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Ketosis: what is the keto diet and is it healthy?

Explore the keto diet's benefits and risks, from weight loss and better blood sugar control to potential side effects and nutritional challenges. Find out if this low-carb lifestyle is right for you.

Steph Gregory
Steph Gregory
Health coach
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Ketosis: what is the keto diet and is it healthy?

Carbohydrates are essential for providing our bodies with energy, as they are broken down into glucose, which serves as a primary fuel source. However, the keto diet, a low-carbohydrate regimen, significantly reduces carbohydrate intake. This reduction means that the body has limited access to its preferred fuel, glucose, and instead, becomes more efficient at utilizing fat for energy.

In this article, we will explore the various health benefits and implications of the keto diet. We will delve into how this diet impacts your body, its potential advantages, and what you need to know to make informed decisions about incorporating it into your lifestyle.

What happens when you are in ketosis?

Ketosis is the process where your body uses fat as its main fuel source. Normally, when you consume carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose, which is then used for energy. The liver stores any excess glucose and releases it as needed. However, when your carbohydrate intake is low, there isn't enough glucose available for fuel, so your body switches to using fat as its primary energy source. This fat is converted into chemicals called ketones, leading to a state known as 'ketosis.'

As your glucose levels decrease, your insulin levels drop as well. This reduction triggers the liver to produce more ketones to ensure your brain gets enough energy.

To enter and maintain a state of ketosis, you need to consume fewer than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. However, the exact amount can vary for each individual.

Is it healthy to be in ketosis?

Obtaining a keto diet and being in ‘ketosis’ can cause a reduction in blood sugar and insulin levels, as carbohydrate is the nutrient that raises your blood sugar the most. This may support individuals with type 2 diabetes, to help manage their blood sugar levels.

The keto diet may also prevent the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by lowering your blood pressure, which will improve HDL cholesterol levels and lower your triglycerides. 

It has been reported that following a keto diet can help to boost brain function, by increasing the ability to focus and enhance memory. This is due to the increased intake of healthy fats with omega-3, which are found in oily fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel.

Potential health implications

However, there are some health implications of the keto diet. When you begin following a keto diet there are some short term side effects at the start, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Dehydration
  • and bad breath.

The keto diet has also been shown to increase the risk of developing kidney stones. Additionally, carbohydrate-rich foods particularly wholegrains are high in fibre, which is an important part of our diet to support our digestive system and prevent constipation. If you consume enough fibre within a meal this will leave you feeling more satisfied and fuller for longer. Fibre has also been shown to lower our risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer

Nutritional considerations when on keto

As the keto diet restricts you from eating certain foods, this can sacrifice you getting in all your essential nutrients. Fruits and vegetables should make up a large proportion of the diet, however, following a keto diet will impact this.

For example, you can only have certain fruits in small portions and vegetables are restricted to leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, asparagus, bell peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, cucumber, celery, and butternut squash. As a result, you can’t include as much variety within your diet, which can result in you not reaching your vitamin and mineral needs. This can then lead to deficiencies occurring, and inhibit the normal functioning of your immune system. 

The keto diet includes a high proportion of fat, which can increase your overall saturated fat intake and cholesterol levels. Removing carbohydrates from the diet has been shown to affect your energy levels and mood. Serotonin is made with a part of protein from the diet (tryptophan), and eating carbohydrate-rich foods may help release more of this into your brain.

What can't you eat on the keto diet?

As mentioned previously, the keto diet involves consuming very few carbohydrates. This means removing or greatly reducing most carbohydrate-rich foods from your diet, including:

  • Grains (e.g. bread, pasta, oats, rice)
  • Legumes
  • Potatoes
  • Fruit
  • Sweets, cakes, biscuits
  • Fizzy drinks or other sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Condiments and sauces (e.g. ketchup and barbecue sauce)

Here are some examples of healthy foods that should be included when following a keto diet:

Meat: Chicken, turkey, and beef are high in fat and protein but low in carbohydrates. However, it's important to eat these meats in moderation, as excessive intake can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and weight gain.

Fish and Seafood: These are high in fat and protein while being low in carbohydrates. Salmon, for example, is rich in essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins.

Eggs: Eggs are a simple, affordable, and versatile food that is high in fat and protein and low in carbohydrates.

Dairy Products: High-fat dairy products contain significant amounts of protein and fat. Yogurt also provides probiotics, which help promote a healthy gut.

Nuts and Seeds: These are high in unsaturated fats and low in carbohydrates, with a high fiber content. Eating nuts has been linked to a decreased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.

Oils: Some oils are sources of unsaturated fat and contain no carbohydrates. These include olive oil, avocado oil, canola oil, and nut and seed oils like flax and hemp oil.

Weight loss and the keto diet

From a weight loss perspective, the keto diet has been shown to decrease hunger levels, which can lead to consuming fewer calories. This is likely because the body takes longer to digest foods that are higher in fat and protein compared to those high in carbohydrates. Additionally, the keto diet has been shown to help reduce visceral fat while preserving lean muscle mass. By reducing insulin levels, the keto diet also enhances fat burning, as high insulin levels prevent the breakdown of fat. When insulin levels drop, the body can more effectively break down fat cells.

However, it's important to note that any form of dietary restriction can lead to weight loss, but weight loss is not always synonymous with fat loss. The rapid changes in weight and fluid levels seen during fast weight loss do not necessarily reflect a healthy form of weight loss.

Some people find that adjusting carbohydrate intake is an effective way to manage their weight, while others may find that any form of dietary restriction is unsustainable and increases hunger and cravings. Generally, it's a good idea to be mindful of portion sizes for all foods, including carbohydrates.

Is keto for everyone?

There is no one size fits all approach to nutrition and weight loss. The keto diet can work well for some people, but not so well for others. Here at Embla you can work together with your Health Coach to identify what works for you and create personalised goals for you to work towards. 

As mentioned previously, individuals who have type 2 diabetes, may benefit from following a keto diet to help manage their blood sugar and insulin levels. Additionally, individuals who suffer with PCOS, a keto diet may be beneficial to help with insulin resistance and reduce inflammation. Some individuals may find it easy to stick to the ketogenic diet, while others may find it more difficult and not sustainable. If you’re interested in switching to a low carb or keto diet, it’s important to discuss this with a healthcare professional first.

The journey to health with keto

Here at Embla we are open to all nutritional strategies to supporting an individual with their health. It’s important to remember that everyone is unique and your lifestyle will determine your individual nutritional requirements. For example, your carbohydrate intake will be lower if you are less physically active, however should still make up a proportion of your diet.

Our whole approach at Embla is that all food can fit into a healthy balanced diet and there should be no form of restricting or cutting out certain food groups, due to the physical and psychological consequences of restriction. 

Instead, we recommend balancing your diet to include all food groups. Focusing on incorporating enough complex carbohydrates, lean protein, unsaturated fats along with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. This will ensure all your nutrient needs are met and will leave you feeling fuller for longer and satisfied.

References

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. What is the Ketogenic Diet? (https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/fad-diets/what-is-the-ketogenic-diet) Accessed 8/15/2022.

Choi YJ, Jeon SM, Shin S. Impact of a Ketogenic Diet on Metabolic Parameters in Patients with Obesity or Overweight and with or without Type 2 Diabetes: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32640608/). Nutrients. 2020 Jul 6;12(7):2005. Accessed 8/15/2022.

Crosby, L., Davis, B., Joshi, S., Jardine, M., Paul, J., Neola, M., & Barnard, N. D. (2021). Ketogenic diets and chronic disease: weighing the benefits against the risks. Frontiers in nutrition, 8, 702802.

Dowis, K., & Banga, S. (2021). The potential health benefits of the ketogenic diet: a narrative review. Nutrients, 13(5), 1654.

Oh, R., Gilani, B., & Uppaluri, K. R. (2019). Low carbohydrate diet.

Tinsley, G. M., & Willoughby, D. S. (2016). Fat-free mass changes during ketogenic diets and the potential role of resistance training. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 26(1), 78-92.

Watanabe, M., Tuccinardi, D., Ernesti, I., Basciani, S., Mariani, S., Genco, A., ... & Gnessi, L. (2020). Scientific evidence underlying contraindications to the ketogenic diet: An update. Obesity Reviews, 21(10), e13053.

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Steph Gregory
Steph Gregory
Health coach
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