Maybe you’re considering eating a ketogenic diet. Or, maybe you’ve already started the diet. Here is everything you need to know about the ketogenic diet!
Maybe you’re considering eating a ketogenic diet. Or, maybe you’ve already started the diet and are experiencing those icky early side effects of the diet call the keto flu. You may want to use the diet to lose weight or manage a health condition, but are worried about whether the diet is healthy or not.
The ketogenic diet is highly debated amongst nutritionists, doctors, and scientists. So, it’s easy to see why the general public is confused about whether the diet is safe.
Here’s a list of the benefits and possible dangers of eating a ketogenic diet:
- Helps manage seizures for those with epilepsy
- Promotes fast and easy weight loss
- Increases cognitive abilities
- Lasting, Sustainable energy
- Decreases inflammation, blood sugar, and triglyceride levels
- Research is contradictory
- The long-term effects of the diet have not been studied extensively
- Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals happen easily
- Unstable and sometimes irritable mood changes
- Increased risk of heart disease and kidney damage
WHAT IS THE KETOGENIC DIET?
The Ketogenic diet was first established by Dr. Russel Wilder in 1921 as a way to manage epilepsy and seizures. Previously, fasting was a way that patients who suffered from epilepsy could manage their symptoms. The ketogenic diet proved to be an excellent way that these people could still receive nutrition from food and lower their seizure rate.
It wasn’t popular as a method for weight loss until the most recent 3–5 years though. Today, many people use the diet solely for weight loss, but some also use the diet for a variety of other reported benefits such as lower triglycerides and blood sugar levels for those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
The diet may seem similar to some other fad low-carb diets that are popular for weight loss such as Atkins or Paleo. But, this diet varies because instead of recommending high intakes of lean meats, keto focuses on increasing your fat consumption.
It is recommended when following the ketogenic diet that you should allocate 75% of your calories for fat, 20% for protein, and 5% for carbs.
If you eat meat, that means you should put down those grilled chicken strips on top of the bed of greens. For this diet, you need to eat fatty cuts of meat with the skin still on. Instead of eating egg whites, you need to eat the full-fat egg yolks.
It may seem counterintuitive. For so many years you’ve probably heard that fat will make you fat. Or, you’ve been told to consume low-fat dairy products because high levels of fat are bad for you. So, it’s probably confusing that a diet consisting almost solely of fat can help you shed the pounds.
Before we talk about whether keto is healthy or not, let’s first delve into how the diet works.
Why Is It Called the Ketogenic Diet and How Does It Work?
The diet’s name comes from the metabolic state called ketosis. By eating the way the keto diet suggests, your body stops using carbs for energy and begins to use fat for energy instead. Basically, when you starve your body of carbs and your body no longer has any available sugar to burn, your liver starts converting your fat stores into energy molecules called ketones.
The repetitive state of using ketones for energy is called ketosis. That’s why we call the diet the ketogenic diet or keto for short.
BENEFITS OF THE KETOGENIC DIET
You probably only recognize the keto diet for its ability to help you lose weight. But as I mentioned earlier, the ketogenic diet was initially used for treatment for those with epilepsy. In more recent years, scientists have discovered and are still researching a host of other benefits that the keto diet could provide.
Increased Memory and Concentration
Recently, scientists have found a connection between increased cognitive function and the ketogenic diet. According to a study from 2004, as you age, your brain’s ability to use glucose decreases. A more recent study from 2012 also agreed that an increase in ketones was directly related to memory retention. By changing to a ketogenic diet, you can improve your memory and concentration.
For those with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease, the ketogenic diet could significantly help symptoms. For others, the ketogenic diet will help mental clarity and focus.
This effect can be profound for a variety of people. Whether you have acne, arthritis, psoriasis, eczema, IBS or an old injury that keeps acting up, you know how frustrating it is to have inflammation continually in your system.
Though the research is new, the findings have prompted researchers to continue studying the anti-inflammatory benefits of the ketogenic diet. So far, current research states that BHB, the main ketone produced by the ketogenic diet, blocks the inflammatory response of NLRP3 inflammasome.
Sustained Energy Levels
Because your body’s main source of energy, glucose, is replaced by fat on the keto diet, you will experience a sustained energy supply. Your body goes through sugar rushes and crashes on a daily basis from sugar. But ketones keep you going for longer.
That means your insulin levels will be stable, and you won’t need the extra cup of coffee at 3PM to get you over the afternoon slump.
Stabilization of Hormones
This effect is especially true for women who suffer from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). A study from 2016 found that the ketogenic diet possibly helped reduce the symptoms of PCOS such as weight gain, acne, and irregular or extended menstrual cramps. The study concluded that more research needed to be done to understand more about the correlation.
If you’re a diabetic, you know that high blood sugar damages blood vessels and can lead to cardiovascular diseases. The ketogenic diet significantly lowers your blood sugar levels because your diet consists of only 5% carbs.
By using ketones for energy instead of sugar, your blood glucose and triglycerides should decrease. A study in 2005 from Duke University reported that most of their subjects reduced or discontinued their diabetes medication by the end of the study.
This benefit is probably the primary use of the ketogenic diet today. But why is the process of eating a diet primarily of fat so effective for losing weight?
Through this process of ketosis, your body becomes a fat burning machine rather than running off of glucose. You’ll be burning fat constantly even while you sleep. Ketosis also lowers your hunger levels and reduces cravings with time.
The diet leaves you satiated. Fats are filling. Consequently, you’ll eat less overall and lose weight. Exercise won’t be required for weight loss because your body will continually burn fat. But, if you want to lose weight faster, exercise is recommended.
IS KETO SAFE LONG TERM?
Though studies show that the ketogenic diet can help you lose weight, the long-term effects of the diet have not been studied extensively. There are actually only a few studies currently in scientific literature that attempt to show how this diet affects you in the long run.
Those few studies have looked at mice rather than people, and the studies only evaluated the mice for a period of less than two years. These studies did not find that the mice’s health changed, but it’s difficult to say this study would hold true for humans. Also, the length of the study was relatively short-term.
Even the Harvard School of Public Health believes that the available research on the ketogenic diet focuses almost solely on short-term benefits. They worry about the safety of the diet specifically for higher risk individuals such as the elderly and those with chronic health problems.
Websites that exclusively promote the ketogenic diet as a healthy way of eating also warn against the potentially hazardous health concerns that can arise from the diet. These risks include high cholesterol, osteoporosis, and kidney problems.
The long-term effects of this diet are not fully researched. You can’t make lifelong decisions based off of short-term studies. The best way to use this diet in your life is for short periods or even cycling.
4 DANGERS OF THE KETOGENIC DIET
Yes, the studies on the ketogenic diet show that the diet can benefit you especially if your goal is weight loss. But, other studies on the ketogenic diet provide evidence on the dangers of this diet. Moreover, more research needs to be done on both sides of the argument about the long-term effects.
Here are four potential dangers of following the ketogenic diet:
- Mood Changes
- Kidney and Heart Damage
- Increased Risk of Chronic Diseases and Cancer
- Deficiencies in Antioxidants,Vitamins, Electrolytes, and Minerals
1. Mood Changes
Some users of the keto diet reported that after continuing with the diet for several months, they began to become more irritable and prone to stress. Adrenal fatigue and increases in cortisol levels can happen when you limit your carb intake so severely.
This symptom typically subsides after users of the diet add more carbohydrates such as beans, grains, starchy vegetables, and fruits back into their diet. But how do carbs make you happier?
In certain studies, carbs are seen to heighten serotonin levels. Quite literally carbs make you happier. So, when you cut out carbs entirely or even partially, your mood suffers because your serotonin levels decrease.
2. Kidney and Heart Damage
By eating a diet made up of 80% fat, you also may increase your consumption of unhealthy fats such as trans and saturated fats. In fact, many articles on how to properly eat a ketogenic diet include these unhealthy fats in their lists of foods to eat.
Unhealthy trans and saturated fats are found in foods such as chicken skin, red meat, cheese, butter, and ghee. By eating an excessive amount of these foods, you are increasing your risk of heart disease.
3. Increased Risk of Chronic Diseases and Cancer
Typical keto diets are high in animal products. For the average woman at 5’4” and 168lbs, you would need to eat 101 grams of protein and 143 grams of fat to stay in ketosis.
That’s a lot of calories from fat and fatty meats!
4. Deficiencies in Antioxidants, Vitamins, Electrolytes, and Minerals
A diet consisting primarily of fat and protein can leave your body depleted of necessary vitamins and minerals. Vegetables and fruits provide our body with fiber, prebiotics (food for the good bacteria in your body), and other vitamins and minerals.
When you eat a ketogenic diet, you eat a minimal amount of fruits and vegetables. So, the best sources for necessary vitamins and minerals are virtually eliminated.
Especially during those first few weeks of keto, your weight loss will consist primarily of water weight. This result means that you will lose vital minerals and electrolytes that will need to be replaced. Keep an eye on how you feel. Low levels of minerals can lead to serious health issues.
This diet flushes water and sodium out of your body. You may think that the loss of sodium is a good thing since it is so often demonized and said to increase your risk for heart disease. But salt is only harmful to 25% of the population.
The other 75% need salt in their diet to ward off fatigue, headaches, and compromised performance. A low-sodium intake in healthy individuals can even result in insulin resistance. When sodium is at a dangerously low level, you can even pass out from low blood volume. Salt is an essential mineral for your body. Seek out the best sources, like Himalayan salt, sea salt, or Real Salt®, from an ancient seabed.
Along with the reduction of sodium, levels of potassium also decrease. Symptoms of potassium deficiency or hypokalemia include muscular weakness and cramps, reduced athletic performance, and skin irritation. When potassium is low for a prolonged period, you might even experience heart palpitations, irregular heartbeats, problems with your respiratory system.
All fruits and vegetables contain some amount of potassium, but these can easily take you out of ketosis because you have to limit your carbohydrate intake to 5%. Spinach, avocado, and kale are keto friendly and contain potassium. So, try to incorporate these few veggies into your diet as much as possible when using the keto diet.
You may think that potassium is the only mineral that helps prevent muscle cramps. But, magnesium is just as vital for keeping your muscles relaxed. The mineral calms your brain, heart, and other muscles. It also aids in protein synthesis, energy, and blood sugar maintenance.
Again, vegetables and fruits provide the largest source of magnesium for your body. This challenge on the keto diet can be difficult to overcome.
When you consume a lot of meat in your diet, you also end up eating a diet with relatively low fiber. The higher levels of fiber in plants are seen to help prevent cancer.
Also, meat contains saturated fats and even carcinogenic compounds—these are formed during the cooking process and are linked to the formation of cancers.
How to Combat Vitamin Deficiencies: Supplementation
Even great proponents of the keto diet believe that you need to take vitamin supplements. Ketosis on its own is not considered to be healthy. You need to be sure to eat the right amount of nutrients for your body for optimal health.
This challenge can be difficult on the ketogenic diet, so supplementing your diet with vitamins and minerals is necessary.
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REAP THE BENEFITS OF KETO WHILE AVOIDING THE DANGERS
Try the Plant-Based Keto Diet
One way to benefit from a ketogenic diet while avoiding the dangers is by following a vegan keto diet. The plant-based keto diet follows the main principles of a ketogenic diet. The difference is that you don’t eat any animal or animal-based products.
A plant-based diet comes with a wealth of long-term health benefits. These include:
- Long-term, sustained weight loss
- Clearer skin
- Lowered blood sugar levels
- Dramatically lower risk of heart disease and even reversal of heart disease
- Prevention of certain cancers
By changing to a plant-based keto diet, you will fill the gaps and avoid the potential dangers of a standard keto diet. So, by combining this diet with the ketogenic diet, you can stay healthy long-term and lose weight quickly.
If you’re looking to kickstart your weight loss but want to enjoy the benefits of a plant-based diet, then the vegan keto diet is a great option. To reap the most benefits, it’s best to follow the vegan keto diet short-term. Although you can use it long-term, it might feel very restrictive after a while.
With all the information available online, just one Google search can leave you feeling pretty confused. No doubt, the traditional ketogenic diet will continue to be a hotly debated subject. While it may deliver on quick weight loss and help with certain conditions, there are still potential side effects that you need to be aware of. By combining the two eating plans, you can experience ketosis while following a plant-based diet.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 8, 2018 and has been updated for quality and relevancy.
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