‘Keto diet’ is a term that most Bengaluru geeks are familiar with, irrespective of whether they’re on it or not. For the uninitiated, it’s a diet that is high in fats, allows a medium amount of protein, and is low in carbohydrates. Keto or ketogenic diet first came on the public’s radar in the 1920s as a treatment for children with epilepsy — it reduced the frequency of epileptic seizures.
But the reason the diet seems to have Bengaluru — interestingly, it’s a huge hit in the geek community — hooked has very little to do with epilepsy. It’s do with weight loss, and radical weight loss at that, with people reporting losing anywhere between 20 and a whopping 50 kg of body weight.
So how does it work? And what’s the link between geeks and the keto diet?
The way it works is fairly simple. When you don’t feed yourself carbs, the body starts burning fat instead of carbohydrates. Usually, carbs in your food are converted into glucose, which provides energy. When you take it out from your diet, or when there is very little of it, the liver converts fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies. The ketone bodies, which are water-soluble molecules, replace glucose as the source of energy in a process known as ketosis.
Typically, a keto diet is 70% fat, 25% protein and 5% carbs.
“I’m not a doctor. I don’t prescribe medicines,” says Aniruddha Shankar, high priest of the Bengaluru keto cult
Let’s start with the high priest of Bengaluru’s keto cult. “I’m not a doctor. I don’t prescribe medicines. I’m not a dietician. I’m self-taught. I’m a diet coach,” says Aniruddha Shankar, 39. His fame is almost entirely through word-of-mouth recommendations. He doesn’t even have a website yet has 271 clients, or followers as he likes to call them, across the world from San Francisco to Nairobi, Jeddah, Dubai, Colombo, Singapore and Jakarta. But the biggest chunk of his clients are in Bengaluru.
People I spoke to who are on the keto diet, irrespective of whether they consult him or not, pointed me in Shankar’s direction saying he’s the man in the middle of it all. The reason it’s so popular among a few communities in Bengaluru is because of a few early adopters from these communities, says Shankar, a graduate of the National Law School, Bengaluru who has been a dot.com entrepreneur, an NGO worker, and CTO at a media company in different work avatars.
Shankar’s tryst with keto started with his own struggles with weight. From a skinny guy in 1998 weighing 50 kg, he became a heavyweight by 2012 weighing nearly 83 kg. Standing at 5 feet 2 inches, Shankar had a massive 44-inch waist. He tried everything from gymming to weight loss programs, but nothing seemed to work for him.
Until he stumbled upon keto online.
Keto is not a “cure-all”, nor does it work for everybody, he clarifies. He usually doesn’t take up cases where clients have severe ailments of vital organs such as liver, kidney or heart. But he does work with diabetics, while making sure that they parallely consult their diabetologists.
“I absolutely guarantee no results, very clear about this. It’s a scientific data-driven programme. And the idea is, it should be plausible to you; you should not do it in faith, or because you believe in me, and you should not do it because a friend told you. You should do it if it makes logical sense to you,” says Shankar, who works only through referrals.
Shankar started the keto diet in March 2012 and come June he had shed 13 kilos. Without any exercise, he adds. By June the following year, he had shed another seven kilos — a total weight loss of 20 kg over 15 months. Till date, he has lost 35 kilos from his heaviest. After his transformation, he went about helping his family and friends lose weight.
In 2013, Shankar started consulting people professionally. The craziest transformation so far? A woman who lost 50 kilos in two years. He pleads client confidentiality when asked names of his clients. While they come from diverse backgrounds such as Bollywood and athletics, the majority are geeks or techie-turned somethings.
Shankar makes his clients run a battery of diagnostic tests to begin with as well as periodically to gauge the client’s constitution and how the body is reacting to the diet. He doesn’t reveal the tests but some of his clients tell me it is regular stuff — cholesterol, insulin, liver and kidney function etc.
“The primary focus of the Atkins diet is to sell Atkins-branded diet food”
Shankar is generally secretive, and doesn’t reveal how much he charges his clients, only saying that he has a fixed rate and a higher rate for diabetics. He’s a one-man army with an assistant.
I ask him that as he scales and the number of clients grow, will he take people under his wings and train them? He says that he’d prefer not to grow so big so that he can’t interact with each of his clients personally, which is his biggest incentive. “I reach out to my clients everyday, for the first 45 days and then it tapers… but they can call me anytime, I am very available to my clients.”
Can vegetarians get on the diet? Considering there’s a fair amount of protein involved. Shankar says, there are in fact clients of his who are strict vegetarians. “I have Jains, TamBrams (Tamil Brahmins), Gujjus (Gujaratis).” Without getting into details of what vegetarians on keto can have, he mentions “paneer” or cottage cheese as a rich source of protein.
How is keto different from the Atkins diet which also talks about consuming low carbs and ketosis (the metabolic state in which energy is derived from ketone bodies)?
It isn’t very different except for the fact that Atkins did not explicitly speak about high fat consumption and that it had its own range of commercial products.
“The primary focus of the Atkins diet is to sell Atkins branded diet food, it’s a commercial business. I am not saying I’m not commercial. I’m very commercial, I have no doubt. I am selling a service. I’m selling a customised one-on-one bespoke engagement with people for an extended long-term period. But Atkins is way more influential than I can ever be.”
Early keto adapters; vegetarians, too
The results with the keto diet are almost instant. “Couple of days,” says Shankar, and you start seeing the difference. The large part of the initial loss is linked to water weight though, because one of the things that carbs do is hold water in the body, propping up your weight. In the first week itself, people apparently lose two-three kilos.
Subreddits for keto are extremely useful for those planning to do the diet on their own
Certified Bengaluru geek, lawyer, and former entrepreneur Gautam John was one of the early adopters of keto, having started eight years back. He too, like most, picked it up from the internet. A friend of Shankar’s and his law school junior, John does not consult him though, instead relying on keto Reddit threads. “Subreddit for keto is extremely useful,” says John.
What John likes best about the keto diet is that there is no portion control, no calorie counting. “I eat a lot of meat, so it’s an easy diet to follow,” he says with a smile. John has been on the keto diet on and off for most of the last decade. While on keto, John’s experienced a six to eight kilos drop in weight in just four weeks. “There is actual fat loss. It’s dramatic! It’s a really easy way to eat.”
He usually goes on the diet for a month and then goes off it for a couple of weeks. “My energy levels go up when I’m on keto, there are no dips after lunch, no post lunch sluggishness and all,” he says.
Kiran Jonnalagadda, founder, HasGeek, is a vegetarian who eats eggs. He started keto last year after becoming “overweight”, thanks to what he calls “the startup life.” “Being overweight was hurting my legs,” he recalls.
Over the last year, Jonnalagadda has lost over 15 kilos, without any heavy exercises. “I just walk,” he says. His daily fixes include omelettes made in butter and a protein shake. He has replaced rice with what keto folks call “cauliflower rice” — cauliflower that is boiled till it disintegrates and has a boiled rice-like consistency. And he pairs it with “subjis” or vegetable curries. “It’s a scientific diet and you don’t need to continuously measure portions and calories once you get into the flow of the diet,” he says. “You eat whenever you’re hungry, how much ever you feel like.”
Bread made of eggs, cream cheese
Cafe Thulp, a chain of restaurants in Bengaluru, has a dedicated keto menu along with its regular one. It’s no wonder that the owner is a keto convert himself — Gautam Krishnankutty lost 29 kilos in a year by going keto. An old acquaintance of Shankar’s, he was also on oh his first clients. “Been overweight all my life. Tried every diet. Excessive exercise, starving myself, everything,” says Krishnankutty.
My colleague Josey Puliyenthuruthel and I tried out the keto menu at Cafe Thulp and were pleasantly surprised by it. (Vital background: Josey is an insulin-dependent diabetic for 16 years now.) Thulp serves something called ‘keto bread’ made from eggs, cream cheese and psyllium husk (fibre found in laxatives) to replace regular bread, which is rich in carbs.
Josey checked his pre-lunch blood sugar on his FreeStyle Libre Pro, an Abbott-made continuous glucose monitoring device. It was 127 mg/dl. He took his rapid-acting insulin shot and settled down to lunch.
He and I shared a cauliflower and almond soup, which was quite delicious and tasted a lot like potato soup. While I had the spicy grilled cheese sandwich, Josey tried the smoked beef sandwich. Both were made with keto bread. The sandwiches are cut into halves which makes it into two pieces per serving, but neither of us could go beyond one half, because we were so full.
“Almost impossible to overeat with fat,” says Madhu Menon, a techie-turned-chef who’s also on the keto diet. Menon was diagnosed as pre-diabetic when he realised he needed to lose weight and get on a low-carb diet. That’s when he got on to keto. “I’m hardcore non-vegetarian. A diet of meat and fat seemed like an easy task,” says Menon. He lost 20 kilos in 10 months and his “crazy high cholesterol levels came down to normal.”
Typically, a keto meal is devoid of any fruits except berries such as strawberry or nuts, and the carbs allowed are about 20 grams.
The absence of carbs hit Josey’s blood glucose hard. Within 90 minutes of the meal, he had an hypoglycemic episode (low blood sugar) with blood glucose at 38 mg/dl having him scrambling for chocolates and sugar to get his glucose level up.
The counter indications
When people get on the diet, many are said to experience what is known as the keto flu. “You will get a flu, an actual fever, headaches, mood swings,” says Krishnankutty of Thulp. Others I speak to have similar stories to tell, although they make it a point to add that it goes away. Shankar says it happened to him, too, and that he also suffered from “severe” and “painful” constipation. But, he has found a hack around it, he says, without divulging details.
Medicos don’t seem too gung-ho on the diet though, a fact that the keto clan is well aware of. “It can harm kidneys in the long run. I feel it’s not a healthy diet. The role of carbs is important. Why we eat carbohydrates is because the glucose you get from them is very important for the functioning of the brain. Brain is totally dependent on glucose and doesn’t work on anything else,” says Delhi-based nutritionist Aarohi Tyagi.
The ketone bodies that are produced when you’re on the diet, circulate in the bloodstream and are acidic in nature, which is not good for the body, she says.
“You can’t follow the keto diet all your life”
“You can’t follow keto diet for all your life, because it’s not a healthy diet. And once you get off it because your body by then is not used to a regular diet you may get Irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea etc. Excess fat can also lead to diabetes.”
A regular person’s diet usually consists of 60-65% carbohydrates, 15% fat and the rest protein, says Tyagi. “For the normal functioning of all the organs, carbohydrates are required and fats and proteins do their own job. You should restrict carbohydrates and the amount should not exceed 50-55% of your diet,” she adds.
For now, the optics are heavily in favour of the keto diet. That it is tasty and requires no exercise to shed those excess kilos makes it even more attractive. For the geeks and the numberphiles, the fact that most, if not all, numbers — weight, blood glucose, cholesterol and other parameters — look good on the keto diet makes it religion.
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Updated on Oct 12, 2016 at 6.30 pm for typos and grammar, and clarification of Jonnalagadda's quote.