Thinking about trying the ketogenic diet? We’ve got the details you need on how this weight-loss strategy works, what eating a low-carb diet truly entails, and what getting into ketosis does to your body. There’s a lot of good, but also some very real side effects, so weigh the balance between the pros and cons of the keto diet before you make the switch.
The ketogenic diet is a low-carb, moderate-protein, high-fat diet. Healthy fats should account for 75% of your total daily caloric intake. Foods like avocados, nuts, and cold-pressed unrefined oils like olive oil, coconut oil, or its derivative MCT oil are always on the menu!
Moderate protein accounts for about 20% of your daily calories. Protein food sources like eggs, meats, and tofu (it is possible to be vegetarian or vegan on keto) should fill your plate.
The remaining 5% of carbs should come from highly nutritious foods like non-starchy vegetables and low-carb fruits like leafy greens and dark berries.
When you consistently maintain this macronutrient ratio, you reach a state of ketosis, an alternative metabolic pathway that deprioritizes sugar energy (glucose) and instead seeks to burn fat for energy in the form of ketones. Ketone bodies can replace glucose energy in almost every bodily process, and they are the preferred energy source of the brain, leading many to experience increased mental acuity on keto.
The health benefits of such a low-carbohydrate diet include rapid yet medically safe body fat loss and blood sugar control, but that’s not all!
Many people consider increased fat intake dangerous because we’ve been told for years that eating fat leads to gaining fat, which then leads to obesity and serious issues like type 2 diabetes, an increased risk of heart disease, and high blood pressure. Science has since debunked this myth, because, as demonstrated by the keto diet, eating healthy, natural fats and eliminating dangerous carbohydrate intake is a pathway out of obesity and chronic health conditions and into optimized wellness. Here’s the proof.
If you’re willing to flip the script on the traditional food pyramid‘s food groups, you can look forward to the following benefits of your new metabolic state.
Any doctor can confirm that losing excess body weight is the first step to improving health. It’s important to take an honest view of your way of eating. Are you eating low-nutrient foods high in refined vegetable oils, sugars, and salts? If so, you’re eating your way to obesity, higher blood pressure, higher blood sugar levels, and dangerous plaque accumulation on your arteries and blood vessels. In other words, you are seriously compromising your heart health.
A ketogenic meal plan denies the body fast sugar energy in the form of blood glucose and offers it only fat as a dietary fuel source. When the body realizes that, it goes looking for stored fat deposits, hungry for energy. This leads to quick yet medically safe weight loss that can help you beat back obesity and avoid cardiovascular issues and even fatty liver by targeting deeply embedded visceral fat deposits (1).
We’ve mentioned that ketones are a favorite energy source of the brain. Well here’s the proof: ketones, unlike glucose, can cross the blood-brain barrier without having to wait for a protein transport vehicle (2). And there are a heck of a lot of benefits that come from those ketones.
Anecdotally, many people report increased mental clarity once they achieve ketosis, but there are scientifically verifiable results we can count on as well.
The ketogenic diet was first developed to successfully treat epilepsy (a brain disorder) in children, eliminating the need for medication. Overweight adults who switch to the keto diet experience fewer migraines, which means the diet may apply as a novel new treatment (3). The keto diet also shows greater improvements than a low-fat diet in the area of non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s patients, while also improving their motor symptoms significantly (4).
The keto diet literally provides food for thought.
Stripped of nutrient value, refined white sugar is both addictive and destructive. Eating foods high in table sugar or sugary carbs spikes blood sugar levels, one of the direct causes of type 2 diabetes.
The keto diet not only eliminates the vast majority of carbs from your diet, but it also leads people to seek out healthy carbs, such as those fruits and veggies that also contain dietary fiber to help slow stomach emptying and digestion. This allows any sugars consumed to enter the bloodstream slowly, keeps blood sugar and insulin levels stable, and reduces maddening food cravings by increasing satiety so you’re not left feeling hungry even after you’ve consumed enough calories.
Another benefit of the keto diet is the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory influence it has on the body. Unchecked excessive inflammation contributes not only to diabetes but also to a multitude of other chronic conditions, including arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s (5).
Moreover, the keto diet calls for foods like fish, oils, nuts, and seeds that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Most modern diets suffer from a 20:1 or worse mismatch of omega-6s to omega-3s when your body ideally desires a ratio of 1:1. That imbalance also leads to unnecessary inflammation. And, of course, there are the free radicals from non-nutritive dietary sources, environmental pollutants, and normal bodily processes that can be combated by a healthy keto diet’s antioxidant makeup.
Studies show that the keto diet may help slow cancer proliferation and suppress tumor cell growth (6). Though more research is needed to pinpoint the exact cause and effect, some researchers theorize that because cancer cells consume far more sugar than regular cells do, a ketogenic diet may help starve the cancer cells. More targeted research indicates that consuming large amounts of sugar regularly leads to an increased risk of specific cancers such as esophageal cancer (7).
As with any diet there are rules and adjustments to be made, and here are the potential downsides of keto.
The balance of keto’s fat-protein-carb macronutrient ratio is very precise, and sometimes the reason dietitians and nutritionists don’t recommend it is because it takes a lot of commitment.
Many people can achieve ketosis in the short-term but have a hard time utilizing it for long-term weight loss. That is when tactics such as intermittent and alternate-day fasting may be of use—once you’re well-practiced at keto, you may be able to switch between keto fasting days and days eating a greater variety of foods, perhaps on the weekends when you could use some wiggle room to dine out with friends and family.
The moderate amount of protein for those on keto may have to be restructured for those who work out with the intent to build muscle. Some athletes require more protein than 20% of their caloric intake, and yet too much protein on keto can ultimately be synthesized into glucose if the body has a surplus.
The body always prefers glucose over ketones, so if there’s extra protein to repurpose, it could knock you out of ketosis even when your carb intake is spot-on. This is an extra layer of difficulty you may find frustrating if you want to build muscles, though some endurance athletes may find that training their body to quickly access fat stores works better than ever.
Last but certainly not least of the keto concerns is the dreaded keto flu. Keto flu is the short-term side effect of keto initiation, so-called because it causes certain flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, and digestive upset, plus other unique symptoms like keto breath.
Keto breath entails a fruity yet metallic odor not unlike nail polish remover (acetone) that can be unpleasant and embarrassing. Luckily, if you do experience keto flu symptoms (and some people don’t!) there are ways to quickly speed past them. You can utilize ketosis pills as a support supplement or consume MCT oil since it can be rapidly converted to ketones (faster than digesting food and burning body fat).
There are many proven benefits to a ketogenic diet. It prioritizes natural, whole-food ingredients, helps reduce blood sugar and fat and triglyceride levels in the blood, and can even help prevent diseases like diabetes and cancer. However, some people struggle to maintain the disciplined diet demanded by keto, some get discouraged by keto flu, and those who are trying to build muscle on keto may have to experiment and adjust the keto diet to get enough protein without getting knocked out of ketosis.
Now that you’ve got a clear understanding of the pros and cons of the ketogenic diet, the choice is yours.