The rise of the ketogenic diet

Posted: 23 September 2019 | | No comments yet

Dr Sylvain Charlebois from Dalhousie University discusses the increasingly popular ‘ketogenic diet’ that swaps carbohydrates for proteins and fats.

To keto or not to keto?

Are you on the ketogenic (keto) diet? Apparently, many people are, or have tried it in the last year. It is possibly the most popular dietary trend in North America right now.

Over the last 12 months, the word keto was the most ‘googled’ food-related topic in the world. The ketogenic diet is certainly not for everyone, but the numbers show that this trend is not going away anytime soon.

The keto diet is one of any number of dietary options out there. The world of diets is more fragmented than ever as we seem to compartmentalise consumers, putting them in boxes with labels on them. Flexitarian, vegan, pescatarian, raw food, Atkins – you name it – there is a diet for you. But it is proving difficult to measure the number of people following a certain diet. On any given day, one consumer could potentially follow two or three diets. We all have a different approach to diet and nutrition, as we have different needs and tastes. Most of us do not give our diet a name. So, ketogenic, or other names we give to diets, are just names. We do not know for sure how many Canadians are following the keto diet, but we do believe the number is growing. A recent poll conducted by Dalhousie University tells us that 26 percent of Canadians have either adopted the keto diet, have tried it or have considered trying it in the last 18 months. In fact, one of Canada’s best-selling food books is about the keto diet.

The keto diet is basically a deliberate switch from carbohydrates to proteins and fats. There are different kinds of keto diets, but the diet is essentially about reducing carbohydrate intake. Developed and named in the 1920s to treat children with seizure disorders, the diet puts the human body into a metabolic state known as ketosis. Ketosis occurs when your body metabolises fat, instead of carbohydrates, to produce energy. In other words, with less sugar, the body will eventually lose weight. It also helps control diabetes. Foods not allowed on a keto diet include sugary foods, grains and starches, bread, alcohol, most fruit, beans and legumes. This is a potential nightmare for some, but a godsend for others trying to lose weight fast. It is not recommended for people who exercise vigorously, as it can restrict the body’s access to sugars during an intense workout.

What is unique about the keto diet is that we are starting to see many food products indicating their suitability for a ketogenic diet on the label. This is certainly a sign that the diet is gaining strength and popularity. Many food products being launched target consumers following this diet. However, even if it has been around for decades, little is known about the suitability of the diet for the average person. It remains premature to state whether this diet can be medically popularised. Many studies are ongoing to see whether this type of diet is beneficial. Anyone thinking about adopting the keto diet should proceed with great caution or should consult their doctor first. 

The choice to follow the keto diet also comes at a price. One recent report suggests that the ketog diet is anywhere from five percent to 10 percent more expensive than a regular diet without restrictions. The extra fat and proteins will come at a price, but the differential is not significant.

But in the end, all these diets, trends and fads are often an opportunity for the food industry to reflect on its innovation portfolio. Except for the last two to three years, innovative ideas in the food industry have been scarce. When a movement like this gets any traction, it opens a variety of possibilities for the sector. A new pathway to better-quality food products, adapted to our modern lifestyles, is likely to reach grocery stores. For years, gluten-free products were sub-par until a larger number of consumers started to seek out and buy these products. Today, these products are better-tasting and are now of high quality. With vegetarian and vegan options, the same phenomenon is occurring.

It is hard to tell where the keto diet trend will lead. The diet itself is still a medical mystery. Regardless, the marketing of it appears to be gaining steam and that may continue for some time. Smart consumers will carefully consider any keto options found in a grocery store.

About the Author

Dr Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculties of Management and Agriculture at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. He is also the Senior Director of the Agri-food Analytics Lab, also located at Dalhousie University. His current research interest lies in the areas of food distribution, security and safety.