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Weighing in on the Keto diet

Written by James Combs

These days, some people are consuming fat to get thin. 

Photo: Nicole Hamel

Like many Americans, John Carrasquillo starts his day with coffee; except he adds sugar-free syrup. For breakfast, the 44-year-old Tavares resident consumes a half-pound of bacon daily. 

Dinners vary. If he’s eating out, he may order a lobster tail drenched in butter or all-you-can-eat grilled chicken wings. At home, his wife, Tracy, uses special recipes to make dishes such as cheeseburger casserole, almond pancakes, and flourless, sugar-free peanut butter cookies. He washes most meals down with Coke Zero. 

It’s not your typical diet food, but for John, eating this way has yielded tremendous results. He lost 100 pounds in 10 months without exercising. 

The trick was limiting himself to 20 net carbs a day. 

“I know some people who weigh between 400 and 600 pounds, and they say losing weight is impossible because they’re too big to work out,” John says. “I wanted to prove to everyone that there’s a way to lose weight without any exercise whatsoever.” 

That “way” is the controversial ketogenic, or keto, diet, a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet that turns the body into a fat-burning machine. In ketogenic eating, fatty foods such as bacon, butter, coconut, and avocado should comprise 75 percent of a person’s daily intake.  

On a normal diet, the body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is used for energy. However, when carbs go missing, the body has a plan B fuel supply. A process called ketosis occurs where the body’s metabolism burns stored fat as its main source of energy.

In John’s case, that process resulted in unwanted pounds melting away. The man who formerly wore size 46 pants is now fitting in size 30 jeans. And after having three blood tests within the first year of starting the diet, his triglyceride and cholesterol levels improved each time. 

“This diet has changed my life,” John says. “I’m living the dream and feel like I’m on top of the world. For me, keto has proven to be an effective diet.”

The no-pasta, no-beans, no-bread, no-fruit diet is on everyone’s lips and fingertips these days. In fact, the ketogenic diet—along with the FIFA World Cup and the U.S. midterm elections—was among the most popular search trends last year, according to Google’s 2018 Year in Search report. Keto enthusiasts around the country gather on social media sites to discuss keto-friendly recipes and share before-and-after weight-loss photos. 

Celebrities have even added fuel to the diet’s already-hot fire. Athletes such as LeBron James and actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow have embraced the ketogenic diet.

Of course, its skyrocketing popularity goes beyond shrinking waistlines. Doctors originally developed the ketogenic diet in the 1920s to treat patients with epilepsy. A study conducted by Emory University Health Sciences Center concluded that a high-fat, carb-restricted diet “alters genes involved in energy metabolism in the brain, which in turn helps stabilize the function of neurons exposed to the challenges of epileptic seizures.” 

There are other health benefits. A study of 349 type 2 diabetic patients who followed the keto diet for one year revealed that their blood-sugar levels (A1C) were reduced from 7.6 to 6.3 percent, they shed 12 percent of their body weight, and their need for insulin was reduced by 94 percent. The journal Diabetes Therapy published the results in 2018. 

Ketogenic advocates tout improved mental clarity, as well. 

“I feel sharp and can focus better than ever,” John says. 

However, not everyone is crazy about the keto craze. Some remain skeptical about a diet that promotes bacon over fruit and flips the food pyramid on its head. Among those critics is Anna Gunter, a registered dietitian and nutritionist for Central Florida Health. 

She cites the American Cancer Society’s nutritional guideline, which recommends 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits each day. Yet, because many fruits and some vegetables contain enough carbs to knock a person out of ketosis, many on the diet avoid them altogether. 

“Any diet that eliminates entire food groups can create unhealthy eating behaviors over time,” says Anna, who earned a master’s degree in nutrition and physical performance from Saint Louis University. “I would not recommend this diet to any of my patients hoping to lose weight.” 

Equally troubling to her is the severe reduction or elimination of carbohydrates. She says calories—not carbohydrates—are the evil monsters behind obesity and feels a calorie-restricted diet is a healthier alternative. She stated her case in an April 2017 article she wrote and posted on her Facebook page titled, “The Case for Carbs: Why You Should Include Carbohydrates in Your Diet.”

“Carbohydrates are actually an essential part of a healthy diet because they provide energy to the cells in the body, particularly the brain,” Anna wrote. “In addition, carbohydrate foods are important sources of nutrients that the body needs for health, including vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Eating fiber-rich carbohydrate foods, such as whole grain bread and brown rice, can actually help you lose weight.” 

She also cautions against consuming too much processed meat. A common misstep among first-time keto dieters is overindulging in hot dogs, salami, sausage, beef jerky, and canned meat. 

“Eating a large amount of saturated fat leads to an increase in the level of LDL cholesterol, or bad cholesterol, in the blood” Anna says. “High LDL cholesterol is associated with increased risk for heart disease and heart attack.” 

Lori Esarey is a lifestyle medicine expert and owner of Total Nutrition and Therapeutics, a weight-loss company in Lady Lake. The ketogenic diet, she says, comes with pros and cons. While she acknowledges its role in reducing blood-sugar levels and helping epileptic patients, precautions must be taken. 

“Patients need to understand their current state of health before deciding on any diet,” says Lori, who earned master’s degrees in nutritional medicine and metabolic medicine from the University of South Florida. “For someone with kidney disease, the keto diet has the potential to make it worse. Work with a medical professional so you can understand what’s the best diet for you rather than just guessing.”

There are times when Lori prescribes the keto diet for patients hoping to lose weight rapidly, but she keeps them on it for only a maximum of 45 days. After that, she steers them toward a “whole-food, farm-to-plate, nutrient-dense” diet.

“If you’re wanting to target body fat, research says using the ketogenic diet is safe short term,” she says. “Patients come out of the gate losing weight fast, and it keeps them motivated to keep going because they see immediate results. But long term, it’s unrealistic to sustain because it’s an all-in or none diet.”

Photo: Nicole Hamel

While the diet is not designed for those with a sweet tooth, keto devotees such as Mary Wilbanks, of Mascotte, say sustainability can be achieved through culinary creativeness. For Mary, who started the ketogenic diet two years ago, it’s a matter of substituting ingredients. 

She makes spaghetti with zucchini noodles, pancakes out of almond flour, and macaroni and cheese with cut-up pieces of cauliflower, cream cheese, and butter. She cooks most meals with olive oil and avocado oil—both of which contain anti-inflammatory properties. 

“This isn’t a deprivation diet,” Mary says. “With almost any food, there’s a keto-friendly way to make it. I don’t feel like I’m on a diet; this is just the way I eat.”

However, she does warn potential keto dieters to gradually reduce carbs rather than eliminating them all at once. That approach helped her avoid the dreaded keto flu, a withdrawal phase of headaches and low energy caused by sudden carb depletion. 

“I started slow by cutting out pasta, grains, and potatoes,” she says. “Then, I started putting tuna on a bed of lettuce instead of bread.” 

Mary credits the diet for her improved health. Before starting, she could barely walk after suffering fractures of her knee cap, thoracic spine, and leg. Her immobility led to weight gain. That’s when her sister introduced her to the ketogenic diet. Today, she has lost 20 pounds and walks without a cane. 

“I’m not a medical professional,” she says, “but I know what this diet has done for me. I feel less pain, have more energy, and sleep much better at night.”

As for John, he realizes the diet has critics, but he’s never one to argue with positive results. 

“If something is working, then how are you going to bash it?” he says. “I needed to find a way where I could eat like this day-to-day, week-to-week. The ketogenic diet allows me to do that.” 

About the author

James Combs

Akers Media Group's James Combs has been a staff writer for several local publications since August 2000. He has had the privilege of interviewing some of Lake County’s many fascinating residents—from innovative business owners to heroic war veterans—and bringing their stories to life. A resident of Lake County since 1986, James recently embarked on a journey to lead a healthier lifestyle. He has lost 60 pounds and walks nearly five miles a day. In his spare time, he enjoys target shooting, skeet shooting and watching his beloved Kentucky Wildcats!

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