The Keto Diet—Is it worth the hype?

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The keto diet has become a popular way to lose weight but is it worth the hype? Mon Health Diabetes Education Coordinator, Andrea McCarty, explains the science behind keto and why it may not be the most effective way to keep the weight off.

Everywhere you look, low-carb lifestyles are growing in popularity among those hoping to shed some extra pounds.

As a result, many turn to the “keto diet,” a low-carb, high fat and moderate protein diet that often results in fast weight loss. But while keto may work, Mon Health Medical Center nutrition experts aren’t so quick to embrace the diet’s effectiveness.

“When strictly followed, it’s true that the keto diet can result in weight loss,” said Andrea McCarty, Mon Health Diabetes Education Coordinator, “But keto is very restrictive and leaves little room for error, which is difficult to sustain long-term and may lead to yo-yo dieting.”

People following keto are encouraged to fill the majority of their diet with high-fat, moderate protein sources such as salmon, avocadoes, eggs, nuts and similar foods. Obvious carb culprits such as baked goods, pastas and other grains are discouraged—but so are nutrient-rich, carb heavy foods like oats, apples, bananas or oranges.

“With keto, you not only eliminate typical diet-busters like sweets, but also a lot of high-quality, whole foods that are full of fiber and essential vitamins and minerals, simply because they contain a certain amount of carbohydrates,” said McCarty.

The science behind keto

So how does it work?

According to McCarty, the diet is designed to eliminate the glucose reservoir stored in muscles, and force the body to convert fat stores into energy—a complex process called ketosis.

“This state of ketosis will decrease appetite and make you feel full for longer, which will result in initial weight loss,” says Andrea McCarty.

While it may seem like a modern diet trend, McCarty explains that keto has actually been around for decades.

“The keto diet dates back to the 1920s as a last ditch effort to decrease seizure frequency in those with epilepsy,” explains McCarty. “And it remains an effective treatment for that condition to this day.”

In addition to its effectiveness for epilepsy, keto’s anti-inflammatory effect on the brain has been touted as a potential tool in preventing and treating disorders ranging from seizures and stroke to diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Research, however, is conflicting and still in its beginning stages.

The science behind might be fuzzy, but the diet is probably not worth the risks, warns McCarty.

“Keto is still used today to treat epilepsy and is effective for this condition—but it is not, however, recommended for any other condition and should not be done without medical supervision,” McCarty says.

Is keto safe for anyone?

McCarty says most of the research available on long-term use of the ketogenic diet is based on the classic diet, in which dieters consume 90% of their total calories from fat and 10% from carbohydrates and protein combined.

“In some studies this diet was shown to increase LDL cholesterol, which could increase risk for cardiovascular disease or events,” said McCarty.

Additional research studying diets and lifespans of more than 440,000 people around the globe uncovered similarly alarming findings. The study found an increased risk of premature death among those who restricted carbohydrates and commonly supplemented then with animal-based protein sources.

McCarty adds that long-term effects of the keto diet may not only be felt physically, but also emotionally.

“Long-term adherence to any restrictive diet like keto has the potential to affect emotional well-being,” said McCarty. “These diets have a tendency to cause an ‘all or nothing mindset,’ in which the dieter feels guilt or shame if they eat something that is not part of the plan.”

Are carbs bad for you?

Since the keto diet helps some people shed unwanted weight, success stories leave many wondering if carbs are the culprit in unwanted weight gain.

Fortunately, McCarty says we don’t have to give up all of our favorite treats. No healthy diet should demonize any type of food group, she adds—not even those containing carbs.

“There are no “good” or “bad” foods,” says McCarty. “Even those that many deem “bad” or “unhealthy” can fit into a healthy eating plan.”

Carbs, she says, are an essential macronutrient that provides our bodies with the energy we need to live a healthy lifestyle. They help keep our bodies moving and brains functioning at top performance.

“Carbohydrates are converted to glucose through digestion,” she says. “Our bodies prefer glucose as a source of energy, not ketones—and it’s the only source of energy that our nervous system can actually use.”

Is there a better way to lose weight?

McCarty says the best weight-loss plan is one that is flexible and sustainable for you in the long-run—aka, not a “quick fix” diet.

“If you want to lose weight, diets that include all food groups have been proven time and time again to be the most effective,” said McCarty. “In an era of immediate gratification, they don’t always work the fastest—but they are effective at losing and, more importantly, maintaining weight loss.”

She adds that the most successful plans do not exclude major food groups, and encourage an increase in physical activity.

“The most sustainable plans are based around the basic principles of nutrition, which focuses on calories in versus calories out,” said McCarty. “You will lose weight in a caloric deficit, when you’re burning more energy than you consume through your diet, and vice versa.”

For more information on Mon Health nutrition services, visit our nutrition therapy website.

To learn more about losing weight and improving health through sustainable dietary changes, visit choosemyplate.gov.