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For decades, researchers have gone back and forth on whether following a low-carb diet is healthy. While there is conflicting research, some evidence shows that following a keto diet provides potential health benefits for certain people.
Keep reading to learn more about the potential benefits of the keto diet.
What is the keto diet?
A ketogenic diet is a very low carbohydrate and high-fat diet. While following keto, it’s essential to track your ratio of fat intake to carbohydrate intake to get keto’s potential health and wellness benefits.
The types of keto diet plans include (Shilpa, 2018):
- Standard keto diet (SKD): 70% fat, 20% protein, 10% carbs
- Cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD): This type cycles through five keto days followed by two high carb days
- Targeted ketogenic diet (TKD): Allows additional carbs to be consumed before or after an intense workout
- High-protein keto diet (HPKD): 60% fat, 35% protein, and 5% carbs
High-fat foods are staples while following the keto diet, including meats, eggs, olive oil, and full-fat dairy. Non-starchy vegetables and berries are the primary carb foods allowed while following this meal plan.
What is ketosis?
The goal of a keto diet is to reach what’s called a ketogenic state or ketosis. Ketosis is a type of metabolism that produces compounds called ketone bodies to replace glucose as the primary energy source for the brain and central nervous system (Masood, 2021).
Your body enters ketosis when there aren’t enough carbs in your diet, and the glycogen (glucose) stores in your body are depleted. When carbs run out, your body switches to breaking down fat for energy and creates ketones.
After a few days following the keto diet, you should ideally begin to enter ketosis. Blood and urine testing kits are available to check for ketones and confirm that you’re in ketosis.
Some people experience the keto flu within the first two weeks after starting the keto diet. This isn’t an actual infection like the flu. Instead, it’s a group of symptoms that simply mimic the flu. It’s not clear why the keto flu happens in some people, but it may be related to how well an individual’s metabolism adjusts to using fat instead of carbs as its primary fuel source.
Symptoms of the keto flu may include:
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation
- Fever and chills
- Confusion, trouble concentrating, and irritability
- Problems sleeping
- Stomach pain
- Sugar cravings
Benefits of the keto diet
Here are some of the potential health benefits of the keto diet:
1. May encourage weight loss
One of the most popular reasons people try the keto diet is for the claimed weight loss benefits. Multiple studies have found that the ketogenic diet is effective for short-term, rapid weight loss compared to low-fat diets (Paoli, 2014). However, a significant amount of the initial weight loss may be water weight.
What is the keto diet, and should you follow it?
Some research suggests that the keto diet may be more effective than other eating plans to reduce abdominal body fat and encourage long-term weight loss (Kong, 2020). Abdominal fat is sometimes called visceral fat because it surrounds the organs. This type of fat is associated with a higher risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver (Elffers, 2017).
2. May improve cholesterol levels
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are considered the “bad” cholesterol and are more likely to cause heart disease and plaques. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) is called the “good” cholesterol because it helps lower the risk for heart disease.
Research shows that following a keto diet may help reduce total cholesterol while increasing HDL levels (Paoli, 2014). So, the keto diet may lower your risk for heart disease by improving cholesterol levels.
This link isn’t so clear-cut, though. Some studies suggest LDL levels could increase while following a keto diet (Masood, 2021).
3. Reduces seizures
The ketogenic diet was originally created to suppress seizures before anti-seizure medications were widely used. Today, the keto diet is still used to help reduce seizures in people who have trouble controlling their seizures with medication alone (Masood, 2021).
4. May improve insulin resistance and blood sugar control
The hormone insulin pulls glucose from the carbohydrates we eat into our cells. Consistently high blood sugar can be caused by a resistance to insulin, which may lead to type 2 diabetes over time.
Since high blood glucose is the problem in diabetes, people have turned to low-carb diets as a possible way to control their blood sugar levels. Research suggests the keto diet may improve insulin levels and blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes (Shilpa, 2018). If you have diabetes and are on medication, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider about any dietary changes you may be considering, as your medications may need to be more closely monitored.
5. May lower blood pressure
Consistently high blood pressure increases the risk for heart disease, stroke, and chronic kidney disease (Fuchs, 2019). Research suggests that following a keto diet may help lower blood pressure levels and maintain healthy blood pressure levels (Masood, 2021).
Health conditions that may benefit from a keto diet
There are a few health conditions that may benefit from following a keto diet, including:
Since the original purpose of the keto diet was to help manage seizures, people with epilepsy can benefit from following this eating plan. It’s best suited for people whose seizures are poorly controlled with antiepileptic medications (Masood, 2021).
Diabetes and prediabetes
Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes typically feature insulin resistance. The keto diet may improve insulin sensitivity, and research shows that following a keto meal plan may result in better-controlled blood sugar levels (Masood, 2021).
Some research even shows the keto diet helps reduce the amount of diabetes medication needed and may be effective in reversing type 2 diabetes (Paoli, 2014; Shilpa, 2018).
How to lower cholesterol: medication and lifestyle
However, if you are taking medications for diabetes, following a low-carb diet could increase your risk for low blood sugar. Be sure to talk with your doctor before trying a low-carb diet if you have diabetes.
People with high cholesterol levels and uncontrolled high blood pressure are at a higher risk for heart diseases like coronary artery disease, heart attack, and stroke. Following a keto diet may help improve heart health by helping to control these risk factors (Masood, 2021).
Metabolic syndrome is a group of conditions that increase the risk for heart attacks, stroke, and other chronic diseases. The initial conditions in metabolic syndrome don’t have many symptoms. Still, over time, it builds to increase your risk for more serious conditions and poor cardiovascular health. The five conditions in metabolic syndrome include:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar
- Excess fat around the waist
- High triglycerides
Some research suggests each of these conditions may be helped by following a keto diet (Kong, 2020; Masood, 2021).
Conditions affecting the nervous system and brain, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, may be helped through ketosis. Early research suggests that following a ketogenic diet may help reduce symptoms of some of these conditions (Wlodarek, 2019).
The mechanism isn’t entirely clear, but it’s believed that ketone bodies may help protect the health of the nerves and neurons impacted by these types of diseases. Protecting the nerves and neurons, in turn, may help slow aging in the brain (Rusek, 2019).
Is keto safe? Is it healthy?
Does keto really work?
The research on the keto diet is still fairly young, and most studies are less than six months long. So, the long-term health effects of the keto diet are poorly understood.
While some research is promising, it’s too early for the diet to be widely recommended. The keto diet could also lead to some unhealthy side effects in some people. It’s a fairly restrictive diet plan, so it’s difficult to maintain this diet pattern long-term. If you’re interested in trying the keto diet for its potential benefits, talk with your healthcare provider or dietitian about how the diet may affect you.
- Elffers TW, de Mutsert R, Lamb HJ, de Roos A, Willems van Dijk K, Rosendaal FR, et al. (2017). Body fat distribution, in particular visceral fat, is associated with cardiometabolic risk factors in obese women. PloS One, 12(9), e0185403. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0185403. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5619737/
- Fuchs FD, & Whelton PK. (2020). High blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Hypertension, 75(2), 285–292. doi: 10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.119.14240. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31865786/
- Kong Z, Sun S, Shi Q, Zhang H, Tong TK, & Nie J. (2020). Short-term ketogenic diet improves abdominal obesity in overweight/obese chinese young females. Frontiers in Physiology, 11, 856. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2020.00856. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7399204/
- Masood W, Annamaraju P, Uppaluri KR. (2021). Ketogenic diet. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499830/
- Paoli A. (2014). Ketogenic diet for obesity: friend or foe?. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(2), 2092–2107. doi: 10.3390/ijerph110202092. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3945587/
- Rusek M, Pluta R, Ułamek-Kozioł M, & Czuczwar SJ. (2019). Ketogenic diet in Alzheimer’s disease. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 20(16), 3892. doi: 10.3390/ijms20163892. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6720297/
- Shilpa J, & Mohan V. (2018). Ketogenic diets: boon or bane?. The Indian Journal of Medical Research, 148(3), 251–253. doi: 10.4103/ijmr.IJMR_1666_18. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6251269/
- Włodarek D. (2019). Role of ketogenic diets in neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease). Nutrients, 11(1), 169. doi: 10.3390/nu11010169. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6356942/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.