Advisory: This article discusses the ketogenic diet. There are many benefits of this diet, but it’s important to seek advice of a medical professional before entering into a ketogenic diet. When following a strict ketogenic diet, it’s critical to remain closely monitored during the process. Children along with adults taking medications or have existing conditions such as high blood sugar or diabetes must be closely monitored.
If you’ve been reading articles in the health and wellness realm over the last couple of years, you’ve probably started seeing the ketogenic diet and the term ketosis popping up more and more. It’s possible that you’ve tried the diet or are following some version of the diet now.
This controversial diet, due to the high fat/low carbohydrate ratio, was originally developed for epilepsy patients in the 1920’s by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. Researchers found that fasting, especially fasting from carbohydrates, helped reduce seizures in patients and had positive effects on body fat, blood sugar, cholesterol and hunger levels.
The diet re-emerged over the last several years after a 2014 review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health brought to light that the ketogenic diet results in effective weight loss and improvement in cardiovascular health. Since then, studies have found that the ketogenic diet can help combat cancer as well as other serious chronic health issues.
How Does the Ketogenic Diet Work?
The diet is designed to enter the body into a state of ketosis, which is a metabolic state where the body and brain runs off of ketones rather than glucose.
Our bodies normally run on glucose (or sugar) for energy. We cannot make glucose and only have about 24 hours stored in our bodies. Once glucose is no longer available from food sources, the body begin to burn stored fat or fat from our diet instead of glucose.
A high fat regimen mimics the effects of long-term fasting and tricks the body into eliminating glucose (an effect of long-term fasting). As glucose stores deplete, your body switches from running on glucose for energy to using the ketones found in fat.
The benefits of the diet come from entering the body into this state of ketosis where the body is running on fat for energy. More than eating bacon and butter, the goal of the diet is to get this body into this state of ketosis.
Everyone enters into ketosis at different rates, but ketosis usually starts after 3-4 days of fasting or following a restricted carbohydrate diet (less than 20 grams of net carbs) that forces your body to switch to burning fat. In this state of ketosis, since the body is burning fat for energy, many people lose excess body fat rapidly.
Versions of the Ketogenic Diet
The traditional ketogenic diet created for those with epilepsy consisted of getting about 75 percent of calories from sources of fat, 5 percent from carbohydrates and 20 percent from protein. For most this is extremely restrictive and adherence to the diet is low.
A modified ketogenic diet is what most people who you hear following the ketogenic diet adhere to. This involves eating a diet consisting of around 20 percent carbohydrates with roughly 60 percent of calories coming from fat and 20 percent protein. The numbers vary somewhat, but many experience weight loss by reducing carbohydrates to somewhere below 30 percent of their total caloric intake.
Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet has gained a cult following and is the fastest growing diet regimen, and for good reason. Here are a few of the benefits you may see while in ketosis:
Improved Weight Loss
Most diets today focus on restricting calories, which typically means a diet higher in carbohydrates and lower in fat. This may have some benefits, but studies now show that low fat diets result in modest weight loss results compared to diets such as the ketogenic diet and result in lack of adherence and the tendency for dieters to feel hungry.
Diets high in fats can help diminish hunger as these diets tend to be very filling, which can curb eating of empty calories.
Low-carb/high-fat diets also boost weight loss through hormonal effects, specifically with a reduced release of insulin as further discussed below.
Controlled Insulin Response and Reduced Risk for Type 2 Diabetes
Ketosis provided more benefits that simply burning fat and shedding weight. A ketotic state helps control the release of insulin, which play a role in the development of diabetes.
When the body is running primarily on glucose from carbohydrates, insulin is released as a reaction to elevated blood glucose levels. Insulin signals cells to store as much available energy as possible in the form of energy (glycogen) as possible, first in the muscles then as additional body fat.
This can be beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes who are not on insulin medications or those with pre-diabetes looking to reverse the condition. Studies show that ketosis encourages improvements in the dyslipidemia of diabetes and risk factors for metabolic syndromes. Ketosis can also improve blood pressure.
Diabetics on insulin medications should contact a medical provider prior to starting a ketogenic diet.
Potential Cancer Prevention
Studies suggest that ketogenic diets may “starve” cancer cells where a diet of highly processed foods can feed cancer cells. Why is this?
Cells in our bodies are able to use fat for energy, but it is believed that cancer cells cannot use fat for energy and growth. A diet which eliminates sugar and processed carbohydrates, thereby reducing glycogen stores, may reduce the risk of cancer and may possibly help in the fight of existing cancerous cells.
Proponents of ketogenic diets believe that anyone with a family history of cancer or are in high-risk categories from cancer should follow a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet. Again, if you believe you fit into this category, consult a medical professional.
Reduction of Heart Disease Risk Factors
Decades ago, “research” (I put this in quotes because the research was sponsored by the sugar and processed food industry), suggested that fats were to blame, that high-fat diets raised cholesterol and increased your risk of heart disease.
All you have to do is look around to see the benefit of this research…increased rates of obesity, cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc.
Today, we know that heart disease is mostly linked to inflammation, caused predominantly by the intake of processed foods, foods high in trans-fats, and sugar, not fats from foods such as health oils, nuts, and fish.
Lower-carb diets that are high in healthy fats, unprocessed plant foods and healthy proteins can reduce risk factors and complications from heart disease.
As stated above, it’s important to talk to a medical professional before beginning a ketogenic diet and it’s critical for children and those on certain medications. It’s also important to maintain consistent monitoring throughout the diet. Be sure to watch for any warning signs of a negative reaction such as fatigue or chronic brain fog.