It is generally accepted that our bodies are powerful carbohydrate burners, which use glycogen stored in the liver and muscles as fuel for our lives, and we are really good at it! But what happens when our carbohydrate consumption is so low that our bodies resort to burning fat as fuel? Well, our brain, which is quite selfish when it comes to energy use, goes into starvation mode in the absence of sugar and depends on the liver to get the energy it needs to function from fat. This is the basis of the keto diet.
The ketogenic diet is more of a lifestyle than one of those fad diets. Its proponents may have better performance, an improvement in several health indicators – such as blood sugar levels – and perhaps even weight loss. But why a sudden and significant change in eating habits? Is the ketogenic diet really all that it is believed to be? Let’s learn more about it!
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Although it seems new and modern, the ketogenic diet, also known as the “keto” diet, has existed for many years. It is based on following a diet that is very low in carbohydrates and high in fat and protein. You may be thinking, “this sounds pretty familiar,” and it is. The Atkins diet, introduced in the 1970s, and the ketogenic diet share many of the same principles: they push the body into a state of “ketosis” – the breakdown of ketone (fat) bodies for energy.
How to switch to a keto diet
The body usually enters a ketosis state within a few days of consuming a very low-carb diet. What is considered “very low”? According to Dr. Marcelo Campos, professor at Harvard Medical School and Clinical Assistant Professor at TUFTS Medical School, 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrate intake per day, depending on the individual, can produce ketone bodies and therefore a keto-diet.
Benefits of a Ketogenic Lifestyle
- The keto diet is recommended by the Epilepsy Foundation for children with seizures that do not respond to medication. Studies have shown that more than half of children on a ketogenic diet experience a 50% reduction in seizures, while a small percentage even become seizure free.
- A keto diet can induce weight loss more quickly and significantly than a traditional low-fat diet, helping those who are overweight or obese. According to Antonio Paouli in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “ketogenic diets have been shown to be effective, at least in the short and medium term, as a tool to combat obesity, hyperlipidemia and some cardiovascular risk factors”. However, he notes that while there may be benefits, the keto diet raises some concerns among physicians.
- The keto diet may offer better blood sugar control for people with type 2 diabetes, mostly attributed to significant weight loss but also to a high glycemic index. However, the keto diet is not safe for all people with diabetes and therefore a doctor should be consulted before changing eating habits.
Followers of the keto diet tend to develop bad breath and a sweet taste in the mouth caused by the breakdown of fatty acids. This side effect is by no means life-threatening, but just a warning to keep in mind in your social relationships.
Because the keto diet focuses on a very low intake of macronutrients – carbohydrates – some dietitians warn that it is relatively easy for certain fundamental nutrient deficiencies to occur if followers of the diet do not have a great deal of knowledge about the nutritional, vitamin and mineral values of the foods they include in the diet.
While the keto diet may be good for short-term weight loss and blood pressure reduction, an analysis in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2013 evaluating keto diets versus low-fat diets for long-term weight loss found that keto diets can also increase LDL cholesterol. Dr. Marcelo Campos questions this assertion in a review of the keto diet on the Harvard Health blog, saying that the predominance of fat and protein over carbohydrates may encourage increased consumption of less healthy oils and red meat, usually high in saturated fat, which can lead to potential heart health complications.
The keto diet may result in significant weight loss or improved health parameters in some people, however, we are all different and the effects may vary from person to person. Also, because this diet is very low in carbohydrates, this diet may not be sustainable for people with very active lives or elite athletes.
In general, more research is needed on the long-term effects of the keto diet, especially in adult humans, as much of the currently available research is based on studies in animals or children with epilepsy.
As we always say: listen to your body and put yourself in the hands of professionals who can give you all the information you need because the best diet for you is undoubtedly the one that best suits your body and lifestyle and, of course, the one you can follow.
A healthy and balanced diet should be based on a wide variety of different foods that are rich in nutrients; that is, that provide a large amount of nutrients in exchange for few calories.
Finally, remember that all meals can be incorporated into a healthy diet as long as you do so in moderation and, if you have spent a day, come to the gym to burn off the extra calories.