Is the Keto Diet Actually Healthy?

February 28, 2020

Image via Shutterstock

Alexa Paolella, IIN Content Editor, Class of January 2018

As the most Googled diet in 2018, many of us are talking, thinking, and (literally) searching for more information about the ketogenic diet.

For years, low-carb diets have been a staple of our so-called “diet culture.” Thanks to Atkins, Whole30, and Paleo, carbs are often portrayed as the enemy with recommendations to reduce the intake of bread, pasta, cereal, and rice.

More recently, the ketogenic (or keto) diet has become increasingly popular yet controversial. Touted for its weight-loss benefits, keto is another example of a high-fat, low-carb diet that potentially burns fat more effectively and helps individuals (most commonly athletes) perform better. While people on the keto diet eat fewer carbohydrates, they maintain or increase their current intake of protein and fat. Nonetheless, fats play the most significant role in keto; nearly 75% of the daily diet coming from fats, 25% from protein, and 5% from carbohydrates (these percentages vary slightly depending on the individual).

By shifting the ratio of fats, protein, and carbs eaten on a daily basis, the body will go through a metabolic state of ketosis, where fat is burned for energy. It can take up to five days for the body to enter ketosis, and when it does, it will begin producing another form of energy called ketones. It’s during this phase that you’re most likely to experience weight loss.

What can you eat?

Like most diets, keto encourages you to follow a strict regimen that involves eating more of certain foods while eliminating others. Here’s a quick breakdown of which foods are keto-friendly and which you may want to avoid if you decide to give the ketogenic diet a try.

Do eat:

  • Eggs
  • High-fat dairy, including heavy cream and cheese
  • Fish and seafood
  • Meat
  • Natural fats, like butter and olive oil
  • Nuts, including macadamias and pecans
  • Veggies grown aboveground, including bell peppers, eggplants, asparagus, and cauliflower
  • Berries in moderation

Don’t eat:

  • Alcohol
  • Candy
  • Fruit
  • Starchy vegetables, like squash and sweet potatoes
  • Refined carbs, including pasta, bread, rice, and baked goods
  • Soda or juice

Because nutrient-dense foods, like fruit, veggies, and whole grains, aren’t exactly staples of the ketogenic diet, it’s common for people to question just how healthy this diet actually is, especially in today’s society, where plant-based diets are applauded for being healthier, cleaner, and more sustainable.

At Integrative Nutrition, we don’t believe in any one diet because we know that what works for some won’t work for others. (We call this bio-individuality, which we focus on in the Health Coach Training Program.) While some people thrive on keto, others may want to avoid animal-based foods for personal reasons or health concerns. We also believe that your plate should be full of color, containing a variety of whole and natural foods. From fruits and veggies to whole grains and healthy fats, what you choose to eat goes beyond satisfying hunger. Pleasure and enjoyment are key aspects of holistic nourishment for your mind, body, and soul.

Before trying any diet, it’s important to do your research, weigh the pros and cons, and consult a doctor if you have any questions. In the meantime, here are a few things to note about the ketogenic diet.

Potential Upsides

Brain-protecting properties

The ketogenic diet was developed at the Mayo Clinic in the 1920s to help treat children who had epilepsy and weren’t responding well to more traditional forms of medicine. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, the ketogenic diet helps control seizures in children with epilepsy, and over half the children who go on this diet experience a 50% reduction in seizures.

Moreover, the diet may have more brain-protecting properties than initially realized. Recent research suggests that keto may help keep the brain healthy by increasing sensory and motor function while preventing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Results from a 2018 study found that mice who followed a keto regimen showed signs of enhanced neurovascular function, improved gut diversity, lower blood sugar levels, and lower body weight. Another study suggested that elevated ketone levels improve cognitive functioning in adults with memory disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease.

Blood sugar control

Because the ketogenic diet affects the way your body stores and uses energy, it may improve blood glucose (sugar) levels while also reducing the need for insulin. Managing carbohydrate intake is often recommended for people with type 2 diabetes because carbs, especially refined or processed, turn to sugar, causing blood sugar levels to rise. By dramatically shifting your daily intake of carbs, you’re less likely to experience highs and lows. In one study, a small population of patients with type 2 diabetes reported improved glycemic control and were able to discontinue or reduce some of their diabetes medications after going on a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet.

Weight maintenance

One of the most notable benefits of ketosis is weight loss, which often happens early on in a person’s journey with keto due to the reduction in processed carbs and refined sugar. Dieters may find that they drop excess water weight, which can vary from a few ounces to several pounds (depending on how much extra weight they had). This is also a key reason why the Atkins Diet exploded in the early 2000s and low-carb diets are consistently popular. The initial weight loss that individuals can experience early on is appealing, especially for those who struggle with extra weight or obesity.

However, unlike many diets where you’re at risk of gaining the weight back soon after losing it, the ketogenic diet may promote positive results that actually stick due to its focus on fat and protein consumption. When your body’s main source of energy comes from healthy fats, you’re more likely to stay full longer. With this, you’ll also have fewer blood sugar highs and lows, which can contribute to fewer cravings. Furthermore, because ketosis mimics a state of fasting (similar to some of the potential benefits of intermittent fasting), an individual will learn to suppress their appetite and hunger pangs. By changing the metabolic state of their body, they may find that positive results are more likely to last long-term.

Potential Downsides

According to the 2020 U.S. News report, the keto diet ranked 34th of 35 diets evaluated by a panel of health experts – meaning it’s one of the worst diets for healthy eating. An important factor to consider here is that keto can be very restrictive, which is why it may not work for everyone – some may find themselves falling into a cycle of eating unhealthy foods simply because they don’t know what else to eat. And when yo-yo dieting or grasping to meet the standards of a low-carb, high-fat diet becomes a norm, you may actually place more stress on your heart and overall health than you think.

Fat sources

There’s a major difference between different kinds of fats, and understanding this difference is vital in maintaining optimal health while on the ketogenic diet. It's common for people to assume that because they’re cutting one thing from their diet (in this case, carbs), they don’t need to worry about where the rest of their food comes from (in this case, fat). However, because we know that not all fats are created equal, we encourage you to gain awareness around unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats so you’re empowered to make more informed choices.

Saturated fats from processed meats, including bacon, sausage, and salami, or full-fat dairy, like butter and cream cheese, as well as trans fats in processed foods, may contribute to weight gain or obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease. On the other hand, upping your intake of unsaturated fats found in foods like olive oil, seeds and nuts, and certain types of fish can provide the vitamins and minerals your body needs to flourish.

People on the keto diet need to ensure they’re including unsaturated fats from nutrient-dense foods, like avocado, olive oil, and nut butters, versus consuming too many saturated and trans fats.

High cholesterol

You've probably heard the saying “You are what you eat.” The food you put in your mouth can impact nearly everything in your body and mind – from your hormones and glucose levels to your mood, mental clarity, weight, and cholesterol levels. We now know this to be true, since cholesterol levels go hand-in-hand with your daily diet. If you’re consuming too many saturated and trans fats, you may be at higher risk for high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Research from 2016 suggests that LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol rises while HDL (the “good”) cholesterol decreases in keto dieters. On the contrary, a study from 2018 suggests that HDL increases with a ketogenic diet. Although there are conflicting results, we know that a person who consumes red meat almost every day will have vastly different cholesterol levels than a person who follows a plant-based diet. Before considering the keto diet, you may want to check your cholesterol level. If you’ve struggled with high cholesterol before, it may not be in your best interest to go on the ketogenic diet.

Heart disease

In today’s society, there’s been a shift in how we define healthy or “clean” eating. Saturated fats, meat, and processed foods have taken a hit, while whole grains, beans, legumes, and unsaturated fats have been placed on a pedestal. Carbs (in their natural and whole state) may no longer be the enemy, and recent research actually suggests that those who don’t drastically reduce or cut their intake of carbohydrates may be healthier. A 2018 study of nearly 25,000 adults in the United States found that those who reduced or limited their carb intake had a 32% higher risk of death than those who ate high-carb diets. Moreover, those who ate a low-carb diet had a 51% increased risk of heart disease.

Opt for Quality

One major factor to consider with any diet, and especially one like keto that prioritizes fat consumption, is to opt for quality, not quantity. A simple way to do this is by purchasing organic, pasture-raised, and grass-fed meat since it tends to be more humane and free of hormones or antibiotics. Since these animals are able to enjoy their natural, grazing diet, their meat tends to be higher in omega-3 fatty acids, too.

When it comes to purchasing fresh fish, wild-caught is usually the way to go since they are caught in their natural environments (think lakes, oceans, rivers). Wild-caught fish tend to have a more natural diet whereas farmed fish are given food and are more likely to also be given antibiotics. Although grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish will likely be more expensive, they may also be the higher-quality, safer, and more sustainable options.

In the end, only you know your body and what works best for you, and that’s something we firmly believe in here at IIN. It’s important to listen to your body and honor its cues. The more you learn, the more you’ll feel empowered to incorporate aspects of different diets into a sustainable way of eating. Each and every one of us deserves to live full and vibrant lives, free of the added pressure and stress that diet culture often places on us.

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