In diet culture, low-carb diets are hailed as weight-loss wonders, and we know them by name: Atkins, South Beach, and Paleo. The ketogenic diet, abbreviated as “keto”, is one such low-carb diet. The difference between the keto diet and others is that while one group advises replacing carbs with protein, the keto diet replaces carbs with fat. But although results seem to come quickly, this diet, which has a history of medical treatment, does come with some health risks.
What is the keto diet?
When done correctly, the lack of carbohydrates consumed on a keto diet forces the body into a metabolic state called “ketosis.” In this state, the liver produces a substance called “ketones” from stored fat. These ketones then provide the body with energy in place of carbohydrates, the body’s usual source of energy, resulting in rapid weight loss in many people. But, is this a good thing? And is the keto diet really healthy?
“It is effective for weight loss because it removes many foods from the diet and is an extremely restrictive diet. Any diet that eliminates whole food groups will cause weight loss,” says Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, at VegNews “It’s not a healthy diet, though.”
The keto diet that sends your body into a state of ketosis is not for ordinary people. Doctors introduced it to the medical world in the 1920s to treat children with epilepsy and seizure disorders and as an adjunct therapy to reduce the risk of seizures. “Not for the average person just trying to lose weight,” adds Hunnes. Most people on a keto diet aren’t actually in ketosis unless they’re closely monitored by a dietitian who knows how to build a ketogenic plan.
What do you eat on a keto diet? Typically, this involves eating a diet that is 70-80% fat, 5-10% carbs, and 10-20% protein. According to Harvard Health, that’s 165 grams of fat, 40 grams of carbs, and 75 grams of protein. To put those numbers into perspective, half a cup of cooked long-grain brown rice contains nearly 26 grams of carbs. And, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that you get about 25-35% of your daily caloric intake from fat.
To go into specifics, the keto diet includes meat, eggs, fatty fish, high-fat dairy products, nuts and seeds, avocados, healthy oils, green beans, and vegetables belonging to the cabbage family. It limits grains and starches (such as rice, pasta, and bread), all other vegetables, tubers, most fruits, beans, and legumes, low-fat, no-fat processed foods. sugar, highly refined oils, sugary foods and drinks, and alcohol. .
The health risks of a keto diet
When it comes to helping maintain a healthy weight, this fast-acting diet may be best left in the graveyard of fad diets.
But, you might want to consider a long-term whole plant-based diet. Often abbreviated as WFPB, a whole, plant-based diet emphasizes unprocessed grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. It excludes all animal products and limits processed oils, refined sugars, white foods (like bread, rice, and pasta), fried foods, and many pre-made foods.
Below, we’ll go over the health risks of the keto diet and why you might want to consider plant-based whole foods instead.
1 It increases “bad” cholesterol
The keto diet often encourages foods such as processed meats, fatty meats, and butter. “Keto is a heart health risk when it’s extremely high in animal protein and animal fat,” says Hunnes, adding that the diet can increase inflammation in the body. Although its exact role in heart health is unknown, inflammation is common in heart disease and stroke patients. “However, this inflammation is often masked by being on a low-calorie diet, and a sufficiently low-calorie diet can reduce the risk of increased and high cholesterol,” adds Hunnes.
Many keto foods are also high in saturated fat, which is known to raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood. A meta-analysis of over 100 studies on the keto diet published in the journal Nutrition Frontiers found that it increases both the risk of heart disease and LDL cholesterol buildup if used as a long-term diet.
However, studies have linked diets high in whole, plant-based foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, non-starchy vegetables, nuts, and healthy oils high in unsaturated fats with a lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reduced inflammation.
2 It can cause constipation
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are all high in dietary fiber, a nutrient that helps increase feelings of fullness and support digestive health. But, a keto diet is very low in fiber from fruits, vegetables, and grains. It is particularly low in beta-glucan, a type of fiber found in grains like barley and oats. Studies suggest that beta-glucan also helps maintain healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
In addition to that, beta-glucan and other grain fibers help you maintain a healthy gut microbiome, Julie Miller Jones, PhD, LN, CNS, and Scientific Advisor for the Joint Institute of Food Safety and Nutrition for the University of Maryland and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, VegNews tells.
“Thus, the followers of the [keto] may not only suffer from constipation and slow transit times, but may also lack the protection provided by fiber fermentation in the large intestine,” says Jones. “This fermentation of these carbohydrates fuels a healthy microbiome, which in turn produces short-chain fatty acids that lower colon pH and are associated with lower growth of polyps and colon cancer.”
However, a whole, plant-based diet emphasizes a range of fiber-rich foods that contribute to a healthy gut microbiome and good digestion, reports a study published in Nutrition Frontiers in 2019.
3 This can lead to nutritional deficiencies
You may be lacking in essential vitamins and minerals on a long-term keto diet because it limits many types of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. You can have green vegetables from the cabbage family, but most other vegetables, including potatoes, are out. Avocados and lemons are the only exception for permitted fruits. So, over time, a keto follower can become deficient in certain nutrients.
A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that those who adhere to fad diets—in this case, two of keto’s low-carb siblings, the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, and the high-carb DASH diet—have a high likelihood of become micronutrient deficient.
A whole, plant-based diet, on the other hand, encourages getting as many nutrients as possible from food, which encourages the consumption of a wide range of ingredients. But, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Anyone following any type of vegan diet should supplement vitamin B-12, an essential nutrient that cannot be obtained from plant-based foods.
4 Weight loss is unsustainable
It is common for followers of the keto diet to experience rapid weight loss. But that’s no reason to rejoice. Like many other fad diets, keto isn’t meant to permanently change the way you eat. It’s temporary, and followers often regain the weight they lost after resuming their regular eating habits.
“Along with its health risks, the inability to stick to the diet is one of the main reasons keto has been ranked low on the US News and World Report diet charts,” Jones says. “It’s also why prestigious organizations such as the Mayo Clinic recommend it for refractory epilepsy but almost nothing else. So while keto promotes rapid weight loss, it does not create sustainable diets and therefore does not result in sustained weight loss for the vast majority of people.
But, in addition to its other benefits, a study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine suggests that a whole, plant-based diet may contribute to safe and sustainable weight loss.
5 And more…
The keto diet comes with a host of other health risks and the one most people experience first is what is known as the “keto flu”. Symptoms include cloudy mind, dizziness, nausea, cramps, headache, irritability and constipation. This condition, which is not medically recognized, has been known to appear two to seven days after starting a keto diet. The cause is not known, nor is it unique to the keto diet, and many people who have drastically changed their diets have reported similar symptoms. Other negative side effects of a long-term keto diet suggested by studies include a higher risk of kidney stones and osteoporosis and higher heart rate for athletes.
While there’s no evidence directly linking the keto diet to eating disorders, many dietitians warn that restrictive fad diets, in general, can fuel yo-yo dieting and eating disorders. ‘feed.
On top of that, because the keto diet is so heavy in animal products, it’s not good for the planet either. Industrial animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of global human-made greenhouse gas emissions, while a plant-based diet puts far less strain on the planet. So if you’re looking to eat healthier and sustainably, a whole plant-based diet might be worth a shot. As always, any major change in your diet should be discussed with your doctor first.
To learn more about keto diets, read:
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