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What You Don’t Know About Keto Might Hurt You

One of the most popular diet trends at the moment is the Keto Diet. Many low carb/Paleo diet promoters who had never uttered the word “ketosis” before have now shifted their message and brands to promote everything keto.

Advertisements for “Keto-friendly” chocolate milkshakes and cookies are dancing across television screens everywhere. Chances are you know somebody who has not just heard about the diet, but has tried it for themselves.

There are endless variations of the diet, ranging from totally plant-based to complete carnivore.

The Keto Diet in its most basic form is any diet that is low enough in total carbohydrates that allows the body to go into ketosis, or a shift from the normal carbohydrate-based metabolism to a fat-based metabolism.

This shift into ketosis occurs when a person’s daily diet contains less than 20-50 grams of carbs per day, the equivalent of 1-2 small potatoes, or 2-3 slices of bread. It’s essentially a high fat, moderate protein, extremely low carb diet.

Under normal circumstances, the body gets most of its fuel from blood sugar, and the brain can only use blood sugar. In ketosis, some of the body’s fuel comes from fatty acids, sourced from both body fat and dietary fat, that is then transferred to the liver and oxidized into ketones, or ketone bodies, which are used as fuel. In ketosis, 100% of the brain’s energy comes from ketone bodies.

People claim that using ketones as fuel instead of blood sugar leads to a mountain of benefits, including weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity, and even a healthier heart.

Of course, with such large variations in how people go about eating a ketogenic diet, there will be many different factors that play into their overall health results.

For this article, we’ll be focusing on the effects of the most basic aspect of the Keto Diet: severe carbohydrate restriction.

Low carb diets are nothing new, but severe intentional carbohydrate restriction in the case of the Keto Diet has only become popular fairly recently. Typically, a person would only go into ketosis if they were fasting and consuming nothing but water for at least 2-3 days, or if they were starving.

I’ve experienced true ketosis many times, when I fasted 4, 5, 8, and 23 days (on water). In shorter fasts, (less than 2-3 days), the body doesn’t have time to completely shift over to ketosis.

People have known for centuries of the healing potential of water-only fasting and being in a state of ketosis. But does that mean it’s healthy to mimic a fasting state every single day?

Most Keto advocates will eventually admit that they don’t stay in ketosis all of the time. Any of them that have been following the diet for any length of time report gorging on sweet potatoes, squash, honey, and other whole food carbs almost every weekend.

This sounds a bit like the “cheat days” so common in the fitness/bodybuilding world, doesn’t it? Maybe those cheat days actually play a role in keeping people sane and healthy in the long run, in spite of their otherwise unsustainable Monday through Friday diet.

Unfortunately, most Keto gurus on YouTube will lead you to believe that they have all the energy in the world eating nothing but coconut oil and kale all day long, and that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t feel the same after following the diet to a T. Of course, it’s not uncommon for diet gurus to be dishonest about what they really eat, and those of us seeking health are the ones who suffer for it.

The reality is, ketosis is a very stressful state for the body to be in. Some of the more honest Keto advocates will even admit this, and relent that Ketosis may not be for everybody all of the time.

Your thyroid gland takes the biggest hit on any carbohydrate-restricted diet. The thyroid needs carbohydrates to convert T4 thyroid hormone into active T3 thyroid hormone. When this process is hampered, people experience depression, weight gain, thinning hair, dry skin, cold hands/feet, sleep problems, and fertility issues, to name a few symptoms of an impaired thyroid.

Not coincidentally, cold hands and feet, sleep issues, and dry skin are some of the most common side effects people report after following the Keto Diet for a period of time.

That’s not to say that a ketogenic diet is unnatural. People since the beginning of time have eaten whatever they needed to in order to survive.

One of the most “keto friendly” cultures on Earth were the native peoples who lived near the Arctic Circle. As you can imagine, they didn’t have much access to carbohydrate-rich plants and spent most of their lives in a state of ketosis.

Because of this, soon-to-be parents would consume the thyroid glands of male moose, who had come down the mountains for mating season in autumn, in order to reinforce their own fertility and successfully bear children.

This is why more Arctic Circle native peoples were born in June than any other month: their parents needed to wait until fall for the moose to provide them the thyroid hormones they needed in order to be fertile!

That’s the difference between surviving and thriving. Human beings can survive in some of the most inhospitable environments imaginable. But when your diet is keeping your body from functioning normally as it would under healthier circumstances and you have the option to eat differently, it’s time to rethink what you’re doing.

The Long-Term Effects of a High-Fat Diet

Any diet that leads to weight loss, such as the Keto Diet, will also lead to some health improvements. We should bear in mind however that most of these improvements come from the weight loss itself, and not any specific benefits of ketosis.

The diet that I personally follow is the total opposite of the Keto diet, and is composed roughly of:

85% carbohydrates
10% protein
5% fat

I eat fruits, vegetables, starches (potatoes, rice, etc.) and legumes. I don’t consume any oils and I’ve also mostly eliminated all high-fat foods like avocados, nuts, seeds, etc.

If you believe the Keto Diet credo, a diet such as the one I follow will lead to diabetes and weight gain.

Yet, my triglyceride and blood sugar levels are perfect, and this is the only way of eating that keeps my cholesterol levels in a truly healthy range. It’s also the only diet that’s been proven to prevent and reverse heart disease.

Although the results of the Keto Diet can seem impressive to those new to nutrition therapy, they’re no match for a properly planned plant-based diet (low in fat and devoid of vegetable oils).

To me, it’s clear that you’re dramatically increasing your risk of developing heart disease and cancer by eating Keto (There’s not a single study or even smallest amount of evidence to show that you can achieve powerful heart health benefits, such as the ones in the Ornish and Esselstyn studies, on a ketogenic diet.In other words: you can reverse heart disease on low-fat, plant-based diet. There’s no evidence you can do the same on the Ketogenic Diet.)
If you’re following the Keto Diet and doing wonderfully on it, nobody’s trying to convince you to change your ways. I encourage you to find your own truths and honor yourself. But if you haven’t been feeling the best on the Keto Diet and nobody on YouTube or the Keto forums seems to care, consider maybe it’s just not right for you.

It’s possible that the Keto diet could have therapeutic benefits for certain conditions. There’s a big difference between a therapeutic diet used to help with a specific illness and the weight loss miracle diet that Keto is being touted as however.

There will always an endless stream of fad diets that will follow the Keto Diet. Next time one pops up in your newsfeed and you’re considering hopping onboard, ask yourself whether you’re just wanting to be on trend, or if you’re trying to be a strong, balanced, healthy human being instead.

Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.