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July 16, 2021 / Nicole Villeneuve

Keto Diet Benefits and Risks: Is It Safe?

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If you’ve spent much time around anyone following an Atkins plan or in strict Paleo circles, you may have heard the terms ‘ketosis’ or ‘ketogenic’. These terms refer - broadly - to a metabolism fueled by fat, as opposed to one fueled by glucose from carbohydrates.

While the body is designed to run on either source, not every individual body will thrive on a purely ketogenic diet. Here’s what you need to know if you’re thinking of making the switch.

What Is Ketosis?

Ketosis occurs in the body when the body primarily relies on the breakdown of fat for energy. In a typical carb-heavy North American diet, the body will defer to carbs, breaking these down first for fuel as they’re easiest to metabolize. In the absence of ample carbohydrates, the body will shift gears and instead use fat from ingested and stored sources.

Don’t we need glucose? Yes: the brain and liver, in particular, rely on glucose as their primary fuel, and going without any glucose for an extended period can be dangerous; however, the liver will naturally produce a fatty acid called a ketone body (or “ketone”) as a byproduct of protein conversion. These can help fulfill part of the brain’s need for glucose.

What Is the Keto Diet?

The keto diet is based on foods that are high in fat, moderate in protein, and low in carbohydrates. It is specifically designed to shift your body into ketosis, so you use ketones for fuel rather than carbs.

To get your body into ketosis, it’s important to follow ketogenic macronutrient percentages where 60 - 80% of your total calories come from fat, 15 - 35% come from protein, and less than 5% come from carbohydrates.

Beyond the macronutrient percentages, the diet recommends focusing your calories on specific foods. Because a large portion of the keto diet is fat, it is recommended that you incorporate fats that come from whole, unprocessed foods. Protein, dairy products, and non-starchy vegetables are also key components of a keto diet and should be included in your meal plan.

Now that you understand the basics of ketosis and the ketogenic diet, let’s review some of the potential benefits and risks of this low-carb diet.

Potential Benefits of the Keto Diet

The keto diet has multiple potential benefits that may make it a healthy choice for you, depending on what your goals are.

1. Effective weight loss

As you might expect, one of the main reasons for embarking on a nutrition plan like this would be to lose weight. Once the body is running on fat for fuel, it is easier to access and utilize its own stored fat -- a process called ‘lipolysis’ -- which can lead to an overall reduction in weight.

Ketosis has also been shown to restore insulin sensitivity and regular metabolic function in those whose bodies have become insulin resistant.

2. Disease treatment and prevention

Ketosis has also been shown to be effective in treating neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, possibly because of the switch from glucose to ketones for fuel in the brain.

3. Improved diet

In addition to being higher in healthy fats and micronutrients, a well-managed ketogenic diet is lower in processed foods, toxins, sugar, and inflammatory substances than a Standard American Diet.

4. Lower blood sugar and insulin levels

Low-carbohydrate diets like the ketogenic diet have been proven to lower blood sugar levels as well as insulin levels. This would be a substantial benefit for people with insulin resistance or diabetes. Studies found lower carb intakes may enable some people with diabetes to reduce their insulin dosage, and others may be able to eliminate glucose-lowering medication after enough time on a low-carb diet.

5. Sustained blood pressure reduction

Another potential benefit of a low-carb keto diet may be an improvement in blood pressure levels. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a risk factor for various complications from heart attack to heart failure, and by lowering high blood pressure, there may be cardiovascular protection to gain.

Potential Risks of the Keto Diet

Although the keto diet touts many benefits, there are potential risks involved you should consider when deciding if the diet is right for you. To ensure you minimize your risk factors, it is always advised that you consult your medical professional before starting a new diet.

1. May disturb metabolic process in certain cases

While some groups might benefit from this way of eating, particularly for weight loss, ketosis is unsafe for anyone with a metabolic condition that prevents the normal use of fat for fuel. Though a keto diet for diabetics is possible with medical guidance, Type I diabetics should be cautious and consult a physician about their insulin stability before attempting to remove all carbohydrates from the diet.

2. Potential to disrupt hormones

Although there are benefits to following a keto diet for women, it is not advised for women looking to become pregnant or increase fertility, nor is it advisable for those participating in high-intensity athletic training. The body can produce its own glucose from fat and protein via ketone bodies, but not to the extent these activities require.

3. Undesirable side effects

Additionally, it’s important to know that ketosis can contribute to uncomfortable and potentially problematic conditions like constipation, kidney stones, bone density loss, stunted growth, Vitamin C deficiency, thyroid problems, low energy, and mood disorders.

Switching to Ketosis if You Decide It’s Right for You

If you’re trying a ketogenic diet, you’ll be looking for meals very low in carbohydrates and moderate in protein but high in fat, forcing your body to switch to using ketones for fuel. Let’s go over a few keto diet tips for beginners.

Getting most of your calories from whole food-sourced fats will begin the process of entering ketosis. Concentrate on high-fat foods that provide lasting satiety.

When it comes to protein, opt for fatty wild-caught fish and look out for added sugars and preservatives: avoid these whenever possible.

Although starchy veggies are out because of their higher carb load, you’ll need the micronutrients offered by non-starchy plants.

List of keto-friendly foods

Let’s review common foods that adhere to a keto diet plan, so you know what items are appropriate for your fridge and pantry should you decide to go keto.

Healthy fats:

Eggs and dairy:

Proteins:

Non-starchy, low-carb vegetables:

Low-carb bread and pasta alternatives:

To keep track of what foods work for a keto diet, you can always get help with a keto shopping list and keto meal plans.

Is There Such a Thing as a Moderate Ketogenic Diet?

If you decide that a full-on ketogenic diet is too difficult or too risky for you, you can still reap the insulin-stabilizing and weight-reducing benefits without the potential long-term risks by practicing a “cyclic ketogenic diet.” This more flexible approach would mean adhering to a ketogenic plan for three to four days, followed by a higher carbohydrate day or two, repeated weekly. This would be ideal for someone participating in a high-intensity sport or who might have other mitigating risk factors.

The Takeaway

Finding the right diet or meal plan for your needs can be challenging, but the rewards of a healthier you are worth the effort. Whether a keto diet is for you and you’re looking for egg-free keto breakfast ideas, or you want to compare paleo vs. keto diets, PlateJoy Health offers the resources you need to support your healthy lifestyle. Discover the time-saving benefits of custom meal plans, grocery lists, and personalized recipes that are tailored to your dietary preferences and promote health and wellness.

Decided keto is the right fit? See sample keto meals designed for your goals on PlateJoy.

Nicole Villeneuve

Nicole Villeneuve is a certified Diabetes Prevention Lifestyle Coach. A graduate of Yale University, she previously worked in book publishing, with a focus on cookbooks and health, and ran the food blog Paper and Salt. Her writing has been featured in Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and The Daily Beast. Nicole lives in San Francisco and loves cooking, reading, exploring new restaurants, and running by the ocean. You can (very occasionally) find her on Twitter.

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