Taking a Closer Look at the Keto Diet and its Implications

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in healthy eating and a heightened consciousness of one’s food choices. Various specialized diets, such as the vegan and paleo diets, have risen in popularity. Among these new diets, the ketogenic, or keto, diet has been particularly significant. Many people swear by the keto diet for its supposed benefits in aiding weight loss and fitness, but is this diet really the healthiest option?

Most people have likely heard of the keto diet, but they may not be aware of the diet’s specific nutrition requirements. In essence, the keto diet is a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carbohydrate regimen. Typically, the body uses glucose from the breakdown of carbohydrates as a source of energy. In contrast, the keto diet results in a breakdown of fats, producing ketones that are then used as fuel by the body. The modified biochemical effects of the keto diet usually result in faster metabolism, decreased hunger, and more efficient weight loss. For these reasons, the keto diet has become especially popular among Hollywood stars and social media personalities.

This image shows a food pyramid representative of a balanced diet, which places an emphasis on eating foods from a variety of food groups, as well as on physical exercise. (Source)

There are several health benefits to the ketogenic diet. For example, the keto diet is sometimes recommended for children with epilepsy, as the combination of high fat and protein content with low carbohydrate intake has shown to be effective in reducing the risk of seizures. The reason why this diet is effective in curbing seizures is not well understood. However, researchers have noticed that the keto diet induces ketosis, a state in which the body must burn fat, rather than carbohydrates, for energy. This process is similar to what the body undergoes during fasting, which has been suggested as a seizure treatment for several centuries. Although effective antiepileptic agents have made the keto diet a less common recommendation for epileptic children, the diet is still suggested when other medicines are ineffective.

One of the most popular reasons why people take up this diet is weight loss. The keto diet can be used for this purpose by those who are overweight or obese, as well as by those at a healthy weight who want to lose a few pounds. The exact reasons as to why the keto regime promotes weight loss are not clear, though some possible explanations are that its high fat content promotes a feeling of fullness, as well as that it quells “hunger” hormones such as insulin and ghrelin. The keto diet has also been associated with an improvement in conditions related to high body weight, such as high blood pressure and increased cholesterol. Additionally, the diet has been implicated positively in relation to Type II diabetes, having been shown to stabilize blood sugar levels in diabetics and reduce their reliance on antidiabetic medications.

Rapid weight loss, reduced blood pressure—what’s not to like, right? Well, not quite. Though the keto diet does have several benefits, it’s not all positive, and it may not be right for everyone. Short-term effects associated with the diet include nausea, headaches, and fatigue. According to the Mayo Clinic, the keto diet can also come with unpleasant side effects such as constipation and bad breath. There is also concern that individuals may not be getting their needed micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) while on the keto diet. Unfortunately, the diet’s long-term effects are still not fully known due to how new it is. However, many studies have demonstrated that the keto diet may have a detrimental effect on the kidneys in the long run, and that individuals on the diet may be more prone to problems such as kidney stones.

So with all things considered, the big question is, should you go keto or not? According to Marcelo Campos, MD from Harvard Medical School:

A ketogenic diet could be an interesting alternative to treat certain conditions… but it is hard to follow and it can be heavy on… foods that are notoriously unhealthy. We also do not know much about its long-term effects… Instead of engaging in the next popular diet that would last only a few weeks to months…, try to embrace change that is sustainable over the long term. A balanced, unprocessed diet… seems to have the best evidence for a long, healthier, vibrant life.”

In short, Dr. Campos emphasizes that although the keto diet may be beneficial in certain cases, it is not a universal dietary solution. Instead of following a diet with unknown long-term effects, Dr. Campos encourages individuals to achieve weight loss through a combination of exercise and less restrictive, more nutritionally balanced diets. The American Heart Association also encourages individuals to consume foods from a variety of categories, rather than completely eliminating some food groups. This provides a stark contrast to the keto diet wherein carbohydrates are severely limited or eliminated.

 

This image shows a food pyramid representative of a balanced diet, which places an emphasis on eating foods from a variety of food groups, as well as on physical exercise. (Source) 

On the whole, the keto diet is one of the most popular diets in today’s society, and it is heralded for its effectiveness in inducing rapid weight loss. Though this diet may work very well for some, it is not the golden standard for all. Each individual should weigh the pros and cons of the keto diet with regard to their own body and lifestyle before deciding whether it is right for them. Regardless, there are many other options out there for those who may be interested in shedding a few pounds before the summer months.

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Sources:

  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499830/
  • https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/diet-reviews/ketogenic-diet/
  • https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-is-the-keto-diet-and-should-you-try-it/
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/15/style/self-care/keto-diet-atkins-low-carbs-al-roker.html
  • https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/neurology_neurosurgery/centers_clinics/epilepsy/diet-therapy.html
  • https://www.diabetes.co.uk/keto/keto-diet-benefits.html
  • https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/the-truth-behind-the-most-popular-diet-trends-of-the-moment/art-20390062
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12681013
  • https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/ketogenic-diet-is-the-ultimate-low-carb-diet-good-for-you-2017072712089
  • https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/what-is-a-healthy-diet-recommended-serving-infographic