"You are what you eat," is often a statement made in conjunction with weight loss and lifestyle ads. But it does hold some grain of truth to it. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health, conducted over a span of 20 years, found that people who increased their intake of whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables gained less weight by "0.4, 0.5, and 0.2 pounds less every four years".
Such studies have led to the rising popularity of fad diets. "Fad diets are trendy weight-loss plans that promise dramatic and instant results," explained Jo Sebastian, a licensed nutritionist-dietitian in the Philippines. Some indications of a fad diet include "restrictions of a whole food group or specific food items given you don't have any illness; promises quick weight loss; sells a certain product, and lacks scientific evidence to support it".
Such restrictions, according to the British Diabetic Association, tend to lead fad dieters to "start eating more, choose less healthy foods and pile the pounds back on" after quitting the said diet. But these dietary changes have also garnered some personal accounts of an improvement in physical health conditions aside from weight loss, with supporting preliminary studies to bolster these claims, such as chronic inflammation and insulin resistance.
One popular fad diet that continues to gain a following is the ketogenic (Keto, for short) diet. The Keto diet revolves around the process of Ketosis by fueling the body with ketone bodies, "a type of fuel that the liver produces from stored fat" according to Harvard Health, instead of sugar and carbohydrates. Essentially, going on a Keto diet means lowering your intake of carb-heavy food and eating more healthy fat options.
So what changes happen to our bodies when we subject it to a fad diet like Keto? We spoke with current practitioners and an ex-Keto dieter on the physical and mental changes they observed while trying this new lifestyle.
Meet the Keto dieters
The Keto diet was initially "used to help reduce the frequency of epileptic seizures in children" according to dietitian Kathy McManus in a recent interview with Harvard Health. But there are a lot of attributes to Keto that appeal to different individuals.
For Julie Mokhtar, a certified Ketogenic living coach from Malaysia, she delved into the Keto diet in the hopes of lessening the chronic inflammation she experiences from polycystic ovary syndrome. "I was told by several gynaes that there wasn't anything much I could do so I figured I'd just have to learn to live with irregular periods, frustrating weight gain, terrible acne, low moods, constant fatigue, and — once I had gotten married — infertility," she shared.
"I felt sad at the thought of not ever being able to grow a cute little baby in my tummy. So in 2017, I started researching the root causes of PCOS. Lab tests showed that I had chronic inflammation, and when I learned that the keto diet can help with that, I decided it was worth trying."
For Kyla Rahim, a Singaporean Keto practitioner and advocate since 2018, Keto was a way of helping her lose her postpartum weight. “I grew worried when I realised that my maternity clothes were too tight for me! Whenever there was an occasion that I needed to attend, or even going out on a date, it made me anxious,” she recalled, saying it would take her "more than an hour to get ready" since she couldn't "find anything comfortable to wear". This cycle sometimes led to her cancelling engagements altogether. "I became depressed and decided to change as I began to resent what I was looking at in the mirror every day." A Google search on various diet options eventually led her to discover Ketosis and its effects on the body.
But for Kay Abad Manuel, a Filipina content creator, Keto is now a thing of the past. "I've been in and out of fad diets and seeing YouTubers and other influencers post that they're eating bacon and cheese during Keto made me join the bandwagon. I thought it was all fun! I thought wrong."
The period of transition
Depending on where you live, beginning and maintaining a Keto diet can have varying degrees of difficulty. Back in 2018, Kyla found transitioning into a Keto diet to be a solitary and trying experience.
"[Since] Keto was rarely heard of in Singapore when I started my journey. My weight loss journey was a lonely one [because] I had zero support from the people around me. Each time I mentioned that I was not eating rice or noodles, it was almost like saying that I was starving myself. Everyone thought it would never work. Some even laughed at my goals," she said.
Julie also experienced some awkward moments at the beginning of her Keto journey. "When you're livin' la vida low-carb in a carb-loving country like Malaysia, you can bet socialising can get a little awkward. There were weddings and birthday parties and family gatherings almost every other weekend, and I had so much anxiety over how I was going to stick to keto while maintaining a social life. Ultimately, I really didn't want my goals to get derailed so sometimes I would actually pack my own food to these gatherings — no kidding!"
Preparing the meals was not an issue in Julie’s experience. "Natural, healthy fats make up a large part of keto meals after all, so I was enjoying the most flavourful dishes as part of my daily meals, from succulent steaks to local favourites like masak lemak cili api (a fragrant gravy made with coconut milk, turmeric, and bird's eye chilli)."
Kay also found the start to be easy but the follow-through proved to be the challenging part since she loves to eat pasta, pizza, and other carb-loaded dishes. “I did my homework and researched the diet for a few weeks before starting. I wanted to equip myself with the right tools and knowledge. Dr. Berg from YouTube proved to be a good resource and there were a lot of Facebook groups sharing tips, selling ingredients, Keto meals, desserts, et cetera,” she explained. Kay also signed up for a food delivery service that offered Keto options for added convenience.
How it changes the body, among other things
Weight loss is often one of the foremost reasons why people try a fad diet like Keto. "The reason we often follow a fad diet is because we are trying to lose weight. The context of weight loss is the energy balance equation saying that to lose weight we have to consume less energy (food) than the body consumes (for living and daily activities). Decreasing intakes lead to an energy deficit that now tells the body to tap into the stored energy (fats). However, when done too aggressively, this can lead to metabolic adaptations and nutrient deficiencies that now take away from our bodies' needs," Jo summarized.
"I lost weight just a few days in and I love that my tummy appeared to be flatter than ever," Kay shared. "On the flip side though, I experienced the keto flu and I had some occasional headaches that were quite hard to manage. There was also a time that I felt sick and weak because my electrolytes were down. When on Keto, you have to manage your intake of this and that wisely, else, there's this risk that you'd feel awful."
Kyla also experienced some weight loss, saying she "went from XXL to size 0 in a year".
Julie is in the same boat. "For one thing, losing weight isn't a struggle anymore — I've managed to go from 92 kilograms to 65 kilograms," she said. "My missing period returned and has become more regular. My energy levels are steadier (no more post-lunch crashes, no need for copious amounts of coffee to get through the day). My skin has never looked better. My mind is clearer," Julie continued.
And perhaps the most wonderful change she experienced since beginning her Keto diet: "The most pleasant surprise is my improved fertility. I had gotten pregnant naturally early this year. I went through a really smooth pregnancy and labour, and now have a bubbly little two-month-old."
A word of caution
It's highly possible that trying such diets can result in nutritional deficiencies. According to Jo, people trying these diets can experience anything "from energy deficiency to specific nutrient deficiencies, especially from long term following or trying to follow the diet."
She further explained that it's "usually because these diets are restrictive and cut out important food groups or amounts of foods for long periods of time. These nutritional deficiencies can lead to additional health problems, including negatively impacting hormonal health and metabolism. A common sign of nutrient deficiency on a diet is hair loss."
But this won't deter a lot of people from giving it a go. So for those interested in trying the Keto diet, Jo has some advice you need to keep in mind. "When it comes to diets, the question we must always ask is 'Can I do this for the rest of my life?' If it is a no, then let's try to find something else." It's also best to consult a nutritionist-dietitian to help construct a healthier approach. "We have to look for long term approaches and not shortcuts when it comes to food and health."
Kyla sees Keto as more of a lifestyle now than a diet. Meanwhile, Julie considers the Keto diet as the foundation of her dietary habits for the foreseeable future. "Keto has worked wonders for me and I do plan to keep eating this way as long as my body continues to thrive with it," she explained. "Our nutritional needs may change as our body evolves but even if I had to tweak my way of eating in the future, I foresee it will likely still revolve around a whole-foods, animal-based diet."
Kay has since decided that the Keto diet and lifestyle is not for her, which she shared more in a YouTube video. "Through Keto, I learned that having a balanced diet might sound too old school but it's still the best way to have a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle. I also learned to squeeze in more time to plan my meals and exercise more because I didn't want to go through being obsessed with fad diets again."
In the end, the goal is to live a healthier way of life. Sometimes, it can only be achieved by finding what suits you personally whether it's by sticking to a new diet or something else. As Jo puts it, "After all, we only have one body and one life. Why spend it trying to look a certain way in order to start enjoying it?"
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