Keto Diet: Healthy or Harmful?
Weighing In On the Pros & Cons of the Keto Diet
Nobody does the Atkins diet anymore. That went out with the 90s. However, the concept has returned and it has a new buzzword. Keto.
What is the keto diet, exactly? And more importantly, is it healthy? We’re going to break it down as objectively as possible.
Keto Diet: Continuing Trends in Low-carb Dieting
Like the old Atkins diet, the keto diet is low-carb. On a ketogenic diet, the goal is to drastically restrict carbohydrate intake and replace it with fat. Wait? Eat pure fat to lose weight? Yes, that’s correct.
The keto diet promises that you can eat all the fat you want, never feel hungry again, and even boost your athletic performance. Many people turn to this diet for its claims of easy weight loss. But how does that work?
How Does The Keto Diet Work?
Carbs are our bodies’ main source of fuel. Without carbs for energy, the body turns to fat. It sounds so simple. Naturally, there is more to it!
You consume foods that contain carbohydrates. The body converts those carbohydrates into glucose, or blood sugar. It uses glucose for energy. Because glucose is the simplest form of energy for the body to use, your body always uses it first before turning to stored fat for fuel.
On a keto diet, you deplete your body of carbohydrates and force it to burn fat for fuel. This reduction in carbs puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis. The result? The body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat, and you experience maximized weight loss.
Additionally, the liver breaks down fat and produces ketones. These ketones are by-products of your metabolism. Ketones are then used to fuel the body in the absence of glucose. They also supply energy for the brain.
Ketogenic diets can cause significant reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels. This, along with the increased ketones, may have some health benefits.
How To Follow A Keto Diet
The macronutrient profile on a keto diet resembles the following:
- 70-80% of calories from fat
- 15-30% calories from protein
- 0-5% calories from carbohydrates
Many keto dieters simply aim for less than 50 grams of total carbohydrates as a reliable way to enter ketosis.
It takes a few days to reach a state of ketosis. In order to achieve the believed benefits, dieters must follow the restrictions for at least most of a week. There are a variety of keto diets that cycle through various restrictions or carb-to-fat ratios.
So What Do People Eat On A Keto Diet?
Some healthy unsaturated fats are allowed on the keto diet — like nuts (almonds, walnuts), seeds, avocados, tofu, and olive oil. But saturated fats from oils (palm, coconut), lard, butter, and cocoa butter are encouraged in high amounts.
Protein is part of the keto diet. It doesn’t typically discriminate between lean protein foods and protein sources high in saturated fat such as beef, pork, and bacon.
What about fruits and vegetables? All fruits and many vegetables are rich in carbs. Therefore, to comply with the diet, people must avoid nutrient-dense foods such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds that contain carbohydrates.
However, certain fruits (usually berries) are okay to eat in small portions. People doing keto also must limit vegetables to leafy greens (such as kale, Swiss chard, spinach), cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, bell peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, cucumber, celery, and summer squashes. A cup of chopped broccoli has about six carbs.
A Vegan Keto Diet?
Is it possible to be a vegan keto dieter? You better stock up on tofu!
It is possible, but it comes with nutritional challenges and should be very carefully monitored. Since a typical keto diet is low on carbs and high on fat, most followers turn to animal protein. Vegans can reach ketosis by relying on high-fat, plant-based products like coconut oil, avocados, seeds and nuts. Other food choices include some tofu, lupini beans, protein powder, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, select nuts, almond butter, olive oil, avocado, small amounts of edamame, and very few low carb vegetables like broccoli and kale. It is a very limited diet and not necessarily recommendable.
Pros & Cons of The Keto Diet
Many people swear by the keto diet. What’s the biggest benefit? It does appear to result in rapid weight loss. In addition, the keto diet may significantly raise levels of adiponectin, a protein involved in blood sugar regulation and fat metabolism.
Higher levels of adiponectin have been associated with better blood sugar control, reduced inflammation and a lower risk of obesity-related diseases, including heart disease.
Ketogenic diets have also been shown to reduce heart disease risk factors, including high triglycerides, blood pressure, and “bad” LDL cholesterol.
However, there are potential risks as well.
The keto diet is high in saturated fat, which generally is considered bad for our hearts and cholesterol levels.
It can also lead to nutrient deficiency. If you’re not eating a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and grains, you may be at risk for deficiencies in micronutrients. These include selenium, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamins B and C, plus loads of other beneficial nutrients and antioxidants we get from fruits and veggies.
The diet can be hard on the liver and the kidney as well. With so much fat to metabolize, the diet could make any existing liver conditions worse. And our kidneys help metabolize protein, and the keto diet may overwork them. In addition, since the keto diet is low in fibrous foods like grains and legumes, it can lead to constipation.
Last but not least, the brain actually needs sugar from healthy carbohydrates to function. Low-carb diets may cause fuzzy thinking and mood swings.
According to Harvard Health, a true keto diet is a medical diet that helps epileptic children reduce seizures and should not be done experimentally. Other popular low-carb diets, like Atkins or Paleo, modify a true keto diet. But they come with the same potential risks.
Check in with your body. Do your research and listen to your own needs. And perhaps, check in with your doctor or nutritionist before starting an intensely restricted diet.
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