The Keto Craze
Diets are no different from other trends. In fact, they operate on a similar time scale, they’re almost seasonal. There’s always a new diet that promises amazing results through a new method. In recent memory, there’s Atkins, paleo, low carb, and high fat. There’s no shortage.
At a certain point, the diets become buzzwords and the Ketogenic diet is no different.
What’s different about this trend? Unlike other low-carbohydrate diets, the Keto diet limits carbohydrate intake to an extreme level, less than 50 grams per day (or 5% of one’s calorie intake).
Conversely, traditional low-carbohydrate diets have specific carbohydrate thresholds, well above the 50 grams.
The Ketogenic diet is straightforward. When your body needs fuel, it gets it from either fatty tissue derived triglycerides or carbohydrate sourced glucose.
Problems begin when the body gets all the energy it needs from the preferred source, glucose but still has some left over.
The body then stores any of the excess glucose as glycogen in the muscle and liver, each holding around 500 and 100 grams respectively.
After your liver and muscles are replete with glycogen, your body can no longer convert glucose to glycogen.
Instead, your liver cells dispatch the excess glucose to your fatty tissue, where they store it as triglycerides for future energy use.
A Ketogenic diet presumes that by skipping carbohydrates, we forego our preferred glucose and glycogen energy route and burn fatty tissue stored triglycerides directly.
As a byproduct of the process, our body produces ketones. An elevated ketone presence indicates our body’s switch to triglycerides-as-fuel.
It’s worth mentioning, elevated ketones may be a sign of other conditions, like insulin deficiency.
That’s the Ketogenic diet in a nutshell. But how effective is it? That depends on what your goal is.
Keto and Weight Loss
The Ketogenic diet is a firm favorite amongst the fitness crowd. Yogis, bodybuilders, and causal gym goers alike embrace the weight loss method.
But dieters embraced Keto with a particular zeal. Unfortunately, most are advocating Keto based a modicum of personal success, and even less research.
The issue is that there are too many factors to consider for successful and healthy weight loss. So taking someone’s word based on their individual results is simply ineffective.
What may have worked for one Keto dieter may not work for the next. That’s where the research comes in. So, does the research back up their individualistic claims?
For its part, the medical community approaches the Ketogenic diet with caution. Industry professionals cite the Keto diet as only a short-term solution (similar to a rebound effect) which muddles permanent weight loss with shedding water weight.
Fortunately, there’s ample research. So let’s dive in.
For example, a 2008 Rowett Research Institute study1 found that Ketogenic diets reduce hunger. The authors noted that “in the short term, high-protein, low-carbohydrate Ketogenic diets reduce hunger more than high-protein, medium-carbohydrate non-Ketogenic diets.”
A reduced appetite goes a long way in any diet. Hence, evidence that Keto induces higher satiety certainly a positive to shed extra weight.
However, even though the researchers controlled for high protein intake, the nutrient’s properties – notorious for satiety – may have been largely responsible in both sets.
Low Fat or Low Carb?
A different study2, conducted by Duke University’s Medical Center, addressed weight loss and Keto diets directly by comparing a low-fat and a low-carbohydrate diet.
The authors found that “during active weight loss, serum triglyceride levels decreased more and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels increased in the low-carbohydrate diet.”
Again, the low-carb diet prompted greater weight loss than a low-fat diet.
Another study3, this time from the University of Connecticut, explored the same theme. Similarly, the authors concluded that a “carbohydrate-restricted diet resulted in a significant reduction in fat mass and a concomitant increase in lean body mass in normal-weight men.”
The findings are particularly interesting as they indicate possible lean mass gains, an unlikely concurrent effect as we’ll see later on. Especially since there’s strong evidence suggesting Keto’s muscle building inhibitions.
The aforementioned studies mention low carbohydrate induced weight loss. But how much of it is from a lack of carbs specifically, as opposed to a general calorie deficit?
A 2014 study4 explored the possibility by looking at varying external weight loss factors.
The study reflected a growing and cautionary consensus toward Keto. Specifically, researchers compared whether a low-carbohydrate or balanced diets were more effective weight loss tools.
Upon conclusion, they found that “there is probably little or no difference in weight loss and changes in cardiovascular risk factors up to two years of follow-up when overweight and obese adults, with or without type 2 diabetes, are randomized to low CHO diets and iso-energetic balanced weight loss diets.”
In plain English, it doesn’t matter whether your diet is low carbohydrate or nutritionally balanced. One isn’t more likely to cause weight loss than the other. A calorie deficit is what matters most.
A further study5 from Arizona State University compared low-carbohydrate Keto diets with non-Ketogenic counterparts.
To make it clear, the study examined the weight loss effect between Keto subjects (less than 50 grams of carbs per day) and non-Keto low-carbohydrate subjects, those consuming in between 50 grams and 250 grams of carbs a day.
The researchers concluded that Keto and non-Keto diets “were equally effective in reducing body weight and insulin resistance, but the KLC diet was associated with several adverse metabolic and emotional effects. The use of Ketogenic diets for weight loss is not warranted.”
A 2009 Harvard study6 went a step further. Specifically, the authors noted, “if your goal is weight loss, reduced calorie diets result in clinically meaningful results, regardless of which macronutrients they forego or emphasize.”
Business as Usual
The findings aren’t anything new, they fit with our understanding of weight loss. A calorie deficit is the key to weight loss.
But Keto diets are alarming the medical community for other reasons. Specifically, besides desired weight loss, keto dieters also experience fatigue and possible starvation.
A reckless weight loss pursuit, coupled with total Keto adherence, is a surefire way come up short in your health pursuits.
But Keto’s dangers extend beyond fatigue. Specifically, research has shown that muscle gain becomes particularly difficult, and loss is likely.
Keto and Muscle Gain
Research7 from Ball State University evinced the connection between Keto and difficulties gaining muscle. The study examined the AKT Pathway, a signal transduction pathway that promotes survival and growth in response to extracellular signals.
Specifically, the researchers discovered that muscle glycogen “appears to contribute to regulation of the pathway, which may influence cellular growth and adaptation in response to resistance exercise in a low-glycogen state.”
The findings are contrary to the aforementioned University of Connecticut study. After all, a low-carbohydrate Ketogenic diet is below 50 grams of carbohydrates per day.
Such a low count ensures that glucose doesn’t get stored as glycogen in the liver or muscle.
Reconciling the facts, it’s evident that;
- At least some stored glycogen is required for positive cellular growth and adaptation in response to resistance exercise, especially in a low-glycogen state.
- Extreme Keto – by their very design – deplete glycogen levels.
Hence, if you insist on Keto, you should be wary of dangerously low glycogen levels and expect minimal, if any, muscle gains.
To sum it up, ample glycogen reserves effectuate muscle gains. A Keto diet – by its very design – makes glycogen storage difficult and in turn, makes muscle gains difficult.
Post Workout Carbs
The carb muscle connection is evident beyond glycogen levels. A University of Texas at Galveston conducted a study8 examined the link further.
The study’s subjects consumed different amounts of carbohydrates and dietary fats post-workout to examine whether carbohydrates and dietary fats had different muscle protein synthesis effects.
The authors noted, “a provision of carbohydrates after exercise is likely to stimulate muscle protein synthesis to a greater extent than a corresponding amount of fat.”
The study also indicated that higher a carbohydrate intake was conducive to better high-intensity exercise performance.
To summarize, the study reflected well-known findings; carbohydrates are conducive to optimal muscle gain and higher intensity performance!
Conflating the research with experience; a Ketogenic diet accomplishes its goal, but only incidentally. As numerous studies have indicated, it doesn’t matter which nutrients you consume or in what amounts, what matters most is a calorie deficit.
Keto diets aren’t merely superfluous, but also cause muscle loss, and in some cases adverse metabolic and emotional effects.