Those three recipes might sound like the nutritional fantasies of an adolescent or Homer Simpson, but they are a few examples of “fat bombs,” permitted on the latest trendy weight-loss diet that even a few years ago might have seemed outrageous.
But as experts debate whether carbohydrates or calories, sugar or fat are the true enemy of maintaining a healthy weight, the Ketogenic diet — basically an amped-up Paleo or Atkins diet — has moved into the realm of reasonable. Fat bombs are a preferred snack for followers of this low-carb, high fat plan.
To function properly the human brain is dependent on glucose, derived from sugars. When that’s unavailable, the liver will break down fat instead, producing molecules called ketones as an alternate energy source. This metabolic state, known as ketosis, keeps the brain working normally even during times of starvation.
Ketosis is a normal process though people eating a balanced diet may never experience it. The keto diet has been attributed to rapid and dramatic weight loss though some experts question whether eating a maximum of 50 grams of carbohydrates a day — the equivalent of a cup of oatmeal, or two slices of bread and an apple — is sustainable. Many followers consume much less. Many also test their ketones with a urine test.
Raj Patel, 40, has limited his carbs to 30 grams daily for six years. He’s now a self-taught keto coach who helps design meal plans for his clients, many of whom want to lose weight or manage their diabetes. Patel was 35 when he first read about keto on a bodybuilding website. He was pumping iron but getting nowhere and weighed more than he wanted to. After adopting a keto diet, he dropped from 240 to 175 pounds in two years.
Now, he’ll eat eggs, bacon, coconut oil, avocado and spinach for breakfast; chicken legs with skin and salad with olive oil for lunch; full-fat ground beef, avocado and broccoli for dinner. No fruit, no dairy, no alcohol and no starchy carbs.
Kim Kardashian is a de facto follower of the keto diet. She’s a celebrity spokesmodel for the Atkins Diet and credited her post-baby weight loss to that regimen, which helped launch the low-carb craze of two decades ago. The keto diet is similar to the Atkins “induction phase,” which allows about 20 grams of carbs per day. That’s two or three carrots or a cup of acorn squash.
It was debated at the time whether his heart problems were related to his high-fat diet, but more recent studies have shown that fat, even saturated fat from red meat, cheese and coconut oil, are probably no worse for your heart than carbohydrates.
In fact, some experts now believe sugar and carbs may be the real cause of obesity.
“The thing is, your body doesn’t care about calories. It doesn’t measure calories and has no idea what calories are. If you take 100 calories of chocolate chip cookies or 100 calories of salad, the metabolic effect is totally different,” said Dr. Jason Fung, a kidney expert at Scarborough General Hospital and author of the 2016 bookThe Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss. In it, he argues the real culprit is too much insulin, which tells the body to store energy.
Dietary fat has almost no insulin response, he said. Hence the butter-bacon balls.
A transition period may result in what’s known as the keto flu, a feeling of lethargy, nausea and mental fog. Once in ketosis, which can be measured with urine testing strips, many people report weird-smelling breath and urine, but also feeling less hunger and more energy.
It may be effective, but the nature of dieting predicts a high risk of failure, said obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute.
She’s trying to return to ketosis but the adjustment period is rough.
“One foot in and one foot out is the worst possible place to be,” Bourgeois said.
“You have to maintain ketosis. It’s not a diet you can step out of on the weekends and step back into. You have to maintain it to use the fat as energy.”
If someone cheated and ate pizza, the body would switch back to using the carbs as energy, she said. Add that onto a day of chicken skin and fat bombs, and you could be in trouble.
“Most dietitians will say it’s not healthy,” Langer says, but she disagrees. If weight loss is the primary goal, it’s effective, but she warns having a social life or running long distances without carbs could be tough.
In the 1920s, doctors in the U.S. started to investigate a starvation diet as a treatment for epilepsy, according to the journal Epilepsia. The absence of carbohydrates appeared to force the body to burn fat.
Some studies have suggested the diet can potentially play a role in the treatment of other illnesses such as diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome, acne, neurological diseases, even cancer and cardiovascular disease, according to a 2013 report in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
But not everyone is convinced.
“It has kind of a science-y background that may make it seem like it has more legitimacy as a diet for all of us than it really does,” said Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash.
“For most human beings, there’s nothing special about this diet,” he said.
In general, most diets work when people pay attention to what they’re eating, which is often for only a short period of time, he said. When it comes to healthy weight loss, a diet has to be maintained forever.
“Look at the different diets throughout history, and there are literally hundreds. Name one that, over the long term, has turned out to work. You can’t. They all perform about the same, regardless of the macronutrient being emphasized.”