Problems with Keto?
The extreme low-carb ‘keto’ diet has taken the world by storm, and although proponents swear by a myriad of health benefits, scientific foundation for many of these claims fall short. From difficulty of long-term adherence to potential flu-like symptoms, several issues with the former panacea diet are emerging.
In the past 18 months, Keto has blown up from relative anonymity to the most popular current diet, with celebrities from Kim Kardashian West to LeBron James touting its benefits and successes. Despite the recent hype, a ketogenic diet is not a new idea, and had been a medically prescribed diet for patients with drug-resistant epilepsy for almost a century. In the 1970’s, Dr. Robert Atkins began his popular low-carb diet with a strict two week ketogenic phase, and since then many other fad diets have incorporated ketogenic periods into their routine.
What Exactly Is Keto?
At its core, a ketogenic diet is one that causes the body to release ketones into the bloodstream. In the absence of blood sugar, the cells preferred energy source, the body will start breaking down stored fat into ketone bodies, which it will use for energy until the body starts consuming carbohydrates again. While this process does result in weight loss, the flood of ketones in the bloodstream can also unfortunately cause numerous side effects, which lumped together are commonly called “keto flu”.
The most common symptoms are stomach aches, nausea, irritability, and difficulty sleeping. While for most people the symptoms only lightly persist for a couple days, for others they can be more debilitating and last for weeks, removing any possibility of following the diet for a lengthy period of time.
Further Keto Cons?
Besides weight loss, proponents of the keto diet also claim benefits from increased fertility to reduced risk from Alzheimer's and other degenerative brain diseases. Because of the recent popularity, scientists have been unable to carry out long-term studies to check these claims, and the only medically-proven benefit of the keto diet beyond short-term weight loss is its ability to reduce seizures in children with drug-resistant epilepsy. Additionally, as there have been limited long-term studies on the keto diet, any equally long-term health complications that could result from the diet have yet to be uncovered, so that risk remains.
In fact, long-term health on the diet could actually suffer as dieters often up their intake of less healthy foods to replace the caloric energy that would normally come from carbohydrate sources. Red meats and processed, salty foods have well-documented and understood long-term health risks from increased cancer mortality to increased rates of stroke; going on a keto diet does not guarantee an increase in overall health unless the focus is on lean meats, nuts, and seeds.
The Keto diet also does not differentiate between healthy, complex carbohydrates and highly processed carbohydrates. While processed carbs like sugar certainly provide little benefit to the body, complex carbs like those from legumes and whole grains are known to be rich in antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
The Wrap Up
A ketogenic diet is an interesting alternative to treat specific conditions, and can accelerate weight loss. However, it is difficult to follow for long periods of time due to the extreme restrictiveness and side effects of ketosis, so no long term studies into claimed health benefits can be performed. It can also result in heavier consumption of red meat, salty foods, and other known unhealthy, yet “keto friendly” foods. Dr Marcelo Campos, while writing about the keto diet, noted its weight loss potential, but stressed that patients instead embrace change that is sustainable in the long term; “A balanced, unprocessed diet, rich in very colorful fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and lots of water seems to have the best evidence for a long, healthier, vibrant life.**”
** Sound familiar? Check out our earlier blog post on the diet of centenarians!