How does a ketogenic diet affect your health?
Since Ketosis was first identified in the early Twentieth Century, scientists and dieticians have taken a serious interest in understanding why it occurs and how it affects us. While there are still more questions than answers, science has given us some solid findings.
What does a keto diet (or another low-carb diet) do?
Many diets around the world, including the typical American diet, share this characteristic: they are high in dietary carbohydrate intake, as this source of energy is plentiful and easily converts to blood sugar to fuel the body.
But this energy is short-term, and prolonged reliance on high-carb and/or sugary meals is linked to heart disease, obesity, high blood sugar, and an array of other problems.
How is a ketogenic diet different?
A ketogenic diet restricts carb intake to near-zero levels, about 30-50 grams per day.
The body converts this fat into "ketone bodies," energy molecules that go on to provide the brain and muscles with the power they need to function. Ketone bodies are only produced in ultra-low carbohydrate diets.
Are there pitfalls?
A low-calorie ketogenic diet pursued weight loss alone can be akin to starvation and is not the goal of a balanced keto diet.
Done properly, a ketogenic diet will contain roughly the same amount of calories as your typical diet. Carbohydrates are replaced with what is keto diet approved, mostly healthy fats that we achieve nutritional ketosis that is sustainable, balanced, and healthy.
It is important to note that doctors are unsure if ketosis is a healthy long-term dietary shift. People will sometimes naturally enter ketosis if they are pregnant, struggling with food shortages, or otherwise experiencing a nutritional burden. But these periods typically last for a few weeks or months, not years.
So let's break down the benefits and risks of a keto diet, so as to more accurately consider whether this diet may be helpful for you.
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The known benefits of the ketogenic diet
We'll start by covering the proven and theoretical benefits of keto.
Origin of keto-treatment for Epilepsy
The first use of the ketogenic diet, however, was not related to weight loss.
Fasting has long been believed to improve the condition of those suffering from epilepsy. But it was not until early in the last century that medical science advanced enough to accurately identify the mechanism in question.
An elevated level of ketone bodies in the blood has been shown to decrease the frequency of epileptic seizures. Studies have shown that a carefully thought out, the balanced keto diet can have positive effects for epileptics on par with pharmaceutical treatment.
This is an amazing discovery! If you have epilepsy, you've likely already heard of this fact. It's always a good idea to consult your healthcare provider before you change your diet, especially if you want to explore a ketogenic diet as a strategy to manage epilepsy.
Blood sugar control
Another observed effect of the keto diet is its relationship to blood sugar. Without the infusions of sugar from carbs, a keto diet may help regulate an individual's blood sugar.
Again, switching to a ketogenic diet is not a replacement for consulting your doctor. If you want to control your blood sugar, talk to your health care provider about options including a keto diet.
Other potential health benefits
This is the extent of the medically-reviewed effects.
It bears repeating that none of these links are medically recognized, there simply haven't been enough studies conducted on humans to be confident that a low carbohydrate ketogenic diet will have an effect on these conditions.
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The risks of Keto
Ketogenic diets are not the end-all solution for dietary problems. If the switch is not approached thoughtfully, your low-carb keto diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies. It's common for many guides for what to eat on keto diet to focus on high fat meats and ignore other food groups.
Despite the demands of keto, try to maintain a balanced diet as much as you can, incorporating different food groups and plenty of vegetables. (ie. don't only eat bacon) This is the challenge of keto and what makes it a difficult diet plan to maintain for some.
Here are some of the risks you should be aware of if you're considering going keto.
As your body adjusts to a radical change in nutritional intake, benign but uncomfortable side effects can occur.
The Keto flu is a series of flu-like symptoms, like headache and fatigue, often worsened by the dehydration of losing water weight in the first stages of Ketosis.
It's a good reason to make the shift gradually and make sure you keep up the necessities like hydration if you're switching to a low-carbohydrate diet!
The increased level of animal products in most ketogenic diets can put undue strain on your kidneys, potentially leading to kidney disease if the stress is maintained.
Make sure you aren't eating much more protein than normal, and restrict your intake of red meat. These factors could lead to kidney stones. Try eating fatty fish instead!
Most of all, you should avoid processed meats and other foods as much as you can. These foods are difficult for your body to metabolize.
Constipation and gut health
By cutting many fibrous foods (like starchy vegetables) out of your diet, the keto diet may negatively affect your gut health.
Constipation is reported as a common side effect, so finding clever low-carb fiber sources (like almonds) or a fiber supplement may be a good idea.
Related to the previous section, embarking on a restrictive diet can eliminate the vitamins and minerals we usually get from whole grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables.
Going without these can lead to decreased bone density and many other problems, so make sure you take a vitamin and mineral supplement or otherwise balance your diet scrupulously.
Low blood sugar
The flip side of using the keto diet to regulate blood sugar related to Diabetes, individuals can lower their blood sugar too much. Make sure you talk to your doctor about where your blood sugar is at and how much change will be helpful vs. hurtful.
Cardiovascular risk factors
A long-term study found that low-carb diets based on animal products corresponded to increased cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. The same study found that plant-based low-carb diets did not increase these risk factors.
This further suggests that not all ketogenic diets are made the same, and it's important to find a balanced diet that accommodates these risks.
Both the benefits and risks of the keto diet are real and worth considering. While keto may help some, it's perhaps not right for all people looking to modify their diet.
As always, consult your healthcare provider on the possible upsides and negative factors of the ketogenic diet before you radically alter your eating habits.
Ketosis may offer serious boons to your health, but its ultimate nature is still in question, and we should continue to lead with curiosity as we explore better ways of eating.