Ketogenic diets, or low-carbohydrate diets, are all the rage right now. There are many things to consider before deciding to embark on a journey to ketosis, or “keto,” as many people call it. Experts say that one major factor that impedes weight loss for adults is not the fact that they are eating too many carbs, but rather they are eating the wrong carbohydrates. If you do want to try a low-carb or keto diet, it’s still important that you choose nutritionally dense foods, like vegetables, fatty fish, and healthy fats. Tubs of sugar-free whipped cream and pounds of bacon may “fit” the macronutrient profile of the keto diet, but that doesn’t mean it’s what you should eat.
There are many aspects to a ketogenic diet that should be considered before it is adopted, especially given that the long-term effects of going low-carb are still somewhat unknown. Keto and low-carb diets have been used as treatments for some medical conditions, like diabetes and epilepsy, but there are still some risks.
Understanding how the ketogenic diet works
One of the tenets of the keto diet is that in the absence of carbohydrates, the body will begin burning fat as fuel instead. As Live Science explains, a keto diet focuses on fat and protein with a minimal amount of carbohydrates. In the 1920s, the diet was first used to help epilepsy patients manage their condition, but doctors soon noticed another side effect of the diet. Instead of using glucose for energy, the patients’ bodies began burning fat instead, through a process known as “lipolysis.”
“When only fat is available for the body to burn, the body converts the fats into fatty acids, and then into compounds called ketones, which can be taken up and used to fuel the body’s cells,” Live Science notes.
Jo Ann Carson, a professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center and the chair of the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Nutrition Committee told Live Science that the keto diet forces the body into a state of ketosis. This means that the body’s cells depend mostly on ketones for energy, but how this promotes weight loss is still somewhat elusive. But, Carson notes that ketosis does seem to suppress appetite, and may have an effect on hormones that regulate hunger.
Eating more fat and protein can also help people feel fuller for a longer period of time, which Carson says may also help with weight loss.
Do the risks outweigh the benefits?
There are many mixed feelings about ketogenic diets. As Psychology Today reports, there are many anecdotal reports of keto diets boosting mood, better focus and other cognitive benefits — but these benefits may be short-lived.
“The absence of carbohydrate over prolonged periods of time prevents the amino acid tryptophan from entering the brain where it is converted to serotonin. The result: a decrease in serotonin levels and the risk of mood changes associated with too little of this neurotransmitter,” sources explain.
As Carson tells Live Science, there are other risks to be had with a keto diet. One big concern is that ketosis can lead to more calcium being lost in your urine, which can ultimately increase one’s risk of osteoporosis. Carson also notes that being on a strict keto diet may mean a person is not eating enough fruits and vegetables, which are important for overall health.
Experts agree that the restrictive nature of the keto diet can mean patients aren’t eating enough fruits and veggies, which can effect their intake of essential vitamins, minerals, fiber — and they also lose out on all the antioxidants, flavonoids and other phytonutrients plants have to offer. So, while keto can be done successfully, it takes great vigilance to ensure all nutrient needs are being met.
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