The ketogenic diet is becoming known for being beneficial in so many areas of health and medicine, it’s important to get a clear understanding of what it’s best used for and how. So, we compiled a primer on the health benefits of the ketogenic diet. From weight loss to reduced appetite to reduced inflammation to improved cardiovascular health, the ketogenic diet is far more than a lose-weight-quick diet. In fact, it’s more of a lifestyle change, with benefits far outweighing simply looking good in a bathing suit. So, what’s in it for you? Read on to find out.
1. Weight Loss
Weight loss is probably the most commonly cited health benefit of the ketogenic diet, and it’s not one to overlook. With keto, weight loss is real and effective for one simple reason: it helps people convert from a carb-heavy diet, carb-burning diet to a fat-heavy, fat-burning diet. A diet high in carbs induces bloating, weight gain, and poor health and relies on carbs for energy. A high-fat, moderate-protein, and very low carb diet curbs your appetite, allows you to eat until you’re satiated, and burns fat from your body and your foods for energy.
Whether you’re fit, a little out of shape, or obese, a ketogenic diet can do more than help you reach or maintain your goal weight through dieting; it can reduce your risk factors for obesity-related diseases and disorders, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. (We’ll talk more about that later in this article.)
The best part? You don’t have to starve yourself to get there. On a keto diet, you get to eat your fill of satiating foods loaded with good fats, which triggers a fat-burning metabolic process known as ketosis. Once you’re body is acclimated, this leads to increased energy and ability for physical activity.
2. Reduced Appetite
Imagine not feeling those food crashes and carb cravings. That’s the keto life. You eat, then you’re satisfied…for a long time! Once your body has settled into the diet, it works more efficiently, burning the fats in your food and your body and never embarking on the wild ride that is the highs and lows of a carb/sugar laden diet. Without the sugar peaks and crashes, cravings disappear, and you feel satisfied.
Why, you wonder? Isn’t a calorie just a calorie. The answer is no. Here’s why:
As we mentioned above, the ketogenic diet is one that’s very low in carbohydrates, moderately low in protein, and high in fat. But it’s more specific than that. Each day on a keto diet, you eat to your macronutrients (“macros”) or the total amount of calories of fat, protein, and carbs you should eat per day based on your height, weight, activity level, age, and goals. But not all macros are the same. Each has a specific amount of energy or calories:
- Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram
- Protein has 4 calories per gram
- Fat has 9 calories per gram
Clearly, fats are more satiating (keep you feeling satisfied longer) because they provide you with the same energy per gram as both protein and carbohydrates combined!
That’s not the only reason your appetite is reduced on a keto diet. As we mentioned earlier, once you get into ketosis, you generally don’t experience the blood sugar level peaks and valleys – and the consequent hunger pangs – that you do on a carbohydrate-heavy diet. Hormones, in this case insulin, cholecystokinin, ghrelin, and leptin, play a strong role in the lack of hunger, because they influence the feeling of being satiated.
Ketosis has been shown to suppress ghrelin (a strong appetite stimulator). In fact, in a study where participants were put on a ketogenic diet for eight weeks and then reintroduced to a standard diet, participants in ketosis experienced a reduction of circulating concentrations of several hormones and nutrients that influence appetite.
Inflammation is the body’s natural immune response to help heal and fight infection. But too much and persistent inflammation can cause unpleasant symptoms, such as pain, joint stiffness, swelling, fatigue, and more acute physiological results.
When you’re on a keto diet and regularly in a state of ketosis, your body produces ketones, specifically BHB (ß-hydroxybutyrate), which is a strong anti-inflammatory chemical. BHB helps to inhibit the inflammatory pathways (NF-kB and COX-2) and also activates the AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase) pathway, which assists in inhibiting the inflammatory NF-kB pathways. Additionally, BHB has been shown to exhibit effects similar to pain-relief drugs, such as NSAIDs, by inhibiting the COX-2 enzyme.
Another anti-inflammatory influence is the ketogenic diet itself; the keto diet helps promote the consumption of anti-inflammatory foods, such as eggs, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, and other foods high in omega-3s, all of which are heralded for their anti-inflammatory effects. The diet plan also promotes the avoidance of inflammatory foods. Not sure which is which? See our lists below, which feature some popular anti-inflammatory and inflammatory foods.
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Fatty fish
- Bone broth
- Processed foods
- Refined sugar
- Starchy vegetables
- Processed oils (canola, corn, safflower)
When people think of high-fat diets, they almost instantly think of high cholesterol levels. It’s a reasonable response considering we’ve been told for years that the low-fat diet is heart healthy and the high-fat diet is not. Yet more and more research showing that fat is not to be feared but rather it has been the scapegoat for the real culprits of cardiovascular and obesity issues among Americans today: processed carbohydrates and diets high in sugar.
On a ketogenic eating plan, many people experience a decrease in total cholesterol, a decrease in triglycerides, and an increase in HDL. Although some people may see a rise in cholesterol on a ketogenic diet, those people would likely see an increase regardless because rapid weight loss, be it water weight or body fat, can lead to a temporary, short-term rise in LDL cholesterol. Consequently, it’s often recommended to wait six months after starting a ketogenic diet to test your lipid panels, or to wait until your weight loss has tapered off.
We have several articles and videos that dive deeper into the Cholesterol/Keto diet relationship here:
5. Diabetes & Blood Sugar Control
Since you eliminate sugar and most carbohydrates on a keto diet, it’s not hard to understand why it’s great for blood-sugar control. The less sugar and carbs you eat, the less sugar in your bloodstream. This is why, after starting a keto diet, most people will notice a decrease in their blood sugar almost immediately. In fact, the effects are so immediate, it’s recommended that diabetics beginning a ketogenic diet work with their health care provider so they can adjust their medication as needed while their glucose levels become lower and more stabilized.
When you’re eating carb-heavy high-glycemic foods, you experience a blood-glucose spike immediately after eating, followed by a subsequent drop in blood-glucose. On a ketogenic diet, you reduce your sugar and carbohydrate intake and thus naturally keep your blood glucose levels from rising and falling drastically. There will still be a small natural rise in blood glucose when you eat low-glycemic foods, but you won’t experience the high and low glucose level variations of a high-carbohydrate diet.
Plus, as we mentioned, by reducing your carbohydrates, you deprive your body of glucose stores, so your body begins using fats for fuel versus carbohydrates/glucose. This causes your insulin levels to lower, because your body is no longer being tasked with managing a lot of sugar.
Even people with insulin resistance benefit from the ketogenic diet. With insulin resistance, your body doesn’t respond to insulin as it should. This often translates into higher blood-glucose levels and, over time, can lead to diabetes and increase your risk for heart disease. Studies following participants with diabetes who implemented a ketogenic diet show that participants saw drastic reductions in their glucose-lowering medications and fasting glucose levels.
6. Blood Pressure
Anyone with high blood pressure will appreciate the positive blood pressure control that results from a keto diet.
In studies following obese patients, those on a ketogenic diet experienced a more drastic reduction in their blood pressure than those on low-fat diets. Simultaneously, these same subjects following a keto diet had comparable weight-loss and triglycerides results as study subjects who followed a low-fat diet and received a weight-loss drug. Additionally, the systolic blood pressure in the ketogenic group decreased (which is good for lowering high blood pressure), while it increased among the low-fat/diet-drug-medication participants.
7. Heart Health
The term “heart health” conjures images of little heart icon that appears on whole grains and cereals and promotes carbs/low-fat foods. But, in fact, a diet low in carbohydrates and higher in fats has been shown to drastically improve the biomarkers associated with heart disease.
In a recent study of a group of normal-weight normolipidemic men (men with normal lipid amounts in their blood) who were put on a ketogenic diet for six weeks, 22 out of 26 biomarkers for cardiovascular disease risk improved significantly.
While some people experience a small increase in LDL cholesterol on a keto diet, it’s now suggested that LDL is not the “make it or break it” factor in determining heart health it was once believed to be. In fact, current research shows that LDL is a very small piece of the puzzle; in a 2.7-year randomized study looking at the influence of the Mediterranean diet on people who had previously had a heart attack, there was a significantly dramatic reduction in repeat heart attacks and overall mortality. Most remarkable, there was no difference in LDL changes between the two groups.
Now, it’s widely known that it’s the particle size of LDL that plays a larger role in determining heart health risks. Circulating LDL particles are actually quite diverse in size, and smaller, denser particles (which carry proportionately less triglyceride) are the ones associated with vascular damage and heart disease.
In fact, in a recent study of ketogenic diet participants where LDL increased, there was a shift in the size of the particles; average particles increased while the small, dense particles associated with vascular damage drastically decreased.
8. Brain Health
The brain loves keto just as much as the heart. The ketogenic diet was initially implemented as a therapeutic treatment in the Mayo Clinic in 1924 to treat neurological conditions, specifically epileptic seizures. In a randomized clinical trial, researchers started the ketogenic diet with pediatric patients suffering from two or more weekly seizures while on anti-seizure medications. Within three months of initiating the diet, 34 percent of the participants had a 90 percent decrease in seizures!
But the research doesn’t stop with epilepsy. In recent years, the ketogenic diet has begun to be studied as complementary intervention for various neurological disorders. And while many scientists within the neurological field state that the brain prefers glucose over ketones, the brain does over time (with age) lose its ability to efficiently fuel itself with glucose alone. This is where ketones come into play.
Ketones are a natural neuroprotective antioxidant that has been shown to prevent harmful reactive oxygen species from damaging the brain. Ketones have been shown to increase mitochondrial efficiency and production, which helps to protect brain cells from strokes and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Finally a ketogenic diet has been shown to help regulate glutamate (a dominant neurotransmitter in our brain) which can cause nerve cell damage if over stimulated.
While much of the research around the ketogenic diet and the brain is in its infancy, the research that has been done is promising and shows a need for further exploration to fully understand the scope of benefits and clinical uses.
Here are some additional articles and videos on this topic on our site:
While genetics plays a large role in acne, it has been suggested that a ketogenic diet may help to improve skin clarity.
Specific research on a ketogenic diet and acne occurrence has not yet been published, but there have been studies that have looked at a ketogenic diet in regards to hormonal balancing, specifically PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). Women suffering with PCOS often deal with insulin resistance, hormone imbalances, fatigue, unwanted hair, infertility, and acne. Current studies have looked at the ketogenic diet and low-carbohydrate diets in women with PCOS and have found that they were able to reduce their insulin levels, and reduce their body mass.
But how does this translate to acne? Well, a recent study, where researchers looked at the benefits of a low-glycemic diet on acne, showed that as insulin levels went down, the physical appearance of acne seemed to lessen. Additionally, as we discussed above, keto has been proven to aid against inflammation, which in turn helps to lessen the inflammation associated with acne (red and swollen pustules).
Migraines, a recurring type of headache that can cause severe pain, plagues nearly 12 percent of Americans. So naturally, those that suffer with migraines are willing to try most solutions to rid themselves of them. While migraines may not have been their primary reason for starting the ketogenic diet, many migraine sufferers on the keto diet have reported a significant decrease in migraines, including, in some cases, becoming migraine free!
There have been a handful of studies that have looked at the relationship between a ketogenic diet and migraines. In one study, participants in the ketogenic diet group reported a reduction in headache frequency and drug consumption. It was hypothesized that the success may be modulated by keto’s enhancement of brain mitochondrial metabolism and the inhibitory effects on neural inflammation and cortical spreading depression. Ketogenic VLCD (very low-calorie diet) could find a transient role in antagonizing the ponderal increase, a common side effect among prophylactic migraine treatments.
For more information on keto and migraine’s, read our book review on Fighting the Migraine Epidemic: How to Treat and Prevent Migraines Without Medicine, and learn more about the author Angela Stanton, Ph.D. here.
11. Cancer Treatment
When you hear of keto as a cancer treatment, most people are referring to the Warburg effect, whereby cancer cells prefer to use anaerobic (without oxygen) glycolysis to produce energy.
This is much less efficient than aerobic glycolysis, and it means that cancer cells have a much higher requirement for glucose for energy. That’s the basis for the PET scan where glucose is injected into the body to help detect cancer. Since cancer takes up glucose far more rapidly than normal cells, the test tracks the activity and location of cancer in the body by noticing what happens with the injected glucose.
But here’s the most interesting part: some cancers lack the ability to metabolize ketone bodies. This means that if such a cancer has no access to sugar for energy, it cannot thrive. In these cases, a ketogenic diet essentially “starves” the cancer cells. Unfortunately, not all cancers respond the same way, and the Warburg effect is not universally seen in all cancer.
Still, there is promising research on the role of a ketogenic diet as an effective complementary intervention for cancer treatment. In one study on neuroblastoma, a cancer that most commonly affects children, the ketogenic diet significantly reduced tumor growth and prolonged survival of the study subjects (in this case mice).
We’re seeing an increasing number of preclinical studies evaluating the ketogenic diet as an adjuvant therapy in cancer treatment, either alone and/or in combination with classic therapy. In addition to neuroblastoma, the strongest evidence for the tumor-suppressing effect of a ketogenic diet has been reported for glioblastoma (a brain tumor), prostate, colon, pancreatic and lung cancer.
The Final Word
Bottom line: the ketogenic diet has significant health benefits in a variety of areas, from metobolic health to heart and brain health, and more. As studies continue and more is understood about the body’s reaction to the ketogenic diet and how it can be leveraged for a variety of wellness initiatives, there will surely be more discoveries of the benefits of the high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb ketogenic lifestyle. Regardless, always check with a dietitian or your primary care physician before making dramatic dietary changes.