The ketogenic (“keto”) diet is one of the most popular dieting trends lately.
Many people swear by this low-carb, high-fat diet made famous for its tendency to induce rapid weight loss. The diet is also being studied for its potential health benefits pertaining to certain cancers, neurological disorders and cardiovascular risk factors.
Critics of the keto diet, however, argue that it’s an unhealthy way to lose weight and can lead to serious negative health consequences in some individuals.
So, is the keto diet too restrictive or totally safe? And if it’s safe, is it right for you? The answer will likely depend on your current health, diet preferences and health goals. So first, let’s break down the keto diet to better understand if it could be right for you.
What is the ketogenic (“keto”) diet?
The keto diet is an eating plan that consists of 80 to 90 per cent fat, 8 to 18 per cent protein and 2 per cent carbohydrates. Staples of the keto diet include meat, fish, dairy, oils and leafy green vegetables. Carbohydrates, such as pasta, grains, potatoes and most fruits, are strictly prohibited.
The goal of the keto diet is to put your body into a state of ketosis – a metabolic state characterized by raised levels of ketones in the body. Ketosis is achieved when your body does not have a sufficient supply of glucose, which is derived from carbohydrates and is normally your body’s primary source of fuel.
In the absence of glucose, your body begins to break down muscle and fat, producing a byproduct of fat breakdown called ketones. The presence of ketones indicates that your body is now running on – and burning – fat.
Why are people trying the keto diet?
While the ketogenic diet has been gaining popularity recently, it certainly isn’t a new idea. The original ketogenic diet was introduced in the 1920s as treatment for epileptic seizures and behavioural issues.
More recently, we’ve seen variations of low-carb diets – such as Atkins and Dukan – gaining popularity for the purpose of weight loss. Although the various diets can differ, the principles behind them remain the same – any diet that restricts carbohydrate intake to below a certain level will produce ketones.
What are the potential benefits of the keto diet?
In terms of weight loss, research has shown that the keto diet can be effective. In a recent study of nearly 1,600 overweight and obese subjects, researchers noted a significantly greater reduction in body weight among individuals who followed a keto diet – as compared to those who followed a low-fat diet – for 12 months or longer. Whether this rate of weight loss would continue for a longer term is still unclear.
The ketogenic diet has also been known to provide higher satiety compared to other similarly restrictive diets. In a recent study examining the effects of a ketogenic diet on appetite and the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, researchers determined that ghrelin levels and appetite were indeed reduced when subjects were ketotic.
Weight loss aside, the ketogenic diet has also been linked to several other health benefits in recent years. One study found that the keto diet improved glycemic control and led to a reduction in risk factors for cardiovascular disease. With that being said, it’s important to acknowledge that many other less restrictive diet plans have shown similar results. For example, medical experts already recognize that a simple reduction in body weight of just 5 per cent can significantly reduce your risk of diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers – no matter which eating plan you followed.
More recently, the keto diet has been studied for its potential benefits in treating neurological disorders ranging from migraine headaches to bipolar disorder, autism, brain cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). At this time, however, there are not yet any significant findings to report.
Is the keto diet healthy?
The most important criterion of any healthy diet is that it delivers all of the required nutrients from the foods you consume each day. The main issue with the keto diet is that it restricts many of the foods necessary for meeting your daily recommended nutrient intakes. In particular, it can be difficult to consume sufficient amounts of calcium, fibre and vitamins A, B and D when you’re on the keto diet. A study of the nutritional composition of a very strict keto diet, in fact, determined that the diet only met three of the 28 dietary reference intakes (DRIs).
In addition to limiting your ability to achieve your DRIs, the ketogenic diet can leave you feeling temporarily unwell due to high concentrations of acidic ketones in your blood. Accordingly, the most common side effects of transitioning into ketosis are headache, nausea, digestive issues, fatigue, irritability and “brain fog.” Long-term effects of being in ketosis include cold intolerance, bad breath, digestive issues, insomnia, non-permanent hair thinning and rapid weight loss that increases your risk of gall stones.
Another notable long-term consequence of the keto diet is a possible negative impact on lipid levels, especially if saturated fats are used as a fat source.
Four things to consider before trying the ketogenic diet
If you’re considering the ketogenic diet, here are four things to consider before getting started:
1. Is this how I will be eating five years from now?
We all like to challenge ourselves. But if you talk to anyone who has tried fad diets over the years, they will most likely tell you that losing weight is the easy part; the hard part is maintaining that weight loss. If you want to attempt a restrictive diet, make sure you develop a plan for when you’ve lost the weight and/or the diet is over.
2. Will I enjoy this diet?
Before commencing keto, or any other restrictive diet, consider your social life. For many of us, socializing revolves around food and drink. Consider that you will have to plan ahead, bring your own dish to social events and learn to say no when offered something delicious. Negative thoughts can arise about yourself when you choose to “cheat” on your diet, and these can have detrimental long-term impacts on your mental health.
3. What is the state of my current health?
Our society tends to have an all-or-nothing mentality, and we often choose to focus on quick fixes. If your health is suffering, it most likely didn’t happen overnight. Be patient and give yourself time to make gradual dietary changes. Working regularly with a dietitian can keep your confidence up and ensure that you set realistic, achievable goals. It may take six months – or even longer – to achieve your desired result, but the resulting changes will be much more pleasant and more likely to be permanent.
4. Do I know what supplements to take?
Consulting with your dietitian before starting the keto diet can greatly reduce any long-term risk of nutrient deficiencies. Reviewing your food plan, and getting some pro tips before getting started, can prove more helpful than you think!
While there’s plenty of evidence that the ketogenic diet is effective for promoting weight loss – as well as new research that indicates other potential health benefits – the potential side effects and high level of restrictiveness means the keto diet is certainly not for everyone.
Before starting the keto diet, or any other restrictive diet for that matter, be sure to have an annual check-up with a physician and consult a dietitian. Your physician can order blood work to ensure your organs are functioning properly, your cholesterol levels are healthy and you are not at risk of heart disease. A registered dietitian can prepare you for dealing with constipation, vitamin deficiencies and any other problems that may arise from tackling the keto diet.
Are you interested in learning more about Keto and other popular diets? Check out our definitive guide to