The Keto Diet — a potentially dangerous and an unhealthy diet

INTRODUCTION: I’ve heard other Dietitians say that the keto diet is a potentially dangerous and an overall unhealthy diet because it focuses on ‘high intakes of processed meat, butter and cream’. Some have said that harmful effects were seen as much as three years post keto —  with one case involving symptoms of uncontrollable food cravings and “a head rush” after ingesting any carbs, and another three cases of people having developed severe adverse health effects, including one with newly diagnosed diabetes that wasn’t present before the diet, and two others with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. All of these individuals were said to have gained all the weight back plus more, and the concern was raised as to whether the keto diet can really be called “a key to diabetes reversal or diabetes remission” because we haven’t actually fixed a broken pancreas. This article will address some of these beliefs.

The belief that there is such as thing as “the keto diet” (singular) which is high in processed meat, butter and cream is common, but incorrect. More on that below.

As a Dietitian, I am expected to be well-informed about a wide range of dietary options and to speak and write from an evidenced-based perspective, but the reality is that as Dietitians we can’t be knowledgeable in all available diets. While I am by no means an expert on low carb or ketogenic diets, I have written over 200 articles on the topic (published on my dedicated low-carb practice website), and have been using low carb and ketogenic diets as two of several dietary options in clinical practice for the past 5 years.

Firstly, with regards to the severe adverse health effects that the 3 individuals reportedly developed as a result of following the keto diet, it has been documented that abnormal glucose responses are present as long as 20 years before a diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes[1] and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) concluded that both insulin resistance and prediabetes precede a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes[2] — which means that people presenting with type 2 diabetes after following “the keto diet” had been developing the disease for many years prior.

Furthermore, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is strongly associated with insulin resistance, which is characterized by excessive hepatic glucose production (high production of glucose by the liver) and compensatory hyperinsulinemia [3-9], which is the response of the liver to produce high amounts of insulin in order to remove the excess glucose. The association of NAFLD with insulin resistance indicates that the fatty liver was developing for years prior to these individuals following “the keto diet”.  Furthermore, it has been documented that a classic ketogenic diet (KD) is an effective treatment for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease [10] and “rapidly reverses NAFLD and insulin resistance despite increasing circulating non-esterified fatty acids, the main substrate for synthesis of intrahepatic triglycerides” [10].

As for “the keto diet” being a key to diabetes reversal or diabetes remission, I’ve addressed this in detail in a previous article.

So, let me address the misconception that there is such a thing as “the keto diet” (singular), which is high in processed meat, butter and cream.

Many Types of Keto Diets

There are a variety of therapeutic ketogenic diets, including the Ketogenic Diet (KD), the Modified Ketogenic Diet and the Modified Atkins Diet, as well as a variety of ketogenic diets that are used both for therapeutic reasons (such as the management of type 2 diabetes), as well as those that are followed for personal choice.

What makes a diet therapeutic is that it is used to treat a medical condition or conditions and is recommended by a Physician, and implemented by a Dietitian, or by the MD themselves. When a doctor sends me a referral to implement a Modified Atkins Diet for one of their patients with seizure disorder, it is a therapeutic diet. So is a referral to implement a very low carbohydrate / ketogenic diet for the treatment of type 2 diabetes or fatty liver disease.

Use of a very low carb / keto diet by Physicians or Dietitians in the management of type 2 diabetes should come as no surprise to anyone given that these dietary patterns are considered Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT) in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.

The American Diabetes Association has stated that reducing carb intake has the most evidence for improving blood sugar and has included the use of a very low carbohydrate (ketogenic) eating pattern for treating type 2 diabetes as listed in their 2019 Consensus Report and both the 2019 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes (2019) and Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes (2020).  In addition, Diabetes Canada released a Position Statement in April of this year outlining that a low carb and very low carb / keto (<50 g of carbohydrates per day) are both safe and effective treatment for adults with diabetes. 

Therapeutic ketogenic diets such as the classic Ketogenic Diet (KD), the Modified Ketogenic Diet and the Modified Atkins Diet are by necessity high fat diets — because the goal is to produce very high levels of ketones in order to improve clinical outcomes in epilepsy and seizure disorder, and as adjunct treatment in glioablastoma ( a type of brain cancer) and in Alzheimer’s disease.  The Ketogenic Diet (KD) has a 4:1 ratio i.e. 4 parts of fat for every 1 part protein and carbs, the Modified Ketogenic Diet (MKD) has a 3:1 ratio; 3 parts fat for every 1-part protein and carbs, and the Modified Atkins Diet (MAD) has a 2:1 ratio, with 2 parts fat for every 1-part protein and carbs.

What makes a weight loss diet ketogenic is not how much fat it contains, but the amount of carbohydrate it contains. Very low carbohydrate / ketogenic diets are diets where carbohydrate is limited to 20-50 g per day or 10% of total energy intake [11]. It is this low carbohydrate intake that results in the body using fat as its primary fuel, rather than carbohydrate.  At this level of carbohydrate intake, blood ketone levels increase at or above 0.5 mmol/L, resulting in ketosis. 

Ketosis is where betahydroxybutyrate (BHB) reaches levels between 0.5 – 3.0 mmol/L (and up to 4.0 mmol/L for therapeutic ketogenic diets such as those used in the treatment of epilepsy, seizure disorder and glialblastoma), whereas nutritional ketosis for optimal weight loss is commonly set with BHB levels between 1.5-3.0 mmol/L [12].

There is no one “keto diet” for weight loss but a range of choices, only some of which I will mention here.

I will start by looking at one of the earlier known diets that used a ketogenic level of carbohydrate intake; the 1972 Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution[13], by Dr. Robert Atkins. The so-called “Atkins’ Diet” had an introductory phase which limited carbohydrate intake to 20-25 grams of net carbs from nuts, seeds, and low carb vegetables, and this phase resulted in people going into ketosis.  In fact, this first phase of the Atkin’s Diet is what forms the basis for the Modified Atkins Diet, a therapeutic diet used in the treatment of epilepsy and seizure disorder.

The 1997 Protein Power[14] published by Dr. Micheal Eades, and his wife Dr. Mary Dan Eades is a low carb,  high protein, moderate fat ketogenic diet. In fact, the authors warn in the book that eating a large number of calories as fat would make it impossible to lose weight, so this is not a high fat diet at all.

The New Atkins For a New You [15], was redesigned in 2010 by Dr. Eric Westman, Dr. Stephen Phinney MD PhD, and Dr. Jeff Volek RD PhD, and is a low carb high fat, moderate protein weight loss diet that has 4 phases, with the first phase being ketogenic to start with (20-50 g carbs per day), but is only ketogenic for two weeks.  In phase two, more carbohydrate is added as nuts & seeds, berries, cherries and melon, cheese,  dairy products, legumes (pulses), tomato juice and vegetable cocktail and this level is maintained until close to goal weight when phase 3, then phase 4 (both higher carb) are implemented.

The 2011 book by Dr. Stephen Phinney MD PhD, and Dr. Jeff Volek RD PhD, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living [16] is not a diet book, but elaborates on type 2 diabetes as ‘carbohydrate intolerance’ and on the importance of electrolyte and mineral management to avoid side effects of a ketogenic diet. In this approach, added dietary fat is incorporated after weight loss, for long term weight maintenance, to prevent further weight loss.

Then there is the 2013 Real Meal Revolution [17] by Tim Noakes, Sally-Ann Creed, Jonno Proudfoot which is a handbook on the Banting lifestyle (which originated in the late 1800s), with foods broken down into green list, orange list and red list, with varying levels of carbohydrate intake.

In 2016, Dr. Jason Fung, a Toronto nephrologist (kidney specialist) wrote the Obesity Code [18] which promotes a high fat version of a very low carb / keto diet, which is used in conjunction with his 2016 book written with Jimmy Moore titled The Complete Guide to Fasting [19]. In 2020, Fung published Life in the Fasting Lane [20], written with Eve Meyer and Megan Remos which builds on his approach of using a low carb high fat diet along with intermittent fasting.

In 2014, the web site “Diet Doctor” was launched by Dr. Andreas Eenfeld. This was initially mostly with articles translated from his Swedish site and later added content from a variety of other people, including Dr. Jason Fung, Dr. Eric Westman and Dr. Ted Naiman.  In 2017, Eenfeld wrote his own diet book titled Low Carb High Fat Food Revolution [21], which promoted a high fat version of a very low carb / ketogenic weight loss diet.  Later, Dr. Eric Westman went on to found his own Adapt weight loss program which is a very low carb / keto, moderate protein, moderate fat approach and Dr. Ted Naiman went on to write his P:E Diet [22] which promotes a low carb, high protein, low fat approach.

Of ketogenic weight-loss diets above, the only ones that promote a high fat intake with processed meat (bacon), butter and cream are Dr. Jason Fung’s approach and the “Diet Doctor” approach. These are not THE “keto diet” — but one type of ketogenic approach, amongst many.

Self Administered Diets

If an individual hears about a diet from friends, or reads about it online and implements it, and is unsuccessful at losing weight or at keeping it off, or has adverse side effects, is this a reflection of the diet itself or is it a problem inherent in self-administered diets?

Does it matter if the failed “diet” is a calorie-restricted diet, a ketogenic diet, a grapefruit diet or any other diet?

Self administered diets of any type may or may not be appropriate for an individual, because the person’s individual nutritional needs, risk factors, metabolic conditions, and medications are not factored in. Weight-loss failure is one issue, as are potential adverse side-effects.  For example, if a person decides to follow a very low-calorie diet, experiences hypoglycemia and falls and injures themselves, is this the fault of the diet itself, or their self-administration of a diet?  Likewise, if a person decides to follow a very low carbohydrate / ketogenic diet and has an adverse reaction because of some medications they are taking, is this the fault of the particular version of a ketogenic diet they are following?

All diets have potential benefits and risks and self-administered diets pose additional risks that simply haven’t been factored in — regardless what type of diet is chosen.

Failed Weight Loss

Studies show that the failure rate with weight-loss diets is high — often as much as 80 – 90%, and regain of weight is thought to possibly be higher because follow-up rates are very low, and weights are often self-reported either by phone or mail [23].

The fact that most people will gain most of the weight they lost while dieting back, and sometimes end up weighing more than before dieting is not disputed, and is irrespective of the type of diet followed.

Regardless of the dietary approach chosen, “dieting” is not the answer for sustained weight loss. If someone goes “on” a diet that means that at some point they will go “off” of it.  In my opinion, a lifestyle change is a preferred approach and what will work for one person long-term, may not work for another. That is why I say that there is no one-sized-fits-all diet.

Final Thoughts…

Low carb and very low carb / ketogenic diets are two approaches that can suit some, but not all people.  A Mediterranean Diet or a whole food plant based (vegetarian) diet may be better suited to others. 

The misconception that there is one “keto diet” that is high in fat, especially processed meat, butter and cream is simply incorrect. There are a range of ketogenic (keto) diets and even in a high fat ketogenic diet, the fat can come from avocado, nuts and seeds and olives.

A high fat versions of a keto diet may be appropriate and work well in some individuals when used with periods of intermittent fasting, such as OMAD (one meal a day). In my clinical experience, I have observed that high fat versions of a keto diet often result in weight stalls and even weight gain in peri- or post-menopausal women. Since I don’t recommend extended fasting > 24 hours in older adults due to the muscle-loss which can result from the fasting, combined with the muscle loss that is already associated with aging, I generally recommend a higher protein, lower added fat version in such cases. In any case, there are lots of ways to do a ketogenic weight-loss diet — which is ultimately about the total amount of carbohydrate in the diet, not the amount of fat.

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