Like the cockroach behind your refrigerator, the bullshit diet bug just keeps resurfacing.
The message is always the same: “Cut whole categories of food, shrink rapidly, live feely, be worthy of love and admiration! For the low, low price of….” But the medium has changed. Social influencers are the program’s salesforce, blowing up your news feed with Photoshopped portraits of their idealized, carb-less lifestyle.
(Cue beach selfie, in a bikini, drinking a raw lard martini)
I’m not going to pull any punches here: these posts don’t deserve your FOMO. They’re ads and they deserve your concern, especially as a runner.
BACK UP. WHAT’S A KETO DIET?
Keto diets are an extreme reduction of carbohydrates and mass consumption of fat. On a normal diet, your body breaks carbohydrates down into blood sugar. On a keto diet, your body breaks fat down into ketones (acid) instead.
In a nutshell: You’re using fat as a fuel source instead of carbs.
HOW DID KETO DIETING BEGIN?
Keto dieting began in hospitals over a hundred years ago, when doctors discovered that an extreme limitation of carbohydrates could reduce epileptic episodes in children. They were also effective at prolonging the lives of children with type 1 diabetes before the invention of medical insulin.
WHAT ABOUT THE GENERAL PUBLIC?
One side-effect of the keto diet is initial rapid weight loss, accompanied by lethargy and foul, vaguely metallic breath. For this reason (the first one), keto dieting has resurfaced several times in popular culture as a fad diet.
Ugly truth: most of the weight lost in the first week after adopting a keto diet is actually the water from your glycerin (blood sugar) stores. You’ve lost water weight, not fat.
Here’s where I step on some toes.
#1. KETO DIETS ARE IMPOSSIBLE TO MEASURE WITHOUT A DOCTOR.
Keto dieting was invented in a hospital, where fats were measured on scales and patients’ blood ketone levels were monitored by doctors. Unless you’re obsessively planning and weighing every morsel of food that goes in your mouth, you won’t actually know if you’re consuming the right ratio of fat to carbs to actually induce ketosis.
#2. KETO DIETS COULD DEPRIVE YOU OF VITAMINS AND MINERALS.
At any given moment, your body is using endless numbers of vitamins and minerals to complete tasks you take for granted. Picked a booger today? Thank vitamin A for trapping the germs in your nose gunning for your brain.
Vitamin A can be found in: carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, cantaloupe, apricots, spinach, kale, collard greens
Vitamin A cannot be found in: butter steak
#3. KETO DIETS ARE TYPICALLY FULL OF CHOLESTEROL.
If you’re struggling with type 2 diabetes, steer clear of keto diets, which are a risk for cardiovascular disease (heart attacks) because of their focus on cholesterol-heavy foods (meat).
Studies show that ultra runners adopting a keto diet especially see higher cholesterol (both “good” and “bad”). Even the cholesterol particles themselves are bigger.
#4 KETO DIETS HINDER ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE OVER TIME.
Most elite runners do not follow a keto diet for obvious reasons—we love bagels.
Ha. Seriously, though—you would think a diet burning fat would be great for long distance runners like me, training for a marathon where using fat as fuel is necessary after 20 miles in one go. What gives?
Carbs are beloved by runners because they can be quickly transformed into, and used as, fuel. This is necessary for maximum training. Eat a banana before your run and you feel like superwoman. Eat a burger before your run and you feel like a drunk water buffalo.
When you train at your best, you perform at your best, and to train at your best you need quick carbs. Coming to every workout burning your “reserves” energy is sabotage. Save the fat-burning for your long runs and your marathon, not everyday life.
A few athletes advocate for the keto diet, saying they immediately saw results in the first few weeks. But that jump in performance is likely because of the initial lost water weight, and will not improve conditioning long-term.
#5. KETO DIETS CAN FATALLY OVERLOAD YOUR BODY WITH ACID (KETOACIDOSIS).
Doctors estimate that at least 25% of keto dieters experience these symptoms, nicknamed the “keto flu”:
Chronic Instagramming (I kid)
Symptoms typically abate in a few weeks. However, if they don’t, you run the risk of developing a fatal overdosing of acid in your bloodstream, called ketoacidosis. Too much acid in our kidneys, heart, and brain, can permanently damage tissue. Diabetes patients are especially at risk.
ABI, NOW THAT YOU SHAT ALL OVER MY DIET, HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO LOSE WEIGHT?
I hate to sound like your mom, your P.E. teacher, or your therapist here (no I don’t), but eating a variety of wholesome foods and exercising in a way you find enjoyable is the only realistic solution I’ve found to permanently improve your overall health.
Diets aren’t sustainable. If you have a hard time sticking to one, don’t despair, everyone else fails eventually, too. That’s why they’re a fad!
There’s a better way.
#1. EXPLORE YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO FOOD.
Animals have a straightforward relationship with food: they seek food when hungry and eat what’s available.
Humans have complicated the hell out of our relationship with food, often making it a scapegoat for our emotional inner turmoil. This is because we’re lucky- we have the ability to abuse food because of its abundance.
Your relationship with food is easily hijacked by icky feelings: shame, helplessness, anxiety. And it’s no wonder it’s food that our brains choose to abuse or use as a crutch—we are literally faced with food everywhere we go, all day, every day, from birth. Worse, if you quit cold turkey, you frickin’ die!
Sprinkle on Photoshopped influencer photos on Instagram, a truckload of vitamin supplements that aren’t regulated by the FDA, and family-sized bags of M&M’s and you’ve got a full-blown epidemic of fucked-up-edness derailing your brain from making positive choices.
If you find yourself overeating, under-eating, abusing laxatives or throwing up your food, obsessively counting calories or chasing fad diets, your problem is not with food. Modifying your diet will not solve these problems. I urge you to seek therapy first.
#2. EAT A BALANCED DIET.
Climb that food pyramid like it’s Giza. Well, actually, the US government’s replaced the food pyramid with a graphic they call MyPlate. I initially missed the triumphant pyramid, but have to agree that it’s much easier to apply to everyday life.
If you need to coax yourself into eating veggies, go slow. You can easily sneak spinach into a strawberry smoothie and never taste it. Wrap shredded beef with bib lettuce. The more you cook, the more control you have over your own nutrition.
If you’re new to cooking and have the money, meal kit delivery services aren’t half bad to spice up your diet and get your veggies in. Choose one with healthier options, like Plated, Hello Fresh, or Sun Basket. **No one paid me to say this. I’ve ordered from all of them. Blog post forecoming.
#3. GET ACTIVE.
(Runners, skip ahead.)
FIND AN EXERCISE YOU ENJOY.
If your exercise regimen feels like punishment, quit now! I guarantee there is a workout that can bring a smile to your face. If you’re not sure where to start, sign up for Class Pass or search for deals on Groupon. Commit to working out at least three days a week for a 30 minutes minimum.
In classes, don’t be afraid to be the most clueless person in the room. Everyone started sometime and they remember how it felt.
Exercise can add decades to your lifespan. Seriously, play with this life expectancy calculator from a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and compare.
EXERCISE WITH A FRIEND.
Studies have shown miraculous benefits for working out in pairs or groups. Not only is there shared accountability, but healthy competition and positive reinforcement. One study showed that 95% of those who started a weight-loss program with friends completed the program, compared to only 76% who began the program solo. The friend group was also 42% more likely to keep off the weight they lost.
Exercising with a loved one is equally rewarding. Scientific studies show that activities that elevate your heart rate actually increase feelings of enamor between romantic partners. Your partner’s presence subliminally encourages you to work harder and perform better. Plus, coordinating movements together involves nonverbal matching and mimicry, both of which our brains slurp up as signs of affection.
SET A SPECIFIC GOAL.
Once you find an exercise you like, make a goal. Right now, I’m gearing up for a half marathon in January. My training calendar stares at my face the two places I frequent most often: my desk at work, and my fridge. I’m constantly reminded of my goal throughout the day. And checking off those boxes feels good.
I’d go on about goal setting, but Marcel Schwantes sums up everything you need to know here.
Reward yourself for milestones. No, not with an ice cream sundae. Kick back and catch up on Game of Thrones. Read in a hammock on the porch. Call a friend and casually brag about how you synchronized with the downbeat during your spin class (humanly impossible to my knowledge).
#4. STOP SAYING “I’M ON A DIET.”
Has anyone ever said “I’m on a diet!” excitedly? No, because diets are punishment.
Say to yourself “I’m a healthy person” instead. In the present tense. This simple flip of how to speak to yourself will give you confidence and respect in yourself. Forget what you ate yesterday, or what you’ll eat tomorrow. Right now, you’re a healthy person, so you’re going to make healthy decisions. Affirm it.
TRUST ME, I’M IN ADVERTISING: DIETS ARE LIES.
The diet industry is just that—an industry, sucking up $70.3 billion of our economy.
In the industry of health and wellness, corrupt entities don’t want you to get well because then you no longer need their products or services. There are plenty of honest, well-intentioned dietitians and nutritionists out there helping people get better, but you have to learn to tune out the garbage as well.
A good rule of thumb to sniff out the bullshit: is your doctor selling you a product only they can provide? I once went to a “family doctor” who prescribed me vitamin B for anxiety. Guess what I passed on my way out the door? A mountain of bottles of vitamin B, courtesy of whatever supplement company paid for her Audi outside.
Any nutritionist worth their salt will give you tools to live healthfully in the real world without their products as a crutch. They will help you alter your lifestyle, so you can eventually stand— maybe even run— on your own two feet.