What is the Keto Diet?

The ketogenic (or keto) diet has been rising in popularity among the low-carb crowd. What makes the keto diet different than other low-carb diets? Why is it popular? And is it safe? Here's a closer look at this latest diet trend.

Back in the 1920's, scientists discovered that a diet very high in fat and very low in carbohydrate helped treat children with epilepsy. The keto diet works by depriving the body of glucose, which is found in carbohydrates. This in turn forces the body to convert fat into energy, forming ketones that are released from your liver. This process of ketosis, the metabolic state where the body derives the energy it needs from fat instead of carbs, also happens with fasting, when the body must rely on fat stores for energy. It isn't completely known why this diet worked for epilepsy, but the results were very positive for the patients.

When the keto diet was first introduced to children with epilepsy, they were instructed to follow a very strict diet, requiring 100 percent commitment. The children were admitted into the hospital so they could be fully monitored. They started with a period of fasting, which produced significant levels of ketones in the body. They were then fed a very high-fat, low-carb diet. After 1-2 months, many children were able to reduce their seizure medication.

What Is the Keto Diet Good For

The Keto Diet and Weight Loss

Fast forward to today, when the Keto Diet has become popular for weight loss. Many studies have been conducted to research the physiological effects of the diet and have found evidence of its effectiveness. One particular study looked at the effect of the Keto Diet on obesity/weight loss, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and acne, and concluded that results are promising, but more research is needed.

Weight loss often occurs with this diet largely because people tend to consume fewer calories on a high fat, low carb, moderate protein diet. For one thing, people on the diet have are a lot fewer foods to choose from; for another, we tend to get full faster with high-fat foods. Also, the mechanism of the body pulling energy from fat stores rather than glucose can force the body to lose weight.

What is the Difference between the Atkins Diet and the Keto Diet?

Both the Atkins diet and the keto diet are carbohydrate-restriction diets. One key difference is that the Atkins diet allows more protein than the keto diet. With Atkins, you can eat protein to your heart's content; with keto, protein is limited to about 20 percent of daily calories. Also, with Atkins, a phased diet, carbs can be added back into the diet eventually; not so with the keto diet, as introducing carbs would knock the body out of ketosis. Here's more about What You Should Know about the Atkins Diet.

What is the Difference between the Keto and Paleo Diets?

The paleo diet is another carb-reduction diet, but it is not nearly as severe as the keto diet. The carbs cut from the paleo diet are refined carbs of the modern diet; the assumption of the paleo diet being that what was healthy for hunters and gatherers should be healthy for us modern humans, too, since we evolved for many thousands of years under that particular lifestyle and diet. Basically, if a hunter/gatherer would have eaten it, you can, too. So paleo permits healthy carbohydrates, like whole vegetables and fruit, but cuts out processed foods. The keto diet puts more emphasis on fat in the diet. Also, paleo does not anticipate that dieters will go into ketosis, a key feature of the ketogenic diet.

Is the Keto Diet Safe?

Those interested in trying the Keto Diet should consult with a physician before starting. This diet can be hard on the kidneys and may have other negative effects on the body,including sensations described as "the keto flu" -- nausea, fatigue, headaches, and fogginess in the head. High levels of ketones in the blood along with low levels of insulin can be very unsafe, especially for those with diabetes. Also, the keto diet is difficult to sustain over time because it is so restrictive. For most of us, eating a variety of nutritious foods that we enjoy (including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), along with getting plenty of exercise, is more likely going to be a sustainable and healthy way to live.