Ketogenic diets- the newest weight loss craze- are immensely popular. Your social media feed will tell you that much. But what are ketogenic diets, exactly, and are they healthy?
What are Ketogenic diets?
Ketogenic diets invoke a process called ketosis, in which carbohydrate is severely restricted in order to shift the body’s metabolism from carbohydrate to fat. Normally, the body prefers to run on circulating blood sugar from carbohydrates, as the metabolic pathway to break down carbohydrate is much easier and faster than fat or protein.
When carbohydrate is all but removed from the diet, the body is forced to burn fat for energy as a primary fuel source- this is ketosis. Stored fat molecules are broken down into molecules called ketone bodies (or simply ketones), which will generate enough energy until carbohydrate is consumed again.
Ketosis usually occurs after 2-4 days of eating less than 20-50 grams of carbohydrate each day: that’s about 2 slices of bread, or 1 banana.
Now, while all of this may sound doable and even good (Hey! Fast Weight loss! Immediate Gratification!), there are major downsides to a ketogenic diet, and very little benefit.
Dangers and Detriments of a Ketogenic diet
There is strong evidence showing that a ketogenic diet reduces seizures in children with uncontrolled seizure disorders. For this reason, ketogenic diets have been used sparingly as an alternative resource for treatment in children who have not responded to medication.
However, the benefits stop there. Thus far, no studies have supported the use of ketosis in the treatment or prevention of any other neurological conditions or diseases.
For most consumers interested in a ketogenic diet, weight loss is the primary motivating factor, largely thanks to heavy marketing campaigns for ketogenic diet aids. Previous research has shown that ketogenic diets may lead to faster weight loss than moderately low carbohydrate diets, but the difference in weight loss tends to disappear over time.
Furthermore, the period of maintenance is much shorter for ketogenic dieters; weight regain is much higher and is often not lost long-term. The opposite is true for other, more moderate diets.
Officials from large health organizations and universities like the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Health have warned against the possible dangers of ketogenic diets, and have expressed concern over the long-term efficacy of ketogenic diets in weight management. Because it is impossible to healthfully adhere to a ketogenic diet for a long period of time, weight loss achieved during a ketogenic diet has a yo-yo effect.
While advocates of ketogenic diets will espouse the benefits of weight reduction, studies have consistently shown that long-term diets that promote lasting weight loss significantly improve lifespan and vitality, whereas diets that cause large fluctuations on the scale in either direction do the exact opposite. In fact, studies have shown that yo-yo dieting negatively affects lifespan, increasing risk for cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, side effects of ketosis can be severe, including but not limited to headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, muscle cramps, constipation or diarrhea, skin rash, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, bone loss, and potential ketoacidosis- a more serious condition in which ketosis goes too far, leading to loss of consciousness, coma, and potentially death.
If you’re interested in a ketogenic diet for weight loss, it’s best that you consider the safety and long term efficacy of this diet. In reality, there are far better, safer, and more effective options available.