If you’ve spent any time on social media lately, you’ve probably heard about the keto diet. People are claiming huge weight losses on diets full of bacon, cream, and fat cuts of steak. They’re even adding butter to their coffee. It almost seems too good to be true. Is it?

It is true that the ketogenic diet has been linked to weight loss and other health benefits. However, it also has very strict rules, there are some risks associated with the diet, and to be safe you should check in with your doctor before jumping on this new diet craze.

What is the keto diet?

The keto diet is a low carbohydrate, high fat, and moderate protein way of eating. Its name, keto, which is short for ketogenic comes from the production of ketone bodies (also called ketones) by the liver. Ketones are naturally produced when following a low carbohydrate diet, as well as when fasting. They are used as a source of energy by the body instead of sugar derived from carbohydrates.

What are the benefits of the keto diet?

The ketogenic diet has been around for about a hundred years, and continues to be the subject of scientific research. It has been shown to reduce seizures in patients with difficult to control epilepsy and to reduce blood sugar levels in patients with diabetes type 2. According to a number of studies, including this 2018 research paper, the ketogenic diet can also be effective in helping patients lose weight. It may even be effective at helping to lower cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, according to this 2019 research.

How low is low when it comes to carbohydrates?

To achieve the benefits associated with the ketogenic diet, the amount of carbohydrates consumed daily must be kept very low—usually less than 10% of your caloric intake. For many this means no more than 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. To put that into perspective, a cup of rice has about 45 grams of carbohydrate, a cup of 1% milk has about 12 grams, and a banana has about 27 grams.

What are the Risks?

Because the carbohydrates have to be kept so low, a number of foods are typically eliminated from the diet. This may lead to poor nutrition if you are not careful. According to this January 2019 scientific review, the ketogenic diet can increase the risk of malnutrition specifically in the elderly.

Often on the ketogenic diet, people up their intake of processed meats which has been linked to an increase in colorectal cancer. You can learn more about that in this 2018 guide, released by The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research.

It is extremely important to stay hydrated and eat a wide variety of nutritionally dense foods within the limitations of the diet. The best way to do this is to work with an experienced nutritionist who has been referred to you by your doctor.

The food you put in your body can have a big impact on your health, both bad and good. And yes, for some, the ketogenic diet can be a helpful weight loss tool with the potential to fight disease. But before you head to Costco to stock up on butter, take some time to do your research. Remember it’s never a great idea to take health advice from instagram (or Twitter or Facebook, for that matter), so tread lightly there, and instead talk to your doctor.

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