Is Keto Healthy? Get the Facts to Decide if It’s Right for You.

Rachel MacPherson - The Upside Blog

by | Updated: September 12th, 2023 | Read time: 7 minutes

So many diets come and go that it can take a lot of work to keep track of them all. The keto diet is a form of eating that has exploded in popularity over the past several years. Originally it was used by medical professionals as a treatment for specific medical conditions. In fact, ketogenic diets have been around for around 100 years in some form. Although new possible medical uses for the diet, including neurological benefits, are undergoing research, most people now consider using a keto diet to support a weight loss goal.

Like many popular diets, the keto diet is restrictive, and you must dedicate time and effort to changing your eating style and lifestyle habits to succeed. While the ketogenic diet can work wonders for some people, it isn’t for everyone. It’s essential to examine your motives for going on a keto diet and determine whether it is suitable for you.

Here you can learn about the scientific research and answer the question “is keto healthy?” Plus, learn who it’s best for and who should avoid it. Speaking to your healthcare provider before changing your nutrition habits is always best. Keep reading to learn more.

A Plate of Food Includes a Fried Egg, Sliced Avocado, Cubes of Cheese, Arugula and Chicken Tenders, Representing the Question, "Is Keto Healthy?"

Is Keto Healthy?

How does the keto diet work?

A ketogenic diet forces your body to use fat rather than glucose as its primary energy source. Glucose is the body’s preferred energy source, and it will use up glucose before moving on to fat stores. Since glucose comes primarily from eating carbs, depriving your body of carbs means there is little glucose available for your body to use as energy forcing it to rely on fat instead. The idea behind a ketogenic diet is that it puts your body into the most effective fat-burning state possible to encourage weight loss and maintain a lean body.

Acids called ketones, for which the diet is named, are produced in your body at higher levels and create a state of ketosis. Being in ketosis is what determines whether you are genuinely on a keto diet or not. This means that it’s not just any low-carb eating plan. A ketogenic diet restricts carbohydrates to about 5-10% of your total calories, with 70-75% coming from fat and the rest, around 20%, from protein. Typically, this means eating less than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day – less than a single bagel. Other sources recommend consuming a maximum of 20 grams per day.

Keto is effective at weight loss, but is it healthy?

Ketogenic diets are not considered one of the healthier diets you could choose. For instance, U.S. News and World Report, which rates the best diets for overall health, ranked the Mediterranean diet as number one out of 24 overall while the ketogenic diet was rated number 20 for 2023.

Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health says that while calories matter, food quality is equally essential for preventing weight gain and facilitating weight loss. The school also says diets have higher success rates when they are easier to follow and suit your lifestyle rather than causing dramatic changes to your daily habits and social life.

Typically, ketogenic diets promote foods high in saturated fats but restrict foods like beans, whole grains and fruit. Many people on keto diets rely on fatty meats, processed meat, lard and butter but also consume healthy fats found in nuts, avocados, plant oils, seeds and oily fish.

The thing to keep in mind with a ketogenic diet is that it isn’t meant to be sustainable. In fact, weight loss diets, in general, are never sustainable since there needs to be a designated end date when you begin maintaining your new weight. For some people, the beneficial metabolic changes that occur in the short term during a ketogenic diet, along with the weight loss, are worth the potential drawbacks of missing out on highly nutritious carbohydrate-based foods.

For some people who have struggled to lose weight in any other way, including those with metabolic disorders such as diabetes, or those who struggle with binge eating or overeating, losing weight improves health to such a high degree that the benefits far outweigh the detriments of a keto diet.

For instance, losing weight can improve insulin resistance, high blood pressure and high cholesterol and triglyceride levels. And according to a meta-analysis of available research, people with Type 2 diabetes may experience even more significant benefits, including blood sugar control and weight loss.

Additional benefits of being on a ketogenic diet short-term include:

  • Increase in metabolism to convert fat and protein to glucose
  • Loss of fat mass instead of lean body mass due to lower insulin levels
  • Reduced appetite as certain hormones, including ghrelin and insulin, are diminished with fewer carbohydrates in the diet
  • Feelings of fullness and satiety and reduced cravings from high-fat foods

What can you eat on a keto diet?

Keto diets are a form of very low carbohydrate eating and, as such, mostly eliminate foods with moderate or high carb counts. As with any diet, the foods you eat will differ from person to person. However, there are certain foods that most people on ketogenic diets will rely on to meet their macronutrient targets. Here are some of the most common foods eaten on a keto diet.

  • Full-fat fat dairy products: Cheese, butter and heavy cream
  • Milk, yogurt and cottage cheese eaten in moderation
  • Fatty fish and other seafood: Salmon, trout, shellfish and shrimp
  • Poultry and eggs: Chicken and turkey, especially dark meat and skin-on cuts
  • Low-carb vegetables: Leafy greens, cucumber, eggplant and asparagus
  • Plant-based oils: Coconut oil, avocado oil and olive oil
  • Plant-based fatty foods: Olives, nuts, seeds, avocados and nut and seed butters

In general, many healthy foods are off-limits for those on a keto diet. Foods that are mostly avoided include fruits, especially those higher in sugars and starch, such as bananas, mangoes and pineapples; starchy vegetables like potatoes, beets and carrots; grains such as oats, quinoa, rice, bread and pasta; beans and lentils including peanuts and peas; sugary drinks and alcohol, candy, desserts and baked goods.

Who is a keto diet best for?

The best diet for you is the one you can stick to long enough and without too much disruption to your regular life that it gets you to your goal. If eating a keto-style diet feels effortless and enjoyable and you can stick to it long enough to shed the pounds you intend to, then it could be the ideal choice.

For some people, keto provides a method of weight loss they haven’t been able to achieve otherwise, and it comes with additional health benefits. A meta-analysis published in Nutrients of 14 randomly controlled trials that examined a total of 734 participants with overweight or obesity (including 444 diabetic patients and 290 non-diabetic patients) found ketogenic diets to be more effective in improving blood sugar, weight and cholesterol levels in patients with overweight or obesity, and even more so in those with diabetes compared to low-fat diets. Researchers concluded that a ketogenic diet may prevent metabolic dysfunction-related diseases and deaths in these patient populations.

Another study shows the keto diet may help patients preparing for weight-loss surgery or other surgeries requiring initial weight loss. Research on the topic shows the keto diet may work better than typical very low-calorie diets prescribed before weight loss surgery. One study found the keto diet group was able to obtain a lower body mass index (BMI) and needed less time recovering in the hospital afterward compared to a very low-calorie diet group.

Bottom line

If the keto diet appeals to you and you believe it could be helpful and easy for you to follow, it could be worth a try. It’s important to let your healthcare provider know your plans and seek their advice. Remember that no particular diet is best for everyone, and each person’s body and lifestyle are unique.

It’s also wise to remember that weight loss diets are not meant to be sustainable or long-lasting. Once your weight loss goal is achieved, increasing your calories to a level that helps you sustain the way you lost will be necessary. While developing healthy habits that support weight loss and long-term weight maintenance is vital, losing weight quickly and efficiently is the most critical aspect of protecting health for some people.

Since keto diets can help individuals feel more satisfied and full from their meals while improving blood sugar, insulin and cholesterol levels, the benefits can outweigh the drawbacks of eliminating nutrient-dense foods. To protect yourself from possible nutrient deficiencies, add a supplement such as electrolytes and aim to eat as many non-starchy fruits and vegetables as possible.

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