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The Keto Diet and Gut Health: Friend or Foe?

By Fitoru | 12 February 2020
keto diet

As with any trending diet, the keto diet has its fair share of naysayers. And while the weight-loss benefits of the ketogenic diet can’t be questioned, other purported perks, like the effects of keto on gut health, are still open for debate. And since your digestive system is also the puppet master of your immune health, brain health, and skin health among other bodily processes, anything that compromises its function needs to be brought under scrutiny. So we’re taking out our magnifying glass and looking in depth at the keto diet and gut health. Is this low-carb, high-fat dietary protocol an ally to your digestive efforts or a saboteur? Read on to find out!

How the Keto Diet Hurts Your Gut Health

The keto diet cuts carbs and increases dietary fat to get you into a state of ketosis in which your body burns fat for fuel and releases ketones as a byproduct. You enjoy weight loss, fat loss, and greater physical and mental energy as a result. But not everyone is a fan.

The keto diet has fallen out of favor with some gut health experts because, by its very nature, it restricts a nutrient that is crucial to a smoothly functioning digestive system—dietary fiber.

Humans can’t digest the fiber we eat, and so fiber moves slowly through the digestive system, absorbing water and bulking up with waste to be eliminated from our bodies. 

Fiber keeps our bowel movements soft and regular and constipation at bay, and protects against digestive disorders such as diverticulitis, stomach ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and hemorrhoids.

Because the keto diet calls for elimination of sugary fruits, starchy vegetables, legumes, and grains due to their high-carb content, fiber intake can be somewhat limited on a keto diet.

But not to fear! It’s all about making sure you eat low-carbohydrate foods that are also high in fiber. This includes leafy greens and berries and numerous other non-starchy veggies and low-sugar fruits. 

Getting enough fiber while you’re on a keto diet isn’t difficult at all. Fill your plate with the following keto-friendly high-fiber foods at every meal:

FlaxseedsAlmonds
Chia seedsPecans
Pumpkin seedsPistachios
AvocadosCauliflower
Broccoli Asparagus
Collard greensBlackberries
Coconut meatRaspberries
MushroomsRed cabbage

Does the Ketogenic Diet Change Your Gut Microbiome?

Absolutely. But not in the way you may think.

Before we expose the truth about keto and gut health as it pertains to the microflora in your gastrointestinal tract, let’s first get a better grasp of this garden of microorganisms.

The Importance of a Balanced Microbiome

Your gut is home to hundreds of trillions of beneficial bacteria that support your digestion, immunity, cognition, and overall health. But in addition to these good bacteria, your gut is vulnerable to harmful pathogenic bacteria that can grow like weeds if you don’t tend to your gut’s garden carefully. 

If your microbiome is out of balance (called dysbiosis), you could be susceptible to candida overgrowth—which leads to leaky gut syndrome—and chronic inflammation—which can cause depression, anxiety, brain fog, and autoimmune conditions. 

Adverse alterations to your gut microbiome can impair your body’s ability to produce neurotransmitters and significantly impact mood. A compromised microbiome can also affect your body’s ability to absorb nutrients from your food. 

Suffice it to say: the balance of human gut microbiota is critically important to every facet of your health.

But the question still remains: is the keto diet a friend or a foe to your gut?

The Truth About the Keto Diet and Your Gut

A recent study had keto detractors proclaiming: “I told you keto was bad for your health.”

Researchers looked at the effects of 3 different diets—a low-fat diet, moderate-fat diet, and high-fat diet—on the human gut microbiome. Results suggest that a high-fat diet has a negative impact on the gut microbiome and also increases inflammation (1).

Not so fast…

This study doesn’t have legs to stand on when cited as evidence against the keto diet for gut health. That’s because dieters weren’t following a traditional keto diet. The carbs in the high-fat diet were replaced with mainly soybean oil…not the healthy fats recommended on a keto diet!

If we want to know how the keto diet affects gut health, then we must look at studies that investigate not a random high-fat diet, but a pure ketogenic dietary approach of low carbs, moderate protein, and high healthy fats. Such as a 2017 study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology that showed that not only did the keto diet reduce seizures in infants with refractory epilepsy, but it also lowered concentrations of a harmful type of gut bacteria that includes Escherichia, Salmonella, and Vibrio (2). 

The keto diet also showed beneficial changes to microbiome diversity in an animal model of autism spectrum disorder, a condition firmly linked to imbalances in intestinal bacteria, and restored healthy levels of microorganisms to the guts of multiple sclerosis sufferers (3, 4).

We need merely look to a 2019 review titled “The Ketogenic Diet and Microbiota: Friends or Enemies” for further evidence that the keto diet is indeed a friend to gut health. After analyzing 124 studies on the keto diet and gut health, researchers concluded:

“The observations that a ketogenic diet can modulate and reshape gut microbiota represents a potential and promising future therapeutic approach.”

Now contrast these findings with the numerous studies proving that a standard Western diet high in processed foods, sugars, and carbohydrates adversely changes the gut microbiome, promoting leaky gut syndrome, liver inflammation, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome. 

Obviously, keto is not the culprit.

The Keto Diet and Gut Health

How the Keto Diet Helps Your Gut Health

Due to its ameliorative effect on gut flora, the keto diet lowers chronic inflammation, a main cause of digestive conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. In fact, a 6-month study from the Annals of Medicine suggests that a low-carb diet can lower inflammatory markers in patients with type 2 diabetes while a low-fat diet has no such anti-inflammatory effect (5).

Patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have shown specific benefits from eating a low-carb diet like keto, which can remedy diarrhea, stool frequency, and pain and increase quality of life (6). 

By reducing inflammation in the bowels and small intestine, following a ketogenic diet may also lower your risk of colon cancer. This low-sugar diet deprives cancer cells of their favorite food—sugar!

And because it’s naturally low in FODMAPs, fermentable carbohydrates that cause bloating, gas, stomach pain, diarrhea, and constipation, the keto diet can even help improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

But the health benefits all depend on the foods you choose to eat while on a keto diet. 

We know that soybean oil isn’t ideal, so let’s discover the keto-friendly foods that contribute to a healthy gut.

Keto Foods for Gut Health

We’ve already recommended several keto-approved foods high in fiber and great for the gut, but let’s highlight a few of our favorite gut superfoods.

  • Avocado: This probably doesn’t come as any surprise, as avocados are the poster child for keto. This low-carb, high-fat fruit delivers 10 grams of fiber in 1 cup.
  • Fermented foods: Kefir and kimchi are full of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) and yeast cultures (kefir has over 50 different types!) that support healthy digestion.
  • Butter: The butyric acid in butter and ghee helps to reduce inflammation in the gut and has shown a positive effect on symptoms of IBD.
  • Nuts and seeds: Grab a handful of walnuts or pistachios for the fiber and omega-3s.
  • Berries: These little gems are the keto fruit that keeps on giving with phenolic compounds that support good bacteria like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus acidophilus and protect against the bad. 
  • Green veggies: Dark leafy greens like kale, arugula, and collard greens are packed with antioxidants that keep the gut lining in tip-top shape, and asparagus is rich in prebiotics, which are food for the good bacteria in your gut.

All of these foods support intestinal health, but there’s one gut support food you don’t want to neglect while on a keto diet.

And the Winner Is…

What lowers inflammation, restores a healthy intestinal balance, and has antifungal properties to boot? 

Coconut oil!

When it comes to keto cooking oils, coconut oil can’t be beat. 

But there’s an even better oil for keto dieters to supplement with. It’s far more concentrated in the gut-boosting ingredients that give coconut oil such a good name. Plus, it’s a no-carb way to fuel up with healthy fat, lower inflammation, strengthen the immune system, and make sure your gut is supplied with everything it needs to support your brain, body, and moods.

Made up entirely of gut-friendly medium-chain fatty acids, MCT oil encourages the digestion of nutrients while balancing your gut’s microbiome. 

And it’s easy to add to your diet. Just drip a spoonful of MCT oil into your morning coffee, or better yet, take two capsules a day of our premium MCT blend and rest easy knowing your gut is fully supported in every way.

To learn more about our MCT Oil Softgels, click here.

And keep the conversation going by letting us know your experiences with the keto diet and digestion in the comments below!

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