If you want to focus on weight loss, you may be exploring the health benefits and potential challenges of a ketogenic diet. According to AARP, the diet was created to treat epilepsy in the 1920s, and it was found that this diet can reduce seizures in children with epilepsy, sometimes as effectively as when the condition is controlled by medication. A Harvard publication explores the interest in seeing how it may be able to help with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, sleep disorders, autism and even brain cancer.”
At the heart of the diet is reaching a metabolic state of ketosis.
After eating carbs, your blood sugar levels go up and this provides energy. But, if you don’t eat carbs for a significant period of time — like what would happen during a famine — your body has a backup system, turning your body’s stored fat into ketones to create energy.
Most forms of ketogenic diets today use a combination of intermittent fasting, which can make your body think it’s experiencing a famine, with eating mostly fats with just a small amount of protein. In short, “The keto diet is designed to mimic the effect of fasting without actually starving.”
Weight Loss Achieved
As far as losing weight, in one study, people who went on a ketogenic diet for three months lost an average of 17 pounds and 5.1% of body fat. Because the diet is so monotonous, though, it can be challenging to stay on it long-term, and studies have not shown this diet to be more effective than a balanced diet with foods from all main food groups.
As a side note, if you’ve ever been on the Atkins Diet, it starts with a two-week nutritional ketosis phase. You may have experienced the state of ketosis without even being aware that’s what you were doing.
Type 2 Diabetes and Cancer
There can be health benefits.
Studies published in the International Journal of Diabetes and Clinical Research show that this diet can help to improve insulin sensitivity. If you have Type 2 diabetes, it can make sense to talk to your doctor about going on a ketogenic diet under medical supervision.
Some research shows that going into a state of nutritional ketosis may also help to starve cancer cells. Although studies have been promising, there isn’t enough data yet to make recommendations, in part because cancer patients are often already undergoing difficult treatments that can make them more vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies.
Side Effects of the Diet
Side effects can include kidney stones, renal damage, elevated LDL cholesterol and what is referred to as the keto flu. This “flu” is caused by an electrolyte imbalance. Another potential side effect is gout, as uric acid increases.
For older adults, one of the bigger risks of a ketogenic diet is that your body won’t have the amount of protein needed to build and maintain muscle mass. More protein is needed as you age for this function—and the heart is a muscle and can be damaged by the Keto Diet.
Another criticism of this diet is that it’s easy to get “too much protein and poor-quality fats from processed foods, with very few fruits and vegetables.” Early on, people can feel tired, with other side effects including bad breath, nausea, vomiting, constipation and sleep problems.
Plus, because this diet is so hard to stick to long-term, it often plays a role in yo-yo dieting — meaning diets that can help people to rapidly lose weight that they eventually put back on. Yo-yo dieting has been associated with increased mortality.
According to a certified clinical nutritionist, ketogenic diets should only be used under medical supervision, or in extreme cases for a short-term duration. Meanwhile, another Harvard resource recommends that if you go on a ketogenic diet, you should work with a registered dietician to create a diet plan that minimizes nutritional deficiencies.
For potential brain health benefits, see an earlier post.