The ketogenic diet is a medical nutrition therapy that involves participants from various disciplines. Team members include a registered paediatric dietitian who coordinates the diet programme; a paediatric neurologist who is experienced in offering the ketogenic diet; and a registered nurse who is familiar with childhood epilepsy. Additional help may come from a medical social worker who works with the family and a pharmacist who can advise on the carbohydrate content of medicines. Lastly, the parents and other caregivers must be educated in many aspects of the diet for it to be safely implemented.
Normal dietary fat contains mostly long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are more ketogenic than LCTs because they generate more ketones per unit of energy when metabolised. Their use allows for a diet with a lower proportion of fat and a greater proportion of protein and carbohydrate, leading to more food choices and larger portion sizes. The original MCT diet developed by Peter Huttenlocher in the 1970s derived 60% of its calories from MCT oil. Consuming that quantity of MCT oil caused abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting in some children. A figure of 45% is regarded as a balance between achieving good ketosis and minimising gastrointestinal complaints. The classical and modified MCT ketogenic diets are equally effective and differences in tolerability are not statistically significant. The MCT diet is less popular in the United States; MCT oil is more expensive than other dietary fats and is not covered by insurance companies.
But beyond that, experts aren't convinced that the keto diet has any other scientifically proven health benefits. In fact, it may have some distinct downsides. If you follow the keto diet incorrectly, for example (like by eating lots of saturated fats, versus healthy unsaturated fats), you're at risk of raising your cholesterol levels. “The best strategy to keep your heart healthy is to get as much fat as possible from unsaturated sources such as olive, avocado and canola oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives," says Ansel. For some people, it's possible to actually improve cholesterol if the fats in their diet are from varied and healthy sources, says Harvey.
Low-carb diets, especially very low-carb diets, may lead to greater short-term weight loss than do low-fat diets. But most studies have found that at 12 or 24 months, the benefits of a low-carb diet are not very large. A 2015 review found that higher protein, low-carbohydrate diets may offer a slight advantage in terms of weight loss and loss of fat mass compared with a normal protein diet.
It is possible to cut back on sugar and carbs—and, yes, lose weight—without experiencing these nasty symptoms, says Sharp. “While you cannot achieve ketosis without a significantly reduced-carb diet, you can absolutely reap a lot of the potential glycemic benefits of a low-carb diet—without some of the downfalls, like keto flu—simply by choosing the right carbs,” she says.
People use a ketogenic diet most often to lose weight, but it can help manage certain medical conditions, like epilepsy, too. It also may help people with heart disease, certain brain diseases, and even acne, but there needs to be more research in those areas. Talk with your doctor first to find out if it’s safe for you to try a ketogenic diet, especially if you have type 1 diabetes.
On the ketogenic diet, carbohydrates are restricted and so cannot provide for all the metabolic needs of the body. Instead, fatty acids are used as the major source of fuel. These are used through fatty-acid oxidation in the cell's mitochondria (the energy-producing parts of the cell). Humans can convert some amino acids into glucose by a process called gluconeogenesis, but cannot do this by using fatty acids. Since amino acids are needed to make proteins, which are essential for growth and repair of body tissues, these cannot be used only to produce glucose. This could pose a problem for the brain, since it is normally fuelled solely by glucose, and most fatty acids do not cross the blood–brain barrier. However, the liver can use long-chain fatty acids to synthesise the three ketone bodies β-hydroxybutyrate, acetoacetate and acetone. These ketone bodies enter the brain and partially substitute for blood glucose as a source of energy.
There are three instances where there’s research to back up a ketogenic diet, including to help control type 2 diabetes, as part of epilepsy treatment, or for weight loss, says Mattinson. “In terms of diabetes, there is some promising research showing that the ketogenic diet may improve glycemic control. It may cause a reduction in A1C — a key test for diabetes that measures a person’s average blood sugar control over two to three months — something that may help you reduce medication use,” she says.
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Exercise training seems to increase this gap even more. In another study, researchers wanted to see the changes that 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise training would have on free testosterone:cortisol ratio. They split the people into two groups: a 60% carbohydrate diet group and a 30% carbohydrate diet group. The lower carbohydrate group had a 43% decrease in free testosterone:cortisol ratio, while no statistically significant change occurred in the higher carbohydrate group.
Use our premium meal planner tool (free trial) to access tons of weekly meal plans, complete with shopping lists. You can adapt the diet plans to your liking, skipping any meal, choosing how many people you’re cooking for, and the shopping lists adapt. You can even start a new plan from scratch (of from pre-existing ones), tailor them completely and save them.
That said, it’s a good idea to work with a doctor or registered dietitian before you start eating keto—and continue to check in with them while you adapt to your new diet, recommends David Nico, PhD, author of Diet Diagnosis. Planning ahead can help you steer clear of nutritional deficiencies that can strike when you cut most carbs out of your diet. And doing so might also help minimize your keto flu symptoms.
At the start, do not deny yourself fat. Eat enough so that you are satisfied and you do not feel hungry. That way you will soon become what is called “fat adapted” — burning fat for fuel efficiently. You will know that you are fat adapted when you do not need to eat every few hours and you no longer feel the highs and lows (“hangry” episodes) of the blood sugar roller coaster.
You can see the results, too. In January 2015, the Journal of Nutrition conducted two studies comparing lower-carb and low-fat diets, finding that of the two approaches, going lower carb helped people shave off more visceral fat, a type of belly fat that hugs organs and is linked to disease. (3) A meta-analysis published in June 2016 in Obesity Reviews also concluded that in obese people, a low-carb diet reduced fat over the course of a year (but not body weight), with the greatest benefits seen in a very-low-carb diet. (4)
Insulin is a hormone that lets your body use or store sugar as fuel. Ketogenic diets make you burn through this fuel quickly, so you don’t need to store it. This means your body needs -- and makes -- less insulin. Those lower levels may help protect you against some kinds of cancer or even slow the growth of cancer cells. More research is needed on this, though.