The keto diet is very popular at the moment. It is claimed that it promotes superior fat loss compared to traditional calorie restriction and that it carries a host of health benefits.
But what exactly is the keto diet? How does it work? What benefits can you expect and, importantly, what are the downsides? In this post, we are going to going to lay out the facts of keto and allow you to decide for yourself whether it would suit you.
What is keto?
The keto diet is high in fat and very low in carbohydrates. Only 10% of energy comes from carbs on the keto diet. Protein is present but typically only makes up about 20%.
The science behind the diet is that the body’s preferred source of energy is glucose – sugary and starchy carbs – and by depriving it of this it will be forced to burn fat for energy instead.
This stimulates the use of stored fat for energy, which the body breaks down to access the triglycerides within the cells.
The process of doing this leads to the productions of ketones. Ketones are a type of acid that is made in the liver. They then enter the bloodstream, which transports them around the body for use in the various muscles and the cells requiring energy.
It is normal to have some ketones in your blood, regardless of whether you eat a keto diet. Once a high threshold is met, the body is said to be ‘in ketosis’, which essentially means that it is relying on fat for energy.
Benefits for building muscle and losing fat
The keto diet was originally designed as a medical diet to address specific health complaints and reduce the risk of developing certain diseases in high-risk individuals.
For example, diabetes is a disease characterised by insufficient insulin production. This is the hormone that is necessary to process glucose.
Without it, glucose levels in the blood become high, which is harmful to the organs and cells. The keto diet has also been used to treat severe epilepsy that is non-responsive to the medication.
Some research suggests being in a state of ketosis kills cancer. Cancer cells rely on glucose for their energy and cannot adapt to using ketones. Therefore, a strict keto diet is meant to starve the cells and kill them off.
Doctors sometimes recommend a keto diet alongside cancer treatment, but more research is needed to know how effective it can be.
If you do not have a specific medical condition, the keto diet can still benefit you.
It is popularly used to achieve weight loss. Unlike traditional diets that emphasise protein and caution against eating a large amount of fat because of the high-calorie content, high-fat foods are the basis of the keto diet.
Things like cheese, full-fat milk, red meat, eggs, nuts are all on the menu. Part of the reason that people lose weight on keto while eating fatty foods is that fat is satiating and so a high-fat diet reduces their appetite.
It is important to be mindful of the types of fats eaten. Opting for foods high in HDL ‘good cholesterol’ can improve the heart and support healthy cholesterol levels.
A low-carb diet also reduces blood pressure which cuts the risk of heart disease and stroke. Some people report experiencing heightened brain function and a clearer mind while on a keto diet. If the right fats are eaten, brain health can be supported by the keto diet.
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Drawbacks to a ketogenic diet
The keto diet is not easy. While eating a high-fat diet might seem indulgent, pretty soon the body will start to crave carbohydrates and this can mean a tough start while it adjusts.
The initial period of entering ketosis can be a difficult experience and is known as ‘the keto flu. People often report experiencing headaches, low mood, skin blemishes and spots, low energy, problems sleeping, and constipation.
The keto diet also lacks essential vitamins and minerals because the low carb allowance effectively eliminates fruits and vegetables.
It is important to take a supplement to ensure that the body gets what it needs. This will also help to reduce some of the keto flu symptoms. With only minimal fruit, veg and whole grains, the diet is also low in fibre so constipation can be an ongoing problem.
To check that you are in ketosis, you will need to regularly take at-home tests. These are easy to do (you just wee on a strip and it changes colour) but the cost of buying the tests adds up.
The long-term effects of remaining in ketosis can be harmful to the body’s system. High levels of ketones can lead to kidney stones and liver problems.
Something to think about
Eating keto is not guaranteed to lead to weight loss or health benefits. A common problem is that keto dieters load up on processed meats, cream, butter and all the other foods that we should only eat in moderation. Calories still count, whether you are in ketosis or not.
Doing the keto diet properly is a big commitment that requires attention to the nutritional makeup of foods, supplements, and willpower.
It is not something to be taken lightly and so you should think about whether the benefits are worth it to you.