A ketogenic diet, also known as keto diet, is a low-carb, moderate protein and high-fat diet. Most people are initially skeptical of this diet, thinking that a high-fat diet cannot possibly lead to any weight loss. The truth, however, is that a keto diet not only results in weight loss, but it can also be helpful in various other ways as well. In fact, weight loss can be considered as one of the various other health benefits of ketogenic diet such as it can help in fighting certain cancers, improves brain functions, reduce inflammation, prevents heart disease, improves energy level, etc.
When one follows a keto diet strictly, it results in a host of changes within the body. These are the changes which result in various health benefits that a keto diet provides.
Moving further in this article, we will understand various changes that happen within our body when we follow a keto diet plan. Also, we will see how these changes account for a range of health benefits of ketogenic diet.
What happens, when you are on a ketogenic diet plan?
The preferred source of energy for our body is glucose, which we get from consuming carbohydrates (bread, legumes, and fruits). These include sugar as well.
When very few carbs enter our body, as is supposed to happen in a keto diet, the cells within our body have to resort to new pathways to produce energy.
One of the processes through which energy is produced when glucose is not readily available is called ketogenesis. In ketogenesis, an alternate source of energy, called ketone, is produced. These ketones can be used by almost all the cells in our body (except for red blood cells and the liver).
Sugar affects our body different than ketones do. When our body burns sugar for fuel, a lot of reactive oxygen species (or free radicals) get produced.
These free radicals can cause damage to our cells, even leading to their inflammation or death. This is the reason why consuming too much sugar can cause a build-up of plaque in the brain as well as impair brain function.
Ketones, however, provide a more efficient source of energy. They also help protect neurons in the brain, because when ketones are burnt to create energy, they decrease the production of free radicals and enhance mitochondrial production and function (1, 2).
When carbohydrate consumption is restricted, healthy cells which are struggling to survive also get a new lease on life. In such a scenario, a cellular process called autophagy gets activated.
This process improves cell health and resistance by up-regulating many important factors and protect the cell from damage. This combination of autophagy and ketone-burning is immensely helpful for people with cancer and brain disorders like epilepsy and migraines.
Carbohydrates stimulate a hormone called insulin, which helps the body register the fact that glucose has been consumed. When a person follows the keto diet, it also results in decreased insulin levels, as carbohydrate intake is limited.
Moreover, this also increases fat burning and reduces inflammation. A combination of these three different changes results in the destabilizing of the cornerstones of many chronic diseases — insulin resistance, fat accumulation, and inflammation.
Health benefits of ketogenic diet
Now that we have understood how the body responds to the keto diet, we can better appreciate we get benefits as a result of it. Let us look at some of the major benefits it gives us –
- Better brain functioning
- Fighting certain cancers
- Preventing heart disease
- Decreasing inflammation
- Improving energy levels
- Improving muscle mass and endurance
- Assisting neurological disorders
- Losing weight, curbing obesity and diabetes
Let us understand these benefits better.
Better brain functioning
Ketogenic diets first gained popularity when they were used to treat children with epilepsy (3). Researchers have suggested that the mechanism through which seizures are prevented in epileptic children is an increased stability of neurons (4).
Some also believe that it has to do with creating more mitochondria in the brain (5) as well as mitochondrial enzymes (6). Moreover, ketogenic diets have also been linked with better memory retention (7), enhanced cognition (8) as well as improvement in all stages of dementia (9).
Can fight certain cancers
A study published in 2014 concluded that ketones can help with destroying certain cancer cells (10). This happens because cancer cells use glucose as their source of energy, to multiply and grow.
They cannot use ketones to achieve the same purpose. Therefore, when there is a lack of glucose in the body, cancer cells cannot survive and are ultimately eliminated from the body.
Prevents heart disease
Because a ketogenic diet lowers glucose levels in the blood, it leads to lower triglyceride (a kind of fat found in the blood which can cause diseases) levels as well (11). Moreover, it also helps one keep their blood pressure in check (12).
Although it may seem paradoxical that eating a lot of fats may result in lower triglyceride levels, research indicates that high consumption of carbs is what is responsible for high levels of triglycerides. (13)
Recent research into ketogenic diet confirms the fact that ketogenic diets help with issues related to inflammation (14). As excess free radicals are no longer produced in the body, the inflammatory processes of the body do not need to be used so often to repair the damage that they cause.
This leads to a reduction in inflammation levels in the body. Another effect of a ketogenic diet is that people with chronic pain can notice a decrease in pain as well.
Improves energy levels
A lot of people who begin a keto diet can feel their energy levels increase. This is often accompanied by a decrease in their craving for carbs as well.
This happens around the one week mark after they start. This happens because in a keto diet our insulin levels get stabilized (15).
A keto diet also results in sleep improvements. Studies indicate that people on a ketogenic diet have decreased REM sleep and increased slow-wave sleep patterns, thereby improving the overall quality of sleep (16, 17).
It has been surmised that this is likely due to the biochemical shifts which result from the brain’s use of ketones as a source of energy as well as body tissues directly burning fat.
Assists in the treatment of neurological diseases
Studies have been conducted which discuss the potential of the keto diet to treat various neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, autism, depression, and headaches. (18)
The effect of a ketogenic diet on multiple sclerosis has also been studied, and the conclusion is that a lack of free radicals results in healthier neurons, which benefits those who suffer from MS. (19)
Improves muscle mass and endurance
The ketogenic diet is also perfect for increasing your muscles mass, as in this diet you will end up consuming a lot more protein than you would regularly.
The molecule BHB, produced during ketosis, has specifically been shown to promote muscle gain (20). Moreover, papers have also been published which suggest that keto-adaptation results in significant improvement of mental and physical performance for ultra-endurance athletes. (21, 22)
Helps in losing weight, curbing obesity and diabetes
On a keto diet, one’s glucose levels are kept in check, and thus diabetes can be prevented. In addition, papers published on the topic of ketogenic diets on obesity indicate that following a keto diet can be a very effective way of losing weight (23, 24).
Keto diets also help with preserving muscle mass while curbing obesity-related disorders. (25)
Over to you on benefits of ketogenic diet
As we have seen, there are various health benefits of ketogenic diet other than weight loss. It can help you achieve better brain functioning and improve your energy levels and endurance. It can also prevent heart disease and obesity and can fight certain cancers as well as various neurological disorders.