The ketogenic diet, also known simply as keto, is one of the hottest weight loss remedies trends today. With no shortage of support from big names like Halle Berry and even the Kardashians, it’s no wonder we’re hearing about this low-carb, high-fat all over the Internet and other media.
But despite being promoted as a weight-loss miracle, keto was never meant to be used for weight loss. Instead, medical experts developed it in the 1920s to help treat childhood epilepsy. Back then, researchers noticed that a low-carb, high-fat causes the same metabolic shifts as fasting, which was traditionally used to treat seizures. But because no one can fast indefinitely, keto proved to be a sustainable alternative for those with hard-to-treat epilepsy.
Outside the clinical setting, keto got the attention mostly from weight-loss communities, especially following the low-carb craze of the 1990s. And over the past couple of years, the diet has definitely gained traction. In 2018, for example, it was the most googled diet and today has over 14 million tags on Instagram. It’s still definitely topping the charts and showing no signs of slowing down.
But how exactly does work for weight loss, if at all? Well, truth be told, research on keto for weight loss is still new and inconclusive. Some studies show it’s better than, say, calorie restriction, while others show it works just like any other weight-loss plan. To explain exactly why and how this diet helps lose weight, here are our top 10 reasons backed with evidence.
Keto Forces the Body to Burn Fat
On a standard, high-carb diet, your body burns glucose for energy. This is known as glycolysis and it’s essentially your body’s default energy-producing mode. The body gets most of its glucose (a simple sugar) from the carbohydrates you eat, while it uses protein, mostly to build and repair tissue.
Fat, on the other hand, the body also uses for energy but it prefers using carbohydrates. That’s because carbs are much easier to break down than fat despite fat providing more energy (aka calories).
And if you eat more than you need to meet your body’s energy demands, the excess gets stored as body fat. Burning body fat is also something your body doesn’t like doing. So, how do you force your body to start burning more fat? One way is through energy restriction, aka going on a diet by eating fewer calories.
But eating fewer calories comes with a downside – it slows down your metabolism for a while and even sacrifices muscle tissue, which makes further weight loss difficult.
Keto is different in this regard because it forces the body to burn fat while sparing muscle and not causing changes in your metabolic rate. It does so by putting the body in ketosis, also known as fat-burning mode. In ketosis, the body switches from burning mainly glucose to burning mainly fat for fuel to make glucose substitutes called ketones.
It Helps You Become Efficient at Burning Fat
Not only does keto make you burn more fat, it also makes your body accustomed to it. Keto diet experts noticed that after being on this diet for several weeks, some people become what is known as “keto-adapted.” Keto-adaptation is when the body has no problem switching from burning glucose to burning fat for fuel.
Keto-adaptation is often compared to metabolic flexibility, which is the body’s capacity to adjust fuel burning of fuel availability. In simpler terms, being metabolically flexible means that your body can burn fat and carbs equally well. Being overweight, having type 2 diabetes, or metabolic syndrome can, however. Being metabolically inflexible makes weight loss difficult and also puts you at risk of certain cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
Possible reasons why the ketogenic diet leads to greater metabolic flexibility include ketosis, weight-loss, and improved insulin sensitivity. First, ketosis itself is a metabolic adaptation to reduced carbohydrate availability. Secondly, weight-loss helps improve metabolic flexibility in those who are overweight. And lastly, keto can improve insulin sensitivity by reducing glycemic response through carb restriction and lowering insulin levels thanks to the weight-loss it causes.
To become keto-adapted, you’ll need to follow this diet for at least two weeks, preferably longer. It takes 3 days to get into ketosis, but at least 7 days for your body to start utilizing ketones (from fat) for energy. You will know you’ve become keto-adapted once you experience weight loss, a boost in energy levels, greater mental clarity, and improved workout performance despite not eating many carbs.
Ketosis Curbs Hunger
Unlike most weight-loss diets that make you feel hungry and miserable, keto actually makes calorie restriction almost effortless. According to one large study review, the ketogenic diet leads to less hunger despite the subjects losing weight and eating less while following the diet. The review states that ketosis may partially explain this. And indeed, a study using a ketone drink found that ketones (by-products of ketosis) affect the levels of hunger hormones.
The ketogenic diet may also affect appetite because it’s high in fat and relatively high in protein, both difficult to digest. However, most of the evidence for keto’s hunger-suppressing effects is still anecdotal. Go ahead, visit any keto diet forum and you’ll be surprised just how many people claim they eat less on this diet without even trying.
Appetite control is extremely important for weight loss because it will help you persist until you’ve reached your goals. Unfortunately, most diets fail at this because they lead to near-constant hunger on top of requiring that you control your food intake by will and planning. That’s simply because your body perceives dieting as an energy crisis and will flood your system with stress hormones and other mechanisms urging you to eat.
Keto is different since you’ll be eating less without even realizing it. In fact, most keto diet experts will tell you there’s no need to count calories on this diet. Some dieters, however, may benefit from monitoring their food intake, though. Not everyone responds to a switch to low-carb diets with lower appetite. Try tracking your calorie intake at the start of your keto journey to make sure you’re eating less than you’re burning.
It’s Lifestyle Based on Real Food
Keto diet enthusiasts usually advocate for real food as opposed to processed stuff. That’s partially for practical reasons because it’s easier to track your macronutrient intake while eating food you can find on the USDA National Nutrient Database. Processed food is also often high in carbohydrates and is less nutritious than food you can find at the produce aisle.
But why is that exactly important for weight loss? Because studies show that a diet high in processed food like frozen meals, sugary cereals, soda, and packaged snacks is strongly linked to obesity and other metabolic problems. As a result, many dietary guidelines now recommend eating more fresh food and limiting intake of processed products.
Processed food is often a source of empty calories, while real food provides the full spectrum of macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and even antioxidants and other compounds known to protect health. A serving of coke, for example, contains 39g of carbs, 0g of protein, and 0g of fat and no vitamins, minerals, or health benefits. On the other hand, lemon juice provides only 7g of carbs, a bit of fiber, and plenty of vitamin C and potassium.
But one of the most defining features of processed foods is their lack of fiber. Foods on the keto diet, on the other hand, are loaded with this indigestible carbohydrate linked to better gut health, weight-loss, improved insulin sensitivity, and more. Fiber also helps curb hunger by providing bulk and it slows down and reduces the absorption of cholesterol and sugar.
Keto Increases Energy Levels for Better Workouts
The ketogenic diet helps your body tap into an almost unlimited supply of energy — body fat! By unlimited, we don’t actually mean this in a literal sense. What we mean is that fat provides much more energy than carbs, 9 calories per gram as opposed to 4 calories. Furthermore, ketones, which are made from fat during ketosis, also provide more energy per unit of oxygen used than glucose.
But there’s another reason why you’ll get more energy on a keto diet. Studies namely show that a ketogenic diet improves how your mitochondria work. Mitochondria, being the powerhouses of your cells, are important in energy production. The keto diet increases their mass and number, leading to more energy being produced.
As a result of all of this, many keto dieters report feeling energized and having greater mental clarity due to improved energy production in brain cells. And when you’re feeling more energized, you’ll be moving more.
This is important for weight loss because it helps increase your energy expenditure (number of calories spent). Feeling energized will improve your workout performance, which is not only important for burning calories but also for improving aerobic fitness and muscle mass. And with both, your body will be in better overall shape and your resting metabolic rate will also improve. In case you didn’t know — resting metabolic rate is the rate at which your body burns calories at rest and it’s often directly correlated with muscle mass.
Keto Address Underlying Metabolic Issues
Overweight and obesity have many different causes. The primary underlying cause is consuming more calories than the body is burning. Other things that can increase your risk include a sedentary lifestyle, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, PCOS, hypothyroidism, and stress, to name a few.
The ketogenic diet can help address some of these underlying causes of excess weight as well as tackling pounds directly. A pilot study published in Nutrition & Metabolism found that a low-carb diet led to improvements in weight, testosterone levels, and insulin levels in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). PCOS is a metabolic and hormonal disorder that often causes women to gain weight.
The ketogenic diet can also improve glycemic control and insulin sensitivity in people with type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic condition that you can manage by losing weight and changing your diet. While doctors normally recommend a balanced, carb-based diet for diabetes management, there’s evidence that keto can work as a viable alternative and that it can even help reverse the condition.
All in all, you could say that the keto diet kills two birds with one stone when one of the underlying causes of excess weight is hormonal and metabolic derangements. The diet helps boost weight loss by upregulating fat oxidation and making you eat less and it helps improve metabolic and hormonal health. However, we don’t really know yet if these improvements in health are due to the weight-loss itself or ketosis, ketones, and the diet itself.
The Food Is Easy to Love
One of the many reasons so many weight-loss plans don’t work is because they’re rarely enjoyable. Studies show that foods we enjoy most activate reward systems in our brain, making us seek out these foods again and again. These foods are usually high in sugar and fat and low in fiber and protein. Healthy food, on the other hand, you need to learn to love. But even then, some people just don’t find diets based on fibrous vegetables and low-fat dairy enjoyable.
The keto diet, on the other hand, can be highly palatable once you learn how to order keto-friendly meals and cook your own from scratch. Just imagine what a diet rich in butter, bacon, cream, cheese, avocados, nuts, and olive oil would taste like. It’s really no wonder the keto diet is trending at the moment. Fat makes everything taste better after all, and the keto diet is based around this nutrient.
And if you’re worried that you’ll be missing comforting, carby foods on this diet, don’t be. There are so many keto-friendly versions of pasta, pizza, bagels, waffels, and other comfort meals out there made with nut flours, fathead dough, and other innovative ingredients. You’ll find a keto alternative for almost any meal, which makes sticking to this diet easy as pie. On the downside, not many restaurants cater to keto diets and the diet is radically different from what most people are eating, so you may need to cook your meals separately.
You’ll Get a Mood Boost for Motivation
Seeing the numbers on the scale drop is an instant mood-booster. But that’s not the only reason keto improves mood. The keto diet has a positive impact on brain health. It was designed as a treatment for a brain disorder, after all.
We already mentioned that this diet leads to greater mitochondrial mass and numbers in brain cells. This helps improve mental clarity and overall cognitive functioning. And since mood is partially determined by brain health, you’ll see improvements in this area too.
Keto also reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. Studies also found that it affects neuron function and levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, which is why researchers are now looking into this diet as a possible treatment for mood disorders like depression.
And the reason why mood is an important factor influencing weight loss. There’s some evidence that a low mood can influence eating habits and cause weight gain. A positive mood will help you stay on track of your new lifestyle and keep you motivated.
Keto Can Help Improve Gut Health
Those just starting with the keto diet will often wonder what the diet may do to their gut health. A diet that mostly consists of fat (up to 75%) and only a bit of carbohydrates cannot be good for the gut. After all, many studies showed that high-fat diets lead to reduced microbiome diversity and overall poor gut health.
Turns out, things are not that simple. A recently published review found that keto can have a surprisingly positive impact on gut microbiota, improving diversity and increasing the numbers of good bacteria. Researchers believe this may be one way keto improves brain health by influencing the gut-brain axis.
Recent studies found that your gut bacteria play a bigger part in your weight than once thought. Good gut bacteria prevent leaky gut syndrome, reduce inflammation in the intestines, and, in this way, lead to better overall metabolic functioning. They also help produce short-chain fatty acids, which improves lipid metabolism. All of this, in turn, makes weight loss easier.
For best impact on your gut bacteria, make sure your keto diet is well-balanced. Include plenty of omega-3 fats and include plenty of plant sources of protein like nuts, seeds, and tofu. Low-carb vegetables like avocados, zucchini, and celery also contain enough fiber to feed good gut bacteria. Sources of monounsaturated fats like olive oil should also be part of your diet as should fermented products like kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and sour cream. These contain lactic acid bacteria, which are especially good for gut health.
It Simply Works!
There are countless studies comparing low-carb diets like keto to other weight-loss methods, and turns out keto works! Take for example a study on 58 obese children and adolescents that compared the metabolic influence of keto to a low-calorie diet. The study found that keto led to more pronounced weight loss as well as improvements in insulin levels and sensitivity.
Furthermore, a meta-analysis of randomized control trials concluded that compared to low-fat diets, low-carb diets like keto led to greater long-term weight loss. There are many other studies with similar outcomes, which goes to show that practice meets evidence as far as keto is concerned.
But what’s really great is that you don’t have to follow the diet indefinitely. Once you’ve reached your weight-loss goals, you can revert to a carbohydrate-based diet and making sure you’re eating mindfully. The metabolic impact of the keto diet will last you a long time once you’ve lost excess fat.
However, if you don’t want to revert back to your usual way of eating, you can always try more laid-back low-carbohydrate diets or alternatives to keto like the paleo diet or the Atkins Nutritional Approach. These are similar to keto in terms of macronutrient ratios and food quality, but they don’t require careful macros tracking and staying in ketosis.
If you need more convincing that keto truly works for weight loss, consider visiting the keto community on Reddit as well as other social media like Facebook and Instagram. There, you’ll find plenty of real-life evidence of the diet’s efficiency in changing people’s lives.
The ultimate low-carb diet, the ketogenic diet has taken the world by storm. But despite just recently going through a surge in popularity, this diet has existed for quite some time now. It was originally conceived as a treatment for childhood epilepsy in the 1920s and started gaining the attention of weight-loss enthusiasts with the growing popularity of low-carbohydrate diets.
Research on keto diets for weight loss, however, is still in its infancy. But most evidence so far seems to speak in its favor. The diet works by putting the body into fat-burning mode and suppressing hunger. It also improves glycemic control, metabolic health, energy levels, and gut bacteria diversity, all of which can contribute to easier weight loss.
But the keto diet is not without its flaws. Some may find the diet difficult to maintain because it’s radically different from how most people eat. You also need to keep track of your macronutrient intake on a daily basis in order to stay in ketosis, which is the cornerstone of the diet.
If you’ve struggled to lose weight for a while or need to lose a lot of weight, keto may be a good option. Make sure to speak to your doctor before starting the diet if you’ve been diagnosed with a medical condition. The diet can be a risk for some people, and careful monitoring is necessary to avoid dangerous side effects.