Talk to anyone trying to jump-start weight loss these days, and there’s a high probability they’re either on or have tried the keto diet. And now is prime time to start: Last holiday season, interest in keto shot up by 123 percent, according to Google. This low-sugar, low-carb way of eating continues to be popular for good reason: It works! Yet along with all of the positive buzz, there’s a good chance you’ve also heard about how tough the diet is to maintain over the long haul. In fact, studies show that 80 percent of women struggle to stick with it.
Here’s the catch when it comes to traditional keto: The plan is restrictive. You’re limited to 20 grams of carbohydrates a day, or about 5 percent of daily calories. Then 25 percent of calories come from protein and 70 percent from fat. To put that in perspective, an apple has 25 grams of carbs, one medium sweet potato has 27 grams of carbs and a whole-wheat bagel has a whopping 51 grams of carbs.
A high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet can help you breathe easier , report Yale University researchers in the journal Immunity. In the animal study, mice on a high-fat diet had fewer symptoms of coronavirus and produced less mucus than when eating a standard American-style diet. Researchers say that’s because ketones — the compounds made by the body on a keto diet — activate virus-fighting white bloods cells and reduce the production of inflammatory cells that increase mucus production and make it difficult to breathe. “This study shows that the way the body burns fat to produce ketones from the food we eat can fuel the immune system to fight infection,” said co-senior author Vishwa Deep Dixit, PhD.
The good news: Experts have discovered a workaround that makes keto easy! Called “lazy keto,” this food formula recommends aiming to keep carbs down — under 50 grams a day — while filling up on non-starchy veggies and satisfying fat from foods like meat, cheese, heavy cream, and olive oil. To put it in even simpler terms, you just scale back on starch and sugar. “Lazy keto is what I teach my patients. It makes keto doable, which is the real key to reaching an optimal weight,” asserts Eric Westman, MD, founder of the Duke Keto Medicine Clinic at Duke University, who shared his lazy keto plan with First. “Even eating at fast-food restaurants is okay as long as you avoid starches and sugars.”
Why this works: “While you relax keto rules, you still drastically reduce intake of foods your system can turn into blood sugar,” explains weight-loss and nutrition expert Fred Pescatore, MD, author of The A-List Diet. “This forces the body to turn dietary fat and stored fat into an alternative fuel called ketones.” And because the body makes ketones, in large part, from fat stored in fat cells, findings from Bethel University researchers show keto actually speeds fat loss by 900 percent.
Relaxing the rules of the traditional keto diet delivers serious perks. In fact, lazy keto is more effective for many women. The reason? When you don’t have to count every carb, dieting becomes more relaxed. “Life is stressful enough. I don’t know any of us who can put one more thing on our plate right now,” says Dr. Pescatore. “The thought of having to count a carb or calorie would drive me crazy.” Plus, he adds, loosening up on the carb restrictions eases cellular stress. “Studies show that cutting too many carbohydrates can decrease thyroid function and increase stress hormones, making it harder to burn fat and lose weight.”
Relaxing the rules helps your body relax so it can release stubborn pounds. The best part: You can enjoy your favorite foods during the holidays — and still lose! “I’m not going to not eat some of my favorite foods this time of year,” says Dr. Pescatore. It also makes socializing easier, and helps you keep your sanity when faced with holiday goodies. “There was an alternative to everything,” cheers 42-year-old Angie Blocker, who lost 11 pounds in her first week. “It worked better than restrictive diets to satisfy my cravings.”
And the benefits go beyond weight loss. This relaxed approach confers all of the benefits of the keto diet, says Dr. Westman, including increased mental clarity, better blood-sugar control and lower blood pressure. And studies show that this approach boosts energy by 88 percent, sleep quality by 21 percent and mood by 52 percent. Ready to start? Read on!
Taking a gentler, less-strict approach to the keto diet not only makes the diet easier, it makes it more effective!
The “lazy keto” method doesn’t require any carb or calorie counting — though if you want to count your carbs, Eric Westman, MD, recommends getting 50 grams or fewer per day — about twice what you’d eat on a traditional keto diet.
To get started, Dr. Westman advises cutting back on sugar and starch — but you don’t have to go cold turkey. “My advice is to try cutting how much you eat foods like pizza, pasta and cookies by half, then by half again after a couple of weeks,” he says. “The best part about this approach is that most people start to feel better and lose a little weight, and they realize they can be successful even if they cheat a little.”
Once you’re in a groove of scaling back sugar and starch, Dr. Westman recommends building on that success and replacing even more carb-heavy foods with keto-friendly picks. In addition to meats, greens and other non-starchy veggies (like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, celery, cucumber, and zucchini), you can fill up on avocado, cheese, and heavy cream.
And like Dr. Westman says, you can still cheat occasionally and get results. In fact, when the body goes without carbs for too long, it starts to slow down everything — including metabolism — to conserve energy. But enjoying carbs occasionally stimulates fat burn and won’t derail progress toward your weight-loss goals, promises Oxford-trained physician Tommy Wood, MD, a research professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. “When you cycle carb restriction with periods of replenishment, more of that weight loss is fat,” explains Dr. Wood. “You end up with a more efficient metabolism than you would through carb restriction alone.”
Indeed, doctors and patients alike agree that one of the biggest perks of following a lazy keto plan right now is that it makes it possible to sail through the holidays without feeling deprived — while still powering off the pounds. For your fastest slimdown ever, incorporate these smart tricks:
Skip pre-packaged keto foods.
You can likely eat more carbs and still lose weight, as long as you go for whole foods — not “keto” packaged foods filled with who-knows-what ingredients, asserts Dr. Westman. “Real food nourishes the body and eliminates the constant hunger that so many people feel on a carbohydrate-rich diet,” he adds. “Packaged keto-friendly foods like bars, candies and shakes, on the other hand, tend to trigger carb cravings.” So instead of reaching for a snack bar while you’re on the go, keep a small bag of nuts in your purse.
Call for delivery.
Grocery stores are set up to draw you toward sugary, starchy foods — and this is especially true around the holidays, says Susan Wolver, MD, a doctor in Richmond, Virginia, who prescribes keto to her patients. “I tell my patients to use a grocery delivery service to stay on track if they have access,” she says. “It’s the best way to be sure you won’t get overwhelmed by the unhealthy food cues.” And whether you’re ordering online or heading into the store, never shop hungry — you’re more likely to add junk food to your real or digital cart!
Celebrate with keto.
Dr. Wolver recommends making sure you always have access to keto foods. Serve up plenty of your low-carb favorites alongside traditional fare — you may even inspire others with how doable (and delicious!) eating keto can be. If you’re going out, Dr. Wolver suggests enjoying a keto-friendly snack, like two hard-boiled eggs, beforehand so you aren’t hungry when party foods appear. “I always tell patients to fill up on healthy stuff beforehand,” she shares. This, she adds, helps keep portion sizes of indulgence foods in check.
Don’t beat yourself up.
For those times when you eat a little too much of a sugary food, Dr. Wolver advises simply moving on to the next meal. “We all have these sabotaging thoughts — like “Well, I blew that, I might as well blow the whole day and start fresh tomorrow,” she says. “But the more you eat sugars and starches, the more you’ll crave them — and the harder it’ll be to get back on track tomorrow. Instead, say to yourself, ‘Okay, that didn’t work out. What can I learn from it? Then move on!’”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.