The Keto Diet: Is it worth the hype?

By Hannah Buckland, Healthy Hearts Care Planner

The ketogenic or ‘keto’ diet has become increasingly popular in recent years. Originally developed to treat children with drug-resistant epilepsy, the diet has been taken up by advocates who are passionate about its ability to aid weight loss, improve health and even cure diseases. We take a look at the evidence behind the diet to understand whether it’s worth the hype.

The keto diet is a high-fat, very low-carb diet (less than 50g a day). The idea is that, rather than using glucose from carbohydrates as the main source of energy, the body is forced to break down fat into molecules called ketones and use these instead, which helps to promote weight loss. The diet excludes most fruits, starchy vegetables, pulses and grains, and includes meat, fish, eggs, cheese, cream, nuts and some low-carb vegetables. This contradicts the government’s recommendations for a healthy, balanced diet. The Eatwell Guide recommends that just over a third of your diet should be made up of quality starchy foods, such as wholemeal bread, rice, pasta and potatoes, and over another third should be fruit and vegetables. This means that over half of your daily calorie intake should come from carbohydrates in some form. As such, the keto diet is considered to be quite controversial.

So, what does the evidence tell us? There are several key points to consider before adopting this diet:

– The keto diet is very difficult to stick to and is therefore an unrealistic long-term solution for weight loss. Studies have shown that weight reduction on the keto diet is not sustained long term, despite an initial reduction in weight.
– Our bodies need carbohydrates to function well. Several processes in our body depend on carbs to function optimally, including the processes where serotonin (the “happy hormone”) and melatonin (which helps to regulate tiredness) are made.
– With a lack of carbohydrate to fuel the body, there is a risk that the body will burn muscle for energy. As a result, some people who follow the keto diet feel like they have less energy to exercise.
– The keto diet is often high in saturated fat and low in fibre – opposite to the recommendations for a heart healthy diet. It can therefore increase the risk of high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke.
– Excluding fruits, vegetables and grains limits intake of vitamins and minerals that are important for good health.
– Being in a state of ketosis can cause headaches, weakness, feeling sick, dehydration, dizziness and irritability.
– Since the keto diet is very restrictive, it has the potential to create an obsessive and unhealthy relationship with food.

In conclusion, the keto diet is not in line with the UK’s current nutritional guidelines and could have the potential to cause more harm than good for many individuals. There is far more evidence to support the benefits of including wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and pulses in our diet, compared to evidence supporting the benefits of the keto diet. Remember, a variety of different foods are needed to ensure good health and nutrition – and cutting out an entire food group could compromise that. If you are looking to improve your long-term health and wellbeing through diet, the best thing you can do is focus on consuming a healthy, diverse and well-balanced diet.

References

NHS (2020). The truth about carbs. NHS. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-weight/why-we-need-to-eat-carbs/ [Accessed 23rd November 2020].
Rhitrition (2020). The Ketogenic Diet: A detailed beginner’s guide. Rhitrition. Available from: https://rhitrition.com/what-is-the-keto-diet/ [Accessed 20th November 2020].
Saunt, R. and West, H. (2019). Is Butter a Carb? Great Britain: Piatkus.
The Food Medic (2018). The Keto Diet. The Food Medic. Available from: https://thefoodmedic.co.uk/2018/09/the-keto-diet/ [Accessed 23rd November 2020].

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