Now that we are into the fresh New Year, I have already begun hearing people talking about the new diets that they are going to be trying, and just within my circle of friends, it appears that the Ketogenic (Keto) diet is still reigning as the most popular option.
So what’s the appeal? Perhaps it is the seemingly unlimited bacon, butter, and cheese, or maybe people like the idea of not having to eat as much fruit, but either way, the Keto diet continues to gain support. But is it truly the magical diet that most claim it to be? Let’s take a closer look at what this diet is all about so that you can go into the New Year armed with some things to consider before ditching the carbohydrates.
If you are unfamiliar with Keto, the premise of it is to get your body using up your fat reserves by encouraging your liver to use existing fat sources to create an energy molecule called a ketone. Your body then uses these ketones as your energy source, rather than the faster burning carbohydrates. The idea is that if you eliminate, or seriously reduce, your carbohydrate intake, your body will begin to digest fats more efficiently allowing your body to use up your fat stores. It is for this reason that most people report substantial weight loss. In addition to weight loss, there have been studies done that show the Keto diet can also help mitigate seizure severity in individuals with epilepsy.
In my experience, most people are not drawn to it for its medical use in cases of epilepsy but are drawn to the diet because it encourages a high fat, high-calorie diet. Who doesn’t like the diet of being able to eat all the fatty delicacies that other diets require you to avoid? But this is where I, and many nutrition experts, begin to question the diet. Encouraging people to eat healthy unsaturated fats from sources like nuts, seeds, fish and olive oil has shown in studies to have beneficial results on lowering “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, and helping reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disease.
However, most keto “consultants”, who for the most part are untrained media bloggers that have reported success in weight loss, have a much stronger focus on saturated fat intake, claiming that it is a longer-lasting energy source. Therefore, rather than cutting down on unhealthy refined carbohydrates (such as sugar and bread and other such lovely indulgences) and increasing healthy unsaturated fat intake, people are throwing out their fruits and veggies and bringing in butter, bacon, coconut oil, cheese and other sources of high calorie, high saturated fat foods. Without going too far down the “what type of fat is better” rabbit hole (a subject for a later blog) I will just say that this is not healthy. Saturated fats eaten in moderation are entirely fine, however, studies have suggested that replacing saturated fats in your diet with other unsaturated fats could help lower your total blood cholesterol.
Back to the functionality of the Keto diet. At its very core, the key premise of the keto diet is to burn ketones rather than carbs for your energy source. However, burning ketones requires more energy from your body and it could potentially also puts strains on your liver as it is the main organ that produces ketone bodies. This could potentially become problematic, because if you happen to have underlying liver issues, then they could be further exacerbated by the Keto diet. Another issue is that carbohydrates are our brain's main energy source, and ketones are not as easily used as energy sources. This has caused numerous reports of increased levels of lethargy and irritability, and higher levels of brain fogginess while on the keto diet. A third large issue is that many essential micronutrients that our bodies need to survive and thrive, such as vitamin C, selenium, magnesium, phosphate, and other nutrients are all found in fruits and vegetables, and if you are not consuming adequate amounts of them you could be at risk of serious health complications (anyone ever heard of scurvy?). And finally, if you are not eating enough fiber, as people on unprofessional Keto diets often are not, you run the risk of constipation. This is a real health risk because we are just at the tip of the iceberg in studying the microbiome and its health, but one thing that we have learned is that a healthy digestive tract is a moving digestive tract. If you are constipated or food is not passing through your system correctly, you run the risk of unhealthy putrefaction in your gut. And a diet high in animal fat and protein encourages this unhealthy putrefaction called proteolytic and can lead to releasing cancer-causing agents in your gut, leading to a heightened risk of colon cancers and inflammatory gut complications.
So then what is the solution? How do you harness the benefits of the keto diet whilst mitigating its risks and maintaining a healthy balanced diet? The answer is a Mediterranean style, Keto. This would have the same premise, but instead of butter and cheese, I would encourage people to eat more Extra Virgin Olive Oil and nuts and seeds. Ensure that you get enough fiber and make sure that you are not missing out on your essential nutrients. For more information please feel free to check out an excellent article by the Harvard School of Medicine which you can find here.