There's no denying the popularity surrounding the ketogenic diet, and it's easy to understand why. This low-carb approach to dieting guarantees speedy — and, sometimes, long-term — weight loss. But shedding a few pounds isn't the only perk from taking on the keto diet. Below are some of the non-weight benefits that one can expect when they follow the keto diet.
In the first few days of the keto diet, it's not uncommon for people to experience the "keto flu," a brief period in which you may have headaches, fatigue, confusion, and nausea. These symptoms are a sign that your body is making the switch from burning glucose (sugar from carbs) for energy to burning fat—a process called ketosis. The changeover can leave you feeling depleted for a day or two, but once you break through to the fat-burning phase, you may find you have much more energy and greater endurance. "You are able to do more without hitting 'the wall,' says Carrie Burrows, PhD, a health and fitness expert. "When we use fat as fuel, our endurance improves and is more sustainable." That extra energy will carry over to your workouts, Dr. Burrows says.
While these findings are preliminary, in one study of mice, the keto diet helped reduce anxiety. The research suggests this could be due to the protective brain benefits of intake of healthy fats and low levels of sugar. A follow-up study found that mice exposed to a ketogenic diet while in utero showed less susceptibility to anxiety and depression than mice born to mothers who were not on the keto diet.
The keto diet cuts your daily carbohydrates to less than 20 grams; for people with diagnosed diabetes, this may help them manage the condition. A one-year study found that putting people with type 2 diabetes into ketosis dramatically improved their blood sugar control. Also, reports study author Steve Phinney, MD, PhD, chief medical officer of Virta Health, a type 2 diabetes reversal treatment, "Patients were able to lose on average 12 percent of their body weight, about 31 pounds."
Fat accumulation in the liver is commonly associated with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. In serious cases, fatty liver disease can damage the liver. Doctors test for the condition by measuring levels of liver enzymes using blood tests. "These enzymes were significantly reduced after one year in the clinical patients, indicating less risk of developing fatty liver disease," Dr. Phinney says of the diabetes study. If you've been told you're at risk for fatty liver, you may want to give this diet plan a try. Before you embark on any new eating plan, arm yourself with knowledge.
Doctors can measure levels of inflammation in the body using blood tests for high-sensitivity C-reactive proteins (hsCRP) and white blood cell (WBC) counts. In Dr. Phinney's study, "patients experienced a hsCRP reduction of 39 percent, and white blood cells were reduced by 9 percent," Dr. Phinney says. "Similar results were demonstrated in a two-year study, which showed a 29 percent decrease in hsCRP following a low-carbohydrate diet." Inflammation, Dr. Phinney notes, is directly associated with many different health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and autoimmune conditions. "It is very possible that reducing inflammation through nutritional ketosis could improve a whole host of conditions," he says.
Many people on a ketogenic diet report sleeping much deeper, says Pamela Ellgen, a personal trainer and author of Sheet Pan Ketogenic. However, during the adjustment period (the first three to five days after you start keto), you may experience insomnia or difficulty staying asleep. This will end once your body adjusts to ketosis and burning stored fat. Then, you may find you're able to sleep longer, sleep deeper, and feel more relaxed and rested when you wake up.
Early research suggests that the keto diet may slow the growth of cancerous tumors. "Cancer cells have plenty of insulin receptors on them, making them flourish in environments high in blood sugar and insulin," says Brandon Olin, host of The Deskbound Podcast, which focuses on overcoming the damage of a sedentary lifestyle. "It's essentially giving cancer cells a source of fuel to feed on and grow." The research suggests ketone bodies may provide energy for your body without feeding the tumors.
Controlling your blood sugar levels helps you control your cravings, Dr. Burrows says. "When we are not on a sugar roller coaster from processed carbohydrates, most people make better food choices because they are not looking for their next hit of food," she says. You may also find you're able to go longer periods without eating, he says. Intermittent fasting is a common practice among dieters who've been eating keto for a while.
It may seem unusual that a diet filled with fats could be a positive for your heart, but that's exactly what Dr. Phinney suggests. "In the one-year study, 22 of 26 cardiovascular risk factors significantly improved. Most notably, these patients experienced a mean fasting triglyceride reduction of 24 percent, an 18 percent increase in good HDL cholesterol, and significant reductions in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure." For all of these findings, Dr. Phinney notes that research into the benefits of keto is still in its earliest stages. "The fact is, there is not yet any long-term, peer-reviewed data that connects some of these improvements to nutritional ketosis," he says.
While sugar may be a great quick form of energy, it doesn't keep your brain at its best. "There is a lot of evidence coming out which suggests that the brain operates more efficiently on ketones than it does on blood sugar, but the research is all fairly new," Olin says. "Ketones are made to fuel the brain in the absence of glucose," says Kristen Mancinelli, a registered dietitian and author of The Ketogenic Diet. "On a normal diet, the brain gets 100 percent of its energy from glucose. On a ketogenic diet, up to two-thirds of the brain's energy comes from ketones. It's understandable that brain function would change drastically on a ketogenic diet."