A balanced assessment of an intentionally unbalanced nutrition trend
To assess any low-carb diet trend, we need to look at its pros, cons, and how realistic it is to get right in the “real world”. This article of Joompa looks at the pros and cons of the Keto diet by getting to grips with the process behind it.
In the previous article of Joompa, we looked at how the hormone insulin works. It takes digested sugars to your muscles in the form of glucose, for the muscles to either use immediately, or store as glycogen.
When we push our muscles past their stored glucose capacity, they must resort to converting stored fats into energy. The problem is, the brain can’t use these fatty acids for energy; our fussy cranial diva refuses to use anything but glucose - or ketones.
So the liver produces ketones during the fat conversion process and sends them to the brain via the bloodstream. This is ketosis, a process our body evolved to deploy in times of food shortage. Following a ketogenic diet allows us to trigger and maintain this reaction without having to stop eating.
Good fats, like those found in avocado, nuts and high quality oils, are important for many aspects of our health, like building cell membranes. They're also crucial for hormone production and nutrient absorption. In the average diet, most people are lacking in good fats sources, so the keto diet can prove beneficial.
We saw that an over-consumption of sugar can lead to insulin resistance. The body either stops releasing insulin to counter high blood sugar levels, or the cells that should hear the “knock on the door” from insulin stop listening.
A good way to regain this sensitivity is to follow a regime of very low carbohydrates, making one’s body use fats and proteins for energy. The body starts distributing and storing precious carbohydrates better, which can be key to creating a healthy sugar regulation system in the body.
However, some have found that depriving their body of carbohydrates for prolonged periods causes another issue. Their body "loses practice" in responding to insulin, also resulting in desensitisation. The hormones that are meant to "knock on the door" no longer do their job as well.
This is one reason why many promote cycling ketosis instead.
The key to any fat loss that takes place is awareness. The diet requires as little as 25g for a daily carb intake, swapping calories from carbs for calories from fats. This restriction forces keto dieters to pay strict attention to their food intake. They can no longer consume many of the deadly processed food combinations we discussed in the fats vs carbs article.
Not only does their health improve as a result, but their calorie intake tends to drop. You will see most personal trainers attribute the weight loss to the reduction in calories eaten. Keto “fans” will tell you it’s down to the reduction in carbs.
Diet fans will also cite how good it feels mentally, which is logical. When we’re low on food, our brains and bodies need to be alert, and operating on ketones ensures we find and/or kill more food to survive. It’s a primal mechanism; clarity
The keto diet originated as a treatment for those with the neural condition epilepsy and proved very effective. In the short term it also shows increases in mitochondrial energy in the brain.
The question we should ask that science hasn't answered though, is whether it’s good for longevity. Ketosis means our bodies are constantly operating in this peak zone of fake "no food" performance.
It’s like driving with your foot to the floor – non-stop. Yes, you'll go fast, but your engine will explode.
Another good reason to cycle ketosis over permanent keto-dieting.
Many of the reported downsides come from the difficulty in following it accurately. Finding pure fat-based food sources is tricky and expensive. Most followers end up swapping carbs for high amounts of animal protein, which taxes the stomach and kidneys and may increase cancer risk.
It’s worse when dining out; dieters tend to make poor choices to stay within the ‘rules’ of the keto diet, often at the expense of general nutritional benefit. Choosing low quality, processed meats over grains and starchy vegetables seems counterintuitive, considering this is a “diet” focused on improving one’s health.
The keto diet also significantly affects one’s micronutrient intake. Those bright fruits and vegetables are so coloured because they are literally glowing with vitamins and minerals – however, their carb concentration is too high to include them in the keto diet.
Clearly, one must be completely clued-in about exactly how many carbs they’re consuming, what foods are forbidden, and what supplements are necessary. Quite frankly, most of the general population are not, and those who are often get lazy after a week or so.
This is also why you'll find very few Personal Trainers recommending the keto diet for performance. It is tough to manage with little trade-off; there is limited evidence showing it enhances’ one's athletic abilities.
A ketogenic triathlete wouldn't be able to have a pre-race banana. They'd have a nightmare eating out whenever they travelled. They’d be constantly stressed monitoring their ketone levels. For athletes or clients, the key to progress is consistency, and the keto diet makes that unlikely.
Lastly, a comprehensive study published in the Lancet Public Health Journal showed a consistent decrease in life expectancy for those who consumed fewer than 40% of their calories from carbohydrates (and also more than 70%, we should add!). Mortality rates increased when the main fat sources were animal products.
Keto dieting can be an effective temporary fat loss tool and a brilliant way of resetting one’s insulin sensitivity. Food intake should not rely on meat and dairy fats, and instead contain fats derived from plant sources such as nuts, avocado & high quality oils.
However, it's too inconvenient for most people to live with practically, and science can't show that sustaining ketosis over the long-term is beneficial for one’s health.
Stay tuned, as in our next article we explore a potential way to get the benefits of the keto diet… without even doing it.