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A fad is an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, usually short-lived, without scientific understanding of the phenomenon. One of the hallmarks of a fad diet is promotion by a well-known celebrity or pseudo-expert. The latest dietary craze to spark people’s attention is the keto diet, designed to eliminate carbohydrates as a source of energy and force the body to burn a type of fat, called ketones, produced in the liver.

The optimal balance in the intake of carbohydrates, protein and fats has been of interest since the industrial age when both food production and choice increased. From the Inuit Diet proposed in the 1920s to the Atkins Diet in the 1990s to the Paleo Diet promoted in the early 2000s, these diets promote eating a protein and plant-rich diet like we think our ancestors did. However, along with the problem that many of the animals and plants our ancestors ate are extinct, we also don’t spend 10 to 12 hours a day foraging for roots, fruits and berries or tracking mastodons to try and kill.

Low-carbohydrate, high-protein eating plans, such as the Paleo and Atkins diets, are sometimes referred to as ketogenic or “keto” diets. The Keto Diet is being advertised as a weight-loss wonder; however, it was designed primarily as a medically supervised plan to help reduce the frequency of epileptic seizures in children. Its usefulness in terms of weight loss or improving other health issues is not proven.

Our bodies prefer to utilize carbohydrates (sugars from grains, beans, vegetables and fruits) for fuel (energy) because carbohydrates are very quickly absorbed and converted to energy. When attempting to eat a diet that produces ketone bodies, dieters must eliminate all carbohydrates. Even one banana (27 grams of carbohydrates) is too much dietary intake to force your body to rely on ketone bodies as a fuel source. It takes several days of severely limited carbohydrate intake to force your body to rely on ketone bodies, and if you eat too much protein, your body will use that as a source of energy, interfering with ketosis. Breaking down protein or ketones to utilize for energy only occurs in the body under great stress or starvation. Neither of these states are optimal or maintainable.

What all the low-carb diets have in common is the recognition that the typical Western Diet relies too much on highly processed, pre-packaged foods. These foods have a high glycemic load (a combined measure of total grams of carbs in a food and the rapidity of the uptake of those sugars in the foods into the bloodstream). Overconsumption of these types of foods is linked to our nation’s high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

D.L. Katz and S. Meller from Yale University looked at 167 peer-reviewed research studies to determine if science could answer the question, “Can we say what diet is best for health?” Diets that have research on their long-term effectiveness (weight loss and improved health outcomes), have three things in common:

  • Limited refined starches, added sugars and refined foods
  • Limited saturated fat intake
  • Emphasis on whole plant foods, with or without lean meats, fish, poultry and seafood.

Rather than spend more money on expensive diet plans, consider working with a registered dietician nutritionist (RDN) to build a dietary plan with your goals in mind, based on your health history and accounting for your lifestyle. Anyone can claim they are a nutritionist but only RDN’s are licensed professionals with a college degree and hundreds of hours of clinical rotations behind their credentials.

You can explore more about any nutrition topic and find a RDN in your area by looking at the website sponsored by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, www.Eatright.org.

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Cynthia Allen is a Carthage College professor of exercise and sport science.

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