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What do Oprah, Joe Rogan and Tim Ferris all have in common? They have all pushed the ketogenic diet in some fashion. The popularity of this fad diet has skyrocketed over the past few years and makes you think that it is brand new. However, this diet has a long and sordid past. It can actually be traced back all the way to 500 BC! But what are the benefits of a keto diet or could it actually be dangerous for our health? Let’s find out!
What even is keto?
The ketogenic diet, often referred to as keto, is high in fat, moderate in protein and very low in carbohydrates. Based on this you might already think that this is not typically what’s recommended for “general health reasons”. On a keto diet, carbs from all sources are severely restricted to below 50 grams, sometimes even as low as 20 grams a day. For reference, a medium-sized banana contains about 27 grams of carbohydrates. A cup of spaghetti, which is a very small portion, has about 43 grams of carbohydrates.
With the keto diet, breads, grains, cereals, legumes, a lot of fruits and even a lot of vegetables are heavily limited because they contain too many carbohydrates. As you can imagine, it requires big shifts in how most of us would usually eat, especially if you’re eating a plant-based diet, which tends to be higher in carbohydrates.
When you’re eating a strict ketogenic diet, it puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis. Ketosis is a process that happens when your body doesn’t have enough carbohydrates to burn for energy. Instead, it burns fat and produces something called ketones, which then are used for fuel instead of carbs.
Outside of a keto diet, our main fuel source is glucose, especially for our brain. In that comparison, the ketogenic diet is like a partial fast. Other than for a regular fast, your body gets a source of energy, it’s just a different one. That way, it doesn’t have to break down lean muscle mass like it would during a fast.
The history of keto
But keto wasn’t always this trendy diet. In the 1920s, Dr. Wilder first coined the term “ketogenic diet”. But the keto diet actually dates back to around 500 to 400 BC. Well, sort off…
Back then, they used fasting, which seemed to have a positive impact on people with epilepsy. Fast forward to 1911, when the first modern study of fasting as a treatment for epilepsy was done in France. Even though the experiment was quite successful, most people who tried this failed to comply just because it was so heavily restrictive.
Returning to the 1920s and Dr. Wilder, who discovered that the ketogenic diet mimicked fasting and noted that it helped to preserve lean muscle tissue at the same time. That way, epilepsy patients at least could eat something, while still having the same benefits as when they were fasting completely. After a few decades and with the rise of effective medications, the keto diet, however, became less and less adapted by people that suffered from epilepsy.
Then in 1994, there was a resurgence of the ketogenic diet as a treatment for epilepsy, partly because Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams had a son with severe epilepsy. They were able to effectively control his condition using the ketogenic diet. Abrahams ended up creating the Charlie Foundation for Ketogenic therapies, named after his son, to further promote this diet therapy.
In 1996, the foundation sponsored a research study, and the results from the study basically marked the beginning of this renewed scientific interest in the diet – for therapeutic purposes. So how did it become the lifestyle diet we know it as today?
Today, the keto diet is more commonly known as a fad diet, because it promises quick weight loss and better health, and because it eliminates entire food groups and foods – typical characteristics of a fad diet. The underlying principle of keto is to extremely restrict your carbohydrate level and to lower your insulin, decrease glucose energy being used and adapt to ketosis.
The keto diet started becoming really popular among bodybuilders because they’re able to drop fat really quickly for their competitions. Oprah and Robert Atkins, M.D. were talking about it, too – it seemed to be everywhere. In general, people seem to assume that because everybody’s talking about it that it must be safe and effective.
But then, science stepped in. Studies like this one started coming out on the keto diet, talking about keto slowing the aging process and that it may even prevent age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and possibly many forms of cancers and heart disease. Based on that research, a group of people called Biohackers begin to self-experiment with this data and research that’s coming out. And they all fell in love with keto.
One of the said groups is the entrepreneur and lifestyle-expert Tim Ferris. On his blog with about 1 million followers, he started to write about the benefits of the keto diet. In a podcast episode that aired, he also discussed with a keto expert how cancer cells love glucose. Drawing from that conclusion, they shared that the keto diet could essentially help combat cancer. Podcaster Joe Rogan has a similar story – with 30 million listeners, though.
From all the publicity, keto started spreading like wildfire. It went from the biohacker community in Silicon Valley to basically the rest of the country, even the rest of the world. And within a year of Tim Ferris and Joe Rogan talking about it, keto cookbooks started flooding the market. Searches for keto hit 17 million per month and it rapidly became an estimated multi-billion-dollar industry.
This is an example of how really just a few people in the past few decades really popularized this way of eating and turned it into a fad diet. A diet that was once used for therapeutic purposes, was twisted immensely into this fad diet that we know today.
Would I recommend the keto diet?
I’m going to make the pretty extreme claim that any dietitian who’s done the research is not going to recommend the keto diet. Part of that reasoning is its side effects which can include constipation, high cholesterol, acidosis or kidney stones. It is also not recommended for people with specific health conditions, like heart or thyroid problems.
There are both short-term and long-term health risks for all people associated with the keto diet. Short term health risks include flu-like symptoms. Essentially, your body is coming off of carbohydrates, which can lead to an upset stomach, headaches, fatigue or dizzy spells. This is called the keto flu, which is due to your body dealing with symptoms of carbohydrate withdrawal when you start going keto. You’re depriving your body of its known and favorite source of energy, which is glucose. And you force it to use fat and ketones instead. All in all, it’s a very stressful situation for your body.
A lot of research has indicated that diets high in saturated fat – which keto tends to be – may increase your risk of heart disease and other chronic health problems. The risk that keto dieters might be facing in regard to their long-term cardiovascular health just isn’t fully studied yet. Research findings on the benefits of the keto diet for various health claims are, on the other hand, extremely limited.
Those that have tried the keto diet usually don’t stick with it for long. The weight that they initially might lose is gained back quickly, and sometimes they gain even more weight in total. Often, these people crave the foods that they have restricted.
To sum up, the ketogenic diet is incredibly restrictive. It had a beautiful start in the beginning, but it was twisted into this fad diet that has become a multi-billion-dollar industry and I would not recommend it to my clients or anyone who doesn’t have epilepsy.
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