Keto diet helps some lose weight, but more research is needed about long-term health risks

By Dahlia Jones
A physician beam scale has a post-it note labeled "goals" taped to it.
The keto diet can help some to lose weight, but nutritionists have some concerns about adhering to the regime long-term. Photo courtesy of Marco Verch via Flickr

In recent years the keto diet has spiked in popularity with influencers and weight loss programs alike touting its benefits. While nutritionists say the diet can be effective for weight loss in some individuals, they say more research is needed to know if it’s safe long-term.

The ketogenic or keto diet, is a high fat, low carb diet that forces the body to burn fat instead of carbs.  

It was first developed for people with epilepsy to help their conversion from … ketosis in the brain,” and reduce inflammation in the brain, says Jolyn Wirshing, a professor and licensed dietitian at the university. 

“The keto diet has been around since the 1920s as far as for different seizure disorders,” says Wirshing. The diet has been used to treat seizures in patients with epilepsy.

Nowadays due to the influence of social media and popular YouTubers like Crystal Breeze, more and more people have been trying the keto diet for weight loss purposes.   

Not all keto diets are alike: good fats and bad fats

Karen Bain, a clinical dietician who works in the Center for Molecular Science says that most people she sees who are on the diet tend to take a less strict approach over time.

But there are some patients that I’ve seen that follow a modified version and they bring in some of the variety and they do it in a very, you know I’d say a balanced approach and I, I could see it being very successful,” says Bain.

Wirshing says at this point she would not recommend that people adhere to the diet long term, because current studies suggest that it may be linked to heart disease and other cancers.

Overall, the studies haven’t been conclusive. The first studies are now just coming out and they are showing higher rates of heart disease and cancers in those populations. So, they’re already pretty high for most groups,” says Wirshing.

“So I think that it’s just a pretty risky diet for long term.”

Some groups at higher risk

Bain also warns that the keto diet may not be suitable for certain individuals, such as young children and pregnant women.

I would say anyone that’s compromised in any sense where it could be where they have kidney conditions or if they have possibly gout or even let’s say pregnant women or young children, I’d be cautious.”

While professionals worry that many following the keto diet are not doing so properly. University of Nevada, Reno student Chris Buchanan tried the keto diet and lost over forty pounds on it. He says he put a lot of research and mental preparation into it. 

Kick-starting healthier eating habits

Before I did keto, consistency was always a struggle. I just never found anything that worked for me and I never really got interested enough to start doing my own research,” says Buchanan.

“Keto was like the first diet that actually had me looking up information or ways that I can, you know, actually benefit from this.”

Buchanan says that for him the keto diet proved to be a success. Even though he is no longer on the keto diet he says that he has not gone back to his old eating habits.

In those two months I dropped 40 pounds. So yeah, that was pivotal for me,” says Buchanan. “And then I stopped keto. I mean directly also doing some on and off. But at the same time I wasn’t doing keto, but I wasn’t going back to eating the way I was, if that makes sense.”

While there is still much that is unknown about the keto diet, it is clear that maintaining a healthy and balanced diet, while also incorporating exercise is a surefire way to improve fitness.

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