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Is the keto diet really safe?

05/07/2018 06:00AM | 9827 views

By Holly Van Hare


The ketogenic diet, or keto diet, claims to turn your body into a "fat burning machine" through restricting all forms of carbohydrates to an extremely low level. It seems like a buttery, fat-filled fast track to weight loss - but is it safe?

Many experts tout the benefits of the keto diet, ranging from  diabetes prevention to blood pressure. However, registered dietitian Jackie Arnett Elnahar explained that many, if not all, of these benefits have been proven in studies involving patients with a chronic illness - epilepsy or Alzheimer's, for instance. They have not been proven for the average dieter.

"Studies have shown great improvement in epilepsy and neuroprotective benefits for Parkinson's," Elnahar asserts. In spite of the advantages for some, "it is not recommended for the general public."

There are some perceived benefits for those without a chronic illness. For instance, registered dietitian Kirsten Bell explained, "Because this diet is high in fat and so low in carbs, most will feel a decrease in cravings, and tend to feel full and more satisfied for longer periods of time."

But this temporary satiation comes at a very real cost.

What are some health risks of the keto diet?
"Ketogenic diets do have potential concerns and lack of scientific information on the long-term effects," registered dietitian Ginger Hultin told The Daily Meal. "Specifically, there is a possibility of kidney damage, nutritional deficiencies, and side effects including constipation, dehydration, fatigue, and nausea with this diet."

There still is not enough long-term research to confirm that the diet doesn't pose more serious health concerns. "We don't know the long-term effects of eating extremely high-fat diets," registered dietitian Cheryl Mussatto explains, "which go against the current chronic disease prevention recommendations."

But in the short term, some studies - and some personal experiences - have revealed that going keto has a number of undesired consequences.

"Reducing carb intake to such a low level each day by the elimination of healthy food groups like grains and most fruits can result in nutrient deficiencies," says Mussatto, "making it mandatory to use a multivitamin supplement to make up the difference." However, many keto dieters are not aware that they need to supplement to maintain a semblance of perfect health.

Mussatto also mentioned that for those on the keto diet, "Constipation can become a problem due to the lack of fiber, along with other digestive issues." A dietary fiber supplement might be something to consider, as well.

What is the 'keto  flu '?
Many keto dieters experience what is often referred to as the "keto flu" - a temporary spate of flu-like symptoms that occur at the onset of the keto diet.

"This won't last longer than a week for most," Bell explains, "but you may experience nausea, runny nose, fatigue, and muscle weakness." For this reason, experts recommend being cautious with high-intensity exercise when you first start the diet. Exercise may become more difficult during this period when you are feeling weak and tired.

Are there any groups of people who should never try the keto diet? 
According to registered dietitians Cheryl Mussatto and Bari Stricoff, yes. They advised that you should not try the keto diet if you are in any of the following categories:

  • Anyone with gallbladder disease, pancreatic insufficiency, or a history of bariatric surgery
  • Pregnant women
  • Children
  • Anyone with Type 1 or 2 diabetes, as they could suffer consequences of hypoglycemia or low blood sugar
  • Anyone prone to kidney stones, due to changes in salt and fluid balance
  • Anyone with heart disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, as this diet is can be extremely high in saturated fats

So, health risks considered, does the diet work? 
"A person who follows a ketogenic diet will most likely lose some weight," Mussatto admits. "However, once a person stops eating this way and goes back to how they were eating, the weight will come right back on and then some."

And all the experts we queried agreed that the diet is extremely difficult to follow.

"Any diet that cuts out entire food groups often results in decreased sustainability," explained registered dietitian Bari Stricoff, "and the weight lost will eventually be gained back over time - if not more!"

Stricoff described the likely cause of the short-term weight loss many people experience on the keto diet initially - water weight.

"When you stop consuming carbohydrates, your body will deplete your glycogen (stored glucose) for energy," Stricoff explains, "The glycogen molecules are held in water, so when the glycogen is depleted, water loss occurs, and weight loss can result."

But when the extreme nature of the diet pushes people off the wagon, "glycogen stores are replenished, and weight gain may occur."

If you don't lose weight on the keto diet, or any other diet for that matter, never fear - you can accept your body at its natural, comfortable weight. You don't need to follow extreme diets or pose any risk to your health to feel confident and okay. 

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