Here’s the real kicker: the reason why the Inuit don’t go into ketosis as readily as other ethnic groups is the high prevalence of a deleterious mutation in the CPT1A gene. This mutation permitted adaptation to a high fat, low carbohydrate diet in the sense that those carrying the gene could survive to reproductive age while eating a diet entirely at odds with our evolutionary history. However this gene is associated with high infant mortality rates due to hypoketotic hypoglycemia: when Inuit babies’ blood glucose levels drop, they are unable to utilize ketone bodies to sustain their brains. The very mutation that permits adult survival in extreme circumstances compromises infant health – a powerful example of the trade-offs inherent to evolution. Humans can indeed adapt to an extreme environment and an extreme diet, but that adaptation comes at a high cost.
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.
One of the most-cited worries about the keto diet is the long-term impact it may have on heart health—especially because people with diabetes are at greater risk for heart disease. In the small Diabetic Medicine study that found people with type 1 improved their A1Cs on a keto diet, participants had higher triglycerides and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. This raises concerns about the diet’s longer-term heart health implications, as do the results of research published last year in The Lancet. That study followed more than 15,000 adults for 25 years and found that people who consumed less than 40 percent of their calories from carbohydrates were significantly more likely to die from heart disease than those whose diets contained 50 to 55 percent of calories from carbs—especially if the foods that replaced those carbs were rich in animal fats and proteins.
As I wrote in op-eds for the Wall Street Journal61 and Medscape,62 the Lancet Public Health study is based on very thin data. The questionnaire underlying the report left out questions regarding popular foods, such as pizza and energy bars, and did not consider alcohol consumption. Moreover, the “low-carb” diet group in this study included people eating up to 37% of calories as carbohydrates—not low-carb according to the latest science. Ultimately, this is the kind of data that can show association but not establish causation, which means it is the kind of data one can use to generate hypotheses but not prove them. This kind of data would never be considered sufficient to approve a drug, for instance. The same standards should be applied to diet. Quite a few researchers, including myself, had our critiques published in Lancet Public Health.63 The authors replied but did not respond to most of the criticisms.
The idea that ketosis is human beings’ natural state is also contradicted by the heavy dependence of human embryonic and fetal development on glucose. All women become insulin resistant during normal pregnancy as glucose is directed toward the developing baby. Pregnant women deprived of carbohydrates are at high risk of developing ketoacidosis in later pregnancy. This dangerous condition can occur as the nutrient needs of the developing fetus reach their peak and drive up maternal ketone production.