To minimize the risk of hypoglycemia, Yancy and his team decrease medication as soon as a patient starts the diet. While drugs like metformin and liraglutide (Victoza) are less of a concern, there are others that pose a substantial hypoglycemia threat. In addition to insulin, the sulfonylurea drugs glipizide and glyburide require a watchful eye, as they work by stimulating the pancreas to make more insulin, increasing the risk of dangerous lows in the face of insufficient carbohydrate intake. “People on this diet need to be prepared to check their blood glucose any time they feel like it could be getting too low,” says Urbanski. “I would say a minimum of twice a day, but ideally three to four times a day, at least in the beginning in order to see the effect of the diet on their blood glucose readings.”
In essence, it is a diet that causes the body to release ketones into the bloodstream. Most cells prefer to use blood sugar, which comes from carbohydrates, as the body’s main source of energy. In the absence of circulating blood sugar from food, we start breaking down stored fat into molecules called ketone bodies (the process is called ketosis). Once you reach ketosis, most cells will use ketone bodies to generate energy until we start eating carbohydrates again. The shift, from using circulating glucose to breaking down stored fat as a source of energy, usually happens over two to four days of eating fewer than 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. Keep in mind that this is a highly individualized process, and some people need a more restricted diet to start producing enough ketones.
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.
Variations on the Johns Hopkins protocol are common. The initiation can be performed using outpatient clinics rather than requiring a stay in hospital. Often, no initial fast is used (fasting increases the risk of acidosis, hypoglycaemia, and weight loss). Rather than increasing meal sizes over the three-day initiation, some institutions maintain meal size, but alter the ketogenic ratio from 2:1 to 4:1.
A Cochrane systematic review in 2018 found and analysed eleven randomized controlled trials of ketogenic diet in people with epilepsy for whom drugs failed to control their seizures. Six of the trials compared a group assigned to a ketogenic diet with a group not assigned to one. The other trials compared types of diets or ways of introducing them to make them more tolerable. In the largest trial of the ketogenic diet with a non-diet control, nearly 38% of the children and young people had half or fewer seizures with the diet compared 6% with the group not assigned to the diet. Two large trials of the Modified Atkins Diet compared to a non-diet control had similar results, with over 50% of children having half or fewer seizures with the diet compared to around 10% in the control group.
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
Difficulty. Many experts question how long a person can realistically give up carbs. “This is a very restrictive diet that requires a drastic change in eating behaviors and even taste,” says Sandra Arevalo, MPH, RDN, CDE, a certified diabetes educator and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It isn’t very practical or easy to maintain, for people both with and without diabetes.” That’s not saying you can’t stick with it, but before you commit, make a plan and set measurable goals to help you stay on track. Being prepared with the right foods can also help. Urbanski recommends making a shopping list that focuses on a few basic keto-friendly meals and snacks, so you’ll always have the right foods on hand to ensure success.
So rather than giving one-size-fits-all dietary advice or weaponizing the word “balanced” it might be better if the medical community suggested that there are Individual differences that need to be considered. This might also help those lay folk who have had success with one dietary lifestyle or another also realize that what’s valid for them may not be good advice for others.
The benefits above are the most common ones. But there are others that are potentially even more surprising and – at least for some people – life changing. Did you know that a keto diet can help treat high blood pressure, may result in less acne, may help control migraine, might help with certain mental health issues and could have a few other potential benefits?