Does a ketogenic diet really help with weight loss?

What is a ketone, and how does it help burn fat?

By Ally Littlefield, Collegian Correspondent

Among all of the current diet fads, most people have probably heard of the ketogenic diet. This was originally a diet discovered in the 1920s to help children with epilepsy experience fewer seizures. However, it has caught the eye of the public and is now a developing weight-loss strategy.

A ketogenic diet puts a twist on macronutrient percentages, which include carbohydrate, protein and fat. The Dietary Reference Intakes state that 45 to 65 percent of daily calories should be from carbohydrates, 10 to 35 percent from proteins and 20 to 35 percent from fats. However, a ketogenic diet includes very low carbohydrates, moderate proteins and high fat intake.

Eating little to no carbohydrates puts the body in a state of ketosis. The body needs at least some carbohydrates for energy in order to metabolize fat. If carbohydrates are not present in the body, the liver is unable to break down fat and ketone bodies are produced to replace circulating sugar for cell energy. Ketosis can also occur when people are in starvation, have uncontrolled diabetes mellitus and are alcoholics.

So how could a ketogenic diet be effective in weight loss?

Most people steer away from eating too many fats because they have always been told that they lead to excess calories and therefore lead to weight gain. It has always seemed like common sense. However, the ketogenic diet reverses this idea, glorifying an increased intake of fats while getting rid of carbohydrate-rich sources like grains and fruits. Since glucose is the preferred energy source for the body, our bodies are very dependent on carbohydrates. After we eat a meal that includes a lot of carbohydrate-rich foods, our body uses its broken-down glucose as immediate energy and stores excess glucose in the form of glycogen in skeletal muscles and the liver. A larger abundance of glucose can also be converted into fat. The body will continue to use blood sugar and glycogen for energy and to kick-start fat burning for fuel, but when not enough carbohydrates are available to circulate through our body, fat is broken down into ketone bodies. These ketone bodies can be used by cells for energy instead of glucose. So, if we deprive our body of carbohydrates, we can train it to use ketone bodies that directly metabolize fat as our main energy source.

The reason a ketogenic diet sounds so appealing is because the body needs to constantly break down its own fat stores for energy. Studies have found that it can be effective in weight loss and increased satiety, however it is not the be-all-end-all diet. In order to actually attain a diet full of fat, a person must consume mostly eggs, meats, fish, oils, cheeses, butter, fibrous vegetables and seeds. Not only is this a very difficult regimen to stick to for a sustainable amount of time, but some people often experience symptoms of fatigue, bad breath, trouble sleeping, nausea, vomiting and constipation. Sticking to this unusual diet for a long time is not realistic and could begin to affect someone’s quality of life. Yes, you could lose weight following this diet for some time, but you most likely will only benefit in the short-term and could spring back to old habits and regain any lost weight when the trial is over (like every other diet that has an end date). It’s also important to recognize that the long-term effects of this diet have not been properly evaluated. Eating large amounts of saturated fat, known as the “bad fats,” can cause an increase in harmful LDL cholesterol levels which are linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and other conditions. These “bad” fats can be found in animal products, which the ketogenic diet is mostly composed of.

While it has been proven that this method can be used for weight loss and to treat specific medical conditions, more research on long-term health effects needs to be done. The ketogenic diet is more of a short-term alternative to weight loss and can be difficult to sustain. If weight loss is in your interest for health reasons, making smart, slow, sustainable lifestyle changes may be more beneficial, especially in the long run.

Ally Littlefield can be reached at [email protected]