Imagine a world where you eat high-fat foods, including butter, ghee, meat, fish, eggs and cheese and still lost weight. Sounds amazing. For years, people have been changing their eating patterns to lose weight, turning to gluten-free diets, Paleo diets or fasting periodically or metabolically resetting their hormones.
Now, the ketogenic diet, commonly known as the keto diet, is all the rage and a number of Kenyans swear by it.
One of the biggest proponent of this weight-loss programme is Bushra Ahmed. She says she has shed 50 kilogrammes through keto diet and it has a long list of health benefits.
“Keto diet is a high-fat, extremely low-carbs diet with an adequate amount of protein thrown into someone's meal plan,” says Ms Ahmed.
She weighed 130 kgs at the age of 25 and starting doing the keto diet after a doctor told her she was at risk of developing polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that is hereditary.
“I have a family history with this condition and I kept thinking I should not be the reason for not having children and so I started the keto diet,” she says.
She started by drastically reducing her intake of carbohydrates and increasing her intake of fats. With a high fat diet, the body’s glucose storage reduces and in turn, the body burns fat. Because sugar and beans are carbohydrates, keto dieters cut them out of their meal plans.
People on keto diet eat meals with carbohydrates that represent five or 10 per cent of the total calories.
“The beauty of this is that not only does it help someone lose weight but all the fats eaten keep someone full. It also boosts energy levels and keeps food cravings at bay,” says Ms Ahmed who is now teaching people on how to lose weight using keto.
She starts her day with coffee blended with coconut oil and butter, a breakfast meal that makes her feel satisfied for longer than when she would eat mostly carbs. This is possible because the body is working on ketones, she says.
Sometimes she eats three eggs fried in coconut oil for breakfast, two tablespoons of butter and four slices of halal bacon or tuna fish.
Other breakfast options include two tablespoons of coffee and two tablespoons of coconut oil blended into a 400millitres drink.
Dieters can also eat boiled eggs with avocado. For lunch, she eats skinned chicken thigh, spinach and broccoli cooked in butter or salmon fish with cabbage fried in butter and sprinkled with keto mayonnaise.
For dinner, it could be steak of meat cooked in butter with vegetables but she rarely eats supper because she is usually satisfied and likes to practice intermittent fasting, where she periodically denies herself food. Alternatively, she can drink an avocado smoothie for dinner.
Keto stands for ketogenisis which is the state the body goes into when it burns ketones (through fat) instead of glucose (from carbohydrates) for energy.
Normally, the body uses carbohydrates such as sugar, bread, ugali for its fuel. However, because the ketogenic diet is very low in carbohydrates, fats become the primary fuel.
Keto was developed as a clinical tool more than 100 years ago when doctors noticed that children with epilepsy stopped having seizures after they were put on this diet regimen. It has since morphed into more than just another fad diet.
The fats eaten are the good kind, says Ms Ahmed. Dieters stop eating trans fats or hydrogenated oils which are found in processed, packaged foods and margarine.
“I only use coconut oil, butter, olive oil and other fats which are key in the keto diet. They are expensive but you really need them,” she says.
According to Dr Gitahi Theuri, a lifestyle disease interventionist who has studied human physiology, the keto diet works and makes biochemistry sense but it is not for everyone.
“It is all about individuality. It is not a one-size-fits-all type of diet. And while it is good for people with diabetes, depression, menopause and other things, its success depends of an individual’s health status,” he says.
Also, the diet has some side effects, something that Ms Ahmed is all too familiar with.
“At first, I did not get my facts right. I lost my hair, my nails changed colour because I didn’t do enough research,” she says.
By not eating right, she also had persistent headaches due to a total lack of carbohydrates in the body. This is often referred to as keto flu. Dieters experiencing keto flu have low energy levels, poor concentration levels, hunger pangs, difficulty sleeping, nausea, digestive discomfort and irritability.
“To minimise this, try a regular low-carbs diet for the first few weeks. This may teach your body to burn more fat before you completely eliminate carbs. As for the headaches, that is something that can be fixed by taking water,” she says.
The dark side
Lornah Atieno, a nutritionist however does not think it is that simple because ketogenic diet can also alter the body’s water and mineral balance.
“Someone experiences constipation as the body becomes dehydrated, they get dizzy and always fatigued. Your breath will smell which can be blamed on the ketones,” she says.
Ms Atieno says that the keto diet does not also emphasize the quality of the foods especially when it comes to proteins.
“A person misses out on valuable vitamins and minerals that some veggies, fruits, and grains provide, which puts you at a higher risk for getting kidney stones, bone fractures, and gallbladder issues,” she says. She adds that the high-fat consumption also increases risks of getting heart diseases.
Ms Ahmed however insists that the keto diet is composed mostly of healthy fats including avocados, nuts, full fat dairy, seeds, and healthy oils like olive oil.
“It also encourages a lot of vegetable consumption which is beneficial. The vegetable choices tend to lean towards the non-starchy groups such as spinach, kale, cucumbers, cauliflower, asparagus and any dark leafy greens,” she says.
Nimoo Ng'ang'a who is currently re-starting the keto programme after seeing its benefits years ago says it is a lifestyle not just a diet.
It may seem complicated at first given the science behind it but the health benefits are tremendous, she says.
She adds that according to her research, the five per cent carbohydrates should weigh under 20 grammes for someone to lose weight. A medium-sized potato has 100 grammes of carbohydrates and hence eating means half a plate is surpassing the limit.
“I did it for weight loss but when I started I noticed other health benefits. My skin is smoother when I do keto. That means my face has less breakouts and I no longer have chicken skin on my elbows. My stomach is less bloated too. I sleep peacefully and I am less tired waking up,” she says.
So how exactly does Ms Ng’ang’a’s keto diet on a plate look like?
“No rice, no beans, no ugali. Anything white and is carbohydrate, don't eat. Eat sukuma wiki, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli. Pick fruits that are not high on carbs. Eat meat in moderation. Butter, ghee, olive oil are your friends. At around 2pm, I can eat a piece of chicken and spinach. I serve lots of veggies, the size of my fist. For dinner, I eat bone broth and meat weighing 100 grammes. With time, you get into ketosis where your body runs on ketones. And the weight falls off like it’s a dream,” Ms Ng'ang'a says.
When she did it, she lost more than 12 kgs in three months, but she did not get the keto flu. One downside though, the ketones made her sweat a lot.
“I could take a bath and an hour later smell my own sweat,” she says. While on keto diet, the body produces more acetone, which exits the body through urine, sweat and breath.