Despite its explosive popularity, there’s a lot of confusion about what the ketogenic (keto) diet really is. “Many people think they’re following a keto diet when they’re really just consuming a low-carbohydrate diet,” says Patti Urbanski, MEd, RD, CDE, a certified diabetes educator with St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota. “So one person’s ‘keto diet’ may look very different than another’s.”
The backbone of a keto plan is its extraordinarily high fat content, making up 65 to 80 percent of calories daily. Protein—which can raise blood glucose, though not as much as carbohydrate does—makes up 15 to 25 percent of calories on the keto diet. And carbs are even more heavily restricted to just 5 to 15 percent of calories. That’s only about 20 to 50 grams a day (compared with the average 245 grams daily), or the amount in a small apple or a cup of cooked brown rice, respectively.
To lower your heart risks while following a keto diet, be mindful of the types of fats you’re eating. “Most nutritionists encourage people to get their fat from heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats,” Urbanski says. So even though going keto may sound like a license to load up on bacon and butter, reach for unsaturated fats from foods such as olives, nuts, seeds, and avocados, and olive, canola, and nut oils.
We realize that the ketogenic diet can be very demanding of children and families, so we make sure that we stay with families throughout the entire treatment. Our multidisciplinary team includes a social worker that can help your child and their siblings cope with the stresses that come with the diet. Your child will also have regular, relationship-building contact with the same team of nurses. Additionally, we have an education specialist on staff who specializes in meeting with teachers and administrators to help prepare schools for children with epilepsy.
Weight loss is the primary reason my patients use the ketogenic diet. Previous research shows good evidence of a faster weight loss when patients go on a ketogenic or very low carbohydrate diet compared to participants on a more traditional low-fat diet, or even a Mediterranean diet. However, that difference in weight loss seems to disappear over time.
It seems strange that a diet that calls for more fat can raise “good” cholesterol and lower “bad” cholesterol, but ketogenic diets are linked to just that. It may be because the lower levels of insulin that result from these diets can stop your body from making more cholesterol. That means you’re less likely to have high blood pressure, hardened arteries, heart failure, and other heart conditions. It's unclear, however; how long these effects last.
Beyond just fat loss, ketosis has an additional benefit in that it spares muscle when you’re eating at a deficit. On a normal diet, when you eat fewer calories than you need for the day, your body breaks down muscle and fat in nearly equal amounts to make up for the difference. With keto, your body is primed to burn mostly fat, particularly if you’re meeting your protein goal for the day. This results in a better metabolism and more total fat lost. Low carb recipes offer:
Missing Nutrients. One of the biggest concerns for dietitians is the keto diet’s lack of key foods. Many question the eating plan’s impact on the development of certain chronic diseases. Without milk, for example, getting enough calcium and vitamin D for sturdy bones becomes a challenge. Take away whole grains, fruit, beans, and potatoes, and it’s nearly impossible to consume enough potassium for healthy blood pressure or enough fiber to stay regular. And unless you’re eating lots of low-carb, leafy green vegetables, you miss out on vitamins A, C, K, and folate, too.
For patients who benefit, half achieve a seizure reduction within five days (if the diet starts with an initial fast of one to two days), three-quarters achieve a reduction within two weeks, and 90% achieve a reduction within 23 days. If the diet does not begin with a fast, the time for half of the patients to achieve an improvement is longer (two weeks), but the long-term seizure reduction rates are unaffected. Parents are encouraged to persist with the diet for at least three months before any final consideration is made regarding efficacy.
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.
There are three instances where there’s research to back up a ketogenic diet, including to help control type 2 diabetes, as part of epilepsy treatment, or for weight loss, says Mattinson. “In terms of diabetes, there is some promising research showing that the ketogenic diet may improve glycemic control. It may cause a reduction in A1C — a key test for diabetes that measures a person’s average blood sugar control over two to three months — something that may help you reduce medication use,” she says.