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.
A computer program such as KetoCalculator may be used to help generate recipes. The meals often have four components: heavy whipping cream, a protein-rich food (typically meat), a fruit or vegetable and a fat such as butter, vegetable oil, or mayonnaise. Only low-carbohydrate fruits and vegetables are allowed, which excludes bananas, potatoes, peas, and corn. Suitable fruits are divided into two groups based on the amount of carbohydrate they contain, and vegetables are similarly divided into two groups. Foods within each of these four groups may be freely substituted to allow for variation without needing to recalculate portion sizes. For example, cooked broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and green beans are all equivalent. Fresh, canned, or frozen foods are equivalent, but raw and cooked vegetables differ, and processed foods are an additional complication. Parents are required to be precise when measuring food quantities on an electronic scale accurate to 1 g. The child must eat the whole meal and cannot have extra portions; any snacks must be incorporated into the meal plan. A small amount of MCT oil may be used to help with constipation or to increase ketosis.
In the first week, many people report headaches, mental fogginess, dizziness, and aggravation. Most of the time, this is the result of your electrolytes being flushed out, as ketosis has a diuretic effect. Make sure you drink plenty of water and keep your sodium intake up.6One of the fathers of keto, Dr. Phinney, shows that electrolyte levels (especially sodium) can become unbalanced with low carb intake.
Furthermore, humans develop a condition dubbed ‘rabbit starvation’ when they eat a diet that is low in fat and carbohydrates, and high in protein (> 35% of total daily energy intake). This is due to the inability of the human liver to sufficiently upregulate urea synthesis to meet excessive loads of protein. Consequently, hyperaminoacidemia, hyperammonemia, hyperinsulinemia, nausea, diarrhea, and even death can ensue within 2 to 3 weeks. These effects were recognized historically through the excess consumption of lean wild meat by early American explorers.
Full disclosure: I have followed a low-carb diet for nearly a decade and find no problem adhering to it. I’ve lost weight and all my cardiovascular biomarkers have improved. Moreover, I’ve studied the science and history behind low-carbohydrate diets, so beyond my personal experience, I bring an evidence-based perspective. (Previously, for 25+ years, I adhered faithfully to a “mostly plants” regimen of fruits, veggies, and whole grains, including my own homemade 7-grain bread, while exercising religiously. Yet during that time my blood lipids were unhealthy, and I never could shake an extra 10-20 pounds.)
Most people have probably heard of the Atkins diet, which is a pretty general take on ketogenic eating. Wildly popular in the 70s and again in the 90s, Atkins and the low-carb diet are one of the best ways to lose weight. In fact, one of the biggest benefits to low carb eating is that it is a very efficient way to lose weight without much effort. The combination of filling meals that reduce overeating and the fact that, when you’re in ketosis your body burns stored fat for energy makes this an ideal diet for people whose primary goal is fat loss.
If you’ve decided to move forward in trying the keto diet, you will want to stick to the parameters of the eating plan. Roughly 60 to 80 percent of your calories will come from fats. That means you’ll eat meats, fats, and oils, and a very limited amount of nonstarchy vegetables, she says. (This is different from a traditional low-carb diet, as even fewer carbs are allowed on the keto diet.)
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.
A ketogenic diet also has been shown to improve blood sugar control for patients with type 2 diabetes, at least in the short term. There is even more controversy when we consider the effect on cholesterol levels. A few studies show some patients have increase in cholesterol levels in the beginning, only to see cholesterol fall a few months later. However, there is no long-term research analyzing its effects over time on diabetes and high cholesterol.
The popular low-carb diets (such as Atkins or Paleo) modify a true keto diet. But they come with the same risks if you overdo it on fats and proteins and lay off the carbs. So why do people follow the diets? "They're everywhere, and people hear anecdotally that they work," McManus says. Theories about short-term low-carb diet success include lower appetite because fat burns slower than carbs. "But again, we don't know about the long term," she says. "And eating a restrictive diet, no matter what the plan, is difficult to sustain. Once you resume a normal diet, the weight will likely return."
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.
Wilder's colleague, paediatrician Mynie Gustav Peterman, later formulated the classic diet, with a ratio of one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight in children, 10–15 g of carbohydrate per day, and the remainder of calories from fat. Peterman's work in the 1920s established the techniques for induction and maintenance of the diet. Peterman documented positive effects (improved alertness, behaviour, and sleep) and adverse effects (nausea and vomiting due to excess ketosis). The diet proved to be very successful in children: Peterman reported in 1925 that 95% of 37 young patients had improved seizure control on the diet and 60% became seizure-free. By 1930, the diet had also been studied in 100 teenagers and adults. Clifford Joseph Barborka, Sr., also from the Mayo Clinic, reported that 56% of those older patients improved on the diet and 12% became seizure-free. Although the adult results are similar to modern studies of children, they did not compare as well to contemporary studies. Barborka concluded that adults were least likely to benefit from the diet, and the use of the ketogenic diet in adults was not studied again until 1999.
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.
Because people with type 2 diabetes are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, there’s a specific concern that the saturated fat in the diet may drive up LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels, and further increase the odds of heart problems. If you have type 2 diabetes, talk to your doctor before attempting a ketogenic diet. They may recommend a different weight-loss diet for you, like a reduced-calorie diet, to manage diabetes. Those with epilepsy should also consult their doctor before using this as part of their treatment plan.