The ketogenic diet has been around for centuries. Ketosis is the transferring of the body’s primary energy source from carbohydrates to ingested and pre-stored fat, resulting in the creation of ketones. Its benefits range from fat loss to blood sugar regulation, and as such, the keto diet maintains its popularity. Yet with how strict the rules of this diet are, the question remains: is it still worth the hype?
Proof For Keto
Keto’s fat-burning benefits can improve genetic function and maintenance of leptins (the satiation hormone) and insulin (1). Simply put, fats, a slow-digesting macronutrient, keep us fuller for longer.
One year-long study showed that obese patients who ate a ketogenic diet dramatically lost weight and lowered their BMI (1). Dropping carbs is also popular in the bodybuilding realm during a competitor’s cutting phase. An eight-week study focused on how keto would benefit active patients with experience in resistance training. Not only did switching to keto help their hypertrophic performance improve, they also lowered their body fat, glucose levels, and inflammation (2).
While keto usually evokes imagery of steaks and butter, ketosis can be achieved through a low-carb vegan diet. Yes, vegans are not barred from accomplishing ketosis (3). Acceptable foods in a vegan-keto diet are oils, pea and soy proteins, nuts and seeds, low-glycemic fruits, and vegetables.
Proof Against Keto
For muscle gain, some argue that calories are calories; it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you hit your daily caloric intake. Unfortunately, this diet is not optimal for lean mass gain. Subjects following this diet lacked the insulin and testosterone necessary to optimally activate growth hormones that boost muscle mass. The only time the diet resulted in lean mass gain was a week after one subject introduced carbohydrates back into their diet (2). While the diet can improve muscle performance, it is not optimal for increasing muscle mass.
There are easier ways to incorporate healthy fats for health benefits. One option is the Mediterranean Diet. The diets are similar, but contribute different health benefits. The keto diet has a slight advantage in glucose control, whereas the Mediterranean Diet is a better solution for controlling LDL cholesterol. Med. Diet followers also obtain more fiber and more nutrients from their variety of foods. Since this diet is also more sustainable, there is greater commitment to the Med. Diet than the keto diet (4).
The keto diet does not prioritize the quality of foods eaten. Therefore it can be very easy to fall into unhealthy habits. A general rule of thumb in nutrition is to avoid processed foods and added sugars. Today’s supermarkets are filled with highly-processed foods (keto ice cream, anyone?) that claim to keep the body in ketosis. After reading their ingredients, you may consider eating actual ice cream rather than the processed sugar alcohols. Meanwhile, other diets may advocate for dessert indulgence on a monthly basis.
The type of fat used on a keto diet can make a difference. Like sugar alcohols, saturated fats are another unhealthy habit. These are often found in dairy and red meat. A version of ketosis containing more polyunsaturated fats is superior to one with more saturated fats, showing improvements in overall cholesterol and glucose levels (5).
The root of our general health is the gut microbiome. This diet can provide the gut with good sources of essential prebiotics from nuts, leafy greens, and non-starchy vegetables. However, it is more difficult to maintain good microbiome health with the absence of fibrous carbohydrates such as some fruits and grains. Their absence can lead to a weakened immune system and create digestive issues (2). There are easier diets that accomplish a healthier gut.
The keto diet continues to have a committed following, even sharing its strategies with other diets. It provides a slew of health benefits, yet strict adherence is required to experience most of them. Keto definitely has its place in the modern fitness world. However, only experimenting with it yourself can help you truly decide if it has its place in your fitness life.