Keto pitfalls: Undereating, too much fat, too little fat: these are all mistakes that can lead you down a very slippery slope towards a keto disaster. Although the ketogenic diet has profound health benefits, there are many ways in which it can do more harm than good. Today’s article explore’s how to get the most out of a low-carb diet, and more importantly, how to avoid the pitfalls.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
How to Maximize the Benefits and Avoid Keto Pitfalls
Many understand that a ketogenic diet can be highly beneficial. Unfortunately, a “more is better” mentality tends to permeate the health industry, and many bio-individual successes preached as gospel for everyone can lead individuals down a very dangerous path. When embarking on a keto (or any “healthy”) lifestyle, many things to be mindful of revolve around balance.
Finding Balance and Avoiding Extremes
No health habits are innately good or bad; it’s more about what kind of relationship you have with the habit. The practice may be good used mindfully, but when anything is experienced as an extreme, it tends to have an initial benefit, followed by a steep decline. “Healthy” habits can even end up being detrimental to your health if you don’t engage with them mindfully.
Intermittent fasting can improve insulin resistance, support fat loss, boost energy, improve sleep, and encourage ketosis 1-2. However, to get the most benefits, you must understand how big a fasting window is best suited for you.
Many people simply eat in way too big a fasting window, but increasingly the problem is on the other extreme: too small a feeding window. The starting point for an intermittent fasting window is 12-hours of fasting and 12-hours of feeding. Some take it to one meal a day (OMAD), the most extreme version of intermittent fasting. Both sides of that pendulum can be equally harmful, depending on your bio-individual needs.
Men typically do better on tighter fasting windows, but women less so 3-4. This is because women in their reproductive years operate on an infradian (monthly) cycle, and some times of the month do better with stress than others. On the other hand, since men operate on a circadian 24-hour (daily) process, they can typically withstand much more stress than women.
Exercise vs. Sedentary Lifestyle
Exercise is often combined with a keto lifestyle for added benefit, especially in the pursuit of weight loss. Although a sedentary lifestyle has serious health consequences, over-exercise can be just as problematic. The hormetic (good) stress that exercise has on the body eventually declines with over-exercise 5. Although some are good, more is often not better. Finding your own “sweet spot” hinges greatly on balance. The harder you train, the harder you need to rest, too.
Caloric Restriction and Fasting
Although caloric restriction can force a beneficial hormetic stress adaptation in the body, too much caloric restriction (or the wrong kind) can quickly backfire. While on a ketogenic diet, many people find a dramatic reduction in appetite; paired with intermittent fasting, this can quickly lead to too little food. Your caloric needs vary and are bio-individual, but make sure you’re not subtly acting out a “calorie-in-calorie-out” belief, which can downregulate your metabolism 6-7.
Fat: Too Much or Too Little
Fat is often a trap while pursuing a ketogenic diet. For some people, they consume too little fat, and for others, too much. Both polarities are often rooted in a deeper problem. On the one hand, many people are still subtly stuck in the low-fat diet mode and believe that fat makes you fat. On the other side of the pendulum, there are many possibilities, including stress-eating or a yo-yo over-compensation for caloric restriction and binging.
Finding your sweet spot requires a bio-individual approach and self-awareness. Tuning in to your intention and relationship to food and exploring and healing from misperceptions or wounds may lead to too much or too little fat consumption.
Caffeine is often pushed as a part of a ketogenic diet. Many rely on things like Bulletproof coffee to extend their intermittent fasting window, perhaps at the expense of their anxiety levels and adrenal health 8. A good litmus test for how addicted you are to caffeine is to stop all caffeine, stimulants, and refined sugar for two weeks and see how you feel. Can you exercise at the same intensity without caffeine? Can you still get as much work done without caffeine? For many people, the answer is no.
Many people are also suppressing their hunger with caffeine, which takes a severe toll on your adrenals. Food and your body fat stores are fundamentally what should drive the energy to participate in the movement. If you’re relying on caffeine to exercise at the expense of caloric intake, it’s like tapping a credit card with no money in your bank account. Eventually, that behavior catches up with you!
Keto pitfalls: Diet Variation Over One Rigid Diet
Although a ketogenic diet is beneficial, a rigid keto diet can be your downfall. Instead of a long-term strict low-carb diet, most people do better cycling in and out of low-carb. For those dealing with health problems, more extended periods of high-carb can help relieve the body of stress. Those more metabolically flexible can do better on fewer carbs but still benefit from a day a week of a carb re-feed.
Variation yields for adaptation, so long-term low carb creates a new-normal, which downregulates the benefits. By cycling in a high-carb per week and perhaps also a fasting day, the body has to keep guessing and adapting. This prevents any plateau that is generated by staying in one fixed diet for too long.
Just because a food is typically considered healthy does not mean it is beneficial for you. Health comes from a bio-individual approach, which for food includes so many variables like what you eat, how much of it you eat, when you eat it, and your emotional relationship to the food.
For example, two people may have a keto at bomb, and their relationship to that typically “healthy” food can vary wildly. One person may be using it as a healthy snack to satiate a busy day. This person may simply eat the food and move on with their day. Someone else may be addicted to fat bombs that use it to get through an afternoon slump with a large coffee every afternoon, has four fat bombs, feels guilty, and then fasts for 24-hours to make up for the perceived binge. The food itself is less important than the story around this food for you.
Just because a food is “keto” doesn’t mean you should have unlimited amounts of it. Just because a food is “gluten-free” doesn’t mean it is not filled with added preservatives, colors, and sugars. Just because a food is “dairy-free” does not mean it won’t be highly inflammatory in your body!
Stress is one of the biggest causes of inflammation in the body. Chronic stress builds up from the various sources of mental, emotional, and chemical stressors that we face every day. Although our bodies are incredibly resilient, they are not equipped to deal with chronic low levels of underlying stress in modern times.
One of the essential tools in managing stress is the capacity to say no. Boundaries are not something you have to create; they simply have to be enforced. Boundaries are how you can enforce your beliefs and truths in a way that honors you.
Mindfulness techniques and practices help, like meditation, yoga, and breathwork to calm and help regulate your nervous system 9.
Keto pitfalls: Emotional Eating
Mitigating emotional stress is especially important for food because, as humans, many of us are highly emotional eaters. Most people grow up with food as a reward, even in subtle ways. We generally associate junk food with birthdays, celebrations, and things like dessert as a “reward” for finishing dinner. Often unknowingly, this creates a deep neurological connection between food and reward and positive emotions 10.
What this means into adulthood is that when we have a bad day, experience stress, pain, or loss, we tend to hit the fridge. Unfortunately, the positive association with food hasn’t gone anywhere either, with the “treat yourself” mentality on weekends, at family or friends, when you go out to dinner, or to celebrate every and any occasion. Before you know it, both good and bad occasions are reasons to eat high refined sugar, fat, and carbs, which can quickly lead to problems like insulin resistance, obesity, “skinny fat,” and extreme yo-yo dieting.
Keto pitfalls: Breaking Childhood Patterning and Healing from Trauma
Trauma does not have to be a typical kind of abuse. Although it includes direct abuse, trauma is essentially any experience that one could not understand at the time or process in a healthy, supported way. Trauma creates coping mechanisms like emotional eating, where we use harmful habits to survive the pain of our life’s experiences 11.
Addressing old wounds instead of suppressing them and seeking appropriate support so that old wounds can heal is paramount to cultivating a healthy relationship with food and your body. What may seem like a past event you would rather not revisit could be the reason that you participate in any of the self-sabotaging behaviors or can’t break free from extremes in diet and exercise culture.
Keto pitfalls: Summary
The ketogenic diet can be highly beneficial or detrimental, depending on how you use it. No rules work universally for everyone, so using a bio-individual approach is key to any “healthy” habits. To maximize the benefits and benefit from keto, some things to be mindful of are not being in extreme states (with practices like fasting and exercise), knowing which “healthy” foods work for you, managing stress, addressing emotional eating, and breaking childhood patterning and trauma.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based upon the opinions of Dr. Daniel Pompa. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Pompa and his associates. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD for accuracy of the information provided, but Dr. Pompa encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.
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