Keto Diet Explained: Biology, Risks, Benefits, & History
Scientific research unveils new revelations on a near daily basis, covering a wide array of topics; from the ideal amount of sleep to the effects certain foods have on the brain. One area of study that, culturally, has always been the subject of much attention is dieting. It should be noted that dieting is not limited to cutting back food intake and only eating vegetables. Pursuing information about diet trends is often done to better understand what the body needs to function best, and where to get it. For example, dairy products offer a valuable source of vitamin D, which provides innumerable health benefits, though those who are lactose intolerant must either find this elsewhere or take supplemental lactase so they may process lactose comfortably. Among the latest diets that have gained a significant following is the keto diet. But some may wonder, as they hear others mentioning this eating regimen over and over: what is it? How does it work? And how did it develop such momentum?
A Lesson on Energy: Immediate vs Stored
When food is consumed, it is converted into units of energy known as ATP. Depending on the contents of the food in question, parts of the broken down meal act as a source of immediate energy or act as stored energy. Carbs act as the energy that is readily available for use. This is why individuals who run marathons will consume high-carb foods such as pasta; they will expend that energy right away through their running or other forms of exercise, and that source of readily available energy carries them through the tasks.
Fats are stored energy the body keeps on reserve for whenever all carb-based energy is used up. The body will always use up carbs for energy first and when that is depleted, its next source becomes glycogen, which is glucose stored in the liver and muscle. When these are depleted, the next source of energy the body turns to is triacylglycerols, found in fat or adipose tissue.
Each time the body must perform a task, be it one consciously demanded of it or innate, it will run through each energy source in order and pull from it. In nature, everything comes at the cost of energy; energy is used to push a box just as energy is needed for internal organs to work, for the brain to process information, for doing a whole array of unseen but integral bodily functions. That is why all organisms must utilize energy- carried by ATP- consume it, whether it be sunlight or vegetation, meat or wheat, and so forth, immediate or stored, so that energy may be used to continue all proper routines.
All actions in the body may be traced back to energy: energy consumed, energy broken down, energy stored, and energy used; for humans this is gained from various food groups that, for all their differences, share the commonality of offering a form of energy needed to perform tasks.
The Keto Diet Defined
When people mention following a keto diet, short for the ketogenic diet, they are referring to a diet consisting of limited intake of carbs. In addition to low carbs, the diet guidelines include moderate consumption of proteins and high amounts of fat.
Because carbs are always used up by the body first- by being broken down into glucose for energy- before stored fat energy, those on a keto diet may be trying to make that stored fat be the energy that is used most, so it is burned away and weight loss is achieved and stays off because the body has such limited carbs to use for energy, it will take from stored fat as needed.
Upon finding no access to immediate carb energy, under the keto diet, the body engages in a state known as ketosis where it derives energy from stored fat and creates ketones, or ketone bodies, to use as fuel. Those ketones are the byproducts that result when the body breaks down fat energy when carbs are low. Ketosis is not the same as ketoacidosis, which refers to unhealthily high amounts of ketones in the body, which can alter the blood pH to be acidic if untreated. Ketoacidosis is characteristic of diabetics who are unwell or not taking enough insulin, alcoholics, or those who are outright starving. Ketosis calls for an adjustment in proportions, but all while maintaining a mindful and healthy balance.
That is the most basic premise. From there, the keto diet branches extensively based on several schools of scientific findings and personal beliefs, with further deviation even then. Some feel 30 to 50 grams of carbs a day is the goal to work towards. Even then, however, there are splits in what type of food to consume, even when counting and restricting the intake of carbohydrates. Combine that with the other new diet catching people’s attention, intermittent fasting, and it is understandable that a sense of being overwhelmed may arise.
The easy approach, in addition to consulting learned professionals, is to take the keto diet at its fundamental definition and observe it through a personalized lens of what any personal health goals are- if the keto diet is to be pursued at all. Simply, the keto diet can be broken into basic variations based on factors such as daily activity routines, desired foods that simply cannot be cut, and so on. There is:
- Standard ketogenic diet: A very low-carb diet that emphasizes filling in the carb gabs with a moderate amount of proteins and high fat; the ratio of each respectively is generally 5%, 20%, and 75%.
- High-protein ketogenic diet: This approach is near-identical to the standard keto diet, though with more protein budgeted into food.
- Targeted ketogenic diet: In conjunction with workouts, additional carb allowances can be added to meals. The exercise drives the body to consume the extra carb energy anyway.
- Cyclical ketogenic diet: Rotations of high-carb intake switch off with strict low-carb intake days.
Robert Nellis of the Mayo Clinic emphasizes the differences in approaches to the keto diet, and how some- or all- may not be the best approach. “The true ketogenic diet,” he states, “is very controlled and limited” and is “just short of starvation.” The intense limitation of an entire food group has been debated within multiple communities of specialists since the diet’s debut. But when and how did that come about?
As mentioned, there is a connection to diabetes and ketones- but not just through ketoacidosis.
The regimen’s spotlight can be traced to the early 20th century as a way to treat type 1 diabetes, which used to be referred to as childhood diabetes because, if unchecked, adulthood would unlikely be reached. Nellis likens untreated type 1 diabetes to the malfunction of an important monitor: “A body without insulin is like a furnace without a thermostat.”
To prolong the lives of type 1 diabetics before the advent of insulin, the keto diet was pursued, since it did not run on the same carbohydrate-sugar system. Youth who pursued this diet saw lengthened lifespans; however, records indicate their weight would run as low as 45 to 60 pounds. Witnessing this, Nellis is perplexed as its usage today, admitting, “On the true diet, you’re lucky if you have the energy to make it out of bed. The idea that this diet is being used for, in my mind, non-emergency purposes is kind of strange and bizarre.”
Nellis further stresses the difference between pursuing a diet in a controlled, highly-monitored medical setting such as a hospital, versus following trends and word-of-mouth testimonials and instructions. In hospitals, many measurements were taken each day to adjust the diet as needed. The pursuit of this at home may have as much or as little monitoring as the individual chooses to utilize. Such unchecked usage of any routine, Nellis feels, harbors its own dangers, again particularly when recalling how limiting the original keto diet was created to be.
It is not without its benefits, however, as evidenced in studies that arose in time with the keto diet’s second coming. This renewed attention to ketogenic regimens is harder to trace, but can more or less be seen as correlating with the advent of the Atkins diet and the paleo diet. Since garnering attention once more, studies have been performed, including a 2004 one in Experimental & Clinical Cardiology that asserts the keto diet may have positive effects on cholesterol by lowering LDL (bad cholesterol) levels.
Further monitoring must be maintained as well when considering what fats to include in each meal, as not all are equal, healthy for ketogenic diets, or beneficial on their own. Avocado, coconut oil, butter, nuts and nut butter, chia seeds, and flax seeds are relatively consistently labeled “good” fats, though even then some regard parts of this list as acceptable but ones that should be limited. Keto dieters agree with other established dietary research, though, and stress that trans fats should be outright avoided when possible, as they are associated with increasing LDL, inducing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Though researchers are constantly delving into what conditions are most healthy for the body, and though overlap does exist among individuals, there is also much nuance and specificity. What works for some may not be the best course for others. Each body is unique. Vitamins are important across the body; flossing prevents gum disease; drinking water maintains healthy organ functions.
But diets can require much more personalization and should be pursued based on what each individual’s goal is for themselves. Collecting valid information, understanding one’s self, and carefully discovering what leads to pinnacle health at an individual level is ultimately the best diet to pursue. If that happens to be the keto diet, now some more information has been established, and the decision to pursue it or not can be an informed one, especially with the ratios the diet demands, in comparison with what each individual’s body may require. Major cuts to sources of nutrients can have adverse effects on anyone; couple that with the need to supplement, and the keto diet may simply not be an ideal venture.
The end goal is to be healthy and feel content in one’s own skin. There are many ways to go about that, methods that may already be at play naturally. Emotional, physical, and biological health are all important factors when making any lifestyle choice. Some conditions may already be at play that makes any form of the aforementioned diets unsafe. In such cases, safety- which ultimately equates to healthy- must take precedence. To be safe, individuals should be informed, and glean that information from legitimate sources and from themselves and their personal needs and wants.