Can two wedges of strong, salty, cheese stuck together with a creamy, generous layer of butter form part of a healthy diet? On keto, yes it can.
The words “keto,” “ketosis” and “ketones” are bounced around all over the place these days. On restaurant menus, drinks bottles, delivery apps and across your social media feeds.
But despite its widely recognized health benefits — most famously that it can help you lose a lot of weight very quickly — there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding it.
Is it just eating nothing but bacon and cheese? Does it make you ill? Will you put all the weight back on as soon as you so much as look at a single potato? Is the whole thing too good to be true?
Below, the UAE’s keto experts put the myths to bed.
The basics of keto
Mim Kleiberg, eating strategist and co-owner of The Room Abu Dhabi, explains the science behind the diet trend.
“Keto is basically hacking your system to produce the effects that fasting does,” she says. “When we don’t eat for a long time, the body runs out of carbohydrates to burn for energy, so instead it starts to burn fat,” says Mim.
“Keto involves eating a low-carb, moderate-protein and high-fat diet that lets you get to this stage without starving yourself. It’s so effective for weight loss because your hunger hormones aren’t triggered when you’re burning fat, so people are able to control their appetite better and almost fast without realizing.”
What are ketones?
Although losing weight is the obvious benefit to keto, Mim explains it can also make you feel sharper and more focused.
“Ketosis is the process of burning fat, which releases ketones that the brain uses for energy,” she says. “When this happens, I feel so much more focused than when I’m using glucose for fuel.
“There’s no brain fog and I always feel super motivated. This is pretty much why I have been doing it for two years.”
By partnering with a friend who is medically certified, Mim has been using keto to help get clients with pre-type 2 diabetes off their medication. Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi is now incorporating the diet into some of its programs too.
Meanwhile, Michael Dela Fuente, founder of Ketolife UAE, has seen the keto community explode since he launched his meal plan business in 2018. He thinks a lot of people are realizing the benefits of a low-sugar diet like keto.
“Sugar is the culprit for so many illnesses like diabetes, which is a big problem in the UAE. Yes, keto does involve a lot of fat, but it’s all natural, never trans-fat,” he says.
“For most healthy individuals, it takes between two days or a week to reach ketosis. However, if you have underlying health conditions or high blood sugar, it can take up to a month.”
What can you eat?
The fact that keto encourages foods like cheeses and fatty meats, often considered a “treat” on other diets, is definitely another attraction.
It’s also easy to make or buy keto-friendly versions of most carb-heavy foods. For instance, Ketolife’s most popular dishes are lasagna made with cream cheese and almond flour pasta, and cauliflower-base pizza.
Mim, who has just self-published a cookbook of keto recipes and provides her own meal plans through Well Emirates, explains that “real” keto isn’t just piling up as many fatty foods as you can find.
“Dirty keto got really famous a while back, which involved things like going to McDonald’s and ordering the burger without a bun and loads of toppings. But real keto isn’t like that. It should be based on whole foods, involve lots of fresh veggies and be gluten-free too,” she says.
“However, you do get to eat lots of great things, like plates of bacon, eggs and cheese or having a big steak with broccoli and loads of butter lobbed on top.”
Banned items on most keto diets include obviously carb-heavy foods like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes, plus anything involving sugars and sweeteners. Most fruits should be avoided too and even some vegetables, like lentils, beans, peas and carrots.
On the other hand, you are permitted to tuck into protein sources like meats, seafood and full-fat Greek yoghurt, fats such as avocados, nuts and olive oil, plus a wide range of vegetables including cauliflower (also perfect as a rice substitute), zucchini (ideal for low-carb noodles), spinach, eggplant, salads and more.
Is it hard to stick to?
You may hear people talk about “calculating macros” when they’re doing keto. But this is normally only if there are underlying health conditions. In reality, keto involves less math than most diets because there’s zero calorie counting.
“It’s easy because it’s just about restricting one thing. You just need to learn what carbs are and cut them out,” says Lee Sandwith, CEO and co-founder of ingfit, the UAE’s leading keto specialist store.
“These days we stock a range of health food products, but our keto category is by far the most popular. It’s a sustainable diet and I’ve seen it change the lives of so many people. I myself was very overweight from about the age of 16 to 30, but I’ve managed to keep it off for 15 years.”
Doing a 12-hour fast per day, including sleep, is also said to help the process.
However, there’s no point pretending everything about keto is amazing. There are, of course, some downsides and the infamous “keto flu” is the most notable.
“People often lose a few kilograms in water weight pretty quickly, but with that you lose minerals and that can cause what is known as keto flu. However, sports drinks with electrolytes help you recover pretty quickly,” says Mim.
Symptoms of keto flu include headaches and nausea, while more rare side effects are disrupted sleep, hair loss and constipation.
Dining out can be a test of resolve, but most restaurants do offer keto options, even chains such as The Coffee Club and Chipotle. Sweet Greens in Abu Dhabi also has a dedicated keto menu.
Top tips for going keto
As with any diet, keto doesn’t produce amazing results within a week or two.
“You need to keep focused on your goals, persevere and follow it consistently over a period of time. You will get the results you want if you stay disciplined,” says Michael.
Both Mim and Michael also agree that snacking should be avoided, and that elaborate keto takeaway desserts (the kind that are all over delivery apps right now) should only be an occasional treat that’s eaten straight after a meal.
Plus, while some people prefer to constantly be on a keto diet, Mim argues that using it intermittently can also be effective.
“It’s about not letting your body adapt,” she says. “I often recommend using keto for a couple of months to start with and then once you start reaching ketosis quite quickly, you can use it for a month here and there to give your body a cleanse.”
For more keto advice and recipe ideas, check out the Facebook group Low Carb Challenge 2021, or the ingfit Youtube channel.
Harriet Shephard is an Abu Dhabi-based copywriter and freelance journalist with a particular focus on fitness, travel and lifestyle, which, along with good food, also happen to be her main passions when she's not typing away at her laptop.