If you’ve done any research on weight loss or diets, you’ve probably heard of the ketogenic diet.
This high fat, low carb diet offers many health benefits and can help you burn off significant amounts of fat, while allowing you to eat many of your favourite high-fat foods, and potentially even maintain more muscle mass than other restrictive diets.
In addition, ketosis has been shown to have benefits against epilepsy, diabetes, and heart disease. It is also potentially beneficial for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.
What is a ketogenic diet?
The ketogenic diet is all about entering and maintaining a state of ketosis.
Ketosis is a metabolic state that the body enters when you significantly reduce your consumption of carbohydrates.
This forces the body to switch from its preferred energy source, glycogen (sugars), to ketones, which come from fat.
If you maintain ketosis, the body will burn fat for energy instead of carbohydrates. Paired with exercise and a caloric deficit, this can allow you to burn off significant amounts of stored fat in a shorter period of time than other diets.
How does it work?
When eating a low carb diet like keto, insulin levels decrease and large amounts of fatty acids are released from body fat stores.
Much of the fatty acids that are released make their way to the liver. There they are oxidized and turned into ketones. Ketones replace glycogen as the body’s main energy source while you are in ketosis.
Ketones are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and provide up to 60% of the energy that the brain needs. The rest is obtained from consumed carbohydrates, as well as proteins. The body can convert proteins into glucose to fuel the brain through a process called gluconeogenesis.
To achieve ketosis, you will generally need to consume 60%-80% of your daily calories from fat, 35%-15% from protein, and the remaining 5% from carbohydrates. Depending on how much you are eating, this can be as little as 20-50 grams of carbohydrates per day. The exact amounts vary on an individual basis, due to factors including exercise and genetics.
Is it safe?
For people without health conditions such as pancreatic disease, gallbladder disease (or having had the gallbladder removed), thyroid conditions, liver conditions, or a history of eating disorders, ketosis is generally safe as long as it is being maintained in a healthy way.
Eating a ketogenic diet high in saturated fat will keep you in ketosis, but it is not very good for you. It will put you at a heightened risk of conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Healthy fats, such as those in fish, olive oil, and avocados are great choices for a ketogenic diet. They will keep you in ketosis, as well as help clear out the fats that pose potential health risks.
How effective is ketosis for weight loss?
Combined with a caloric deficit and regular exercise, ketosis is generally very effective for weight loss.
The ketogenic diet has been shown in studies to be over twice as effective for weight loss as a low fat, calorie restricted diet.
People also tend to feel less hungry and more full on a ketogenic diet. This can be attributed to ketosis, but probably also has to do with how filling high fat foods often are.
It is worth mentioning that adherence to a diet is critical for success, and that is especially relevant when it comes to a ketogenic diet. Just one cheat meal can take you out of ketosis.
What are the health benefits?
Eating a ketogenic diet has numerous health benefits, some of which are quite surprising.
The ketogenic diet can improve insulin sensitivity by up to 75%! It is also effective at combating various risk factors of type 2 diabetes, such as obesity.
Although a low carb diet like keto will have you missing out on heart-healthy foods like whole grains, studies suggest that reducing carbs to induce ketosis may improve heart disease risk factors like cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood triglycerides.
Ketosis and the ketogenic diet was first popularized as a treatment for epilepsy. It is primarily used to treat children, with varying levels of success. Some have had significant reductions in the frequency of epileptic seizures, and some have even seen complete remission.
Some research suggests that a ketogenic diet can improve the outcomes of traumatic brain injuries. The keto diet has also been shown to potentially reduce symptoms and slow progression of Alzheimer’s. It seems to also have a similar effect on Parkinson’s.
The diet is currently being explored as a potential treatment for cancer, because it may be able to slow down tumour growth.
Does ketosis have any negative health effects?
While a ketogenic diet is good for weight loss and has numerous health benefits, it is not without potential side effects.
Short term side effects can include headache, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, reduced endurance when exercising, constipation, high cholesterol levels, and bad breath. Most of these side effects do not occur for most people. If they do, they typically dissipate within a few days or weeks of starting the diet.
There is a risk of developing kidney stones from a ketogenic diet. You can reasonably well mitigate this risk by staying well hydrated. It is still a good idea to monitor kidney function while on a ketogenic diet.
Consuming excessive amounts of saturated fats while eating a ketogenic diet creates a risk for heart disease. Low carb diets based on saturated fats can also create a risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This is in stark contrast to reducing risk factors if done in a healthy way. Hepatic steatosis (fatty liver) is also a potential concern.
The bottom line
The ketogenic diet is a powerful weight-loss tool with numerous health benefits, but it is not perfect.
Although a ketogenic diet is one of the most effective ways to shed fat, it is also one of the most restrictive and difficult diets to consistently follow.
While safe for the vast majority of people, ketosis poses some serious health risks to certain groups of people. It is also very easy to do in such a way that it begins to become very unhealthy. The most common mistake is consuming excessive amounts of saturated fats and unhealthy processed foods.
Ketosis has numerous health benefits, but it also has some unpleasant side effects that can show up, and some potentially serious long-term health effects. For this reason, it’s best to consult with your doctor or a dietician before starting a ketogenic diet, or any restrictive diet for that matter.
Ketosis is not for everyone, but it can be very beneficial for many.
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