Implementing the diet can present difficulties for caregivers and the patient due to the time commitment involved in measuring and planning meals. Since any unplanned eating can potentially break the nutritional balance required, some people find the discipline needed to maintain the diet challenging and unpleasant. Some people terminate the diet or switch to a less demanding diet, like the modified Atkins diet or the low-glycaemic index treatment diet, because they find the difficulties too great.
Still, the headlines keep coming. Men’s Health declared, “Ketogenic Diet Side Effects: How the Trendy Low-Carb Diet Can Give You Acne.” The health and fitness website Livestrong.com warned about “The Ketogenic Diet and Insomnia.” Other articles raised fears of bloat and constipation or cautioned that the regimen requires inhuman willpower from its followers.
Even when exercising at a submaximal level (for example, biking at a moderate speed), heart rate and adrenaline levels rise more when people are eating a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet vs. a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. This results in those on the high fat diet perceiving that they are working harder to achieve the same pace as the high-carbers, and they have much more difficulty speeding up their pace in sprints or climbs.
In Asia, the normal diet includes rice and noodles as the main energy source, making their elimination difficult. Therefore, the MCT-oil form of the diet, which allows more carbohydrate, has proved useful. In India, religious beliefs commonly affect the diet: some patients are vegetarians, will not eat root vegetables or avoid beef. The Indian ketogenic diet is started without a fast due to cultural opposition towards fasting in children. The low-fat, high-carbohydrate nature of the normal Indian and Asian diet means that their ketogenic diets typically have a lower ketogenic ratio (1:1) than in America and Europe. However, they appear to be just as effective.
The low glycaemic index treatment (LGIT) is an attempt to achieve the stable blood glucose levels seen in children on the classic ketogenic diet while using a much less restrictive regimen. The hypothesis is that stable blood glucose may be one of the mechanisms of action involved in the ketogenic diet, which occurs because the absorption of the limited carbohydrates is slowed by the high fat content. Although it is also a high-fat diet (with approximately 60% calories from fat), the LGIT allows more carbohydrate than either the classic ketogenic diet or the modified Atkins diet, approximately 40–60 g per day. However, the types of carbohydrates consumed are restricted to those that have a glycaemic index lower than 50. Like the modified Atkins diet, the LGIT is initiated and maintained at outpatient clinics and does not require precise weighing of food or intensive dietitian support. Both are offered at most centres that run ketogenic diet programmes, and in some centres they are often the primary dietary therapy for adolescents.
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.
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.
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.)
I’m discouraged to see that nowhere in the article nor in the comments is there a mention of a diet’s best fit to genetics. Consider if someone is an APOE E2 carrier and/or has certain polymorphisms of the APO5 gene. These are quite rare in Okinawa but much more prevalent in the USA (12% of the population). According to a number of well-designed studies, these genetic characteristics point to a higher fat, lower carbohydrate diet as beneficial and even a “moderate” carb diet as problematic.
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.
One meta-analysis18 incorporating data from 447 participants found that low-carbohydrate diets not only helped individuals lose weight, but also improved their cholesterol. And another meta-analysis,19 citing 17 clinical trials, found that low-carb diets protected against major cardiovascular risk factors. A third study20 including 119 participants found that low-carbohydrate dieters had lower cholesterol than low-fat dieters after one year.
Short-term results for the LGIT indicate that at one month approximately half of the patients experience a greater than 50% reduction in seizure frequency, with overall figures approaching that of the ketogenic diet. The data (coming from one centre's experience with 76 children up to the year 2009) also indicate fewer side effects than the ketogenic diet and that it is better tolerated, with more palatable meals.
There is nothing inherently difficult about following a ketogenic diet. We have many patients who do this very easily over many years. The metabolic benefits significantly outway any perceived challenges from limiting particular food types. Uptake would be far more widespread if nutrition professionals left their predujical opinions of SFA’s behind. Finally, given the expertise in Ketogenic Diets at Harvard, Dr David Ludwig, for one springs to mind, I am surprised the author did not avail themselves of the local expertise.
Reduced hunger. Many people experience a marked reduction in hunger on a keto diet. This may be caused by an increased ability of the body to be fueled by its fat stores. Many people feel great when they eat just once or twice a day, and may automatically end up doing a form of intermittent fasting. This saves time and money, while also speeding up weight loss.