In recent years, the keto diet has grown exponentially in popularity. What was once a diet prescribed to treat epilepsy in the early 20th century is now a diet used to help people lose weight (excess fat), combat high blood pressure, decrease one's risk of developing diabetes and decrease chronically high blood sugar levels.
But is keto safe? And is the keto diet right for everyone? Does the long list of keto diet benefits outweigh the risks involved?
Below, we share the health benefits of the keto diet, the risk factors involved, and who should (and should not) pursue the keto diet for weight loss. We'll also address a number of myths surrounding the keto diet and how it impacts your overall health.
First, a Recap: What Is the Keto Diet?
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that even beginners can utilise. The goal of the keto diet is to reduce your carbohydrate intake (glucose), thereby forcing your body to choose an alternative energy source. By severely restricting your carb intake on keto (<20g carbs per day), your body will start burning fat for fuel. Your fat stores or dietary fats are transformed into ketones within your liver, thereby entering ketosis, a fat-burning state.
To find success on the keto diet, roughly 75% of your calories will come from fat, with 20% of your calories coming from protein and the remaining 5% from carbohydrates. To meet these requirements, you'll fill your plate with keto-friendly foods — including fatty fish, high-quality dairy (cheese, cream and ghee but no milk as high in lactose sugars), eggs, white and red meat, organ meats, animals fats, MCT oil, coconut oil, avocados, olive oil, some nuts and seeds.
Simultaneously, you'll remove most carb-rich food groups from your diet, including starchy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, sugar, most fruits and most forms of alcohol (we personally recommend removing all alcohol).
For the carbs that you do eat within the daily (20g or less) focus on low-carb leafy green vegetables, cauliflower, lettuce and low-sugar fruits, like berries.
Advantages of Keto: 4 Keto Diet Benefits
There are a number of health benefits reported for the keto diet. Individuals pursue keto for a wide range of benefits, from weight loss and shedding excess fat to decreased risk of heart disease to treating Type 1 diabetes and even putting Type 2 diabetes into remission.
The keto diet can help you:
1. Lose Weight and Burn Fat
The ketogenic diet can help you lose weight, fight obesity and burn excess fat.
In randomised controlled trials, a low-carb, high-fat diet like keto decreases hunger and appetite, thereby helping participants lose weight . In addition, while high-carb, low-fat diets are often prescribed by conventional, registered dietitians (RDNs) to combat obesity, studies show that low-carb diets are more effective at boosting weight loss and reducing cholesterol levels than low-fat diets . Lastly, a keto diet plan has been shown to improve a number of health markers related to metabolic syndrome.
2. Lower Blood Sugar Levels
A low-carb diet — like keto — can help lower blood glucose levels, which can then improve insulin resistance, prevent prediabetes and treat Type 2 and Type 1 diabetes.
In fact, new research shows that a low-carb, animal-based diet is more effective at improving blood glucose and insulin levels than a low-fat, plant-based diet . In addition, new research shows that implementing a keto diet is an effective method to manage Type 2 diabetes — one that reduces patients' reliance on medication .
3. Keep Your Brain Healthy
Being in a fat-burning, ketogenic state can help boost your brain health.
While glucose is the primary energy source used in the brain, ketone bodies make a beneficial alternative. Studies show that a ketogenic diet (and the subsequent ketone body production) offers a number of cognitive benefits . In addition, the presence of ketone bodies has a protective effect on your brain cells, which can prevent cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer's disease .
4. Decrease Your Risk of Heart Disease
High-fat diets like keto have been shown to increase HDL cholesterol levels, which is associated with a decreased risk in cardiovascular disease . In addition, in a review of over a dozen studies, a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet was shown to decrease triglycerides, decrease body fat and body weight and improve blood pressure levels — all of which are risk factors for developing heart disease .
Is Keto Safe? 3 Keto Side Effects
Nutritional ketosis is a natural, fat-burning state that is completely safe. With that being said, there are a few mild side effects associated with the keto diet, which may impact some of you.
1. Keto Flu
When transitioning to a fat-burning state (e.g., the first two weeks of the keto diet), you may experience short-term flu-like symptoms. Known as 'keto flu', these symptoms include dehydration, nausea, headaches, migraines and the inability to concentrate. Any lightheadedness is typically due to decreased sodium levels, which is caused by water excretion from glycogen depletion.
You can help to minimise this or avoid the Keto flu altogether by ensuring that you drink enough water and you include a high quality, sugar-free electrolytes daily.
2. Low Blood Sugar
While extremely rare, some cases of hypoglycemia (extremely low blood sugar) have been reported in individuals following a keto diet . If you have chronically low blood sugar, speak to your physician before pursuing a keto diet.
3. Short-Term Constipation
When transitioning to a keto diet, you may experience mild constipation . Luckily, this should disappear within 1-2 weeks. To help improve constipation and other stomach issues, be sure to drink plenty of water and electrolytes.
Some find that incorporating MCT oil can also be beneficial.
Is Keto Safe? 2 Common Keto Myths
Most keto dieters will tell you that any side effects are mild, and typically disappear once your body adjusts to a fat-burning state. However, the internet is filled with exaggerated risks or outright myths. Research shows that ketosis does not cause these medical conditions:
Ketosis is not diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a serious and potentially life-threatening diabetic complication. This occurs when your body produces dangerously high levels of ketone bodies without producing enough insulin, making your blood become acidic . Ketosis, on the other hand, is a completely natural state where your body burns ketones for fuel.
2. Kidney Stones
Ketosis does not cause kidney stones, or crystals developed in your digestive tract. While kidney stones have shown up in keto dieters, this was usually due to a lack of potassium and dehydration . In fact, studies show that a low-carb diet can actually help improve renal function (kidney function), rather than harm it .
Is Keto Safe? Always Start With Your Own Research
When starting a keto meal plan, it's always important to do your own research. Practice common sense, listen to your body and read articles by nutritionists who question conventional wisdom.
Keto is completely safe as long as you follow a well-balanced diet, stay hydrated, drink electrolytes and give yourself grace during the initial transition. When first implementing keto, you may experience mild symptoms, including headaches, nausea and difficulty concentrating. However, know that developing an increased risk of serious complications — like kidney stones or ketoacidosis — is a myth.
When evaluating keto and your health, the benefits far outweigh any mild side effects. To continue learning about keto, read our collection of resources and try out some delicious keto recipes.
All information provided on our website and within our articles is simply information, opinion, anecdotal thoughts and experiences to provide you with the tools to thrive.
It is not intended to treat or diagnose symptoms and is definitely not intended to be misconstrued for medical advice. We always advise you seek the advice of a trained professional when implementing any changes to your lifestyle and dietary habits.
We do however recommend seeking the services of a trained professional who questions the conventional wisdom to enable you to become the best version of yourself.