Disclaimer: this article is not intended to diagnose or treat. Please consult your medical provider, informing them of your medical history and current medications, prior to making drastic changes to your diet.
It’s generally accepted that our bodies are carbohydrate burning powerhouses, using glycogen stored in the liver and muscles to fuel our lives – and we’re really efficient at it! But what happens when intake of carbohydrates is so low that our bodies turn to burning fat for fuel instead? Well, our brain, which is selfish when it comes to energy usage, goes into starvation mode in the absence of sugar and relies on the liver to derive the energy it needs to function directly from fat. This is the basis of the ketogenic diet.
The ketogenic diet is more of, let’s say, a lifestyle choice rather than the next big fad diet. Supporters of the ketogenic way of eating will boast enhanced performance, improvement in various health metrics like blood sugar, and maybe even weight loss. But why a sudden significant shift in eating habits? Is the ketogenic diet really all it’s cracked up to be? Let’s learn more!
Although it may seem new and hip, the ketogenic diet, otherwise known as the “keto” diet, has been around for many years. It’s based on consuming a diet that’s very low in carbohydrates and high in fats and protein. You may be thinking, “this sounds quite familiar” and that’s because it does. The Atkins diet, introduced in the 1970s, and the ketogenic diet draw on many of the same principles; pushing the body into a state of “ketosis”, or the breakdown of ketone bodies (fat) for energy.
How To Keto
The body typically goes into a state of ketosis within several days of consuming a very low carbohydrate diet. What’s considered “very low”? According to Dr. Marcelo Campos, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and Clinical Assistant Professor at TUFTS School of Medicine, 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrate consumption per day depending on the individual may lead to the production of ketone bodies, and hence, a keto diet.
Benefits of a Ketogenic Lifestyle
- The keto diet is recommended by the Epilepsy Foundation for children with seizures who don’t respond to medication. Studies have shown that over half of children who follow a ketogenic diet experience a 50% reduction in seizures, while a small percentage are even seizure free.
- A keto diet may induce weight loss that is more significant and more rapid than a traditional low-fat diet, helping those that are overweight or obese. According to Antonio Paouli in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “ketogenic diets have undoubtedly been shown to be effective, at least in the short to medium term, as a tool to fight obesity, hyperlipidemia and some cardiovascular risk factors.” However, he notes that while it may have benefits, the keto diet does raise some concern among physicians.
- The keto diet may offer better control of blood sugar for individuals with Type 2 diabetes, mostly attributed to significant weight loss, but also low intake of a high glycemic index. However, keto diet is not safe for everyone with diabetes and therefore a medical provider should be consulted prior to changing eating habits.
- Followers of the keto diet tend to develop a sweet, bad breath caused by the breakdown of fatty acids. This side effect is by no means life threatening, just a watch out for social situations.
- Because the keto diet focuses on a very low intake of the macronutrient, carbohydrate, Jaclyn London, Registered Dietitian at Good House Keeping warns that nutrient deficiencies are possible if followers of the diet aren’t educated and intentional about their nutrition.
- While the keto diet may be good for weight loss and lowering blood pressure in the short term, an analysis in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2013 evaluating ketogenic diets against low-fat diets for long-term weight loss found that these keto diets can also increase LDL cholesterol. Dr. Marcelo Campos seconds this concern in a keto diet review in a Harvard Health blog, saying that emphasis on fat and protein over carbohydrates may encourage higher consumption of less healthy oils and red meat, generally high in saturated fats, that may lead to potential complications related to heart health.
- The keto diet may solicit significant weight loss or improved health metrics in some individuals, however, we’re all different and effects may vary from person to person. Also, because this diet is so very low in carbohydrates, this diet may not be sustainable for most individuals who are used to following the typical American diet.
Overall, more research is needed on the long-term effects of the keto diet, particularly in adult humans, as much of the research currently available is based on animal studies or children with epilepsy. So make the more sustainable choice for you, because the best diet for you is the one you can stick with. It should be based on a variety of different foods that are nutrient dense, that is they provide a lot of nutrients for little calories. And remember, every food can be incorporated into a healthy diet in moderation!
1. Ketogenic Diet for Obesity – Friend or Foe? By Antonio Paoli – International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2014 Feb; 11(2): 2092–2107.
2. The 5 Most Common Arguments for the Keto Diet, Debunked by Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN – Good House Keeping. 2018 Feb 16.
3. Ketogenic diet: Is the ultimate low-carb diet good for you? By Marcelo Campos, MD. Harvard Health Blog. 2017 July 27.
4. Very-low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet v. low-fat diet for long-term weight loss: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials by Nassib Bezerra Bueno, Ingrid Sofia Vieira de Melo, Suzana Lima de Oliveira and Terezinha da Rocha Ataide. British Journal of Nutrition. 2013 Oct;110(7):1178-87.
5. Effects of Ketogenic Diet on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Evidence from Animal and Human Studies by Christophe Kosinski and François R. Jornayvaz. Nutrients Journal. 2017 May; 9(5): 517.
6. Ketogenic Diet. Epilepsy Foundation. 2017 Oct 25.