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A Closer Look at the Keto Diet: Is It Really All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Eating butter, bacon, and heavy cream might sound like a dream diet to some. And that’s exactly what’s promised with the Ketogenic Diet (Keto Diet). Followers of a Ketogenic Diet seek out high-fat, low-carb food choices to sustain their energy. But is this diet really all it’s cracked up to be?

Let’s take a closer look at the origins and manifestations of the Keto Diet to determine if it’s actually safe for us.

Origins of the Keto Diet

The Ketogenic Diet was originally developed to treat patients with seizures who do not respond to medicine. It’s designed to be prescribed to patients by physicians, and monitored by registered dietitians (RD).

The classical Ketogenic Diet provides three to four grams of fat for every one gram of carbohydrate and protein. That is about 90% of calories from fat. Patients follow this diet to get into ketosis under direct supervision of a clinician’s care.

What Is Ketosis?

Ketosis is reached when circulating ketone bodies: beta-hydroxybutyrate, acetate, and acetoacetate are built up due to lack of glucose in the body. These chemicals are created when the body breaks down fat. Ketoacidosis can occur when ketone bodies rise too high as a result of excess blood sugar.

Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA) can happen in patients with Type 1 Diabetes if they do not take enough insulin or if they become sick. In these patients, it may be life threatening – leading to coma or even death.

The Ketogenic Diet is currently being studied as a possible treatment for already established chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s, brain cancer, epilepsy, and uncontrolled Type 2 Diabetes, but it is by no means a diet meant to prevent disease.


The Fad Keto Diet for Weight Loss

We have known since the early 1900s that food deprivation has long-term effects on people’s relationship with food and their eating behavior. Despite this, the dieting and weight loss industry encourages people to keep trying the latest fad diets without regard to physical and emotional health. And in this case, it’s the Keto Diet.

The Keto Diet as a weight loss trend is a uniquely low carb diet. So low, in fact, that in order for our bodies to adapt to the starvation mode they think we are in, our cells use ketones as fuel instead of glucose, which is their preferred source.

Ideally, a nutrition protocol that you follow is enjoyable, sustainable, and allows for more flexibility. One of the drawbacks to the Ketogenic Diet is that food choices are very limited. Initially, this may not be a problem. In fact, most people can do fairly well eating similar foods.

One of the drawbacks to the Keto Diet is that food choices are very limited.

However, over time there is a risk of developing nutrient deficiencies due to a lack in variety. Because of the lack of nutritional variety that may come along with this type of diet (or any diet that is restrictive) a dietitian typically oversees the nutritional planning.

The Keto Diet is high in fat and fat is a very satiating nutrient. Most people tend to feel fuller for longer and it is because of this fullness that they tend to eat fewer calories overall in their day. This is why people tend to lose weight on this diet.

However, while any caloric restriction will lead to weight loss, the Ketogenic Diet also has other side effects that its followers should be aware of. This includes gaining all the weight back (and more) once you stop the diet.

What Are the Side Effects of the Keto Diet?

Some side effects of the Keto Diet include:

  • Bone mineral loss
  • Hyperlipidemia (high blood triglycerides, LDLs)
  • Kidney stones
  • Irritability
  • Birth defects
  • Dehydration
  • Constipation
  • Bad breath
  • Poor sleep

These side effects are not guaranteed to impact everyone who follows the diet, but they are worth knowing.

Long term, some of the more serious impacts of the Ketogenic Diet are damage to the heart, the kidneys, and, in extreme cases, the liver. It’s also likely to come with the emotional exhaustion of dieting.

What Are the Pitfalls of the Ketogenic Diet?

Overall, the Ketogenic Diet may be lacking in adequate balance of nutrients and variety which impacts our health and wellbeing. Other lifestyle factors may be influenced as well such as social outings with friends and family gatherings. And, depending on what foods make up the Keto Diet, sustainability for the planet is another factor to consider.

Foods that are not allowed on this diet include whole grains, legumes, pulses, fruits, some vegetables, plant-based protein foods like soy, and others. All of these foods are rich in nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants, which we know we need in order to live healthily and to prevent disease.

People who adopt any restrictive diet are at risk for not meeting energy needs.

Ultimately, the goal of nutrition is to fuel and nourish your body within your calorie (energy) needs while also meeting your nutrient needs. Imagine your calories for the day are a budget. You have X amount of dollars to spend. If you spend your money on items you don’t really need, you end up in hardship.

Similarly to a caloric budget, if you spend all of your calories on foods that do not meet your micronutrient needs, this can result in negative health consequences. Eliminating whole food groups and/or entire macronutrient groups may be necessary for some with specific conditions, but this is not ideal for the general public looking to shed some body fat.

People who adopt any restrictive diet are at risk for not meeting energy needs, and this is especially true with the Ketogenic Diet. This diet makes it nearly impossible to meet all nutrient requirements.


So Why Is the Keto Diet So Popular?

With all the pitfalls and side effects of this diet, you’d think people would avoid it with a 100-foot pole. So why is it so popular?

Here are some theories:

  • People aren’t actually doing the real Ketogenic Diet. Instead, they’re doing some version of low-carb dieting. If they do reach ketosis and lose weight, it may be due to the fact that ketones and dietary fat intake can suppress appetite. That leads to eating fewer calories overall, which is why people lose weight. While this works for weight loss it also leads to nutrient deficiencies
  • Social inclusivity. Being a part of a trend becomes more desirable, and for some, that outweighs the cons
  • People only talk about the highlight reels. As in, we can see changes in the scale and in appearance, but blood work and other health markers may tell a different story


The Takeaway On the Ketogenic Diet

There are much better eating styles to adopt to improve health and prevent disease than the Ketogenic Diet. Plant-based eating styles, the Mediterranean Diet, MIND, and other eating styles that support gut health and are rich in fermented foods and probiotics are far more condusive to life-long health.

When choosing a lifestyle diet, focus on sustainable, more realistic eating and activity patterns that allow for planned indulgences but primarily focus on nutrient-dense foods.

This way, you’ll develop a positive relationship with food and exercise, avoid the emotional roller coaster associated with a diet mindset, and improve your overall mental and physical health and wellness.

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Monica Salafia

Monica is a Registered Dietitian passionate about helping people reach their full nutrition, fitness, and wellness potential. Find her working at a coffee shop reading the latest nutrition research, weightlifting in the gym, or hiking in the Rockies.

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