In this week’s column, licensed nutritionist, Nonie De Long, answers a reader question about the sustainability of the KETO diet
I’ve read a lot of nutrition information and I’m getting confused. Some people say to intermittent fast and some say to eat several small meals a day and some say to use KETO and some say we need carbs for health. Can you tell me about the safety of KETO long term? Doesn’t it get restrictive to never eat carbs again? I’m trying to decide which direction to go for the COVID weight I’ve put on. Thank you if you are able to answer my question.
Thank you for writing in. I like the question you’re asking because I can see you working through the material you’ve read and processing it. This is what I encourage the most. If we take in all the information we read regarding health and don’t chew on any of it, we are going to be left with so much conflict our heads spin. But if we really turn it over in our minds, we can start to see that certain pieces fit with what we know to be true from our own experiences. This was a huge “aha” for me and why I feel so confident promoting the diet I do.
The diet I promote the most is a Paleo diet, coupled with periods of fasting (intermittent fasting or IF) and periods of KETO cycling. I do not advocate the widespread use of grains because of their inflammatory properties, their respective glycemic index, and their glyphosate exposure. The diet I recommend is safe and extremely beneficial in the long term. Let me unpack why that is.
Traditionally, in our climate, our ancestors had seasons of plenty and seasons of sparsity. Let’s look closer at the seasons nutritionally speaking:
- Summer: berries, green and early fruits, shoots and sprouts, leaves, early veggies, fish, eggs, fowl, game meat
- Autumn: ripe fruit, an abundance of starchy root and late veggies, grains (a very recent addition in our history as a species), eggs, meat, bones, fat from a variety of animals, and fish
- Winter: stores of root veggies and fruit for as long as they lasted, eggs, and meat and meat fat and bone, preserved foods (smoked or fermented or dried meat), fish if they could access them
- Spring: fish and game, some shoots and leaves, eggs
With this mode of eating a few things would happen cyclically each year:
- People would exercise much more in the warm months, strengthening their muscles and enjoying the fresh air
- People would eat smaller meals of more carbohydrates (fresh fruit and veggies) in the warm months
- People would gorge on the abundance of delicious food that was available in the autumn months, much of which is very rich and starchy, putting on body fat for storage energy, while working themselves ragged, harvesting food and storing food and making preparations for winter
- People would stay inside in the winter months much more, conserving energy, doing more domestic activities, and eating much less: they would eat the veggies/ fruit till they were gone then eat larger, heavier meals of meat, meat bone, organs, soups, and meat fat in the winter months, as their bodies cannibalized their own body fat for energy (ketosis)
If this model is remotely accurate – and research and common sense suggests it is – then people cycled into ketosis every winter and spring, sometimes into summer and possibly intermittently through the year if they did not have access to enough carbohydrates/starches. We now know that doing this acts as a metabolic reset for the body, to help it lean out and down regulate insulin and normalize all the downstream hormones. This is called metabolic flexibility and it means we are better able to use our own body fat as a source of fuel when needed.
Looking at the periods of plenty, we can also see that abundant carbohydrates were not consumed in sedentary times. Harvest season is perhaps the busiest time for a farming people in a wintery climate. So, while an abundance of carbs were eaten, this was an intermittent gorging that was cyclical in nature and accompanied by great activity. Insulin would not be needed for such a prolonged time that the body would become insulin resistant. The body would stay fat adapted – largely because of the scarcity – and resulting KETO cycling – of the winter months and spring months.
You see, when we do KETO cycling or a KETO reset, out bodies remember and get good at burning fat for fuel. Excess body fat is naturally broken down and used for energy. It’s an extremely elegant and efficient design! And it helps our bodies stay lean and trim at the same time as honing their ability to be as flexible and adaptable as possible, which is really the definition of health – our resiliency and adaptability factor. That is, our ability to bounce back in the face of adversity.
A lot of the adversities that our bodies now face have never before been faced by human bodies: germ free environments, sedentary indoor living year round, low to no muscle challenge, low to no environmental/ climate challenge, glyphosate and pesticide sprayed foods, industrial toxins in our water supply, industrial toxins in our air, and animals that are abused, improperly fed, and medicated as food. And this is not even mentioning the abundance of hyper-processed foodstuff that we have grown accustomed to. This thanksgiving I am eating a pre-stuffed, cook from frozen turkey as opposed to my preferred farm fresh, organic turkey, because of the associated cost. So I am not speaking from a pulpit here. I am just a regular person, with regular food preferences. I don’t eat kale all day or put virgin unicorn milk in my coffee. But I see the politics of food and how they are tied up in our health and I realize the solution isn’t as hard as the problems would make it seem.
So, to answer your question, Isabella, I don’t advocate a KETO diet for life. In my opinion, the solution isn’t a strict diet of any kind for life. The solution isn’t diet shakes for life. The solution isn’t reems of supplements for life. The solution isn’t never enjoying apple pie again. The solution isn’t zero body fat for life or no excess padding either. The solution is actually very simple:
- Remember how to eat like our ancestors did and learn to do it again, focusing on whole, seasonal foods, in rotation. With seasons of gluttony and seasons of sparsity (restriction) as part of a healthy ritual of life.
- Remember how to prioritize and grow healthy food with care to nurture and protect our soil like our ancestors did – and learn to do it again.
- Remember how to lovingly raise family farm animals so they are named and petted and hand fed apples and clover and given ear scratches before they are sent to slaughter and be eaten with reverence – and learn to do it again, eating nose to tail because no part of the animal can be wasted when you realize you have taken a life for your family sustenance.
- Remember how to cook for our families and spend time with our children teaching them how to put love into meal preparation, remembering, too, how to exalt the family cook for their invaluable contribution – and learn to do it again.
This model – of whole food, seasonal KETO cycling – addresses the primary illnesses of obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome today. It also addresses mental illness, as a ketogenic diet is exceptional for helping to down-regulate inflammation in the brain and reduce even the worst psychosis and mood swings. And it’s very doable – if we stop consuming hyper processed and carbohydrate rich foods as we do now – to excess, without intervals of rest.
And seasonal eating is a way of not only resetting our metabolism and creating metabolic flexibility, it also helps us stay in tune with nature and her cycles. It helps us remember reverence for the bounty we enjoy when we enjoy it and become more resilient for those periods of sparsity and adversity that we know can come.
While I’m eating a less than ideal bird this year, I was able to source organic coloured carrots, organic turnip, quality butter, and local farm fresh potatoes and Brussel’s sprouts, which I can’t wait to prepare and enjoy. And I am aware and so thankful that I’m blessed to enjoy this abundance in a time when there is such change all around! I don’t know what the world will look like next year. But for now I am very thankful for where I find myself today: with a safe and warm home, bountiful whole food, family I can connect with, and my health and community.
I wish everyone a blessed Thanksgiving! I hope I answered your question, Isabella. As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them. Just send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers can reach out for 1:1 support for more complex health issues by going to nonienutritionista.com.