My principal hope in this article is to provide journalists with a resource to do what basic journalism demands, namely to ensure that stories are scientifically balanced and accurate. At the end of this post I provide contacts for some of the credentialed experts who helped me compile this research. Reporters, please seek out these or other low-carb diet experts so you can provide accurate, up-to-date information for your readers.
People use a ketogenic diet most often to lose weight, but it can help manage certain medical conditions, like epilepsy, too. It also may help people with heart disease, certain brain diseases, and even acne, but there needs to be more research in those areas. Talk with your doctor first to find out if it’s safe for you to try a ketogenic diet, especially if you have type 1 diabetes.
Another difference between older and newer studies is that the type of patients treated with the ketogenic diet has changed over time. When first developed and used, the ketogenic diet was not a treatment of last resort; in contrast, the children in modern studies have already tried and failed a number of anticonvulsant drugs, so may be assumed to have more difficult-to-treat epilepsy. Early and modern studies also differ because the treatment protocol has changed. In older protocols, the diet was initiated with a prolonged fast, designed to lose 5–10% body weight, and heavily restricted the calorie intake. Concerns over child health and growth led to a relaxation of the diet's restrictions. Fluid restriction was once a feature of the diet, but this led to increased risk of constipation and kidney stones, and is no longer considered beneficial.
The ketogenic diet is not a benign, holistic, or natural treatment for epilepsy; as with any serious medical therapy, complications may result. These are generally less severe and less frequent than with anticonvulsant medication or surgery. Common but easily treatable short-term side effects include constipation, low-grade acidosis, and hypoglycaemia if an initial fast is undertaken. Raised levels of lipids in the blood affect up to 60% of children and cholesterol levels may increase by around 30%. This can be treated by changes to the fat content of the diet, such as from saturated fats towards polyunsaturated fats, and if persistent, by lowering the ketogenic ratio. Supplements are necessary to counter the dietary deficiency of many micronutrients.
“However, saturated fat has long been lauded as a heart-harming macronutrient; the American Heart Association recommends no more than 13 grams of saturated fat per day. In fact, Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center For Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center, said saturated fats can increase bad cholesterol.” -Christina Stiehl, PopSugar reporter17
The keto diet isn’t new, and it’s been around for nearly a century. It was originally developed to treat people with epilepsy. In the 1920s, researchers found that raised levels of ketones in the blood led to fewer epileptic seizures in patients. The keto diet is still used today to treat children with epilepsy who don’t respond well to anti-epileptic drugs.
The other nutritional remedy for T2 diabetes is carbohydrate restriction. In a large, ongoing university-based study, 60% of patients with Type 2 diabetes reversed their diagnosis of diabetes after just one year on a ketogenic diet, supplemented by support via a mobile phone app.11 On this protocol, 94% of participants reduced or eliminated their need for insulin medications while improving the vast majority of cardiovascular risk factors.12
A systematic review in 2018 looked at 16 studies on the ketogenic diet in adults. It concluded that the treatment was becoming more popular for that group of patients, that the efficacy in adults was similar to children, the side effects relatively mild. However, many patients gave up with the diet, for various reasons, and the quality of evidence inferior to studies on children. Health issues include high levels of low-density lipoprotein, high total cholesterol, and weight loss.
Advocates for the diet recommend that it be seriously considered after two medications have failed, as the chance of other drugs succeeding is only 10%. The diet can be considered earlier for some epilepsy and genetic syndromes where it has shown particular usefulness. These include Dravet syndrome, infantile spasms, myoclonic-astatic epilepsy, and tuberous sclerosis complex.
“If someone with diabetes is [taking insulin or oral type 2 meds in the sulfonylurea or meglitinide class and is] following this diet, they need to know that their blood sugar can drop really quickly, so it’s critical that they check it more frequently,” says Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, CDE, author of Diabetes Meal Planning & Nutrition for Dummies. “Don’t wait for it to happen. Meet with your doctor or diabetes educator in advance so that you can troubleshoot exactly what to do if your blood sugar drops.” If it’s an infrequent occurrence, you may be advised to treat with fast-acting glucose. But frequent lows may require medication adjustments or the addition of more carbs to your eating plan.
No animal on earth lives permanently in ketosis. Omnivorous animals such as bears and dogs, and obligate carnivores such as cats – the ultimate low-carbers – use gluconeogenesis to transform amino acids from protein into glucose. This allows them to maintain optimal blood glucose levels to fulfill their bodies’ needs for this vital nutrient. Only in prolonged starvation or a diabetic state will these animals enter ketosis.
Meanwhile, more than 70 trials have examined the health effects of a low-carb diet. They attest to the benefits64 associated with ketosis and low-carb diets, including a reduction in body weight and body mass index, improved cardiovascular risk factors including blood pressure, and the reversal of Type 2 diabetes. It is virtually impossible to imagine that a diet with so many health improvements in the ‘near term’ (2 years) could ultimately shorten life—and the study authors offer no possible mechanism to explain how this might happen.
A ketogenic diet could be an interesting alternative to treat certain conditions, and may accelerate weight loss. But it is hard to follow and it can be heavy on red meat and other fatty, processed, and salty foods that are notoriously unhealthy. We also do not know much about its long-term effects, probably because it’s so hard to stick with that people can’t eat this way for a long time. It is also important to remember that “yo-yo diets” that lead to rapid weight loss fluctuation are associated with increased mortality. Instead of engaging in the next popular diet that would last only a few weeks to months (for most people that includes a ketogenic diet), try to embrace change that is sustainable over the long term. A balanced, unprocessed diet, rich in very colorful fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and lots of water seems to have the best evidence for a long, healthier, vibrant life.
First, that study, which was reported upon widely, was on mice. Mice are not like humans in the way they fatten or contract metabolic diseases. Journalists/media should stop reporting on mice stories as if they were applicable to humans, especially when there is such a large body of clinical trial data on humans. Let’s be clear: rigorous clinical trial data on humans trumps any data on mice. Every time. And what does the rigorous data on humans say?