The concept of the keto diet seems easy enough.
Eat very few carbs and more fat than protein.
The reality, at least for some keto dieters, is that the “simple” diet actually involves a great deal of calculating, strategizing, and negotiating.
To simply call the keto diet a low-carb diet entirely misses the emphasis on fat. That fat focus is what sets keto apart from other low-carb diets, including the Atkins diet.
The keto diet calls on you to eat just 5 percent of your daily calories from carbs. That comes out to about 20 grams of carbohydrates for most people.
The remaining amount of your calories should be 75 to 90 percent fat and 5 to 20 percent protein.
But what if you could skip micromanaging your macronutrients and instead focus solely on the carb number?
That’s the concept behind “lazy keto,” an approach to the keto diet that’s gaining attention from the keto curious and even some devout keto dieters.
“The most common definition of lazy keto is to eat no more than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day without counting calories or tracking the other macronutrients, protein and fat,” said Allison Knott, MS, RDN, CSSD, a registered dietitian based in New York City.
“In theory, this sounds great for those who don’t enjoy tracking every bite of food going into their mouth, but it’s unlikely to result in the metabolic state known as ketosis,” she said.
Ketosis is the process that occurs when the body stops using glycogen (carbohydrate) stores for energy and starts burning fat instead. In ketosis, the body burns the fat you eat plus the fat you have stored. Ketosis is vital to the keto diet and its highly touted weight loss benefits.
But ketosis isn’t as easy as ditching carbs almost entirely to force fat burning. Yes, carbs are the direct source of glucose for energy. Without them, your body will need another energy source.
Protein, if you aren’t watchful, can become that source of glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis. It could be the death knell for the lazy keto concept.
“Protein has an insulinogenic response, which means that eating too much protein on a ketogenic diet can actually cause the body to use glucose for fuel instead of ketones, thus taking the person out of ketosis,” said Michelle Shapiro, MS, RD, a registered dietitian in New York City.
“If macronutrients are not balanced and nutrient timing, i.e., when eating meals, is not tightly regulated, it is very probable that the ketogenic diet will not be done properly, and will leave the person feeling very hungry,” she added.
You might be hungry
Fat is very filling. It’s also more calorie dense and digests more slowly than other macronutrients.
But if you don’t get enough fat and aren’t in ketosis because you eat too much protein, you could leave the body in a state of energy limbo.
“If protein and carbohydrate intake is not managed, the person on a ketogenic diet may not go into ketosis and may just feel completely deprived and hungry,” Shapiro said.
“If the body isn’t burning fat or carbs for fuel, it may be burning nothing. The transition of fat burning is the most important component in a keto diet and is impaired if it is not done perfectly,” she said.
You aren’t focused on quality
“The new keto diet focuses on fat quality,” Shapiro said.
“The foods advertised in older keto diets were high in vegetable oils laden with inflammatory omega-6 fats and processed meats,” she explained. “The new keto diets focus on high-quality fat sources coming from omega-3 fats, monounsaturated fats, MCT oil, and other organic and grass-fed healthy animal protein sources.”
That, Shapiro says, is a distinction worth its difference. Low-quality fats are often considered pro-inflammatory. Inflammation is seen by some as “the root cause of every disease,” Shapiro says.
“Fat can either mitigate it or promote it, so the food quality is highly important. Eating a bunch of processed meats and vegetable oils will certainly take people away from health instead of towards it,” she added.
It’s easy to eat too few calories
Almost all diets rely on the dieter eating fewer calories to lose weight. But eating too few calories could make the number on the scale stick.
“Calories are extremely important on this diet and any other diet for that matter,” Knott said. “First, eating enough calories to meet your needs while also promoting weight loss will help the diet be more sustainable over the long term, if weight loss is the goal.”
Knott added, “Second, going too low on total calories can present risks, no matter the macronutrient ratio. Shifting the macronutrient ratio so significantly can impact hunger or fullness cues, and without tracking total calorie intake, you have no way of knowing if you’re meeting your needs.”
You might miss other vital nutrients
Many carb-rich plant foods aren’t allowed on the keto diet. That leaves very low-carb fruits and vegetables, like asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, as the primary sources of polyphenols and antioxidants.
Sure, supplements can help. But a well-balanced keto diet can also provide plenty of vitamins and minerals. Lazy keto might be lacking.
“On a strict ketogenic diet plan that has been created by a registered dietitian or other medical professional, you’re more likely to meet all your essential nutrient needs,” Knott said.
“Like any other diet, it must be customized to your individual needs, which is why it’s so important to work with a professional to know what diet is best for you.”
Experts agree that if you’re going to try to stick to keto by following the lazy approach, it’s vital you also emphasize the quality of the food you eat.
Dirty keto, which involves eating highly processed keto-friendly foods, including fast food (sans buns or fries), is often derided for its unhealthy approach. Lazy keto borders on derision in some keto circles, too.
“It doesn’t matter what type of diet you are on. Eating real food is the most important and valuable thing you can do for yourself nutritionally,” he said.
But, like dirty keto, lazy keto could be an introductory form of the diet that helps people transition from an old way of eating to one that’s rooted firmly in the keto diet standards — all of them, even counting fat and protein totals.
“The ketogenic diet may be beneficial for some people under the care of a registered dietitian or medical professional in a therapeutic setting, but cherry-picking from a plan that has strict guidelines — for a scientific reason — is not going to be ideal in the long run,” Knott said.
“In other words, simply adding butter to your coffee, bacon to your plate, and eliminating fruit and beans from your diet without taking your eating pattern as a whole into account is not going to have a positive impact on your health,” she said.