Ketogenic diets were first proposed as a way to control epileptic seizures in children. Before keto diets, epileptics often fasted to reduce seizures, so the keto diet offered a less restrictive alternative. Though effective, the diet was mostly supplanted by medications – except in a segment of the population suffering from epilepsy that cannot control it with medicine, and for them, the ketogenic diet has had great success. Along with the benefits it offers to epileptics, especially children, the keto diet is also being studied as a possible salve for many neurological conditions and diabetes, too.
“If someone with diabetes is [taking insulin or oral type 2 meds in the sulfonylurea or meglitinide class and is] following this diet, they need to know that their blood sugar can drop really quickly, so it’s critical that they check it more frequently,” says Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, CDE, author of Diabetes Meal Planning & Nutrition for Dummies. “Don’t wait for it to happen. Meet with your doctor or diabetes educator in advance so that you can troubleshoot exactly what to do if your blood sugar drops.” If it’s an infrequent occurrence, you may be advised to treat with fast-acting glucose. But frequent lows may require medication adjustments or the addition of more carbs to your eating plan.
Experts are split on whether the keto diet is a good idea. On the one hand, Lori Chang, registered dietitian and a supervisor at the Center for Healthy Living at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles, says using a “cleaner” source of energy—ketones rather than quick-burning carbohydrates—can improve mood and energy levels. When you eat refined carbohydrates or just too many carbs in general, the blood is flooded with excess insulin, Chang says. "This can lead to a blood sugar rollercoaster that stresses the body and negatively impacts energy levels and mood. When you’re in a state of ketosis, however, ketone bodies don’t require insulin to cross the blood-brain barrier, which wards off unfavorable blood sugar levels."
And it’s not just this study, either. Several other studies have found that keto leaves rodents unable to process carbs, leads to insulin resistance, and, more long-term, causes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is when your liver accumulates lots of fat and begins to shut down. Triglycerides and inflammation go way up, too.
Ok, let’s break this down. So with this study you have a decent number of participants…I would love to see 1000, but 105 is certainly better than 20. Many ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds were represented. There were a closer number of males versus females included in the study. Lastly, they were followed for a longer period of time, a full year.
Carbohydrates: Historically, a targeted keto diet consists of limiting carbohydrate intake to just 20–30 net grams per day. “Net carbs” is the amount of carbs remaining once dietary fiber is taken into account. Because fiber is indigestible once eaten, most people don’t count grams of fiber toward their daily carb allotment. In other words, total carbs – grams of fiber = net carbs. That’s the carb counts that matter most.
Our body needs some time to get used to ketones being elevated in the blood stream to begin using them effectively and efficiently for cellular energy. By consuming an exogenous ketone supplement, you get the body adapted to ketones faster and using them as an energy source before the body has built the metabolic machinery to produce its own ketones effectively.
Researchers note that subjects taking between 40 to 90 units of insulin before the study were able to completely eliminate their insulin use while also improving blood sugar control! They also point out that this effect happens “immediately upon implementing the dietary changes” so people with type 2 diabetes need to monitor their blood sugar closely and likely adjust their medication dosages/needs with the help of their doctors.
So yes, the ketogenic diet is safe for diabetics. However, they still need to be closely monitored because diabetes medications including insulin, blood pressure, and beta blockers will have to be adjusted down when following a ketogenic diet. Therefore, the diabetic should do this with supervision from a doctor who is up to date with the nutritional literature.
In addition, as the Harvard School of Public Health points out, “Carbohydrate metabolism plays a huge role in the development of type 2 diabetes, which occurs when the body can’t make enough insulin or can’t properly use the insulin it makes.” When a food containing carbohydrates is eaten, the digestive system has to process these carbs and turns them into sugar which then goes into the bloodstream. The ketogenic diet majorly minimizes carbohydrate intake so prediabetics, as well as type 1 and type 2 diabetics, aren’t challenging their bodies with carbohydrate breakdown that can raise blood sugar levels and create problematic insulin demands for the body.
It’s important to note, however, that most of the research is being done on diseases and disorders, not specifically weight loss. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been evidence of weight loss as a benefit of the eating pattern, just that the studies performed specifically for the benefits for long-term weight loss are limited. There’s anecdotal evidence out there, of course, but there was evidence of weight loss associated with a low-fat diet in the '90s… until that farce came falling down around our collective shoulders as the long-term evidence came rolling in to the contrary.
It is important to understand that the statement that carbohydrates are “nonessential” is not only factually inaccurate, it results in adopting a low-carbohydrate diet or ketogenic diet that increases your risk for a wide variety of chronic health conditions that may ultimately shorten lifespan, decrease your quality of life, and accelerate your risk for chronic disease.
In this single-arm, 4-month diet intervention, an LCKD resulted in significant improvement of glycemia, as measured by fasting glucose and hemoglobin A1c, in patients with type 2 diabetes. More importantly, this improvement was observed while diabetes medications were reduced or discontinued in 17 of the 21 participants, and were not changed in the remaining 4 participants. Participants also experienced reductions in body weight, waist circumference, and percent body fat but these improvements were moderate and did not predict the change in hemoglobin A1c in regression analyses.
But your heart health might depend on what you actually eat. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that low-carb diets based mostly on plant sources of fat and protein (like avocados or nuts) can lower heart disease risk by 30 percent. But those benefits didn’t hold for people who ate mostly animal-based proteins and fats. (Think: bacon, butter, and steak.)
Dehydration. With fewer water-binding carbohydrates in the diet, the body is less able to hold onto fluids, which can lead to dehydration. Eating more salt can help offset this, but it can also raise blood pressure, creating a whole new set of issues. If you plan to follow a keto diet, hydration is key. To know how many ounces of fluid you need each day, Yancy recommends dividing your body weight in half. Then think of the resulting number as your daily fluid goal in ounces. So if you weigh 200 pounds, strive for 100 ounces of water a day.
An extensive review published in 2013 looked at the research and evidence of ketogenic diets enhancing fertility (long story short, it looks promising). Studies also show that Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) can be treated effectively with low-carb dieting, which reduces or eliminates symptoms such as infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods, acne, and obesity.
Diet Doctor has a number of videos and posts about positive impacts of the ketogenic diet for migraines, brain cancer, and traumatic brain injury. Recently, two psychiatrists reviewed the research base for psychiatric issues and noted that while promising, it is slim. Dr. Ede takes a more hopeful view. “My mantra is that the most powerful way to change your brain chemistry is by food, because that’s where brain chemicals come from in the first place,” she says.