Wonder diet or pseudoscientific craze? A deep dive into the ketogenic diet

The keto diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet with moderate levels of protein. While this restrictive eating pattern can yield great results in the short-term, it is not for everyone.

Every now and then, many find themselves keeping a close eye on their diet. Oftentimes, the reasons for this behavior include a desire for better physique, a response to health issues, or simply an aspiration to live a healthy lifestyle. To achieve these goals, many begin to highlight, deemphasize, or even outright exclude certain food.

Social media has served as a catalyst for the popularization of various diets as activists, nutritionists, and health enthusiasts disseminate information online to educate others on the benefits and drawbacks of certain diets. However noble the cause, the full picture is not always reported. Certain diets can become fad diets, which rapidly spread online through false or exaggerated claims regarding weight loss and health. These include the viral ketogenic diet, or keto diet, that is often promoted by influencers and even some medical professionals. 

Min-maxing in a diet

The keto diet has gained considerable traction for its supposed potentiality for weight loss and general health improvement. In reality, it does not meet the dietary guidelines stipulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to Kathleen Cruzada, the chair of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Santo Tomas, a ketogenic diet typically consists of 70 percent fat, 20 percent protein, and 10 percent carbohydrates. In contrast, the USDA recommends a daily calorie intake containing 20 to 35 percent fat, 10 to 35 percent protein, and 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates for the average adult.

The keto diet is based on the principle that by drastically reducing carbohydrate intake and simultaneously increasing fat intake, the body can be put in a state of ketosis where fat is burned for energy instead of glucose. When carbohydrate intake is limited, the body begins breaking down its fat stores, which in turn spurs the liver into producing metabolic ketone bodies as an alternative energy source. 

Hidden dangers

While some people swear by the keto diet’s effectiveness, others have expressed concerns about its safety and sustainability. Some experts caution that it may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, it can be challenging to follow in the long-term and can also lead to side effects such as headaches, constipation, and fatigue, especially during the first few weeks of the diet as the body adapts to burning fat for fuel.

Contrary to popular belief, Cruzada notes that the ketogenic diet can be particularly dangerous for diabetic individuals. Although a low-carb diet like keto can reduce blood sugar levels, it also runs the risk of making them abnormally low due to severely restricting the body’s source of glucose. This may lead to the development of a condition known as diabetic hypoglycemia, which can cause symptoms ranging from tiredness and loss of coordination to seizures and unconsciousness. 

Another concern that commonly arises with the ketogenic diet is that some practitioners may consume fats indiscriminately, failing to distinguish between saturated and unsaturated fats. “Unsaturated fats are actually good sources of fat. They are good for the heart, while saturated fats are considered bad fats in the sense that they increase your blood cholesterol,” Cruzada asserts. She further explains that those suffering from cardiovascular disease are encouraged to consume more unsaturated fats such as avocado, fish, olive oil, and certain plant-based fats, while avoiding saturated fats like red meat. 

Evolving diet

Beyond all the listed issues, keto is nonetheless considered a diet for health reasons and was initially formulated to aid brain health as early as the 1920s. Cruzada notes that the diet can be utilized as a form of nutrition therapy for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or epilepsy. It is believed that fueling the body using ketones as opposed to glucose reduces the risk of triggering seizures and other similar neurological episodes.

However, due to societal body standards, the idea of burning fat by restricted carbohydrate intake has spawned the current notion that the keto diet has purely been for weight loss. Much like the vegetarian or vegan diet, the keto diet is no longer a temporary measure for weight loss; to some, it has become a lifestyle choice for general health reasons. As the diet has become a part of one’s lifestyle, it has even been paired with intermittent fasting, which generally entails limiting one’s food intake for a certain amount of hours.

Ultimately, these diets aren’t inherently harmful and may be beneficial; it’s just that, as Cruzada points out, it is best to consult a doctor or nutritionist when it comes to diets and fasting. She highlights that the lack of information or consultation before going on these diets can lead to some of the aforementioned “hidden dangers” like the buildup of cholesterol or dangerously low blood sugar levels. 

Beyond just the technicalities with these diets, Cruzada notes societal factors as an inescapable consideration when dieting, mentioning that with the prevalence of carbs in the Philippines,; it may be harder to sustain a strict keto diet or lifestyle. For the purposes of a better body and healthier lifestyle, she explains that a balanced diet—a varied palate of foods with moderate portions of fruits, vegetables, carbohydrates, and proteins alongside physical activity—is the best. In the end, as Cruzada puts it, “there is no best diet for everyone.”

Ibrahim Kahil

By Ibrahim Kahil

Eiji Sunagawa

By Eiji Sunagawa

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