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The Keto Diet: Healthy or not?

The Keto Diet: Healthy or not?

Losing weight is a complicated subject and unfortunately there are no quick and easy solutions for many of us.  Diets that promise us quick and easy weight loss are unlikely to result in weight loss that lasts over the long term.  Why? Because as soon as we change back to our old way of eating, the weight creeps back on. Sometimes even adding on more weight than before the diet started.  Questions from friends about the “Keto Diet”  and a recent study about it prompted my interest in looking into ketogenic diets more closely and sharing with you what I learned.

The “Keto Diet” is the most recent in a whole range of ketogenic diets to hit the mainstream as a weight-loss alternative.  There have been numerous similar diets over the years including The Atkins Diet, The South Beach Diet and the Paleo Diet.

Let’s first take a step back

I think the first thing that is important to understand is how the body uses the food we ingest for energy.  Most cells in our body prefer to use glucose, the sugar circulating in our blood for energy. In the absence of glucose in the blood stream, the body will use other sources such as protein and fat to create energy.  Eliminating the carbohydrates in your diet means there is no glucose in the blood stream and your body is forced to make energy from other sources.

The Keto Diet: Healthy or not?
Photo by Casey DeViese on Unsplash

How these diets work

Any type of ketogenic diet restricts the amount of carbohydrates and increases the consumption of proteins and fats, and the recent Keto Diet is no different.  Eating carbohydrates in amounts as low as 20-50 grams, the body has no blood sugar to use for energy and is required to begin looking for other sources.  The main source that it finally settles on is burning the stored fat cells in your body, thus resulting in weight loss.

The diet encourages eating fattier proteins such as bacon and beef and excludes starchy carbohydrates such as beans and whole grains and many fruits.

The red flags

For me, there are so many red flags in this diet.  First, it restricts foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, that have many health benefits.  Yes, these foods are a source of carbohydrates, but in reality they are much more, providing us with a whole range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and nutrition for our bodies.

Furthermore, we are replacing these healthy carbs with foods that are higher in saturated fats which in the long term may negatively effect the health of our cardiovascular system.

Last, I definitely question the ability to sustain this diet long term because it excludes so many foods that many of us enjoy eating.  And in various papers written about this diet, that is one of the main problems mentioned about this diet. Furthermore, an unfortunate outcome of this diet is that any weight loss is quickly regained when a regular diet is resumed.

Side effects of ketosis

There are some side effects that generally occur when the diet is first started and the body is entering into ketosis. One of these is called the “keto flu” and has similar symptoms of a regular flu such as headache, weakness, irritability, nausea and vomiting.  These effects will generally subside somewhat once the diet has been followed for a period of time.

A more serious side effect of this diet is the creation of ketone bodies in the liver.  These ketone bodies are released into the blood. However, if they build up to a harmful level they can cause acidosis in the body and even lead to death.

The diet does cause an increase in urination as the body works harder to eliminate the increased number of ketone bodies in the blood stream.  Potentially leading to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and in more serious instances lead to kidney damage.

Other side effects sometimes experienced on this diet are bad breath, sleep issues, fatigue and constipation.

What does the science say?

Many studies have demonstrated that reducing carbohydrate consumption for a period of time, lowers blood pressure and reduces the “bad” cholesterol.  However, there are two problems with many of these studies.  They look at a small of individuals and take place over a small period of time.  Until recently there was little in the way of long-term research that considered the health outcomes of a low-carb diet over time.

The most recent study to appear in The Lancet Public Health in August evaluated the diet, including carbohydrate intake, and mortality rates for a period of 25 years of 15,400+ men and women.  The main outcome of this study was that those who consumed less than 40% of their calories from carbohydrates died earlier than those who consumed an average amount of carbohydrates (50-55%).

The study looked at the type of protein and fat used to replace carbs in the group who ate less than 40% carbohydrates as well.  The findings indicate that those who used plant-based sources as a replacement lived longer than those using animal fat and protein as a replacement.  This indicates potential harm to the body when consuming larger amounts of animal fat and protein.

Conclusions on the science

One likely conclusion related to the outcomes of this study is that eating a moderate amount of healthy carbohydrates including fruits, vegetables and whole grains, supplies the body with other nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, thus leading to a longer life expectancy.

In my opinion, avoiding wholesome high carbohydrates such as fruits and whole grains is not the answer.  Instead we should be eliminating unhealthy, highly processed carbohydrates and limiting our intake of foods high in saturated fat.  And that in the end, eating more balanced food choices and more nutrient dense foods is what is important.

The Keto Diet: Healthy or not?
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

What type of diet is a healthy alternative.

Losing weight occurs when we consume less calories than we our bodies use.  That is the simple truth and at the basis of any diet plan.  So the two questions to really consider, “Is the way we are eating to lose weight sustainable over time?”, and “Is it a healthy way to lose weight?”.

If the answer is no to either of these questions, then we definitely need to consider a different diet.  There are lots of healthy ways of eating and diets out there.  I prefer the “Mediterranean Diet” as a style of eating because it really has room for every single food.  Nothing is completely off limits!!  You can eat red meat and sugar, just in smaller quantities and less frequently.

The diet’s basic structure includes:

Daily

  • Whole grains, potatoes, pasta, rice, polenta and bread
  • Fruits, vegetables, beans and other legumes, nuts
  • Olive oil, cheese and yogurt
  • Glass of wine

Weekly

  • Sweets, eggs, poultry and fish

Monthly

  • Red meat

Helpful hints when following the Mediterranean Diet as a method of weight loss

⇒At the start track the foods you are eating. Make sure that your calorie intake is at an appropriate level for you to lose weight.  This activity may need to be continued long term to keep you on track.

⇒Get moving since daily physical activity is also an important aid in weight loss.

⇒Work on changing habits to enact long term behavior change.

⇒Don’t expect quick weight loss or immediate weight loss.  A healthy pace to lose weight is 1-2 pounds a week.

Conclusion

It is possible that a ketogenic diet can be used over short term intervals in combination with the Mediterranean diet as  indicated by one study I read.  But in my option that if you decide to use the “Keto Diet” for weight loss, it is best you consult with a doctor or even better a dietitian before starting.  They will closely monitor the biochemistry in your body and help to prevent some of the dangers that are imposed by this diet.  In addition, they will be able to provide you with some guidance as you transition out of a ketogenic diet without packing on the pounds again.

Questions or comments are certainly welcome. Please post in the comments here on the blog or send me a private message using the contact me page.

Sources:

Ketogenic diet:  Is the ultimate low-carb diet good for you?

Is a low carb diet healthy? Science proves why diet fads like keto can’t beat eating in moderation

Keto diet side effects

Dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality



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