Is the keto diet healthy?
Every time a new way of eating hits the scene, there’s conflicting information about its implications for your health.
So what’s the truth about keto? Can it really be healthy to start eating more fat to lose weight, while also cutting out entire food groups like fruits and veggies? And is it just another diet fad like Atkins or the Mediterranean diet?
Whether you’re researching a keto diet for yourself, or want to know how to reply to the questions of a curious (or slightly judge-y) coworker or family member, today’s guide will help you discover the truth. Below, you’ll solve the mystery and break down everything you need to know.
- What Is the Keto Diet?
- Is the Keto Diet Healthy?
- The Wrong Way to Follow Keto
- The Right Way to Follow Keto
- 3 Common Mistakes People Make When Starting A Keto Diet
The keto diet is a high-fat, extremely low carbohydrate diet. The goal of the keto diet is to help you be healthier while simultaneously entering ketosis, a metabolic state where your body becomes starved of glucose, forcing it to burn ketones for fuel.
How does this happen?
Sugar and carbohydrates are converted into glucose by the liver. When you stop eating sugar and carbs (or cut down on them considerably) your body first starts burning all the glucose it had stored (called glycogen). When it eats up all your glycogen, your body transitions to a fat burning state, burning body and dietary fat (now in plentiful supply since you’re eating a high-fat diet). Your liver breaks down fatty acids into ketone bodies, thereby using it for energy[*].
A low-carb, high fat diet like keto has been shown to help people lose weight and experience many positive long-term health benefits, such as:
- Rapid fat loss
- Steady energy levels
- Lower blood sugar
- Improved cholesterol numbers
- Improved mental clarity and a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s
All these perks sound healthy, right? Therefore, keto should be a healthy diet plan to follow, right?
The answer is, it depends.
Almost All Diets Can be Healthy or Unhealthy, Depending on Your Approach
Here’s an example using a different diet: If you go vegan, you stop eating all meat and dairy. But guess what’s also vegan? Oreos, french fries and Doritos Spicy Sweet Chili chips. Though these overly processed, unhealthy junk foods are technically vegan-approved, they’re still not good for you.
And if someone following a vegan diet only fills up on these poor food choices, their health will suffer and they’ll feel worse than when they started. The same situation can happen with a keto diet.
Just because someone is following a keto diet doesn’t mean they are any healthier than before they started.
In the same way a vegan can fill up on junk food, people can — and often do — make the wrong choices when they first start a ketogenic diet. While it’s perfectly keto-friendly to eat a pound of butter and four bags of pork rinds every day and nothing else, you won’t see improvements in your health by doing so.
Ketosis should be viewed as a tool to help you achieve better health instead of a miracle cure.
Ketosis can’t work for your health without you pitching in to help. So here’s what you need to do:
- Your first focus should be eliminating all the junk food from your diet
- Then, calculate your keto macros
- Meal prep keto-friendly meals around your macros to set yourself up for success and avoid cheating
- Measure your ketone levels during your first weeks on keto to learn which foods put you in ketosis and track how you feel overall
- Start exercising at least 30 minutes five times a week
- Log between 7–9 hours of sleep each night
- Work on lowering your stress levels
Nailing these steps is difficult, but it’s the best way to make keto work for you.
If you’re not careful, these problems can wreak havoc on your health, even if you do reach ketosis and are eating keto-friendly meals.
#1: Not Getting Enough Fiber, Vitamins or Micronutrients
A huge problem for many ketoers, especially newbies, is not getting enough fiber, vitamins or micronutrients.
Just because your macros don’t include fiber unless you’re subtracting for net carbs doesn’t mean it should be ignored.
Meeting your fiber goals is one way to stay regular (i.e., avoiding constipation) and fuller for longer.
Most Americans on the Standard American Diet (SAD) get their fiber from carbs in bread, fruits and veggies — most of which are too carb-laden to get or keep you in ketosis.
Solution: Eat More Low Carb Veggies and Supplement Your Greens
Just because you’re eating high amounts of fat, it doesn’t mean you should cut out whole foods like low carb vegetables.
Refer to this guide to see which vegetables you should consume on keto.
A good rule of thumb is to consume veggies that contain 5 grams of carbs or less. Fill up on leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach and arugula, cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower, and other low carb vegetables like onions and garlic.
If you don’t love vegetables and find it difficult to meet your micronutrient needs, you can supplement with a high-quality micronutrient blend that contains antioxidant-rich plant extracts (sans hidden carbs), like our Perfect Keto Micros Greens Powder.
#2: Not Getting Enough Electrolytes
When you switch to a keto diet and drastically cut your intake of carbs and processed foods, your sodium and other electrolyte levels are naturally going to decrease.
This happens because each glycogen gram is stored with 3 grams of water, and when your body burns all your glycogen, all that water that was storing it also gets flushed out[*].
When this happens, you can develop an electrolyte imbalance. And if you’re not making an effort to replenish these critical stores, you’ll likely feel symptoms such as:
- A racing heartbeat
- Heart palpitations
- Feeling dizzy, shaky or weak
- Leg cramps and charley horses
Not exactly the picture of perfect health you hoped for.
Solution: Eat These Four Minerals and Use Supplements
It’s essential to pay attention to your electrolyte levels and specifically focus on getting enough sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium.
You can learn more about electrolytes on keto in this guide.
Here’s how to get more of these minerals:
- Sodium: Sea salt
- Potassium: Salmon, nuts, avocados, leafy green and mushrooms
- Calcium: dairy foods, leafy greens, broccoli and anchovies
- Magnesium: leafy greens and nuts
If you still struggle with getting enough electrolytes, add an electrolyte supplement to your diet.
#3: You’re Only Focusing on Your Diet
Fixing your diet is the foundation for optimal health, but you need to remember it’s not the only factor. From dentist appointments to yoga classes, going keto is just one of many good decisions you can make for your body. You still need to put in the effort to take care of all the other tasks required to keep your body healthy.
Since this point is so important, it’s worth expanding on next.
Why Going Keto Is Not Enough For Optimal Health
Following a keto diet to a T but without exercising, not sleeping enough, and smoking and drinking regularly isn’t the same as following keto while working out regularly and sleeping 8 hours per night.
If everything else surrounding your diet is in mismanaged chaos, reaching ketosis will have little to no effect on your overall health. At that rate, you may not even be able to notice the many advantages of limiting your carbs and eating more healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil and grass fed butter.
That’s why you must also consider what else you’re doing in addition to keto.
For this diet to work in a safe way that promotes good health, you must simultaneously pay attention to these four key areas as a whole[*]:
#1: Are You Moving Enough?
No matter which diet you follow, it’s crucial you get enough movement each day. This doesn’t have to be in the form of high intensity exercises or a 5K run each morning either. Rather, it just means to start paying attention to how long you’ve been sitting and make a conscious effort to regularly get up and get moving.
Go for a walk after work or during your lunch break. Find a new exercise class to try. Get your blood pumping with 15–20 minutes of active or dynamic stretches. As long as you do this a few times a week, you’ll be in good shape.
#2: Your Stress Levels Are Explosive
Even if you’re strict with your diet and you exercise regularly, if you don’t have your stress levels under control, your health will take a hit.
Here’s why: Stress produces a surge in stress hormones such as cortisol, which, when elevated too high, can lead to[*]:
- Lowered immune response
- Mental illness
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Heart disease
- Trouble remembering things
Not only that, researchers discovered stress spikes inflammation[*]. When this happens, your body can’t suppress inflammation properly and you increase your risk of developing heart disease, autoimmune issues and asthma.
One of the biggest benefits of a keto diet is its anti-inflammatory effects. So when you’re overly stressed, you’re completely negating this perk.
Meditation, journaling, yoga, stretching and connecting with nature are some easy ways to do just that. You can begin with as little as 5–10 minutes a day so there are zero excuses not to get started.
#3: Are You Sleeping Enough?
You need sleep — deep, restorative, restful sleep. You need the kind of sleep that recharges both your body and your brain. And you need a good amount of it each day, otherwise you’ll throw your entire system out of whack.
After all, it only takes one bad night of low quality sleep to ruin your insulin sensitivity for the next day[*]. If that happens, you won’t be able to reach ketosis and you’ll send important hormones out of balance, including cortisol, like we just discussed. Ketosis encourages better sleep quality, but you still need to log enough hours.
Is Keto Safe? Four Misconceptions About the Dangers of Ketosis
There are many misconceptions about ketosis and its safety. Below, you’ll learn about each of these, and how they originated.
The four most common misconceptions of the dangers of ketosis include:
- Keto causes heart disease
- Keto is not safe on your kidneys
- Keto will cause healthy muscles to wither away
- Keto causes ketoacidosis
This is a common assumption that originated in the 1970s, which led to the American Heart Association’s warnings against saturated fats like coconut oil.
Decades ago, it was believed saturated fats found in red meat and butter caused high cholesterol, clogged arteries and a host of other health implications that put individuals at cardiovascular risk.
This caused the low fat diet to spike in popularity, putting low-fat products (like premade meals and fat-free dairy products) in store shelves. After decades of consumption, an interesting trend happened: Even when Americans drastically decreased their fat consumption, obesity skyrocketed.
Since then, the original studies against saturated fats have been reviewed and recreated, and now we know there’s no significant risk between saturated fats and heart disease[*].
More than 100,000 people are diagnosed with kidney failure in the United States[*]. This condition is when your kidneys can no longer properly eliminate waste.
Some people believe that ketosis causes kidney stones — a condition that develops when a mass of crystals develop in your urinary tract — due to increased protein consumption.
This is untrue for several reasons:
- A low carb keto diet reduces LDL cholesterol — which improves kidney function.
- A keto diet, even one that is high in protein, has been shown to help people with kidney disease. Studies have proven that a low carb, high protein diet can decrease the rate of mortality in people with chronic kidney disease by decreasing LDL, HDL and insulin levels[*][*][*].
Eating more protein doesn’t have a negative impact in people who have normal kidney function. Reduced protein consumption may only be beneficial in patients with advanced chronic kidney disease[*].
In ketosis, your body burns its fat stores or dietary fat for energy — not your muscle.
As long as you are eating enough calories and enough protein, your body won’t break down lean tissue for energy.
Ketoacidosis is a rare but serious complication that results from dangerously high levels of ketones and blood sugar, causing the blood to become acidic. However, when this happens, it affects mostly people diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and Type 2 diabetes, although it can also be caused by alcoholism and an overactive thyroid.
If you are not diabetic, your risk of developing ketoacidosis is extremely low and shouldn’t be a concern.
Mystery Solved: Is Keto Healthy?
Here are the facts:
A keto diet is helpful for reducing inflammation, preventing heart disease, boosting your energy, increasing fat loss, and improving your cognitive function — but only if you do it the right way.
Ketosis is a tool you can use to improve your overall health, not a miracle cure. You need to focus on food quality (not just hitting your keto macros), getting enough micronutrients sleep quality, movement, and stress to reap the most benefits out of a keto diet.
And don’t worry about the myths — if you’re not diabetic or have serious kidney problems, going keto won’t cause kidney stones or ketoacidosis.
As for your muscles, they will stay intact and a keto diet will actually protect them from breaking down because ketones are muscle-sparing.
So yes, keto can be extremely healthy when you focus on what matters. Doing keto while following unhealthy habits won’t do much for your health, but when you combine keto with other healthy habits and focus on quality nutrition, you’ll improve health and well being exponentially.
If you’d like to learn more about the health advantages of ketosis, this guide is calling your name.
Devan’s obsession with health and fitness started early and there’s been no stoppin’ her. When she’s not writing for PK, you’ll find her curled up with one of the many health books she’s devouring or outside looking for her next adventure.