To Keto or Not to Keto?

What is the ketogenic diet? It’s a high fat, low carb diet. The classic diet is composed of 80-90% fat, net carbohydrates are limited to about 25-35 grams (about the equivalent of 1 apple), and protein makes up the remainder of intake at about 6%.

What does “ketogenic” mean? When the body runs out of glucose as fuel, it shifts to the utilization of fat for energy. Fats are converted to ketone bodies in the liver, which become an alternative source of energy for the body.

Pros: Ketosis in the body can have many benefits, from treating chronic illnesses to optimizing performance. The diet enhances the ability of the mitochondria, the power plants of our cells, to deliver the body’s energy in a way that reduces inflammation and oxidative stress. The diet was created as a medicinal diet for epilepsy and has also been found to be effective in certain cancers by starving cancer cells of sugar. It can be neuro-protective for the brain and may be protective against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It may lead to weight loss, especially at first, partially due to increased satiety from fat intake, decreased water retention, and more balanced blood sugar levels.

Cons: Studies are contradicting in the use of a ketogenic diet for long term weight loss, citing numerous side effects as well as difficulty with diet adherence. Some studies have found that long term use of the ketogenic diet can cause arterial stiffness as well as dehydration and gastrointestinal disturbances such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, gastritis, and fat intolerance. Long-term use may also increase the risk of osteopenia, renal stones, cardiomyopathy, secondary hypocarnitinemia, and iron deficiency anemia. Many people end up eating high amounts of highly saturated and poor quality animal fats which can lead to a host of long term issues. This diet can also be low in gut-healthy fiber as many fiber rich foods contain too many carbs for this diet. Research still isn’t able to definitively determine all of the effects of the use of this diet long term.

Perspective: Traditionally, an extreme diet such as keto would be nearly impossible for our ancestors. The only culture that has even come close to eating a ketogenic diet were the Inuit people of the Artic who naturally had a low carb diet consisting mostly of seal blubber and fish meat. The Inuit actually acquired a gene to block them from going into ketogenesis from their high fat diet. If this were a healthy long term diet, why would nature evolve to prevent it? The ketogenic diet is essentially a starvation diet. When we fail to replenish our glucose stores, we kick into ketogenesis, which proves to be an amazing mechanism that allows us to thrive during times of starvation and limited sources of glucose in our diets. These situations usually naturally occur during the spring, when food stores might run out before spring brings new harvests. This kind of seasonal ketogenesis occurs from fasting however, not eating 80% of our diet from fats.

Recommendation: The ketogenic diet has proven medicinal benefits when used as a therapy for various chronic diseases. However, extreme diets such as this can often lead to unforeseen issues. If you want to try the ketogenic diet, be sure to choose the healthiest fats you can, such as egg, avocado, or almonds. Include lots of greens which are packed with nutrients and fiber. Try to eat organic/grass fed animal products whenever possible including chesses, eggs, other dairy, and meats. Drink lots of water to help avoid constipation. Assess how you feel and consider trying less intense variations of the classic keto diet, such as the modified keto, modified Atkins, or low glycemic index diets. Eating seasonally can naturally provide opportunities for the benefits of low carb diets, such as in the spring, while avoiding the long term side effects that have been reported with extreme diets such as keto.