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What is Keto?

Commonly referred to as keto, the ketogenic diet or lifestyle is a high fat, high protein, and low carb nutrition plan. After significantly reducing carbohydrates (to usually less than 50 grams per day), your body will go into ketosis. Ketosis is simply when the body runs out of glucose for energy, and as a result, the body begins to use its stores of fat for energy. This has become very popular for fat loss because of the switch from glucose-spending energy to fat-burning energy. Moreover, it has also become increasingly popular among endurance athletes for purposes of stable and lasting fuel. I feel that it’s also important to note one thing: keto is not just eating fat and animal protein. Let me say that again: keto is not just eating fats and animal proteins. While the ketogenic diet and lifestyle do include lean animal proteins, unsaturated fats, and plenty of vegetables. Vegetables and their nutrients are a very important aspect of any nutritious diet; the fiber that vegetables provide is especially important with a high protein diet to keep everything running smoothly.

Benefits

Another healthy keto snack.

Keto has many enormous health benefits that range from reduced appetite all the way to reduced risk of heart disease. To start, a diet that is low in carbohydrates substantially reduces your appetite simply because carbohydrates digest quickly; on the other hand, foods high in fat, fiber, or protein take longer to digest, and keep you full for longer as a result. When your body goes into ketosis, it uses stored fat as energy which means that fat loss markedly increases. When people talk about losing weight, more often than not they are really looking to lose fat; fat loss and weight loss tend to go hand-in-hand when fat is a significant portion of someone’s weight. Additionally, keto, if done correctly, can notably improve cholesterol; this means it increases HDL cholesterol and lowers LDL cholesterol. Improved cholesterol also improves blood pressure and decreases the overall risk of heart disease. Keto has many benefits, but there are some risks associated with it as well.

Associated Risks and Challenges

There are a few risks and challenges associated with the ketogenic diet and lifestyle. The first of these challenges is what is known as the “keto flu.” At the beginning of keto, your body is adjusting to the lack of carbs in your diet; this results in symptoms very similar to those of the flu.  While the keto flu is very unpleasant, it is only temporary and symptoms will subside for most people after about a week, yet there are some cases in which the body has more difficulty adapting to ketosis and the symptoms last for several weeks. The second challenge of keto is the severe restriction of carbohydrates. If you’re like me, then you’re someone who really enjoys bread. For those of us who enjoy the good carbohydrates in life, severely restricting carbs may be difficult to endure. A major risk of keto is consuming too much fatty animal protein. These are saturated fats that are high in LDL cholesterol, and, in excess, lead to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and a higher risk of heart disease. The second major risk is ketoacidosis. It is generally referred to as Diabetic Ketoacidosis – or DKA – because it most commonly occurs in individuals with type 1 diabetes; there have been, however, some reported cases of ketoacidosis in individuals without diabetes. Ketoacidosis is caused by a buildup of ketones, acids that are a product of using fat for fuel. When ketones build up in the blood one may experience excessive thirst, abdominal pain, confusion, and even potentially death.

Effects on Weight Loss

A visual representation of weight loss.

The ketogenic diet has well-known and far-reaching benefits on overweight individuals in the short term. In 2004, the Journal of Experimental and Clinical Cardiology conducted an experiment in which obese individuals were put on the ketogenic diet for 24 weeks. Afterward, these subjects showed significant improvements including lower triglycerides and blood glucose, higher HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol), and lower LDL cholesterol. This is yet another example of the ketogenic diet; however, it is just that, a diet. There has been very limited research to shed light on the effects of the ketogenic lifestyle as it is a fairly new fad, and, as a result, there has not been enough time to conduct research into the long term effects of the ketogenic lifestyle.  The evidence supports keto in the short term as it improves cholesterol levels, blood glucose, and triglycerides. In the long term, on the other hand, there is a lack of evidence that shows the effect of long term ketosis. That doesn’t mean it isn’t safe in the long term; it simply means proceed with caution and listen to your body.  

Effects on Endurance Athletes

Many athletes swear by the ketogenic lifestyle to fuel their performances, but what effect does it really have on endurance athletes? Everyone is different when it comes to body composition and fat content, but consistently everyone has substantially more fat than glycogen, glucose stored in chains for energy, in their body. Logically, it would make sense for a diet that uses stored fat for energy to be more effective than one that uses stored glycogen. While there are many self-perceived effects that keto has on the endurance athlete, a 2015 study by The Ohio State University found that high-carb and low-carb athletes  “did not differ significantly in oxygen consumption, ratings of perceived exertion or calorie expenditure.” They did find, however, that the low-carb athletes burned fat at a rate of nearly twice that of the high-carb athletes. The fat-burning aspects of these findings were expected, but it is somewhat surprising to learn that this study founded a negligible difference between performance in high- and low-carb athletes.

The Verdict

The ketogenic lifestyle and diet have many broad benefits for a wide variety of people, but there are also plenty of risks associated with keto and ketosis; some of these are temporary challenges like the keto flu while others, like ketoacidosis, are very serious and life-threatening medical conditions. If done right, keto can be tremendously beneficial. If done poorly and without care, though, it will lead to potentially fatal consequences like a significantly increased risk of heart disease. Finally, I cannot overstate the importance of vegetables; vegetables are paramount in any lifestyle, but even more so with keto. Whether or not keto is for you, do it safely and eat your vegetables!

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