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Are Keto and Heart Health Compatible?

As February is American Heart Month, we’re looking at how exercises and food can better support heart health. The Keto Diet, now famous for rapid weight loss first emerged under its name “the ketogenic diet” a century ago as an epilepsy treatment in children. Prior to the 1920s, starvation had long been known to control seizures, but it was not ideal for growing children and their nutrient needs. In the 1920s, a doctor at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center noted that a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet mimicked the physiology of starvation, kicking off a process called ketosis that burned fat for fuel and thereby controlled seizures in children.

In the past century, the Keto Diet has gained international attention as a rapid weight-loss measure, going under a variety of aliases with slightly varying regimens, including the Paleo Diet and Adkins Diet. The original Adkins Diet received criticism for its potential effects on heart health, with some speculation that the founder’s death was attributed to a heart condition.

This leads us to ask – can the Keto Diet, naturally high in fat, be heart healthy? Let’s explore.

Keto 101

The Keto Diet is a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat eating pattern that triggers a state of ketosis, a process that happens when the body doesn’t have enough carbohydrates to use for fuel. Since the body needs energy to function, it resorts to burning fat which generates ketones for energy use.

Eating heart-healthy on Keto

Though not confirmed by research, the Keto Diet may come along with some heart health pros.

Cutting excess unhealthy carbohydrates helps reduce triglycerides, a heart disease risk marker. Short-term studies of those consuming such a diet have shown improved insulin sensitivity, blood pressure and HDL cholesterol levels.

Though the Keto Diet discourages eating unhealthy carbohydrates, it also cuts healthy ones from the mix. Foods like fruits and whole grains – which contain fiber and plenty of nutrients important for heart health aren’t plentiful in the diet. Here are some more heart-healthy tips to keep in mind:

  • Watch the saturated fat. Because the Keto Diet is a high-fat regimen, it’s important to pay attention to the source of the calories from fat.The American Heart Association recommends keeping saturated fat down to 5-6 percent of calories. Limit saturated fat from sources like bacon and other fatty meats, cheese, cream, coconut oil and butter.
  • Get enough fiber. Fiber plays a role in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Aim to include fiber-rich healthy fats such as avocados, and chia and flax seeds. Pack in high-fiber, non-starchy vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage and leafy greens.
  • Reach for healthy fats. Healthy fats like avocados, nuts and seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish provide heart-healthy benefits.
  • Keep health factors in mind.  A Keto Diet can be harmful to some with certain chronic conditions, so it’s important to consult your health care provider before starting an eating plan like this.

Yo-yo dieting and the unknowns.

Many Keto dieters rave about its weight-shedding results and hunger-curbing properties. However, it’s important to note that because most studies have been short with few participants, long-term effects on health and safety are unknown.

The very low-carbohydrate nature of the Keto Diet makes it restrictive for many people, which can make it difficult to stick with it. Often, restrictive diets can lead to weight regain or weight cycling. Weight cycling is a pattern where a person repeatedly loses and regains weight. Some research suggests that this yo-yo pattern increases heart disease risk factors more than someone who remains at a stable weight.

When it comes down to it, the best diet is the one that fits an individual’s lifestyle and needs. It’s important to consult your health care provider before starting any weight-loss program, especially if you have a health condition.

Shanthi Appelö is a registered dietitian and health and wellness spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan based in Detroit. Passionate about the science of nutrition and behavior, Shanthi has experience working in clinical nutrition, public health and teaching in the university setting. In her free time, she enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, exploring the outdoors, working on art and spending time with family. See more at AHealthierMichigan.org.

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