Google has released the top search terms of 2016, and when it comes to weight loss, it turns out folks were especially drawn to the ketogenic diet this year. It was one of the 10 most-searched diets this year, landing halfway down the list (just a few notches below the taco cleanse!). But if you weren’t among the keto-curious in the last 12 months, you’re probably wondering now, Is this something I should try? (And what does ketogenic mean again?) Read on for a quick primer on the plan, and my bottom-line advice.
What is the ketogenic diet?
In a nutshell, it’s a high-fat, low- to moderate-protein, low-carb eating plan. On a ketogenic diet, roughly 75% to 90% of daily calories come from fat; 6% to 20% come from protein; and 2% to 5% come from carbohydrates.
It was originally devised as a tool for controlling epileptic seizures (though doctors aren’t exactly sure how it works) before there were drugs to treat seizures. In the past few decades, it has reemerged as patients and parents seek alternatives to pharmaceuticals.
But the ketogenic diet has also been adopted as a weight loss plan. The goal of the diet is to achieve ketosis, a state in which the body is using fat as its primary fuel, rather than carbs. After three to four days on a ketogenic diet, back-up stores of carbohydrates, called glycogen, become depleted and ketosis kicks in, triggering some weight loss and the appearance of a leaner physique.
But in terms of dropping pounds, the primary advantage of a ketogenic diet is that it doesn’t leave you hungry, since it involves eating a good deal of satiating fats, and the state of ketosis has bee shown to reduce appetite.
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What does the research say?
A recent Spanish study tracked 20 obese volunteers who followed a low-cal ketogenic diet (about 800 to 1500 calories daily) and a supervised exercise program. Over four months, the subjects lost an average of 40 pounds, including a significant amount of belly fat, while preserving their muscle mass and strength. Another study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that in obese men, a high-protein ketogenic diet reduced hunger and food intake more than a high-protein, medium-carb non-ketogenic diet did.
A 2013 meta-analysis of 13 studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition looked at the effects of the diet on long-term weight control and cardiovascular health. The research showed that adults on a low-cal ketogenic diet (with no more than 50 grams of carbs per day) lost more weight and experienced better changes in blood pressure, triglycerides, and “good” HDL cholesterol than people who followed a conventional low-fat diet (with less than 30% of calories from fat).
But a small 2006 study that compared a ketogenic diet to a moderately low-carb non-ketogenic diet (with 40% of calories from carbs) found no differences in weight loss, or hunger. And the study participants on the non-ketogentic diet had better moods, more energy, and lower levels of inflammatory markers. “The use of ketogenic diets for weight loss is not warranted,” the study authors concluded.
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What is it really like?
With only 50 grams of carbs to “spend” per day, your food options are very limited. Breakfast might be whole eggs with low-carb veggies and avocado, for example. Lunch could be a salad generously dressed with EVOO and balsamic vinegar, and topped with chicken. A typical snack is nuts or seeds. And dinner might be salmon with veggies sautéed in coconut oil.
I’ve had clients eat this way, lose weight quickly, and feel fantastic—at first. But all of my clients who follow a ketogenic plan eventually break down and eat potatoes, fruit, or dessert (or drink several glasses of wine).