Keto-Style Diets May Be Linked to an Increased Risk of Heart Disease

man clutching chest

Even those on a “standard” diet are at a lower risk.

Following a keto-style diet — i.e. one high in fat and low in carbohydrates — could more than double your risk of blocked arteries, cardiac arrest, and strokes, according to new research.

“Our study found that regular consumption of a self-reported diet low in carbohydrates and high in fat was associated with increased levels of LDL cholesterol – or “bad” cholesterol – and a higher risk of heart disease,” lead author Dr. Iulia Iatan said in a news release.

About one in five Americans currently report being on a low-carb, keto-like, or full keto diet.

An actual “keto diet”, which would require an individual to consume just 10 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates, is very difficult to follow, and it’s likely that a large proportion of people who attempt them don’t actually succeed. Plus, while it’s been hailed as a weight-loss wonder, it’s only medically advisable as a short-term measure in a tiny fraction of cases — predominantly to reduce the frequency of epileptic seizures in kids.

The study in question looked at a far less strict, higher-carb version of the diet, which is likely to be more aligned with what most people attempting a keto-like diet are actually consuming. The average age of the participants was 54, and about three-quarters of each group (those on a keto-like diet, and those on a standard diet) were women.

There’s a severe risk even if you’re not on a “strict” keto diet

After 12 years, adjusting for other risk factors like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking, 9.8 percent of participants on a low-carb, high-fat diet experienced a new cardiac event, versus 4.3 percent of those on a standard diet. That’s a doubling of risk for those on an LCHF diet.

“Our study rationale came from the fact that we would see patients in our cardiovascular prevention clinic with severe hypercholesterolemia following this diet,” Iatan said at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session Together With the World Congress of Cardiology on Sunday.

Hypercholesterolemia is basically high blood cholesterol, which if it builds up in the arteries, can lead to serious conditions like heart attacks.

“This led us to wonder about the relationship between these low-carb, high-fat diets, lipid levels and cardiovascular disease… there’s limited data on this relationship,” she added.

Not to be written off

Christopher Gardner, a research professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center who wasn’t involved in the study, but has carried out trials on the keto diet, told CNN: “Elevated LDL cholesterol should not be dismissed as simply a negligible side effect of a VLCD (very-low-carb diet) or ketogenic diet.”

He noted that even those on a standard diet have a lower risk of cardiac events than people who have more ketones in their blood.

A diet industry darling

Keto-like diets have become an increasingly popular lure of the diet industry in recent years, despite significant evidence that they can be harmful in the long term. For all that their proponents rhapsodize about the alleged benefits of ketosis — the emergency state your body resorts to after being deprived of carbs for a sufficient period of time — carbs are the body’s preferred source of energy. The brain for example is largely made up of glucose, and only burns ketones when it is in a state of deprivation.

Iatan noted that the high proportion of women in the study is “quite interesting to see, but it also supports the literature that’s available that women, in general, tend to follow more dietary patterns.”

The diet industry has become wise to the bad press it’s received in recent years, and many diets have rebranded as “lifestyles” to align themselves with the increasingly popular wellness movement. Whatever they’re called, diets are one of the most reliable predictors of future weight gain.

More and more evidence has shown that diets and “lifestyles” that require people to ignore hunger signals (for example by waiting until later in the day to eat their first meal), restrict certain food groups, and think of certain foods as “good” and others as “bad” are harmful to our mental and physical health. Often, they’re touted by people who have no specialized nutritional qualifications, pepper their claims with spurious, fatphobic dog whistles like “detox” and “unprocessed” — and have something to sell.