There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to the Keto diet.
Many people consider Keto as a lifestyle, not a diet, praising it for the many positive changes it can have on our bodies and health. While others consider it more of an extreme eating plan that could pose significant health risks.
What is the Keto diet?
The ketogenic diet is essentially a low carb, high fat diet. When a person drastically cuts down their carbohydrate intake, they are tricking the body into ketosis (our body’s survival mechanisms for when food intake is low) as the body’s preferred source of energy, glucose, is eliminated.
In the absence of glucose, the body must find an alternative source of energy, and resorts to metabolising fat. It also turns fat into things called ketones, which are stored in the liver and supply energy to the brain.
The ketogenic diet was originally developed during the 1920’s to help with the treatment of epilepsy. Although over the years it has been somewhat abandoned in favour of new anticonvulsant drugs, the diet is still found to be useful in control and management of epilepsy, mainly in children.
Today however, the main appeal of the diet is its ability to offer fast weight loss results.
In fact, low-carb diets can result in faster weight loss than low-fat diets, albeit the latter would involve fewer calories. This is because low-carb diets reduce excess water from your body as well as lowering insulin levels.
Weight loss associated with low-carb diets are also thought to be a result of suppressed appetite. Studies show that when people reduce carb intake and eat more protein and fat, they end up having fewer cravings and consume overall less calories.
What are the benefits of Keto?
- Reduced risk of heart disease by reducing triglycerides
Triglycerides are a type of fat that comes from foods such as oils and butter. They also come from the extra calories that your body doesn’t need right away but stores as fat to use later. So when people cut carbs from their diet, they can experience a dramatic reduction in blood triglycerides, which can reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Increased levels of ‘Good’ cholesterol
You can also lower your risk of heart disease by increasing your levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) which can be done by eating more good quality fat.
- Lower blood pressure
Elevated blood pressure, or hypertension, is a significant risk factor for many diseases, including stroke, kidney failure and, once again, heart disease. Low-carb/Keto diets are an effective way to lower blood pressure, which can reduce your risk of these diseases.
- Lower blood sugar
Studies have shown that low carb diets can also lower blood sugar and insulin levels, reducing the chance of developing diabetes and other health conditions.
- Therapeutic purposes
A ketogenic diet can be used as a therapeutic tool which helps to control cognitive disorders such epilepsy. The diet is also being studied for its effects on other brain conditions too, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
- Cancer prevention
There’s limited evidence, but there have been claims that a low carb diet (keto) could reduce the risk of cancer and slow the growth of existing tumours by starving diseased cells, preventing them from multiplying. Small numbers of human trials have suggested that a low-carb diet could protect healthy cells from damage caused by chemotherapy or radiation treatment and reduce inflammation, which is key when trying to hinder cancer growth. To learn more about these experiments and their findings, click here.
The NHS and other health boards and associations recommend that carbohydrates should be your body’s main source of energy. This is because starchy carbohydrates that are high in fibre readily release glucose (sugar) into the blood which is absorbed by our cells and used as fuel – whether that’s for physical activity or keeping our organs functioning.
This is supported by the Eatwell Guide, which recommends that around 40% of an adult’s daily calorie intake should be from carbohydrates. These include starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, pasta, as well as oats, rice and other grains. Another 40% should come from fruits and vegetables, while 12% from protein and the remainder from dairy or non-dairy alternatives (8%) and oils and spreads (1%).
On the contrary, the Keto diet advocates that these proportions almost need to be reversed so that 75% of your calories come from fat, 15% from protein and just 5% or less from carbohydrates.
The Keto diet revolves around foods that have a very low carb content, such as meat, fish, eggs and certain vegetables; and foods that have a high fat content – whether that’s unsaturated fat sources, such as avocados, oil and nuts, or saturated fats from butter, cheese, and other dairy products.
When it comes to fruit and veg, it is quite restrictive, although easy to follow. Only ‘above ground’ vegetables are permitted, such as cauliflower, courgette, cucumber and lettuce. That means – you got it – that root vegetables are off limits. (Say goodbye to your roasties and parsnips with your Sunday roast, and pile on the sprouts!)
Vegetables that are greener (a green pepper vs a red pepper) are also typically lower in carbs, thus more Keto-friendly.
Fruits are restricted to berries – blackberries and raspberries being top picks – and coconut.
As for drinks, water would be the number one option. Tea and coffee with no sugar is also fine. Alcohol is restricted to spirits, including vodka and whisky, and some types of wine. Beers, ciders and cocktails are a strict no-no. Click here for more keto-friendly beverages.
So, why are health professionals sceptical about Keto?
The most common criticisms of a Ketogenic diet are that it is high in saturated fat – which can raise the amount of ‘bad’ low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in your blood, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke – and low in foods which we know are cardio-protective, such as whole grains, fibre-rich starchy vegetables and most fruits, which means it would be very easy to fall short of certain nutrients, including vitamin C and fibre.
“If a person who is at a high risk for heart disease is eating increased amounts of saturated fat and sources of cholesterol while consuming less fibre from whole grains, beans, fruits, and starchy vegetables, they may see increased cholesterol levels” – registered dietician, Haley Hughes.
Another observation is that, while the diet is not designed to be particularly high in protein, it can easily edge that way due to the focus on foods like meat, fish and eggs. Consuming too much meat comes with its own set of health risks, especially if someone is eating high quantities of processed meat such as sausages, ham and bacon.
Meat is also devoid of fibre and other nutrients, while some cuts can contain a high level of saturated fat, hormones, and in the worst cases even carcinogenic chemicals and substances.
Click here to read more about this topic.
Additionally, there are some unpleasant side effects associated with the Keto diet; including constipation, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, sleep problems and headaches, notes the Mayo Clinic.
The bottom line…
It’s undeniable that the Keto diet has its benefits and is an effective way to achieve significant weight loss, and fast.
If you abstain from excessive consumption of saturated fats while incorporating as many vegetables as possible, it could certainly be used as healthy weight loss programme – at least for the short to medium-term.
Is a keto diet sustainable on a long-term basis? Well, according to sports nutritionist and registered dietitian, Shoshana Pritzker, the health complications that may arise from a long-term state of ketosis are still being explored. In addition to this, how you would withdraw from such a strict way of eating once you’ve reached your weight loss goal is also questionable.
“One of the biggest problems with dieting altogether (whether keto or another diet) is that when you stop, what do you do next?” she said. “Most people just end up going back to the way they ate previously, which wasn’t working for them before, so why would it work now?”
When you first break up with Keto, a good idea would be to start introducing unprocessed carbs into your diet. So, instead of going straight back to pasta, choose more natural carb sources such those all-important root vegetables and grains. Do so gradually by introducing a small portion of quinoa or sweet potato into one meal per day, then slowly add to this. This way, your body will begin to adjust, with less chances of regaining the lost weight.
In a nutshell…
Keto isn’t for everyone. It is, without doubt, a strict regime which requires determination and
discipline for it to succeed. It can be restrictive and challenging, and sometimes even antisocial.
Many advocates will swear it’s the best thing since sliced bread (literally), while health professionals may try and steer you well away due to the health risks they claim the Keto diet has.
Like any other eating plan, please check with your own GP to find out if the Keto Diet is right for you.
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