The Keto Diet has exploded in popularity.
And while there are a lot of people who have had success with it – there are downsides that are seldom mentioned.
It Did Not Help Me Reach My Health Goals
I’ve tried virtually every diet under the sun – from one extreme to another. I find it interesting to see how my body responds and if I’m healthier as a result.
My definition of healthier is:
- Slower aging
- Better sleep
- Healthy hormone levels
- Good energy levels
- Intestinal health
I was full on Keto (under 30 grams of carbs a day) for at least six months and VLCD (Very Low Carbohydrate Diet) for at least six months prior to that.
While the Keto Diet does have some advantages – it did not help me meet my goals.
Instead I ended up having some problems with the diet that caused me to stop.
From Skinny Fat To Skinny Fatter
The Keto Diet is high in fat, contains moderate to low protein and virtually no carbohydrates.
When I started going Keto my body weight was 185. By the end of the six months I was up to 194 pounds.
I’ve been more of a typical skinny fat guy for years. So during this time I was doing bodyweight exercises to try and add some muscle mass. But it wasn’t happening.
While I didn’t get my body fat measured it certainly wasn’t improving. I was stuck at about 18-22% body fat and not moving. Just gaining weight.
The problem? My meals were high fat – just like they were suppose to be. But a gram of fat has 9 calories. Whereas a gram of carbohydrate or protein has 4.
In short, fat is calorically dense. So I was eating more calories than I needed because I foolishly believed all the Keto pushers that as long as you kept the carbs low somehow the law of thermodynamics wouldn’t matter.
For breakfast I’d have some eggs fried in butter with some sausage. A bit of half and half with some walnuts and a few raspberries (my bit of carb indulgence for the day).
I wasn’t intermittent fasting at this time – so my breakfast was easily putting me up towards 1,000 calories and my day had just started.
I’d estimate many days I was up to 3,000 to 3,500 calories a day and maintenance for a buy my size is around 2,600.
Takeaway: it doesn’t matter what kind of diet you eat – if you eat more calories then you burn you run the risk of gaining weight. It’s much easier to overeat on the Keto Diet.
I Didn’t Sleep Well
When I started Keto my sleep quality was fine. After a month I noticed that while I still fell asleep OK – I was waking up more during the night.
This was the exact opposite of what the ‘experts’ said would happen. They said early on sleep might suffer but as I became ‘fat adapted’ it would improve.
After doing some research I came across more and more people having the same issue.
You probably already know how important melatonin is to sleep. But to make melatonin your body needs the amino acid tryptophan to enter your pineal gland.
One of the things that helps tryptophan get into the pineal gland is carbohydrates.
That’s because when you eat carbs it stimulates insulin and insulin then drives tryptophan (and other amino acids) into your cells.
This is why you can get so tired after Thanksgiving dinner and why carbs are your friend when you’re trying to build muscle and repair.
Takeaway: sleep truly is one of the best things for your health. Carbs help me sleep better. You may be different but don’t follow any diet that causes you to get too little or poor quality sleep.
It doesn’t matter what hormone you’re talking about in your body – fats are the chemical building blocks of those hormones.
But what I glossed over was how important carbohydrates are to healthy hormone levels – especially testosterone.
For example, people who lifted weights and ate low carb/high protein saw their testosterone production drop. This was in a dose-dependent fashion – meaning that the lower the carbs went the lower their testosterone went.
You can see similar results in people are aren’t training. That study also showed that cortisol levels (the stress hormone) go up as well – which has been shown to negatively affect sleep.
Here’s another interesting study in men who ate lower carb diets (30% from carbs – which is WAY higher than what the Keto Diet recommends) vs men who ate higher carb (60%) who were also doing intense exercise.
The results: the higher carb group had significantly higher free-testosterone levels AND lower cortisol during the study. Here’s a graph to point out the levels:
Here’s the bottom line: while it probably goes against a lot of the popular dogma out there – you need carbohydrates for healthy testosterone levels. In fact, it may be one of the most important factors.
Physiological Insulin Resistance (PIR)
Towards the end of my stint on Keto I got my blood drawn and saw my fasting blood glucose (FBG) and Hemoglobin A1C levels. These are both tests for diabetes.
In theory they should both be extremely low because my diet was so low carb.
Unfortunately, both of them were now high enough to have my doctor tell me it may be time to go on metformin (diabetes medication).
Remember – I was diagnosed as pre-diabetic in pharmacy school. I essentially reversed it when I started eating a more natural diet – and limiting processed carbs – and had kept it that way ever since.
Now it’s rearing it’s ugly head again almost twenty years later after virtually eliminating carbs?
I told the doctor no on metformin and to instead give me a chance to do a little research and see if I can’t figure some things out.
I wrote about PIR in a little more depth here – but long story short: when you go Keto you’re basically robbing your body of glucose in food and it forces you to start breaking down fatty acids into ketones to be used as fuel.
But when you do Keto at extreme levels long term what can happen is that your body will begin to make your cells resistant to insulin so it can shunt whatever glucose is available to your brain.
That’s because glucose is the preferred fuel source for your brain and your body wants to keep your brain alive. And yes, ketones can partly replace glucose during times of starvation. But it’s not the PREFERRED fuel source.
So while my secretion of insulin was likely very low I was still appearing as being diabetic because my body was trying to keep my brain alive.
Months later I had my labs redrawn AFTER I had begun reintroducing carbs (probably 100 to 150 grams a day). My A1C and fasting blood sugars both dropped down and are at the borderline between ‘healthy’ and ‘diabetic’.
I think it’s a bad idea to focus too much on lab values. But most doctors don’t. It would have been really easy for me to end up on a medication I don’t need just because of some extreme diet.
Hopefully I haven’t done some sort of permanent damage to my body. Only time will tell. But the point is that if you go on Keto your body adapts as it sees fit.
Difficult To Build Muscle
One of the best anti-aging medicines out there is muscle mass. I’m not talking puffed up, roided-out bodybuilder type muscle but good, dense muscle mass.
At the time I was doing some bodyweight workouts to build muscle. I wasn’t making a lot of ground so I started lifting weights.
Regardless of the type of resistance I was using it was hard to push myself because it seemed like I got gassed quicker. My workouts plateaued and I really didn’t see any results.
Like I mentioned above – I just seemed to make my skinny fat physique worse.
Does that mean you can’t build muscle on the Keto Diet?
Honestly, I don’t know. There are studies out there supporting the idea but they have some flaws.
There are people out there saying you can but I question their motives (i.e., they’re linking to a keto diet plan of some type that they make money off of).
My current workout is Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1. The whole idea is to get stronger and build some muscle mass using weights. I can tell you that when I let my carbs go too low for a couple of days (not purposeful, just random food choices) my workouts suffer.
On Keto I found I could walk for miles at low intensity without any issue. But to have an intense weightlifting session was a real struggle.
Just my two cents.
It Just Wasn’t Enjoyable
At face value it sounds great to think that you can put butter in your coffee and eat bacon with reckless abandon.
But after a day or two of doing that I missed having an apple, strawberries or a potato.
The mantra with the Keto folks is that you just need to get ‘fat adapted’ and then you won’t miss that stuff.
For me that never happened.
I’m far from eating high carb. Even today it’s rare for me to go over 150 grams of carbs in a day.
But purposely withholding natural, healthy foods just to hit some arbitrary carb number was difficult then – and flat out doesn’t make sense looking back on things.
What about the antioxidants and micronutrients you’re missing out on?
The Keto folks like to make fun of foods like potato’s but look at the nutrient profile of one. Pretty incredible really.
Variety is the spice of life. I found the lack of variety with Keto to be a deal killer.
Summing Things Up
It doesn’t matter what diet you’re talking about. You first have to start with what your goals are.
If you’re morbidly obese and diabetic would the Keto Diet be a good starting point? I would argue yes.
But as a healthy man looking to add muscle, support healthy hormone levels and get good quality sleep the Keto Diet was a poor choice.
I stubbornly tried to make it work even when it was clear I was setting myself back.
Personally, the Keto Diet had more negatives than positives. And overall I didn’t think it was a healthy or enjoyable way to eat or live long term.