We all know the keto diet is the rage, but is the keto diet healthy or harmful? Do you really want to put your body through the process of getting into ketosis? When I counsel my clients, I often point out that just being skinny is not what defines overall health. While their goal may be weight loss, you want to maintain or even improve your long term health in the process of losing weight. With that stated, it’s important to look at the keto diet through the lens of how healthy or harmful the diet is to your overall health.
Truth be told, I want to scream “keto diet, please leave and never come back.” I think there are many awesome (logical and scientifically based) reasons to consider skipping the keto diet and looking elsewhere for healthier weight loss strategies. It reminds me of the popularity of the Atkins diet. Twice in my professional lifespan the Atkin’s plan reared it’s “ugly” head. Once when I was right out of college, and then decades later. The “keto” style of eating with restricted carbohydrates is nothing new to the professional community.
Back in the late 1980s, medically supervised fasts gained in popularity and those diets also restricted carbohydrates and overall calories. The end result, like the keto diet, was to make the body go into ketosis. Newsflash, in 1980 those diets were supervised in a medical setting because going into ketosis was not considered to be safe without medical supervision. Now, no one thinks twice about it. This attitude is on trend with everyone being an “expert”, because everyone eats.
Keto diets: healthy, harmful, or somewhere in between?
Management of epileptic seizures by the keto diet has been going on for over a century. There is no dispute as to the efficacy of keto diets for seizures. “Keto” flu symptoms aside, the keto diet is an easy and mindless way to lose weight. Without sufficient carbohydrates available to fuel the brain and central nervous system, the body transitions to using ketones. Those ketones act as a natural appetite suppressant, making the weight loss process easy.
Eat the fat, sufficiently limit the carbs, make the ketones, and voilà the body fat melts away. This is the impression I get from all the keto diet fans out there. The questions I have are: can this be sustained, do you want to sustain it, are you going to be healthier in the long run? And, did you know that going into ketosis is meant to be a survival mechanism to stay alive?
Keto diets may be harmful for what they are lacking
Sadly, for the keto junkie, fiber intake is too low. Fruits, vegetables, and grains are your only source of dietary fiber. There is no fiber in oil, butter, bacon, eggs, or anything meat related. Did you know that women need 21-26 grams, and men need 30-38 grams of fiber? This is why constipation is a problem. Sure, take some fiber pills. However, last time I checked, you need a lot of those pills to meet your dietary fiber goals.
Adding healthy fiber rich foods to your diet helps regulate both your blood glucose and cholesterol level. Colon cancer prevention and diverticulosis are two notable conditions that benefit from fiber. Fiber fills you up and helps you feel satiated, without ketones.
Food for your gut bacteria
Those carbs you are severely restricting are a significant food source for your gut bacteria. Fiber rich foods, which are found almost exclusively in complex carbohydrates, offer prebiotics for your probiotics (gut bacteria) to feed on. Probiotic bacteria need prebiotics as a fuel. If you haven’t heard it already, your gut microbiome is very important to your overall health status. Skipping carbs can affect the type of bacteria that grow in your gut. Feeding your gut bacteria with prebiotic rich carbohydrates is the best way to fight inflammation and improve your immunity. Sure, you can take a probiotic in pill form, but those probiotic bacteria need their own food and it should be from fiber rich carbohydrates.
Those carbs you are skipping contain significant sources of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Key micronutrients at risk include vitamin C, all the B vitamins, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. In fact, without your fruits and vegetables, it will not be possible to meet your potassium requirements. You cannot meet your potassium requirements in pill form without a prescription from your doctor. Blood pressure issues? Increasing dietary potassium can help lower blood pressure.
Fruits, vegetable, and whole grains have compounds called phytochemicals. The phytochemicals protect the growing plants from disease. When we eat plant based foods, we are also eating those phytochemicals. Most phytochemicals are thought to confer protection from heart disease and cancer.
What else is going on with all that protein and fat?
While you are losing weight on the keto diet, is your liver gaining fat? Too much animal protein and fat generally contribute to a fatty liver. Fatty liver can lead to death. At this point, there is not enough research to lean one way or another. In practice, decreasing dietary fat is always effective medical nutrition therapy for a fatty liver.
Are you living without a gallbladder? This keto diet plan will make you pretty uncomfortable and maybe even sick. The gallbladder stores your bile which is released in amounts needed to digest your fat. Without a gallbladder, one might not be able to handle the amount of fat consumed on this diet. You could feel pretty miserable as a result.
Too much animal protein can weaken your bones. And, if you have kidney disease, your kidneys could be strained dealing with all that extra protein. Got gout, the excess protein will aggravate it. So, is the keto diet healthy or harmful? The answer is probably somewhere in between. As a short term fix for weight loss, perhaps it’s ok if you enjoy eating fat. Long term, I suggest you rethink your options. Carbohydrates are healthy and let you eat like a normal person.
If you ask someone that has lost weight on this diet, they will most likely praise the keto diet and indicate it’s healthy because they feel great. My response is they probably feel great because they lost the weight. If you ask me, there are healthier, less risky methods to lose weight. There are many reasons to avoid the excessive fat on the keto diet and enjoy your carbohydrates. If you need more convincing, check this list out!
Do you have a keto diet experience? I’d love to hear any and all comments on short or long term experiences with this diet.