If you're looking to address a health issue, or perhaps lose weight, choosing the right diet can be something of a challenge. How do you select the diet that fits you best when there is so much conflicting information out there?
One such example, and the focal point of this blog post, is a low carbohydrate diet, or what is often termed the Keto diet. The main premise of this diet is that carbohydrates are bad and should be avoided and that the macronutrients we really ought to be prioritising are fat and protein. It's suggested that by adopting this approach, we will be better able to address or prevent a range of lifestyle conditions, including that scourge of modern day living, type 2 diabetes, the cause of which is usually assigned, if erroneously, to carbohydrates owing to the way they affect blood sugar levels. The Keto diet is also touted as an effective weight loss tool as it causes the body to burn our body fat for energy instead of glucose (stored in muscle and liver cells in the form of glycogen) via a process called ketosis.
This dietary approach may sound appealing to some. After all, it gives us permission to eat the fat-rich foods that so many of us crave without any of the usual guilt feelings. However, as with many dietary fads, is there a catch? Is a way of eating that shuns carbohydrates in favour of fat a natural and sensible way for us to eat? Are we right to switch from our body’s default mode by eating in a way that causes our body to utilise a mechanism that has evolved in humans to enable them to survive in adverse conditions?
Allow me to elaborate on this. With the exception of the heart, the preferred fuel for our body is glucose. As mentioned earlier, we store glucose as glycogen which we can then call on as and when we require it. When our glycogen reserves are full, we then store any excess calories as fat. When our glycogen stores are depleted, we need energy to survive and this is when we call on our fat reserves. This fat is our insurance policy to cover us in lean times and in the winter, when food is scarce. But our modern Western lives are completely different from those of our ancient forebears, for whom every day was a constant battle to stay alive. We now live in an age and environment of dietary excess and we all too frequently fall victim to its effects by developing avoidable lifestyle conditions: obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, arthritis of the joints etc.
Owing to caloric excess and sedentary lifestyles, there is seldom a need for us to call exclusively on our fat stores. Instead, we do the opposite, we add to them as we fail to recognise the sensation of satiety. That is until we are forced to act in order to address a resulting health issue. It’s in these kinds of circumstances that putting the body into a state of ketosis can be an effective short-term intervention to reverse a range of serious health conditions. One example of this in action is supervised water fasting, a powerful healing modality that has been shown to be effective in curing patients from debilitating lifestyle conditions and bringing the body back into balance.
A keto diet is gaining popularity for many as a way of managing blood sugar management and most commonly achieving weight loss, and no doubt in the short term, it can be very effective. But so can many other dietary approaches. We should also consider the longer term implications of following this type of diet for our general health and in particular cardiovascular health, as well as question why it is that carbohydrates are deemed to be so bad for us. The bad reputation carbohydrates have acquired is both unjust and misplaced, and the reason for this is that this vital macronutrient, present in all plant foods, has become synonymous in many peoples’ minds with refined carbohydrates. Devoid of fibre and nutrients, refined (simple) carbohydrates are the main components of most of our ultra-processed foods that didn’t exist in pre-industrialisation times. Humans were never designed to consume these. In contrast, fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes and wholegrains are all primarily made up of what we term as complex carbohydrates and these are all pillars of a healthy diet.
Sadly, the lines have become blurred thanks to a food industry which has other interests at heart. So it is that carbohydrates are depicted as the bad guys, whilst meat and dairy are promoted as the health foods. This is far from the truth and it's important to understand that carbohydrates from whole plant foods, that haven't undergone processing or refining, are packed full of vital nutrients: fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and a whole array of other phytochemicals all of which play such an important role in our body. Fibre alone is hugely important and not only acts as a sponge, binding to and removing toxins, excess hormones and cholesterol from our body, but also feeding our gut microbiome, the plethora of bacteria that reside in our large colon and that help to regulate our immune system and so much more. We consume far too little fibre in our modern diets and this has been shown to be one of the factors in the high prevalence of avoidable lifestyle diseases. Restricting our intake still further, as on a keto diet, is far from prudent.
In contrast, a high consumption of fat, especially saturated fat, has been shown in countless studies to be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. With this in mind, adherence to a keto diet that favours fat and protein over carbohydrates and fibre must be considered carefully over the longer term. Whilst it may help to balance blood sugar levels, it doesn’t necessarily improve insulin resistance, the root cause of type 2 diabetes. Earlier, I alluded to the erroneous belief that carbohydrate consumption was the evil that causes diabetes. In fact, diabetes and insulin resistance isn’t generally caused by excess consumption of sugar or carbohydrates, it’s a result of too much dietary fat, especially saturated fat, which is present in high amounts in meat and dairy. When we regularly consume fat, it enters our muscle and liver cells and prevents insulin from properly performing its role of escorting glucose from the blood into our cells for energy. This leads to too much glucose in our blood as it's got nowhere to go. Then, when we consume refined carbohydrates, our blood sugar rises yet more. But this is a symptom and not the cause of diabetes. Address and reduce fat intake and you address the root cause.
Interestingly, to underscore the points made above, if we look at the so-called Blue Zones®, areas of the world that are noted as longevity hotspots, we see that the make-up of the diets that bestow these incredible feats of ageing are very much tipped in favour of a diet based heavily on carbohydrates. The centenarians in these zones tend not to suffer from any of the common lifestyle conditions we see in many other parts of the world. Beans, rice, vegetables and fruit form the cornerstone of their diet, whereas consumption of meat is limited mainly to special occasions. Surely we ought to heed this example as a blueprint if we are serious about both our own health and that of the planet.
In summary, logic suggests that a keto diet, which contains minimal fibre, phytonutrients and antioxidants but high levels of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol is not a recipe for long-term health though it may help to ‘manage’ blood sugar balance in those who are already suffering from insulin resistance and it may result in weight loss for a period of time.
My closing message is be careful what you wish for and do your research so that you have all of the information to hand to enable you to make the correct decision for your personal situation. I know from personal experience of undergoing the Atkins Diet a number of years ago that it’s worth considering all the factors very carefully. The Atkins Diet is effectively a keto diet and was very much in vogue a number of years ago.The diet felt wrong to me, I craved fresh fruit and vegetables constantly, and I became constipated and developed hemorrhoids. I did lose weight but I stopped the diet, and I quickly put on weight again, in a matter of days, and came to the realisation I had probably mostly lost body water. My eventual weight loss success (ca. 100lbs), which I discuss here, was down to a predominantly whole food plant-based diet rich in carbohydrates and I have been able to maintain my present weight for several years without effort. For me, this is a lifestyle, and not a short-term intervention.