Low-carb diets are hot because of their ability to help you drop weight fast. These types of diets work by forcing your body into a state of ketosis whereby the body turns to stored fat as the primary energy source instead of recently consumed carbohydrates. The keto diet calls for restricting carbs, limiting protein, and eating more fat to help you reach ketosis fast. But are the potential dangers of the keto diet and other carbohydrate-restricted diets being ignored?
High-fat diets seem counterintuitive at first glance. After all, we’ve been told for generations that the key to weight loss is creating a calorie deficit in part by cutting fat from our diets and eating more whole grains, fruits, lean protein, and vegetables. And let’s not forget the warnings that high-fat diets cause heart disease, high cholesterol, and other diseases—but so does obesity.
So is the keto diet dangerous or is it a way to help you lose weight safely?
What Is the Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet isn’t a new fad—it’s been around for nearly a hundred years. It was first developed to reduce the frequency and severity of seizures in children with epilepsy. The ketogenic diet dramatically restricts carbohydrates to force the body into a state of ketosis, which targets body fat as a source for fuel. In addition to limiting carbs to 25 to 50 grams a day, reaching ketosis requires the addition of healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, or MCT oil supplements.
When compared to a low-fat diet, or even the Mediterranean diet, the keto diet seems too good to be true. Eat more fat? Yes, please. Don’t worry about calories? Yes, please. But this thinking has led some people on the ketogenic diet to adopt poor food choices. Yes, you can reach ketosis by eating unhealthy processed fats, but you may be causing nutrient deficiencies along your path to quick weight loss.
Let’s be clear: the ketogenic diet is not a high-protein diet. If you are struggling with reaching fat-burning mode, you may need to cut back on protein while eating more healthy fats. And you don’t get healthy fats from processed meats from the deli counter, bacon, or sausage. It’s important to be mindful of the sodium content of these processed meats, as they can raise your blood pressure quite dramatically.
Eating clean on the ketogenic diet is possible, but it requires a keto macro calculator, meal planning, and meal prep. It is important to eat plenty of low-carb veggies like leafy greens, summer squash, eggplant, green beans, broccoli, mushrooms, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts to make sure you are getting the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients your body needs. Of course, you also need to drink plenty of water while you are dieting to help your body flush toxins out.
In addition to healthy low-carb vegetables, it is essential to eat a variety of foods to make sure your micronutrient needs are met. Organic grass-fed meats, free-range poultry, wild-caught seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, berries, and full-fat dairy are great staples while you are on a low-carb diet. High-sugar fruits, high-starch veggies, high-carb sweeteners, grains, and processed foods should be extremely limited or avoided to keep you within your ideal macro count.
Potential Dangers of the Keto Diet
When you start eating dramatically differently, you can expect your body to respond in some unpleasant ways. Typically the symptoms you experience aren’t dangerous, and they are often short-lived. For example, diets like the ketogenic diet that restrict carbohydrates can cause a range of mild to moderate side effects including:
- Keto flu
- Bad breath, known as keto breath
- Kidney stones
- Keto diarrhea
But is the keto diet dangerous? The truth is long-term studies have not focused on dieters or people other than those with epilepsy. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is very little science-backed evidence that a high-fat diet partnered with limited carbs is safe or effective over the long term, so we really don’t know what, if any, dangers there are when eating a very low-carb diet.
Heart Health Concerns
Many doctors have voiced their concern on the impact high-fat diets have on heart health, and rightfully so. Keto dieters who consume mostly unhealthy transfats and saturated fats may increase their risk for heart disease—but we aren’t sure yet. Choose your fats wisely and stick with unsaturated fats like those found in nuts, seeds, and avocados as well as some saturated fats like those found in wild-caught fish, wild game, pasture-raised meats, and free-range poultry. And of course, avoid processed foods.
Any diet done improperly can lead to dietary deficiencies. A 2010 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, found a variety of nutritional deficiencies in the Atkins, Mediterranean, DASH, and South Beach diets. The researchers concluded that individuals following these diets had a “high likelihood of becoming micronutrient deficient” unless nutritional supplements were taken.
While the keto diet wasn’t evaluated in that study, even keto advocates admit that nutritional deficiencies can occur. For example, on a keto diet, most fruits are avoided because of their high-sugar and high-carbohydrate content. The downside is that these same fruits are packed with health-boosting antioxidants, vitamins, and other nutrients. The same holds true for whole grains. Whole grains are loaded with protein, fiber, minerals, and vitamins that are recognized for their ability to protect against heart disease, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
To guard against nutritional deficiencies while on a keto diet, it may be wise to have your nutrient levels checked every six months or so into your new eating plan. Request a blood test from your doctor to make sure you aren’t deficient in critical nutrients. If you are running a deficiency, you may need to tweak your diet or add a high-quality supplement to boost your stores of specific nutrients.
Ketoacidosis is a potentially life-threatening condition that can cause loss of consciousness, a diabetic coma, or death. Ketoacidosis occurs when dangerous levels of acid accumulate in the bloodstream as a result of too many ketone bodies being released. Ketosis and ketoacidosis are different. Diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA, occurs most often in type 1 diabetics, but can occur in type 2 diabetics as well according to the American Diabetes Association.
It must be noted that there are reported cases of ketoacidosis in non-diabetics following a keto diet, but it is considered very rare in healthy people. If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, monitor your blood sugar levels and the ketone levels in your urine carefully and speak with your physician about any concerns you have.
Research Supporting a Keto Diet
Here are five science-backed health benefits of eating a ketogenic diet.
1. Enhanced Memory
In a study by researchers at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati, dietary ketosis was found to enhance the memory of individuals with mild cognitive impairment. The authors of the study mention that even in the short term, restricting carbohydrates can improve memory function in older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
2. Reduced Inflammation
A cooperative study from researchers at Yale School of Medicine, Purdue University, the NIH, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, and others have recently identified that elevated BHB levels that occur during starvation, high-intensity exercise, or a ketogenic diet reduce inflammation. In the study, the authors explain that the role of the ketone bodies is still unknown, but the results show that calorie restriction and ketogenic diets do demonstrate anti-inflammatory effects.
3. Improved Sleep Quality
A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutritional Neuroscience indicates that a very low-carbohydrate diet increases stage 4 deep sleep and reduces REM sleep in head-to-head studies against low-fat, high-carb diets. The authors of the study believe that improved sleep may be linked to the metabolism of the fat from a very low-carb diet.
4. Enhanced Athletic Performance
According to the Cleveland Clinic, ketone supplements like BHB oil powder when partnered with a ketogenic diet are beneficial for ultra-endurance athletes. Kylene Bogden, a registered dietitian, mentions that while ketosis can occur naturally after prolonged exercise or while you are in starvation mode, the human body does need time to adjust to a very low-carb diet to perform optimally. Ketone supplements may help with ketosis, but they don’t provide nutritional support according to Ms. Bogden.
5. Reduced Food Cravings
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s review of the ketogenic diet found that ketone bodies produced during the diet reduce hunger and decrease the production of appetite-stimulating hormones. In the same review, the authors note that a diet very high in fat may be difficult to maintain and that we still don’t know the long-term effects or “safety issues related to the ketogenic diet.”