The Ketogenic Diet Craze: Fat-Filled Lies, Part 1

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ketogenic diPicture this: a thick, juicy, tender eventeak grilled to perfection with melted butter glazed on top, gently dripping down the sides. Lying next to the steak there’s a side of dark green asparagus sautéed in coconut oil and dusted with a sprinkle of sea salt. Could a diet loaded with fat help you lose diet-resistant body fat that’s been taunting the seams of your dress pants and poking through buttons on your shirt? Will eating fat turn you into an all-star athlete? This is part 1 of a 2 part series on the ketogenic diet.

Here is what I will cover in this blog post:

  • What is the ketogenic diet?
  • Adverse health effects.

Here is what I will cover in tomorrow’s blog on this topic:

  • The issue with ketogenic research studies.
  • Is the ketogenic diet superior for losing fat?
  • How will the ketogenic diet affect muscle?
  • How will the ketogenic diet impact athletic performance?

What is the Ketogenic Diet?

For nearly a century, epileptic patients have used ketogenic diets to control seizures when common medications provide no relief. Scientists aren’t sure why following a ketogenic diet decreases the incidence and severity of seizures but it works.

The ketogenic diet contains – 80-90% of calories from fat, 15% from protein and 5% from carbohydrate (1, 2). Food choices may include heavy cream, bacon, eggs, non-starchy vegetables, mayonnaise and sausage while fruits, starchy vegetables, breads, pasta, cereal and other carbohydrate-rich foods are not allowed.

During the first several days on a ketogenic diet, your body’s limited supply of carbohydrate stored in liver and muscle tissue decreases dramatically. As a result, you will feel like you have mono – exhausted, with headaches and easy exercise will feel like you’re climbing Mount Everest (3). Once your stored carbohydrate has dwindled, ketones, formed from the breakdown of dietary fat, become the primary source of energy for brain and body. Ketogenic means “ketone forming.” It takes at least seven days to reach nutritional ketosis and several weeks to fully adapt to the diet (12). If you aren’t in nutritional ketosis (as measured by blood, urine or breath ketones; ketone levels > 0.5 mmol/L), then you aren’t following a ketogenic diet, you are on a low carbohydrate diet.

Adverse Health Effects from the Ketogenic Diet

Much of the research on adverse effects comes from studies in epileptic children since they have been on the diet for long periods of time. These studies show soon after starting a ketogenic diet, blood cholesterol levels and artery stiffness increase (4, 5). High total and LDL cholesterol are risk factors for cardiovascular disease (diseases of the heart and blood vessels). When arteries are stiff, they cannot expand as well in response to changes in blood pressure. Think of this like a garden hose when you turn up the water pressure, your hose either expands or the water bursts out of the space between the faucet and the hose. When arteries cannot open widely to accommodate increases in blood flow, blood pressure increases leading to microscopic tears on artery walls, development of scar tissue and the perfect surface for plaque buildup (6). Blood cholesterol levels returned to normal in patients who went off the diet and in those who stayed on it, they returned to normal after 6 to 12 months. Artery stiffness returned to normal after 24 months on a ketogenic diet.5 Studies in obese patients suggest ketogenic diets improve blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels over time, either due to the diet, weight loss from the diet, a combination of the two or carbohydrate restriction (7, 8). Lose weight, regardless of what you eat and blood cholesterol, blood pressure, inflammation, blood sugar and many other disease risk factors will improve.

Ketogenic diets are typically low in calcium, vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, folic acid and fiber. There are several potential consequences associated with consistently low intake of each of these micronutrients including softening of the bones, decreased bone density, muscle damage, muscle weakness or spasms, and abnormal heart rhythm. However, with careful planning, a fiber supplement, multivitamin and under the guidance of a physician who may prescribe potassium and sodium supplements (blood sodium could drop to dangerously low levels while on this diet), nutrient needs can be met. Also, to prevent constipation when on a ketogenic diet, a fiber supplement may be necessary along with more water / fluid intake then you are used to.

Here are some other potentially bad side effects from following a high fat diet:

  • Harm to your Brain. Studies in mice show a high fat diet, even when followed for as little as two months leads to chronic inflammation, sedentary immune cells in the brain – these cells typically act like janitors picking up trash and infectious compounds but when they become sedentary they stop doing their job, leading to cognitive impairment (9). Does this happen in humans and resolve over time? We don’t know.
  • Mad Bacteria in Your Gut. A diet with no probiotics (healthy bacteria) and low in prebiotics (certain types of fiber that the healthy bacteria much on for food keeping them happy) will likely change the composition of bacteria in your gut so you have more harmful and less beneficial bacteria.
  • Leaky Gut. High saturated fat meals increase bacterial toxins (endotoxins) in the intestines and intestinal permeability. In other words: leaky gut (10, 11). If you are on this diet, consider opting for foods lower in saturated fat and higher in unsaturated fats (liquid oils, avocado, nuts, seeds, olives).
  • Free radicals in overdrive? If you can’t eat a number of colorful foods including blueberries, beets, corn, oranges, and more, chances are you won’t get a wide array of antioxidant compounds to quench free radicals (compounds that are important for good health but can wreck your body when they aren’t tamed by antioxidants) as well as other plant-based compounds that keep your arteries, muscles and other parts of your body healthy. Will your body adapt? We don’t know at this time.

Are the side effects and potential negative side effects worth it if you can lose weight on this diet? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on how the ketogenic diet impacts body fat and athletic performance.

References

1 Freeman JM, Freeman JB, Kelly MT. The ketogenic diet: a treatment for epilepsy. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Demos Health; 2000.

2 Paoli A, Bianco A, Damiani E, Bosco G. Ketogenic Diet in Neuromuscular and Neurodegenerative Diseases. BioMed Research International 2014, Article ID 474296, 10 pages, 2014.

3 White AM, Johnston CS, Swan PD et al. Blood ketones are directly related to fatigue and perceived effort during exercise in overweight adults adhering to low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss: a pilot study. J Am Diet Assoc 2007;107(10):1792-6.

4 Tanakis M, Liuba P, Odermarsky M, Lundgren J, Hallböök T. Effects of ketogenic diet on vascular function. Eur J Paediatr Neurol 2014;18(4):489-94.

5 Coppola G, Natale F, Torino A et al. The impact of the ketogenic diet on arterial morphology and endothelial function in children and young adults with epilepsy: a case-control study. Seizure 2014;23(4):260-5.

6 Cecelja M, Chowienczyk P. Role of arterial stiffness in cardiovascular disease. JRSM Cardiovascular Disease 2012;1(4):1-10.

7 Dashti HM, Mathew TC, Hussein T, Asfar SK, Behbahani A, Khoursheed MA, Al-Sayer HM, Bo-Abbas YY, Al-Zaid NS. Long-term effects of a ketogenic diet in obese patients. Exp Clin Cardiol 2004; 9(3): 200–205.

8 Volek JS, Feinman RD. Carbohydrate restriction improves the features of Metabolic Syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome may be defined by the response to carbohydrate restriction. Nutr Metab (Lond) 2005;2:31.

9 Hao S, Dey A, Yu X, Stranahan AM. Dietary obesity reversibly induces synaptic stripping by microglia and impairs hippocampal plasticity. Brain Behav Immun 2016 Jan;51:230-9.

10 Mani V, Hollis JH, Gabler NK. Dietary oil composition differentially modulates intestinal endotoxin transport and postprandial endotoxemia. Nutr Metab (Lond) 2013; 10: 6.

11 Lam YY, Ha CW, Campbell CR, Mitchell AJ, Dinudom A, Oscarsson J, Cook DI, Hunt NH, Caterson ID, Holmes AJ, Storlien LH. Increased gut permeability and microbiota change associate with mesenteric fat inflammation and metabolic dysfunction in diet-induced obese mice. PLoS One 2012;7(3):e34233.

12 Paoli, A, Grimaldi K, D’Agostino D, Cenci L, Moro T, Bianco A, Palma A. Ketogenic diet does not affect strength performance in elite artistic gymnasts. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2012;9:34.

Which Fat is Best for Heart Health?

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Butter

If you are more confused than ever about dietary fats, you’re not alone. Can a high fat diet help you lose body fat? Which fat is best for heart health – butter, coconut oil or vegetable oil?

What is Cholesterol & Why is it Essential?
Cholesterol is an essential component of all cell membranes and a precursor to hormones, vitamin D and bile acids (needed for the digestion of fat). It is so important that your body regulates cholesterol balance to ensure your cells receive a continuous supply of cholesterol.

How does High LDL Contribute to Cardiovascular Disease?

Though cholesterol is critical for life, low density lipoprotein cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, is considered a risk factor for heart disease because excess LDL can lead to an increase in plaque buildup in your arteries. Think of this process like a garden hose with gunk stuck in it. The gunk interferes with water flowing through the hose. If too much debris gets in there, no water will flow through.  Likewise, plaque in your arteries will decrease the amount of blood that moves through your arteries at one time and a complete blockage could lead to a heart attack or stroke.  Now, this is a simplistic view, especially considering LDL isn’t just one particle but instead, several that contain different amounts of cholesterol. Some research suggests that smaller, more dense LDL particles are more artery clogging. However, in addition to particle size, total number of LDL particles and oxidation of LDL contribute to the disease process.

As LDL particles travel through the bloodstream, excess LDL particles can stick to artery walls (particularly walls that are damaged due to smoking, high blood pressure and other insults). Trapped LDL becomes oxidized and sets off an inflammatory cascade resulting in the development of plaque (gunk) stuck to arteries – atherosclerosis.

Coronary Artery Disease

How Can I Lower my LDL Cholesterol?

Cholesterol in food has little effect on your blood cholesterol.

Years ago we were told to stay away from shrimp, eggs and other high cholesterol foods. Yet this advice wasn’t based on sound science – cholesterol in food has little effect on your blood cholesterol levels. So there is no need to take these nutrient-rich foods out of your diet. Shrimp is loaded with protein, and is a good source of iron plus it contains just 80 calories per serving. Eggs are also packed with nutrition – the whites are an excellent source of protein and the yellow color you see in the yolk is from antioxidants – plant compounds that protect plants from disease and protect your body from the damaging effects of free radicals, compounds that are essential but can cause damage as well.

Coconut Oil, Butter and Other Solid Fats are Not the Best Options

Man-made trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) are the worst kind of fat you can eat. However, they should, finally, be making their way out of our food supply over the next few years. High levels of *saturated fat, the kind that is solid at room temperature like butter, increases HDL (the “good” cholesterol but not a target of therapy – doctors don’t focus on HDL levels because increasing HDL does not lower heart disease risk) and LDL cholesterol in the blood. In controlled diet experiments where saturated fat is replaced with polyunsaturated fat rich vegetable oils, risk of heart disease is reduced. Replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fat, the kind found in olive oil, also lowers LDL but not to the extent that polyunsaturated fat does.

Coconut oil is popular and calorie for calorie it might be better for weight management than other fats. However, coconut oil raises our total, good and bad cholesterol levels. And therefore, it is not the best option for heart health.

Excess Carbohydrate Intake can Increase LDL

Overconsumption of carbohydrate-rich foods can also increase VLDL cholesterol (very low density lipoprotein). Foods with added sugars, in particular, are potent stimulators of VLDL production when the energy (calories) aren’t needed right away for energy or increasing glycogen stores (stored carbohydrate in your liver and muscle).

Best Fats for Your Heart

Nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and liquid oils are your bets for heart health. Oils with more polyunsaturated fat have a greater impact on LDL cholesterol than those rich in monounsaturated fat. Make sure you are choosing the right oil for the right cooking application. Many oils can’t stand high heat and they break down, damaging the structure (and function) of the oil.

Fatty Acids in Oils

Conclusion

Many factors contribute to high blood cholesterol levels, including genetics, overweight/obesity, inactivity, smoking, diabetes and age, making cholesterol management a multifactorial issue. Saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol but, as I’ll say over and over, we are all different and, people vary in their response to dietary saturated fat due to intrinsic differences in fat metabolism as well as other factors including obesity, insulin resistance and high triglycerides.

Replace fats that raise cholesterol with liquid oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives. Consider your overall diet as well. Eat a plant-based diet including vegetables (non-starchy veggies as well as beans, lentils and peas), fruits, nuts, seeds and whole grains (oats, barley etc.). Consume fatty fish ( salmon, mackerel, herring, halibut, sardines etc.) at least two times per week. Limit your intake of foods with added sugars and refined starches as well as your alcohol consumption. 

* There are differences in specific saturated fatty acids and their effects on blood cholesterol. Therefore, some foods high in saturated fat do not raise LDL cholesterol. Also, oils have a different array of vitamins (primarily vitamin E) and plant-based compounds that may be beneficial for heart health.

Fatty acids composition of oils taken from the USDA Nutrient Database.