If you believe the buzz, a ketogenic diet can curb appetite, help you with weight loss and cure nearly any health problem that ails you.
Does this sound too good to be true?
It probably is.
First, some history...
- The health benefits of fasting have been known since 500 BC. Specifically, fasting came to be recognized as a good way to help treat epilepsy (a neurological disorder in which brain activity becomes abnormal, causing seizures or periods of unusual behavior/sensations, and sometimes loss of awareness.)
- But fasting is not easy - our bodies (and brain) are wired to ensure we eat enough. This led to the search for a way to mimic the effects of fasting, but without fasting.
- A diet that was very low in carbohydrates and very high in fat was found to have a similar effect as fasting. This diet was called the Ketogenic Diet.
- The ketogenic diet has been around since the 1920's and was used to treat children with epilepsy.
- Today, we have a number of new populations of people whose brains might benefit from a ketogenic diet, such as people with neurodegenerative disorders (including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s).
It seems what was old has become new once more - the 'keto' diet.
Is a ketogenic diet an extreme diet?
A ketogenic diet relies primarily on fat for its calorie requirements, a small portion from protein and minimal carbs.
Let's look at the specifics. If you are following a ketogenic diet, do you know what proportion of your daily calorie needs can be met from carbohydrate sources?
That's right, a maximum of 5%. So, for a 2000 calorie diet, you cannot have more than 100 calories from carbohydrates - that's the equivalent of 1 apple a day.
The rest of the calories (95%) have to come mostly from fat (e.g. butter, cheese, avocado, nuts, oils) and to a small extent protein (e.g. eggs, meat).
The ketogenic diet is, in fact, one of the most restrictive diets out there.
Why would a healthy person want to try this?
To trick the body into using fat as fuel, also called Ketosis.
What is Ketosis?
In very simple terms:
- Ketosis is essentially an effect of fasting.
- When the conditions are right (for instance, during starvation or fasting, or when our carb intake is very low), our body releases fatty acids from our stored body fat and after a few chemical reactions 'Ketones' are released by the liver into the blood. Ketones are a group of organic compounds.
- Almost any cell in the body that needs energy can grab it from these ketones.
- So instead of using carbs for energy, you use fat.
And when does ketosis help?
In addition to the medical conditions noted above (like epilepsy), there are very specific situations like Type 2 Diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s where a ketogenic diet can be useful. But, it is critical that:
- it is done under close medical supervision as part of a treatment program; and
- it should probably include other tools such as medication or other well-established health procedures.
What about weight loss? There's no real advantage.
Being in ketosis doesn’t seem to have any special advantage for losing body fat.
You may find it easy to eat less when all you can eat is protein and fat. But after a while, you will grow tired of this. Not only that, you may be developing some serious nutrient deficiencies.
For women in particular, lowering carbohydrate intake seems to have negative effects.
Women’s bodies go on high alert faster when they sense less energy and fewer nutrients coming in. Many women have found that very low-carb diets don’t work for them and also disrupt their menstrual cycles.
Want more evidence?
If you need more proof, here is the conclusion from a recent paper published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research on Ketogenic diets:
"The biggest problem with extreme diets like keto diets is their sustainability. In our experience, people are initially thrilled with the weight loss and the excellent diabetes control they get, after using keto diets. Slowly, however, they get bored with the diet. Furthermore, many feel weak and frustrated and start increasing the carbohydrate intake, and soon they are back to their original weight and diabetes control. Recent studies also suggest that ketogenic diets may, in fact, induce hepatic insulin resistance. There are also reports of micronutrient deficiency and cardiovascular safety. Hence, many more studies need to be done before these diets are widely recommended."
If you'd like evidence from the USA, where the diet is most popular, here is a quote from Kevin Hall, Ph.D. a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health, USA who has studied the ketogenic diet:
“The idea is that low-carb, ketogenic diets cause your body to burn way more calories, resulting in a lot of weight loss, even if you eat more than you were eating before. But our studies, as well as many others, demonstrate nothing of the sort.”
What does this mean for you?
In summary, a Ketogenic Diet is (a) extreme (b) proven to be no better than many other diets and (c) could potentially cause harm. So.....
- Don’t use ketosis to try to cure "stuff".
- Don’t use ketosis just to randomly “get healthy”.
- “Medical supervision” does not mean Google.
Enjoy reading about ketosis if you like. If you’re curious, try it for a short time. But you can be perfectly fit, lean, and healthy without it.
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