There were many people around the table. Some were talking, others were on their phones; most were too polite to look. But the uncle next to me was from a generation that scrutinized a neighboring plate of food, ever ready to reinforce depleting items and advocate for the tasting of untested ones.
He suffered a minor short-circuiting of cognition as I watched him stare, probably at my plate, but perhaps also at my belly that was adjacent to it.
The nearly 60 year old man looked up from the mound of Chicken Fry that was almost about to tumble down onto the slathering of Beef Roast, both of which were bordered by pools of red pickle and white curd that were attempting to swiftly encircle these battalions of Protein and Fat that enjoyed all the real estate the wedding caterer’s flimsy, frequently concave silver paper plate could possibly offer.
Right on cue, my friend chimed. “Avan Puthiya Diet Cheyyanu! Thadi Kurakyan!” (He’s on a new diet! So that he can lose weight!)
The old man managed a faltering smile and didn’t look at me again.
The Process of Ketosis
The Ketogenic diet, also known simply as the “Keto” diet or LCHF (Low Carbohydrates High Fat) diet, relies on a pretty fascinating biological feature of the human body.
There are three main macronutrients that we derive from food: Carbohydrates, Protein and Fat. If you were to eat 100 grams of boiled egg, you’d get 155 calories (which is energy for you to function), as well as 11 grams of fat, 13 grams of protein and 1.1 gram of carbohydrates.
The proportion of these three macronutrients within a food item varies drastically. Sometimes, one of them may even be missing. You might be surprised to hear that sugar has no Fat. And a block of butter has almost no sugar (carbohydrates).
Right now, most people around the world gain 65% of calories from Carbohydrates. Think of all the rice and bread and sugar and soda and noodles. Now, what would happen if you were to reduce that to less than 5%?
That’s how the Keto diet starts. You stop eating anything that has carbs in it.
“So you stopped rice completely?” My aunt asked as we sat down for lunch. She was about to serve me some. I nodded my head. “I don’t eat rice at all now.”
“What about chappati?” My uncle asks immediately, curious to see how I’d react as he began to pick up a couple of them.
“No, no chappati,” I replied. “Or Porotta,” I added before he could ask. “Basically, nothing that has grain in it.”
That never helps. It’s one thing to hear “No grain”, it’s entirely more satisfying to discover that even brown bread is ineligible. Whenever such nuggets of information are unearthed, it prompts a few more suggestions, perhaps out of a sincere belief that there’s a dish out there that I didn’t know I could eat.
“But why?” My cousin asked me a few days later at a dinner party. I was seriously starting to consider avoiding eating in public.
Because, I told him, carbohydrates get converted into glucose, which is what fuels our bodies. When you stop consuming it, the body initially relies on glucose stored in the liver and the muscles. That quickly runs out. So if there’s no glucose left to fuel the body, how does it adjust? By entering a state known as “ketosis”. This is when the body burns stored fat and uses the resultant buildup of acids called “ketones” to fuel itself.
“Basically,” I added, seeing the confused expression on my cousin’s face, “it’s like switching from diesel to petrol. You need to finish all the diesel in the tank before petrol can be used, you know?”
“Oh, okay, and in this example,”
“- Analogy,” my sister corrected.
“Er, metaphor,” I objected.
“-Whatever it is,” my cousin cried, waving his hand dismissively as he tried to remember what he was saying. “So, you’re saying these – these ketones are better than glucose?”
It wasn’t me saying it. At least it didn’t start with me. Over the past few years, keto diet has exploded in popularity. Countless YouTube videos, online forums, step-by-step guides, and academic literature have sprung up to explain and endorse this diet.
I began the Keto diet in May 2017, and many friends and relatives in Kerala were either bemused or outright worried. “You’re only eating chicken and beef and eggs?”
I tried telling them that most fruits were high in sugar, though there were still plenty of low carb vegetables I could and did eat. It didn’t help that I was extremely obese. Most thought I’d simply fooled my family into serving me all the meat I wanted.
Less than a year later, when I returned home from working abroad, things had changed.
Suddenly I was hearing energetic uncles and aunties talk about “LCHF” and “Butter Coffee”. I was both relieved and a little surprised. The Keto Diet had come to Kerala.
The 4 Magic Letters
How is it possible that a diet which asks you to completely avoid favorite dishes like…
…not to mention most fruits and vegetables, can possibly become a trend in Kerala?
Perhaps because there’s something the dieter gains that worth all this daily sacrifice?
For obese youngsters like me, the Keto diet was simply a magical shortcut towards weight loss. Over the course of 6 months or so, I lost more than 20 kilos. Without having to suffer any hunger pangs!
But the vast majority of the 70,000 members of the LCHF Malayalam group on Facebook are not doing it simply for losing weight. But to battle a disease that’s ensnaring millions of people around the world, causing prolonged suffering and ultimately premature death.
The Silent Killer: Diabetes
The strongest proponents of the Ketogenic diet believe the best way to fight this “lifestyle disease” is by drastically changing your lifestyle. While slightly overweight but otherwise healthy Malayalees can’t dream of giving up their rice and sambar in order to slim down, there are plenty who will give up any dish if it’ll allow them to realize the dream of a life without insulin injections.
Through WhatsApp videos, Telegram groups and Facebook pages, more and more Malayalees are hearing about and even attempting the Ketogenic diet. And when there is a new trend in town, it’s simply a matter of time before opposing opinions and backlash and backlash to the backlash pops up.
This is occurring all over the world. There are many who claim that ketogenic diets are harmful to the human body. If not now, at least in the long term. There are plenty of researchers who’re trying to prove the exact opposite.
Then there’s the circle of conspiracy theory involved. What happens to the Kellogs, McDonalds, and PepsiCo’s of the world if society moved towards lower carbohydrate consumption? After all, there have been plenty of articles written and documentaries made regarding how the diary, corn, and other industries lobbied governments in an attempt to push science and legislation that greatly benefited them.
And what about the mysteries of the human body, which coupled with the limitations of science and errors of human nature, combine to give us information that is rapidly revealed to be faulty or incomplete? 40 years ago, the cover of Time Magazine declared that butter was bad. 5 years ago the same magazine assured us that butter was great. The same goes for the humble egg. Or coconut oil, which the American Heart Association infamously declared to be “unhealthy”. Perhaps the fact that the soybean, canola and corn industries hold a stake in AHA is just a coincidence. After all, how could they possibly profit from a crash in sales of coconut oil? The fact that consumers will purchase “vegetable” and canola oil instead is…a completely unrelated phenomenon.
Different Rivers Leading to the Same Sea
It’s easy to be sucked into a particular camp when it comes to dieting. For a while, I was an almost evangelical fan of the ketogenic diet. Just like how some people cannot stand the idea of relying mostly on meat instead of the much “healthier” option of fruits and vegetables. But I’ve come to realize that in Kerala, at the end of the day there’s a sense of plurality that’s comforting. Just like how even distinguished MBBS doctors will admit their parents to an Ayurveda center for treatment after their colleagues tell them there’s no hope, in Kerala the idea of LCHF can reside alongside Prakrithi Chikilsa (Natural treatment).
At the end of the day, we all just want to find a way to live healthier, happier lives, right?