If you want to know what the research-backed benefits of the ketogenic diet are beyond weight loss, you want to read this article.
Ketogenic diets and “going keto” are all the rage these days. One need only look at Google Trends, the birth of “Keto Corner” at Vitamin Shoppe, or the droves of ketogenic-based cookbooks and blogs that have debuted in the past 18 months for proof that keto is the darling child of the fitness and nutrition community.
If you’re looking to lose belly fat, you’ve probably given serious consideration to adopting a ketogenic diet, and thereby swearing off all things sugary and starchy for the foreseeable future.
But, what if you aren’t interested in losing weight? What if you’re perfectly happy with your body composition the way it currently is?
Is a ketogenic diet still worth trying?
The good news is that losing weight fast isn’t the only reason to consider going keto (even though there’s considerable scientific research demonstrating its effectiveness for burning fat). In fact, there are a number of benefits beyond fat loss that accompany a ketogenic diet, some of which may surprise you.
And with that said, let’s get to the topic of today’s article -- benefits of the ketogenic diet besides weight loss.
Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet Beyond Fat Loss
Acne, irritable bowel syndrome, pain, arthritis, eczema, psoriasis are all linked to inflammation in some way or another. Additionally, several studies have noted that a low intake of sugar leads to improvements in many of these inflammation-related disorders.[2,3,4]
Ketogenic diets are extremely low in carbohydrate and sugar by definition. They also have been shown be anti-inflammatory, due to beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB)-mediated inhibition of the NLRP3 inflammasome. FYI, NLRP3 is a major player in many inflammatory diseases.
In case you weren’t aware, BHB is one of the three main ketone bodies that the body generates (along with acetoacetate and acetone) when in a state of ketosis. So, by adopting a ketogenic diet, you may reduce one of the key factors involved in inflammatory diseases, and potentially reduce symptoms associated with acne, arthritis, psoriasis, IBS, and eczema.
Reduce Blood Sugar and Insulin
Metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, chronically elevated blood sugar levels, and Type 2 Diabetes are at epidemic proportions these days due to a mix of poor diet, overeating, and lack of exercise.
The overconsumption of carbohydrates also plays a role in each of these diseases as well.
When you eat carbohydrate, whether it be in the form of a potato or piece of candy, it’s broken down into glucose, after which it enters the bloodstream, elevating blood sugar levels.
To deal with this increase in blood sugar content, the pancreas releases insulin, the nutrient shuttling hormone, to move glucose from the bloodstream into skeletal muscle, where it’s stored as glycogen.
However, when glycogen stores are full, the glucose is then stored in fat cells.
In normal, fit individuals, this process occurs and prevents the blood from reaching toxic levels of sugar. However, in people with Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc. they have insulin resistance, meaning that their cells don’t “recognize” insulin thereby making it harder to dispose of glucose from the bloodstream.
To help correct this problem, there is a very simple solution -- remove carbohydrates from the diet. When carbs are cut, insulin and blood sugar both go down.[7,8] In fact, when using a low-carb or ketogenic approach, some diabetics are able to reduce their reliance on insulin by up to 50%. Another study in type 2 diabetics, noted that 95.2% of the individuals were able to either reduce or outright eliminate their blood sugar medication within 6 months of adopting a low-carb, ketogenic diet.
In other words, if you’re struggling with high blood sugar levels, pre-diabetic, or Type 2 Diabetic, a ketogenic diet may be able to help you get a hold of your out of control blood glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity.
Helps Reduce Appetite
Didn’t you say this list of benefits were about benefits that weren’t fat loss?
Reducing appetite isn’t strictly about weight loss, though it does support weight loss, in so far as losing weight requires that you burn more calories than you consume. So, by reducing your appetite a ketogenic diet supports weight loss.
But losing fat isn’t the only time it helps to have a reduced appetite. If you’re a busy executive, constantly traveling between meetings or bogged down with work, you really don’t have the time to stop and eat a meal every 2-3 hours. Being less hungry throughout the day frees you up mentally and physically to be more productive, and then when you do have time to sit back and relax, you can feast away.
Having a reduced appetite isn’t only beneficial for the on-the-go executive, either. Entrepreneurs, stay-at-home mothers, and just about anyone else who enjoys just living life to the fullest, without having to be bothered by their stomach to eat every couple of hours can benefit from the appetite-lowering effects of a ketogenic diet.[11,12]
How does the ketogenic diet reduce appetite?
This is a question researchers are continuing to investigate, but one of the prevailing theories is that being in a state of ketosis increases levels of cholecystokinin (CCK), a hormone which increases satiety. It’s also believed that ghrelin, the “hunger hormone”, is suppressed when on a ketogenic diet.
In other words, going keto may help improve feelings of satiety and reduce feelings of hunger, via its effects on CCK and ghrelin.[11,13]
Improves heart health
For decades, fat was demonized as the macronutrient that clogged arteries and increases one’s risk of cardiovascular disease. However, recent research has shown that fat was unnecessarily vilified, and that fat is not only essential for our bodies, but healthy too.
When the keto diet is followed properly (healthy fats like avocados, olive oil, etc. and not trans fats or faux-keto foods), research indicates it can support heart health[14,15] via:
Lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
Increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol
Also, researchers have noted that low-carb diets transform the LDL particles from small to large, while reducing the quantity of LDL particles floating throughout bloodstream.
Why is this important?
Individuals who have mostly small particles tend to have a greater risk of heart disease, while those with large “fluffy” particles have lower risk.[17,18,19]
Additionally, low-carb diets (including ketogenic diets) have been shown to be an effective means for reducing blood pressure. And, if you weren’t aware, high blood pressure (hypertension) is an important risk factor for many diseases, including stroke, heart disease, kidney failure and more.
Improves Energy Levels and Sleep
For many people, the first few days on a ketogenic diet are rather unpleasant, with most experiencing symptoms of “keto flu” (headache, dizziness, fatigue, irritability, etc.). This is due to a mix of electrolyte depletion and the body scrambling to figure out how to burn fat for fuel when it’s used to burning glucose.
But, after the first few days, most individuals report feelings of increased energy and focus, along with fewer cravings. This by and large has to do with stabilization of insulin and blood sugar levels.
Additionally, ketogenic diets have also been shown to improve sleep by increasing slow-wave sleep patterns.[30,31] More specifically, individuals experience a greater amount of stage 4 deep sleep and less REM or “dreaming” sleep.
May Preserve and Enhance Cognitive Function
The ketogenic diet was originally developed as a treatment for epilepsy. Given the effectiveness of the diet for reducing seizures in epileptics, researchers have begun digger deeper into the potential neurological benefits the high-fat, ultra-low-carb diet may offer.
One study has found that the ketogenic diet improves alertness, boosts cognitive functioning, and exerts strong neuroprotective benefits. Additional research notes that a ketogenic diet may be able to support mental performance, aid memory, increase productivity, support better memory, and possibly treat mild cognitive impairment.[21,22]
As a result, researchers are beginning to use the diet as a means to help those with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, and other degenerative neurological disorders, due to the potential neuroprotective effects of ketone bodies (such as BHB).
May Help Reduce Cancer Risk
One of the most intriguing areas of ketogenic diet research in the field of oncology, where the keto diet is being studied for its potential beneficial effects on various cancers.
One particularly interesting study documented that the ketogenic diet may be a viable adjunct treatment to chemotherapy and radiation in cancer patients. Most likely, this has do with a combination a factors, including “starving” cancer cells of glucose and inducing greater oxidative stress in cancer cells than in healthy cells.
Other theories floated by the research community include lowering blood glucose and decreasing complications with insulin, which has been associated with a few forms of cancer.
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