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How COVID-19 killed America’s favorite diet

After years of saying saying no to carbs, the pandemic led us to start gorging on bread and sweets. “Food is pleasure and there is little pleasure these days,” says one expert.

How COVID-19 killed America’s favorite diet
[Photo: Nathália Rosa /Unsplash]

In the early days, right when all but the most essential businesses shut down, Dr. Marcelo Campos was walking around a grocery store looking for flour. Before COVID-19, he allowed himself a lemon square from a particular bakery every two weeks. The bakery had now shut down and he had resolved to bake his own lemon squares from scratch. He turned down the baking aisle and balked. “There was no flour!” he says, still bewildered. “I found one bag that was gluten free . . . that’s how I made my lemon squares—they turned out okay,” he says with some disappointment.

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In the early days of the pandemic when it was still cold outside and everyone was shut indoors, bread became an icon of a return to domesticity. King Arthur’s sales grew 2,000% and Instagram grids were awash in pornographic crumb shots: bubbly cross-sections of loaves freshly pulled from the oven. In the lockdown we all learned to bake bread. We also, it seems, gave up on our hatred for carbs.

“It goes back to the thing that food is pleasure and there is little pleasure these days,” says Campos, a family doctor who specializes in nutrition. “We cannot go to a park without a mask. We cannot travel. Pleasure is completely gone. We can’t even exercise! The gyms are closed. COVID is hell. We are working at home doing nothing.”

In January 2019, searches for the ketogenic diet peaked harder and higher than searches for any of the other similarly faddish diets like paleo or Atkins. It spent the rest of the year on a downward decline along with all our other newly acquired healthy habits, only to gasp upward again at the beginning of 2020. By April, searches were as low as they were during the last holiday season, when the last thing on anyone’s mind is dieting. People also did some hopeful searching for the keto diet in June, but it’s hard to justify the need for a beach body when it’s ill-advised to go to the beach.

Could the pandemic have killed the ketogenic diet?

It goes back to the thing that food is pleasure and there is little pleasure these days.”

Marcelo Campos

Keto, as it’s called by those in the know, is based on the way the body deals with sugars or the lack thereof. The body uses blood sugar as its main source of energy. When we stop eating carbohydrates and have lower amounts of sugar in our blood stream, our bodies start pulling energy from all the places we lovingly store fat. That process is called ketosis. To push the body into ketosis, you need to eat a lot of meats, nuts, fish, oils, butter, cheese, eggs, and vegetables.

Despite its recent popularity—at least until COVID-19 took away all our willpower—the diet has actually been around since the early 20th century. Dr. Russel Wilder, an endocrinologist who studied metabolic disease, realized that low carbohydrate diets with high fat content had a positive effect on people who suffered epilepsy. The diet produces a similar effect to fasting or starvation, which other researchers had found helpful in reducing if not eliminating seizures in some patients. However, it was hard for patients to keep up with.

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[Photo: Emiliano Vittoriosi
/Unsplash]
Fifty years later, a similar diet peaked into public discourse, this time as a weight-loss gimmick from Dr. Robert Atkins, who published his anti-carb manifesto in 1972 with a promise that we could lose weight and still eat lots of bacon. But the diet had issues; some doctors found it abhorrent because it encouraged high consumption of saturated fats, which at the time were more strongly linked to heart disease. In the end, the Atkins diet was deemed a too-greasy course correction. However, it succeeded in cementing a new enemy: the carbohydrate. It was a welcome target, because the truth was we never hated fat.

The fat-friendly diet’s next iteration found its form in the paleo diet, which tries to replicate the eating habits of Paleolithic humans. Like the keto diet, it allows for meats, vegetables, and fats, but the list of foods you’re supposed to avoid quickly becomes complicated. After 2014, Google searches for the diet seem to peter out. And by 2016, the keto diet had started gradually accruing a following. What brought the keto diet out of the medical archives and into popular culture seems to be a growing body of research linking the diet to weight loss—as well as the rise of Instagram. While before-and-after-diet photos are a hallmark of any fad diet, images of keto metamorphosis (often hashtagged #ketoweightloss) are especially enthralling.

[Photo: Jennifer Burk/Unsplash]
Part of what may make keto so attractive is that the diet itself is fairly uncomplicated if restrictive: eat meats, eat veggies, eat fats, just no bread, no pasta, no rice, no potatoes, no corn, and of course, no sweets. Another selling point is that the diet focused on abstaining from carbs, a well-established enemy—but one many of us quickly embraced during the stress of the pandemic.

“We as humans love to demonize things,” says Campos. However, in the absence of pleasure, as Campos observantly notes, it becomes more imperative to seek out things that bring us joy, even if those things were once deemed the source of our loathed extra pounds.

Americans are enduring a variety of stressful circumstances under COVID-19. They are sick, they are working, they are holding a full-time job while also playing teacher to their children, they are quarantined away from their families, they are working too many hours. It is enough to send people searching for quick ways to self-soothe.

“I think we have to remember how hard it is for people to adapt to a new reality, and I think we have to be more sensitive to that,” says Campos.

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In addition to flour sales, alcohol sales have risen phenomenally under COVID-19. According to Nielsen, online sales of alcohol went up 243% in March. It should come as no surprise that substance abuse is way up as well. Campos also notes that among his 2,500 panel of patients, weight gain is too: “The ‘quarantine 15’ people are talking about these days—and for some people it’s the quarantine 30.”

The question is: Who will we blame for our gloriously thick bodies—and will our pandemic-induced love affair with carbs survive the next diet craze?

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About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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