketogenic diet has its place in treating medical conditions or for losing weight if someone is severely overweight, under the supervision of a dietitian. However, cutting out all carbs is not realistic or sustainable for long periods and without proper supervision could be detrimental to the individual. In addition, more often than not once you relax your eating habits and return to a normal eating pattern the weight lost and more goes straight back on.
Keep Your Abs And Your Health Too
I believe the key is spreading protein intake throughout the day and eating the right carbs in combination with protein & healthy fats to stabilise blood sugar levels. Focus on eating real unprocessed food for optimum health. Base your diet around lean cuts of meat, fish, lots of vegetables and some fruit, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates. I think a treat is important for the mind, just practice moderation and watch portion sizes. You can make healthier treats, enjoy a glass of red wine or have a cheat meal every 3/4 weeks. This way of eating and a slightly lower carbohydrate intake, combined with exercise means I have removed the need for medication (metformin) to manage my Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). I lift heavy weights, practise Olympic lifting and am in the best shape of my life. I also worked closely with the PT mentioned above, adding foods such as apples, brown rice, sweet potatoes and more vegetables to increase the fibre in the diet and help to rebalance the gut bacteria. Now the PT not only has his well defined abs so he looks great but feels great too.
Remember just keep it simple, unprocessed and don’t cut out any major food groups. It’s a lifestyle not a temporary diet. Find what works for YOU to keep your abs and your health too.
Claire Thornton MSc ANutr DipCII
1. http://www.gosh.nhs.uk/medical-conditions/procedures-and-treatments/ketogenic-diet/ Accessed 07.01.13
2. University of Reading, MSc Lectures by Prof G Gibson, Prof P Yaqoob, Dr D Commane 2012-2013.