The ketogenic diet, as it is officially known, is a medical success story. In the early 1900s, physicians in France and the US were experimenting with fasting and low-calorie diets to help reduce the frequency of seizures in epilepsy patients. As the theory became more refined, they found that they could trick the body into thinking it was fasting by limiting the intake of carbohydrates and sugars and upping the intake of fat. The result was that epileptics experienced a reduction in seizures of up to 90 per cent. In 1923, American diabetes expert Dr Russell Wilder designed an eating regime called ketogenic therapy for treating epilepsy and other health issues.
While still used today in the treatment of epilepsy, cancer, Alzheimer’s, some autoimmune diseases and a number of other conditions, the keto diet, as it’s now more commonly known, has become a household name due to our thriving diet culture, which is always hungry for a new way to cheat the scales. For people watching their diet, a weight loss plan that says you must eat more cheese and cream sounds like a dream. But, is it?
Just low carb?
Matt Marney is a personal trainer, Pilates instructor and fitness educator and, having taught hundreds of fitness and nutrition courses, he knows a thing or two about the body and how it burns fat. He says: “Back in our hunter-gatherer days, we had periods of starvation where our bodies had to adapt to the lack of food by breaking down our protein and fat stores into fuel sources. This is called ketosis. To achieve this, you have to limit your intake of our regular fuel sources, carbohydrates and sugars.
“But, low-carb diets have been around for a while and there are lots of them, including the Atkins diet and even the paleo diet … Losing weight is about achieving a caloric deficit, whereby there is less energy going in than there is going out. Whichever diet you go on, you can do this. The keto diet is just one way to lose weight.”
There are health benefits, however, he says. “For the first time in the history of homo sapiens, we live in an obesogenic environment, meaning we have an abundance of food. We are surrounded by high-energy, high-carb, highly processed foods – all day, every day. If people eat sugar and carbs throughout the day, their bodies can get used to always having glucose – the quickest and easiest fuel source – available and forget how to use protein and fats for fuel. Then they have lost metabolic flexibility.”
When this happens, says Marney, people can start to feel dizzy and shaky if they haven't eaten due to low blood sugar levels. "These people are known as sugar-burners. They can benefit from going keto to help their body remember how to use other fuel sources. Additionally, cancer thrives on sugar. If I got cancer tomorrow, I would go straight on the keto diet."
The classic keto approach recommends a 4:1 ratio of fats to protein and carbs, meaning 90 per cent of your calories come from fat, 6 per cent from protein and 4 per cent from carbohydrates. In real food terms, this means you would be eating approximately 10 to 15 grams of carbohydrates each day (a slice of bread or a third of a cup of cooked rice), with one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight (if you weigh 60 kilograms, this might be a 250-gram steak) and the rest of your diet would be fat, according to the American Fitness Professionals Association.
David Wilkins, a recruitment consultant and business owner who lives in Dubai, is also a fitness enthusiast and a spinning instructor in his spare time. He says his default eating mode involves an abnormal amount of sugar and processed carbs and that the keto diet helps him reduce that. "I have been on the keto diet before and have just gone back on it. I am currently at about 98kg – last time on keto I got down to 92kg and 12 per cent body fat.
“I use an app to track my eating to make sure I get the right balance of macronutrients. I have a slice of toast at breakfast and that’s my carb intake done for the day. For lunch, I have salads with nuts and olive oil and cheeses … But I do get sick of all the fat and I really miss chips. I cheat once a week and have a day where I eat whatever I want. You aren’t meant to do this as it kicks you out of ketosis. But I find that eating keto six days a week helps me stay away from bread and doughnuts. Also, I instantly have more energy and mental clarity when I eat keto.”
An upward trend
The keto diet is undoubtedly popular. Online searches for ketogenic has seen the largest growth among most-searched dietary requirements in the UAE over the past three years, with a 1,028.21 per cent rise, according to digital marketing suite SEMrush. Offline, an increasing number of keto-friendly restaurants and delivery companies are also opening in the country. For example, Emiliya Ninova and her husband, Antoine Soliman, launched Keto by Foxxy in January 2019, offering keto-friendly cakes, cookies and other treats. This month, they launched their second company, The Keto Fix, which fills the junk food gap.
“In the last six months of 2019, Keto by Foxxy had more than 30,000 new clients, which shows how popular it is,” says Ninova. “My husband and I went keto and both lost 17kg. But we both have a sweet tooth, so I started baking keto treats for us – the business grew from there.”
Similarly, Ketology, a keto food delivery concept in Abu Dhabi, which launched in May last year, has received such positive feedback in the capital that, this month, they also started work on their Dubai kitchen. Natalie Latouf, business development manager at Crave Restaurant Management, the umbrella company, says they were surprised by the success. "We create delivery restaurant concepts and saw a gap in the market for something offering a fully keto menu of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks. It's been really interesting for us, as Ketology has been very successful in comparison with some of the other concepts we have launched."
Doing it right
For Marney, the most important thing is doing it right. “People get locked into a dogma. They like to be able to say that they are on the keto diet, but they often aren’t doing it properly. If you have cut out carbs and sugar, but you haven’t increased your fat enough, you aren’t keto, you are just low-carb.
“I haven’t done keto myself, as I like carbs too much, but as a personal trainer, I would never tell a client to go on the diet. Personal trainers are not nutritionists or endocrinologists – we shouldn’t be giving that advice. Some people get flu-like symptoms on the keto diet and other side effects. It’s a serious business for your body. Yes, you may lose weight, but that’s because you have cut out an entire macronutrient. There are lots of ways to lose weight and we are all different physiologically, so if you want to try the keto diet, do so, but see a qualified dietitian first.”