The ketogenic diet is all the rage worldwide, but what exactly is it about? And should you try it? We got a dietitian and a nutritionist to weigh in.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The latest diet that’s taken Hollywood by storm is the keto (short for ketogenic) diet. Fans of the diet include celebs like Halle Barry and Gwyneth Paltrow, reality stars Kim and Kourtney Kardashian as well as Victoria’s Secret Angel Adriana Lima.

Locally, celebs like Silver Ang and Nat Ho are strong proponents of the ultra low-carb diet.

It’s super effective for weight loss. “I lost 4kg in two months on the keto diet,” says Silver. “And the best thing was, I didn’t even feel like I was on a diet!” Indeed, the actress didn’t have to give up her favourite Mookata (Thai barbecue), Korean barbecue and steamboat meals.

Other benefits touted by keto diet fans – and seeing as it’s the most searched diet on Google in 2018, there are many worldwide – include improvements in energy levels and mental alertness. 

So, what exactly is a ketogenic diet?

The ketogenic diet is essentially a very strict high-fat, moderate-protein and low-carb diet. When you cut down on your carbohydrate intake, your body eventually enters a state known as ketosis. In ketosis, your body burns fat instead of carbohydrates from food, and produces ketones, which are acids your body can use as fuel.

It’s good to note however that not all low-carb diets are ketogenic – it’s only keto if your body is allowed to go into ketosis.

So, when people say they are on a ketogenic diet, they could mean they are on a variant of it. Kim Kardashian, for example, actually went on the Atkins 40 diet in 2016 after having her son Saint. She reportedly lost a whopping 27kg in a short span of time. Similar to the keto diet, Atkins involves a very limited intake of carbs and high amounts of fat. The main difference is that on the Atkins diet, you’ll slowly reintroduce carbs, so ketosis will likely only come into play during the early phase.

While the keto diet is loved for seemingly helping people lose considerable weight without the restrictions or mundaneness of other diets, the keto diet wasn’t originally developed for weight loss. It had a more serious medical reason: for treating epilepsy in children.

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in the US noticed that some epilepsy patients who were exhibiting signs like low blood sugar had fewer seizures. So, they created a diet meant to trick the body into thinking it’s starving, without actually being so.

The diet recommends that your meals are made up of 70 per cent fat, 25 per cent protein and just five per cent carbs. (Hello, greasy bacon and creamy scrambled eggs!)

When you eat normally, carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream as sugar, which makes the body release insulin. Insulin allows glucose to enter the cells, which the body uses for fuel or stores as fats. By reducing your carb intake, the insulin levels are lowered too. This puts your body in a state called ketosis, where fats are broken down for energy instead.

The idea is that when your body runs out of carbs to burn for energy, it’ll look for the next alternative fuel: fats. Most keto followers keep satiated with a good protein and get their vitamins and minerals from low-carb vegetables such as kale, lettuce and zucchini.

Say goodbye, though, to bread, pasta, rice and sugar-laden desserts.

Typically, your body will become very efficient at fat-burning, and you’ll feel full while still consuming fewer calories overall – from the high-fat and moderate-protein meals. (That’s if you have the discipline to stick to keto guidelines – read on.) 

“It is not considered a healthy, balanced diet as the amounts of carb and protein are very limited, not to mention that the diet is almost devoid of fruits and vegetables.”


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Should you keto?

While advocates swear by its health benefits and the added attraction of rapid weight loss, critics say the strict diet is unrealistic, unsustainable and might even be dangerous in the long run.

Dietitians and nutritionists Shape spoke to generally warn against it, at least in the long-term or if you’re doing it without proper guidance from a trained healthcare professional.

“It is not considered a healthy, balanced diet as the amounts of carb and protein are very limited, not to mention that the diet is almost devoid of fruits and vegetables,” says Jaclyn Reutens, clinical and sports dietitian, and founder of Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants.

This is also a concern of Charlotte Mei de Drouas, a certified nutritionist who is also a TV and radio personality. “A nutritious and balanced diet would include a variety of healthy foods which are not included in the keto diet due to their high carbohydrate content. Examples would be most fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains,” she says. “Many of these foods contain vitamins, minerals, fibre and other nutrients not found in other food sources.”

Then, there are the potentially harmful side effects.

“Ketoacidosis (dangerous condition when the body produces high levels of ketones) and hypoglycemia (very low blood sugar levels) may result,” Jaclyn cautions. “Other issues such as fainting spells, lethargy, lightheadedness and nausea can occur. Add to this, there will be an increased risk of kidney stones, fatty liver disease and elevated cholesterol levels.”

It seems like there may be a longer list of potential dangers compared to benefits. “There isn’t enough science to back up the diet and its long-term effects, for me to advocate it for weight loss or other health benefits,” Charlotte says. “I believe in striving for balance rather than extremes. The keto diet for me is too restrictive and cuts out a lot of nutritious foods which are needed by the body. It is also a little too strict in that a miscalculation of carbohydrates or proteins may knock you out of ketosis.”

Global marketing director Jem Loh, 33, who lost 13kg in 2017, when she was on a strict keto diet, says: “As I travel frequently for work, it can be challenging to manage a keto diet while on the move. I find myself bouncing in and out of ketosis when I travel.”

She is often caught in cycles of “having to overcome the initial keto flu (flu-like side effects, including headaches and fatigue, when the body adapts to the diet) and kicking sugar cravings over and over”.

Still, she intends to stick to “the keto way of eating” as much as possible. Besides helping her control her appetite and eliminating hunger pangs, the diet has also helped her manage her insulin resistance, a condition that had led to polycystic ovarian syndrome in her 20s. 

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The verdict

At the end of the day, the keto diet is “definitely not one to try out as an experiment”, says Charlotte.

“Speak to your GP or a health professional, and don’t rely on the Internet as your source of information,” she advises. “There’s no magic bullet for long-term weight loss. Look for a diet that is sustainable for you.” 


Whether or not you’re on a keto diet, there’s no harm trying out these keto-friendly food products that are low in sugar and carbs. All taste-approved! 

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Seriously Keto 
While regular kaya has quite a high sugar content – hence, it’s a no-no for keto dieters – the Kaya Kryptonite KetoSpread ($9.90) by Seriously Keto, a keto bakery located in Orchard Central, has a mere 3.4g of carbs per 80ml jar. Made with coconut cream and fresh pandan leaves, it makes a perfect pairing with the KetoBun ($8.90 for 2). Made with almond flour, onion powder, apple cider vinegar and unsalted butter, the bun tastes almost like real bread and boasts a mere 2.9g of carbs per serving. Other offerings include other keto compliant spreads as well as keto cupcakes and cakes. Pre-orders required. 
More info: 
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The Butcher’s Kitchen 
Burgers are usually off the table if you’re on a keto diet as they come with carb-laden buns and sugar-laden sauces. With the KetoBurger, what the restaurant calls “Singapore’s first-ever keto-compliant gourmet burgers”, dieters can have their, erm, cake and eat it too. The meat-centric diner has collaborated with Seriously Keto to present four burgers made with house-blended Australian grass and grain-fed meat patties: Beef ($18.80), Pork ($16.80), Roast Pork ($17.80) and Chicken ($13.80). The burgers are said to be “zero sugar, gluten-free, diabetic-friendly and ultra-low in carbs”, with accompanying sauces that are made from keto-friendly recipes. 
More info: 
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Delcie’s Desserts and Cakes 
Dieters with a sweet tooth are in for a treat at this 10-year-old bakery, famed for its healthier bakes. Having gone on the keto diet herself in 2018, baker Delcie Lam decided to research and develop keto-friendly dessert recipes for her store. A trial of a keto-friendly opera cake was a hit with customers, many of whom were on the diet. She then expanded her repertoire beyond cakes to include items like Vegan Keto Double Chocolate Chip Muffin ($36 for a box of 4 pieces), Vegan Keto Dark Chocolate Almond Bar ($18 per 100g bar) and Coconut Almond Choc Chip Cookie ($32.80 for a tub). Pre-orders required. 
More info: 
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If you have a snacking habit and are on the diet, don’t worry – there’s a good range of keto-friendly sweet and savoury offerings available with the click of a button. BenBanter, owned by Singapore-based health and wellness company Spinnach Holdings, has low-carb items like Keto Cheese Puffs ($28.04 for a box of 10 packets), Keto Bars of various flavours ($56.07 for a box of 15 bars), a range of Seeded Crackers ($10.75 per 170g box) and a Keto Hot Chocolate drink mix ($9.53 per 250g box). Besides being sold online, these products are also available at Watsons and Mahota. 
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The Whole Kitchen 
In general, nuts are a good source of heart-healthy fats, fibre and powerful antioxidants. Being high in fat and protein, they are definitely on the approved list for keto dieters – just watch out for some, such as cashew and pistachio, that are comparatively higher in carbohydrates. Others such as pecan, Brazil and walnut are good choices though. The Whole Kitchen has tasty snacking nut options, such as their best-selling Rock Salt Rosemary and Laksa Leaf Lime nut mixes ($5.95 per 60g pack). Besides those, the Pecan Coconut Grain Free Granola ($5.95 per 70g pack) is also pretty good. 
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