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The Keto Diet and What It Means For Diet Culture

I think it’s safe to say that by the time they start university, most women have already been participating in diet culture for a number of years. You probably remember the first time that you were really aware of what your body looked like or rather didn’t look like. In a comparative culture where unattainable body types are idolized, diet culture is participated in and perpetuated by the majority of women. And it seems like there is always a new fad diet that is held up as the solution to all of your body-image woes. Recently, or at least according to my Instagram feed, the keto diet has become one of the most promoted fad diets out there.

The ketogenic diet (keto for short) is a low-carb, high-fat diet that strives to put your body in a metabolic state called ketosis. Once in ketosis, your body becomes very efficient at burning fat for energy instead of carbohydrates. It also can cause reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels. The standard keto diet calls for your diet to be about 75% fats, 20% protein, and only 5% carbs. Typically, the range of carb intake you need to stay within to get into ketosis is between 13-30 grams per day for the average person.

So here is my beef with the keto diet. Its efficacy has only been studied in relation to epilepsy and diabetes. There has been little research done on the ketogenic diet as a weight-loss or weight maintenance strategy. Or on the long-term effects of eating a high-fat diet that cuts out a lot of beneficial micronutrients from fruit and whole grains. The diet itself has been proven to help young people with epilepsy to have fewer seizures and help control blood sugar among people with diabetes. But for people without these health concerns, there is one major issue I take with keto: sustainability. 

I decided to try the keto diet for a month, more as a personal challenge than anything else (but I will admit the promise of a substantial weight loss in the first month was alluring as well). I set a goal to stay within 20-25 grams of carbohydrates daily, which most websites and keto “calculators” seemed to promise would kick me into ketosis. My first day, my very first observation was “Jesus there are a lot of carbs in everything!” As much of a no-duh kind of observation this was, I immediately realized staying within 20-25g per day was going to be a challenge. That goal effectively cuts out any obvious starchy foods such as bread and pasta but also limits things like certain fruits and vegetables.

I understand in order to get into the metabolic state that carb-intake had to be seriously limited, but excluding certain healthy foods seemed extremely counter-intuitive to me. I found myself not necessarily eating healthier during my month but eating to meet that certain number. For example, I don’t think I have ever eaten more salami than I did in this month. And it was solely because if I wanted a snack, something like salami had virtually no carbs. While an apple had almost my entire daily quota. Sadly, there is no alternate universe where me eating copious amounts of processed lunch meat would be considered healthier than eating an apple, so I found it odd a diet would indirectly imply this. I also had to be very strict in planning what I was going to be eating that day in order to meet my goals, leaving little to no room for eating out with friends and family.

In addition to all of the restrictions, I experienced a lot of the common side effects associated with starting keto. For the first week and a bit, I had fairly frequent headaches and dizziness. I also was having a hard time feeling full or like I was eating enough while keeping within my goals. These problems seemed to resolve themselves for the most part after the first two weeks. Ultimately, by the time the month was up I felt pretty well adjusted, although I wouldn’t say I felt better than before like many people claim to. All in all, I lost about 10-15 pounds in that month.

Now, back to sustainability. Keto is extremely restrictive. Yes, there are alternatives, and it just requires more research and planning, like making keto cookies, etcetera, etcetera. But at the most basic level, keto is very restrictive. It is hard to reach a daily suggested caloric intake while severely limiting carb intake. It is even harder to have any sort of flexibility in your day, such as a date night or pizza with your friends. It gets time-consuming to have to plan out every meal to meet a certain number and tiring to have to turn down plans or feel limited in what you can enjoy while on the keto diet to stay within your goals.

On a short-term basis, the diet itself is doable. Several people that have done it long-term or live the “keto-lifestyle” say that it is completely feasible to treat it as a permanent diet. My main issue with that is restricting so many different foods for so long will likely affect your relationship with food. Having such a strict binary of good food/bad food, which keto promotes on the basis of carb-content, only damages your relationship with food. The message that you can NEVER eat certain things, rather than encouraging moderation, is problematic. It only serves to make you want those things more. Which is exactly what happened to me after I completed my month trial.

After the month was up, despite losing a significant amount of weight, I gained about half of it back a month of normal eating later. A lot of the re-gain was due to over-eating foods that I hadn’t been able to eat. While trying keto taught me some beneficial things, like the wonder that is cauliflower rice, and that I could stand to meal prep once in a while, I wouldn’t do it again. I think its real attractive trait is that it causes substantial weight loss quickly. But this loss is because of the intense restrictions that ultimately decrease caloric intake. If weight-loss is your goal, putting yourself into a slight caloric deficit while eating an 80/20 diet (80% whole, nutritious foods, 20% processed, ‘fun’ foods) is recommended by most physicians over a crash diet that will be harder to sustain. After all, that 20% is where some of the best memories get made and some self-compassion happens.      


Emily Hart

C of C '22

Anthropology Major. Crime, Law, & Society and Spanish Minors.
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