Do you feel hungry all the time or have an irrefutable craving for sweets? Do you need to lose weight? Do you or someone you know suffer from autism, epilepsy, or type 2 diabetes? If so, the ketogenic diet may be worth considering.
What Is the Ketogenic Diet?
Believe it or not, the ketogenic diet has been in use since the 1920’s, so it definitely isn’t a fad diet.
It emphasizes foods rich in natural fats, is adequate in protein, and restricts foods high in carbohydrate (sugars and starches). While the standard American diet (SAD) contains 45-65% of calories from carbohydrate, ketogenic diets restrict carbohydrate intake to about 2-4% of calories (this is 20 grams of carb per day on a 2000 calorie diet).
This nutrient spread may sound a lot like the Atkins diet, and although they are both low carbohydrate diets, a ketogenic diet is NOT a high protein diet. It's a high fat diet with a moderate protein intake and a very low carbohydrate allowance—lower than the Atkins diet. A typical ketogenic meal includes a moderate amount of protein, a source of natural fats (for example, butter, salmon, lean beef, lamb, chicken thighs, cream, olive oil, or coconut oil) and green leafy vegetables.
This diet also encourages eating fats that provide a lot of MCTs (medium chain triglycerides). Coconut oil and coconut butter are particularly good source of MCTs, and a percentage of them get transformed into ketone bodies.
How Does the Ketogenic Diet Work?
When foods with carbohydrate are digested, they are broken down into blood sugar (glucose) in the body. Eating less carbs and more fats and protein causes our body’s biochemical pathways to switch to using our stored fat for fuel instead of burning glucose. This switch produces ketone bodies and simultaneously reduces blood sugar levels. As glucose drops and ketone levels rise in the bloodstream, the heart, muscle and brain stop burning sugar and instead use the ketones as an alternative fuel. When the body needs to break down body fat for energy, this is called being “in ketosis.”
What Are Potential Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet?
Once the body is using ketones as a main fuel source, all sorts of beneficial effects become apparent. Being in a state of ketosis and ketone bodies are being studied extensively as a treatment for weight loss and many metabolic diseases. Research about a ketogenic diet is often divided into two categories: strong evidence and emerging evidence.
Here’s strong evidence for what a ketogenic diet may help:
- Promotes weight loss. One caveat -- the exact mechanism for why a ketogenic diet works is still unknown and several factors may actually be involved. First, weight loss may occur simply due to a decrease in calorie intake, which is likely the result of a drop in appetite because of the increased satiety effect from eating protein. Satiety is that feeling of fullness and satisfaction from eating. If you feel full and more satisfied sooner, you ultimately eat less, and if you stay feeling fuller for longer, you also eat less often. In a ketogenic diet, our appetite hormones may also shift to better control our appetite, and the ketones produced may act as appetite suppressants.
- Improves cardiovascular risk factors involved in heart disease, such as lowers triglycerides, lowers total cholesterol, and increases HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol).
- Improves type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome (all diseases related to carbohydrate intolerance). A person has better glucose control because there’s less glucose being eaten, and the body also improves its insulin sensitivity. The weight loss that accompanies a ketogenic diet is also very valuable for improving type 2 diabetes.
- Reduces and Prevents Seizures. A ketogenic diet is used as a treatment for epilepsy because it reduces, and in some cases, eliminates seizures. Since 1920, the ketogenic diet has been recognized as an effective tool in treating severe childhood epilepsy.
Here's emerging evidence for what a ketogenic diet may help:
- Reduce acne outbreaks. Research suggests some foods/nutrients tend to stimulate the development of acne, and these suspect foods include those with a high carbohydrate content and milk. Since a ketogenic diet eliminates all high carb foods, including milk, it makes sence this diet could be effective in reducing the severity and progression of acne.
- Reduce the progression of some types of cancers. A ketogenic diet may be able to reduce tumor size.
- Alleviate the symptoms of autism.
- Reduce various symptoms of Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Because the diet reduces the amount of insulin in the blood and promotes weight loss, this may help normalize ovulation and reduce excess levels of androgen hormones (ie: testosterone) in the body.
- Provide protection against a wide variety of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, sleep disorders, autism, multiple sclerosis and head ache.
Ketogenic diets are commonly considered effective for weight control, and there is a “hidden gem” side to the ketogenic diet: its therapeutic role in a variety of other diseases and disorders. More studies are necessary and justified in order to learn details for how the ketogenic diet works.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
1. A Paoli, A Rubini, JS Volek, KA Grimaldi. Beyond weight loss: a review of the therapeutic uses of very-low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diets. Eur J Clin Nutr. Aug 2013;67(8):789-796.
2. RL Veech. The therapeutic implications of ketone bodies: the effects of ketone bodies in pathological conditions: ketosis, ketogenic diet, redox states, insulin resistance, and mitochondrial metabolism. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2004 Mar;70(3):309-19.