So Will the Keto Diet Help You Get Healthy?

Keto Diet

Here’s everything to know about the ketogenic diet

If you’ve been wondering what the keto diet is, you’re not alone. The trend seems to be everywhere right now — Influencers are trying it, athletes are swearing by it. But what exactly is the keto diet? And is this something that we should try out, or a trend we should sit out? To get to the bottom of this, we reached out to our favorite health expert Dr. Mark Hyman, author of the new cookbook Food: What the Heck Should I Cook?. Here’s what he told us.

Katie Couric: One of the big diet trends that seems to be everywhere right now is keto. But many of us are wondering… what is the keto diet? Can you help break it down for us?

Dr. Mark Hyman: The ketogenic diet has taken the world by storm with many people claiming that it promotes weight loss, longevity, and enhanced cognitive function. You might be wondering if the hype is true. Well, first it’s important to know that the ketogenic diet has been around for a long time. We use them for treating intractable epilepsy when medications fail. Research has also shown that this diet can be effective when it comes to treating type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and more. So what is the ketogenic diet?

Here’s a little background: The body has a backup energy storage system that it can use when faced with starvation. Ordinarily, we burn glucose (carbs) for energy, but, as a contingency plan, our bodies have the ability to burn fat as well. We have about 2,500 calories of carbohydrate (in the form of glycogen) stored in our muscles. But we each have about 40,000 calories of fat stored through our bodies (and some people have a lot more). When carbohydrates are scarce (back in our caveman and cavewoman days this was generally a result of food scarcity), fat gets mobilized as ketones, which are used as an alternative fuel source. They are a much cleaner-burning source of fuel and stimulate all sorts of good things in your body.

So the ketogenic diet is essentially a high fat, low carb way of eating (about 70 percent fat, 20 percent protein, and 10 percent carbohydrates). On this diet, the body gets super efficient at using ketones instead of glucose for energy which is why many people discover they feel great eating more fat and less carbs.

Great. So what does this diet actually entail?

It depends. Some say around 70% fat, 20 % protein, and 10% carbs or about 75% fat, 5% carbs, and 20% protein. But I’m finding that most people do not track their percentages, and they mostly stick to eating keto-friendly foods. Ideally, this means focusing on healthy fats like olives and olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds; getting moderate protein from clean grass-fed and pasture-raised meat, poultry, and eggs and wild-caught seafood; plenty of low-carb veggies like leafy greens, peppers, and mushrooms; and small amounts of low-carb fruit like berries.

Has it been proven to be beneficial in any ways? Is it healthy?

A ketogenic diet has been shown to decrease the size of your organs, increase stem cell production, reduce visceral or dangerous belly fat, improve your gene expression, increase the size of your brain’s memory center (known as the hippocampus), improve immune function, improve mitochondrial function (your energy production), enhance cognitive function, and reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. All good things that promote health and longevity. In fact, mice live 13 percent longer on a ketogenic diet without restricting calories. That’s about ten more years in human terms.

The keto diet has also been found to decrease triglycerides and total and LDL cholesterol; increase HDL cholesterol; improve insulin sensitivity and reduce HbA1c, c-reactive protein, and blood pressure in many people. That means it can reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, and decrease inflammation and improve cognition.

So I’d say yes, it can definitely be healthy, but the catch is that there is no magic bullet for every single person. I’ve had some patients feel great on the ketogenic diet and see benefits like these, but I’ve also had patients who don’t feel their best and gain a bunch of weight or have abnormal lipids. We all have to listen to our bodies and assess our unique health needs, which is why I recommend working with a Functional Medicine practitioner or nutritionist.

If someone is considering trying out keto, how would you advise them?

The ketogenic diet is a therapeutic diet. It’s very restrictive and not meant to be used long-term by everyone. This means that it’s important to work with your doctor or a nutritionist if you decide to try this diet. You want to look at your labs, your weight, etc… Also, I see a lot of people go on the keto diet and eat a bunch of cheese, sour cream, and bacon. This is not an excuse to eat unhealthy foods.

When people cut out carbs, they often cut our fiber. Don’t forget to eat a lot of vegetables! Focus on healthy fats like avocado, nuts and seeds, grass-fed and organic meats, and eat non starchy veggies like green leafy vegetables, peppers, brussels sprouts and bok choy. Color is key, so focus on getting a rainbow of non-starchy vegetables at every meal along with your healthy fats and proteins.

Are there any other diets you’d suggest a person (who, in theory, doesn’t have any outlying health risks to consider) try instead of keto?

Michael Pollan summed it up perfectly when he said: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” If you focus on eating real, whole food, you don’t need to diet. However, I understand that people need more parameters around what is considered healthy eating. This is why I created the Pegan Diet. I believe that intelligent eating has far more similarities than differences. So I took the best of a Paleo diet and a vegan diet, and combined it into an inclusive way of eating that works for anyone. The Pegan diets consists of eating tons of colorful vegetables, some low-glycemic fruits, consciously-sourced meat and seafood, some low-glycemic gluten-free grains and legumes, and plenty of healthy fats like nuts and seeds, extra virgin olive oil, etc. I’ve found that the Pegan guidelines are the most balanced, nutrient-dense, and realistic to stick to over the long term for myself and thousands of my patients, while creating energy, a clear mind, and vibrant health.

And lastly, we’d really love to know: Why is keto so popular with heavy weight lifters?

Many people interested in fitness have flocked to keto for body composition benefits, but the studies are mixed. Many studies show benefits for fat-loss but fewer of them show benefits for gaining muscle mass. The evidence does support maintenance of muscle mass, so you at least don’t need to worry about losing hard-earned muscle by going keto.

Follow Dr. Mark Hyman on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and check out his books on Amazon or your local books retailer.

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