Reasons Keto Isn’t Working For You
The ketogenic diet is one of the most popular means of weight loss out there today. Thousands of people flood social media with recipes, product recommendations, and before and after photos of amazing body transformations. But, what happens when you’re not losing weight on keto. Are there reasons keto isn’t working for you?
Yes, there are several reasons why you’re not losing weight on keto, but first, we need to learn more about keto and how it works.
What is a Keto Diet?
For centuries, ketogenic diets have been used for a variety of medical conditions, most often to improve cognition and focus. “The origins of ketogenic medicine may date back to ancient Greece.” (Brain Sciences)
There’s also a connection between reduced carb intake and reduction in epileptic seizures, and it’s this effect that sprouted the popularity of the ketogenic diet, indirectly. (Journal of Postgraduate Medicine)
At the heart of the benefit to people with epilepsy is the fact that the brain can use ketones for fuel. While this is known to treat seizures, it has also been shown to promote weight loss as the brain can use an alternative released when the body is in ketosis, in place of carbohydrates.
A keto diet is one that reduces carbohydrate intake and increases fat intake to convert the body from burning carbs for energy to burning fat. The focus is often on carb and fat intake because when carbs are missing from the diet, your body chooses stored fat for fuel. That stored fat contributes to excess weight – thus, using up stored fat promotes weight loss.
Quick Recap: “A ketogenic diet primarily consists of high-fats, moderate-proteins, and very-low-carbohydrates. The dietary macronutrients are divided into approximately 55% to 60% fat, 30% to 35% protein, and 5% to 10% carbohydrates. Specifically, in a 2000 kcal per day diet, carbohydrates amount to up to 20 to 50 g per day.” (StatPearls – Ketogenic Diet)
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Macronutrients and Ketosis
There are various forms of the keto diet, but the most popular is the 75/20/5 method. With this method, you intake:
- 75% of calories from fat
- 20% of calories from protein
- 5% of calories from carbohydrates
There are other methods of achieving ketosis, including consuming fewer than 50 carbs a day with the majority of total caloric intake coming from fats. This is generally the concept behind low-carb diets, though, for the first few weeks, you may be asked to reduce carb intake to fewer than 20 carbs.
For a 2000-calorie diet that looks like 1500 calories from fat (about 10 tablespoons), 400 calories from protein (about two 3-ounce servings of meat or high-protein meat alternative), and 100 calories from carbohydrates – most often from plant sources.
Quick Recap: At least 70% to 75% of calories need to come from fat when on a ketogenic diet.
Micronutrients and Ketosis
Not only are macronutrients, like carbs, fats, and proteins, critical to a ketogenic diet, so are micronutrients.
When attempting to lose weight with dietary changes, you need to ensure you’re eating a rainbow of foods, so you’re getting the vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients necessary for good health. It appears that all diets, including low-carb diets, significantly impact micronutrient levels. Micronutrient deficiency can lead to a long list of health problems, including dangerous health conditions and diseases. (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition)
Additional research shows that careful attention needs to be paid to micronutrient intake, especially when following a ketogenic diet for 12 weeks or longer. (Nutrition)
Quick Recap: Low-carb, ketogenic diets tend to be lacking in some vitamins, especially B vitamins. A multi-vitamin may help replenish what your diet is lacking.
How Does the Keto Diet Differ From a Low-Carb Diet?
The keto diet and low-carb diet may both rely on protein and fat to push the body into ketosis, but there is a significant difference between the two. On a low-carb diet, you often consume upwards of 50 carbs a day or more. That’s equivalent to 200+ calories. Fat intake tends to hover around 70% of calories with protein making up the remaining calories. Going back to the 2000-calorie diet, we see that fat should make up 1400 calories, protein supplies 400 calories, and carbohydrates complete the macronutrient profile at 200 calories.
Quick Recap: A keto diet requires consuming more fat than a standard low-carb diet.
Why Can’t I Lose Weight on the Keto Diet?
Believe it or not, just because the keto diet is touted among followers as the savior for weight loss, there are times when weight loss stalls, or when you can’t seem to get into ketosis. Some of the factors to take into consideration when unsuccessfully following a keto diet for weight loss include:
Not enough fat. If you don’t consume enough fat in your diet to push your body into ketosis, you may actually gain weight.
You’re overeating fat. Believe it or not, you can overeat fat on the keto diet. Fat contains nine calories per gram, so if you consume 100 grams a day, that’s 900 calories. Depending on meal size and choice, that could be taken up by a cheeseburger with bacon. Yes, you need to consume far more fat and protein than carbohydrates, but too much is not a good thing in this case.
Not reaching ketosis. This factor goes along with eating enough fat to switch to fat-burning for energy. However, if you don’t reach nutritional ketosis, you will not lose weight. Due to the high-fat content of a ketogenic diet, the chances of weight gain when not in ketosis are high.
Overeating protein. The body converts excess protein into carbohydrates that it then stores for later use. When you overeat protein, it is difficult to achieve and maintain ketosis. The excess protein, and amino acids from protein, are converted to glucose – or blood sugar. This can cause a spike in hunger and a drop in blood ketone levels. (Diabetes)
Eating too many carbohydrates. Fat and protein both play a part in the keto diet, but carbohydrates tend to be the star. You must reduce carb intake dramatically to promote ketosis and fat loss. Carbohydrate intake will also vary with food choices. Foods that are low-fat or fat-free tend to have higher amounts of sugar and carbohydrates than do full-fat, “regular” versions. (Nutrition and Diabetes)
Consuming hidden carbs. Did you know that not all carbs are listed on labels? According to the laws of product labeling, fewer than one carb per serving doesn’t have to be listed on the label. This may not seem like much, but if you have two cups of coffee with five packets of artificial sweeteners that’s about 10 g of carbohydrates. The standard keto diet suggests no more than 100 calories, of a 2000-calorie diet, from carbohydrates. Those sweetener packets alone account for 40 calories. That leaves 60 calories, and as few as 15 g of carbs for the remainder of the day. Some of the more popular foods with hidden carbs include sauces, condiments, sugar-free sweeteners (that contain dextrose or maltodextrin), and starchy veggies like sweet potatoes and carrots.
When you log foods with an app like Noom, you can see how many carbs are in each food you eat – even hidden carbs.
Eating too many calories. One myth about the keto diet is that you don’t have to track calories. This statement couldn’t be further from the truth. If a dieter is eating 3000 or 4000 calories a day, even if fat makes up the most of those calories, weight loss is not as likely to occur. Many keto-friendly foods tend to be higher in calories because they are laden with fat.
Lacking physical activity. Exercise can facilitate fat loss and prevent weight gain. With a keto diet, exercise burns the small number of carbohydrates you intake first, as carbs are the body’s preferred source of energy. Once those carbs are consumed, the body kicks into fat-burning mode, and you lose weight. Lacking physical activity also plays a critical role in overall health and wellness, including decreased bone density. (BioMed Research International)
Not getting enough fiber. Keto diets tend to increase the likelihood of constipation. For this reason, drinking more water and consuming enough fiber is critical. Research shows that low-fiber foods tend to affect overall health, and vice versa, negatively. (Endocrine)
We found that reduced fiber intake can also reduce fiber-consuming bacteria. This reduction may cause adverse effects on overall health via gut health. (NPJ Biofilms and Microbiomes)
Now, what does gut health have to do with weight loss? Because a ketogenic diet tends to be lacking in probiotics, gut health is affected. The answer is eating foods rich in probiotics, but when you only have 5% of your calories to consume in carbohydrates, it can be hard to fit in probiotic foods. (Nutrition Today)
Drinking too much alcohol. The body processes alcohol before it processes fat. At seven calories per gram, a few drinks can add up to quite a few calories, but it also means your body won’t be as deep into ketosis (if your body hasn’t fallen out of ketosis), which would stall weight loss. (The Journal of Clinical Investigation)
Experiencing side effects. Possible side effects of a ketogenic diet include bad breath, constipation, flu-like symptoms, loss of energy, and muscle cramps. These symptoms, alone, can lead to falling away from low-carbohydrate practices if only to fight side effects. Keto flu tends to be one of the top reasons why people stop following a keto diet. (IJMR)
You have an underlying medical condition. Various medical conditions affect weight loss and weight maintenance. For instance, hypothyroidism, when not enough thyroid-stimulating hormone is released, can slow metabolism to a crawl, causing weight gain – extreme in some cases. Prediabetes and diabetes can also affect the result of your keto diet as these conditions alter blood glucose levels, which can affect hunger and thirst. Thirst, in many cases, is mistaken for hunger, which means you eat more when all you need is something to drink. (Physiology and Behavior)
Not mentally ready for a ketogenic diet. You don’t have the right mindset. Research shows that you need to be in a “health mindset” to effectively lose weight. The keto diet can be challenging to follow, if only because it is incredibly restrictive. If your mind isn’t in a place to adopt a healthier eating plan or, in this case, a ketogenic diet, it’s not likely to work for weight loss. (International Journal of Obesity)
Eating too many processed keto sweets. Sugar alcohols, while they don’t significantly impact blood glucose levels, are associated with hunger in some people. There’s also the fact that these snacks, though keto-friendly, are packed with calories. We refer back to the concept that, even on a keto diet, you can consume too many calories. Those small snacks that you think are taking care of your sweet tooth when sugar is forbidden are the same foods that may be making it hard to lose weight.
You’re overeating cheese. Cheese is one of the big players on a keto diet. You can throw cheese on just about any low-carb meat or vegetable, but a one-ounce serving may not be what you’re actually using. Weigh out your cheese to ensure you are consuming no more than around four ounces a day. Those four ounces are equivalent to 400+ calories. As is the case with all eating plans, if you eat too many calories, even if they are keto-friendly foods, you will likely not lose weight on keto.
You are choosing to yo-yo diet. Sure, there are times when you’ll want to skip a low-carb day and eat some of your favorite foods, but what happens when you hop off the keto train more often than not? Jumping into and out of ketosis is not the best idea for weight loss. It can take three days to move the body from burning carbohydrates for fuel to fat. During that time, you can experience symptoms of the keto flu, but you also fall out of ketosis, so you’re no longer burning fat.
You’ve been on keto too long. The keto diet isn’t designed for long-term use. Typically, people follow a keto diet for up to 12 weeks and then choose a higher-carb, lower-fat option to maintain weight loss. If you stay on ketosis too long, you can hit a plateau that feels impossible to overcome.
Ketogenic Diets May Not Be the Cause of Improved Health
You may be surprised to find out that the claimed health benefits of a ketogenic diet may have nothing to do with the diet at all. It appears that the weight loss associated with the diet, as experienced by some followers, may actually be at the heart of health improvements. (Trials)
Research Shows the Keto Diet is No More Effective Than Other Weight-Loss Options
PLoS Medicine: Eliminating an entire food group, as is the case with a low-carb, ketogenic diet, can have adverse effects on overall health.
Harvard Health – Harvard Medical School: A ketogenic diet may promote faster weight loss in the beginning, but research shows the effect doesn’t last long term.
Medical Clinics of North America: The keto diet is often associated with rapid weight loss. Research shows that losing weight too fast leads to weight-loss plateaus and a steady regaining of weight, over time.
British Journal of Nutrition: Research has shown that, while a low-carb, ketogenic diet may promote short-term weight loss, there’s no difference between cutting carbs and not cutting carbs in terms of long-lasting results.
Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA): JAMA perfectly sums up the fact that a keto diet may not be any more effective than a low-fat diet. “Significant weight loss was observed with any low-carbohydrate or low-fat diet. Weight loss differences between individual named diets were small.”
A Better Alternative to a Ketogenic Diet
If a ketogenic diet isn’t helping you lose weight, other options are clinically proven to work. Losing weight isn’t about restrictive meal plans. You can eat the foods you want and still lose weight and improve overall health. What are the cornerstones of healthy eating for weight loss?
Nutrient-rich foods. Extreme low-carb diets, like the ketogenic diet, don’t allow for eating a wide variety of plant-based carbohydrates. When the follower has only 20 carbs to take in for the entire day, spending those carbs on starchier vegetables as yams, sweet potatoes, and carrots can seem like a waste of food. One medium sweet potato supplies about 26 g of carbohydrates and around 124 calories. As you can see, the calorie count is low, but one potato is enough to take up all your daily carbs and then some. Orange foods tend to be higher in vitamin A.
Beets are another food rich in calcium, vitamin A, potassium, and folate. One cup of raw beets contains about 13 g of carbohydrates, but only 52 calories per cup.
Corn is rich in vitamin C, and it provides a sweet taste that’s often enough to kill your sweet tooth. However, corn is high in carbohydrates at 25 g per 2/3 cup. Switch that over to calories, and you get 100 calories per serving.
Increased water intake. If you consume 16 ounces of water before meals, you can expect to lose more weight. The mechanism at work is appetite suppression. When the stomach is holding 16 ounces of liquid, there’s little space to fit large portions of food. (Obesity)
Additional research shows outright, “drinking water may promote weight loss in overweight” people. (Obesity)
Get to moving more. If you were to make a list of all the research that supports a connection between exercise and weight loss, you’d have pages and pages to sort through. Physical activity not only increases the number of calories the body needs, but it also increases calorie burn for a significant period after stopping exercise. Exercise also impacts mood. If your mood improves, you’re more likely to make better decisions regarding your weight-loss plan.
Even if exercising doesn’t promote weight loss, it remains that overall health and wellness can improve. There are “numerous health benefits [that] occur from [physical activity] in the absence of weight loss.” (Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases)
Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet
Though not all research is supportive of ketogenic diets, some benefits can’t be ignored. For instance, diets high in fat and low in carbohydrates decrease appetite, probabilities of food addiction and obesity, and are neuroprotective. (Frontiers in Nutrition)
Along with these benefits, we also find research showing keto diets may help with:
- Neurological Diseases
- Cardiovascular Diseases
- Respiratory Diseases (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition)
- Muscle Recovery (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition)
What’s the Final Word on the Reasons Keto Isn’t Working For You
At the end of the day, no diet will work for everyone, but the keto diet is a little different. For centuries, the diet has been used to promote overall health and well-being while addressing various medical concerns such as obesity and epilepsy.
We can’t totally dismiss the supportive research that’s shown ketosis, and the ketogenic diet, can, in fact, help you lose weight, balance blood glucose levels, and feel better about yourself. But, we must look at the research on the other side of the fence.
There’s also the difficulty of nearly cutting out an entire food group. This is something that rarely works for long-term weight loss and improved health. Extreme restriction tends to lead to a feeling that you’re being deprived, and that’s the last thing someone trying to improve health and weight wants to feel.
Take a close look at the keto diet before making the jump. Read all the details on how to best follow the diet, and track all of your food and fluid intake to ensure you’re staying in ketosis. But, keep in mind that, like all diets, the ketogenic diet isn’t for everyone.
Check out the weight-loss app Noom to see what weight-loss looks like for the last time. You won’t need another diet, whether it be keto or another plan, because you’ll learn how to lose weight how you live, not how someone else lives. Dietspotlight readers can access a free trial of Noom, for a limited time.
Summer Banks has researched over 5000 weight-loss programs, pills, shakes and diet plans. Previously, she managed 15 supplement brands, worked with professionals in the weight loss industry and completed coursework in nutrition at Stanford University.