One of the things we Nutrition Specialists get asked about the most these days is the ketogenic diet, or keto for short. We’re glad that you asked! Read on for our list of frequently asked questions about the keto diet.

What is the keto diet?

The ketogenic diet is actually a medical treatment that has been used since the 1920’s for children with epilepsy. Under the care of a physician and dietitian, the keto diet focuses on high fat, low carbohydrate, and moderate intake of protein in the diet. Following this plan consistently puts the body in a state called “ketosis”, which can help control seizures in some people.

How does it work?

Typically, the human body prefers to burn a type of sugar called glucose for energy. When glucose isn’t readily available, as is the case when following the keto diet, it can switch to burning primarily fat for fuel. Your body converts this fat into something called ketones, which your body is able to use as an alternate fuel source. These ketones (along with another by-product of the fat-burning reaction called decanoic acid) also happen to be effective at reducing seizures.

What makes it different from other “low carb” diet plans?

The primary difference is the amount of protein recommended in the ketogenic diet. While both keto and other low carb plans like Atkins significantly limit the intake of carbs, keto also limits protein intake, so it tends to be much higher in fat than traditional low carb diets. In addition, low carb plans like Atkins eventually integrate complex carbohydrates into the diet, which keto does not.

Why do people go on a keto diet?

It’s unlikely that all of the folks you’ve heard buzzing about the keto diet are interested in seizure reduction. These folks are likely hoping to see the other proposed benefits, such as weight loss and reduced risk of disease. While still in very early stages, some research suggests that a keto lifestyle can help with weight reduction and improve risk factors associated with common health concerns, like diabetes and heart disease. Because of its positive impact on insulin levels and blood sugar, the keto diet can potentially improve symptoms of conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and acne as well.

Are there any safety issues?

The answer is unclear, as the long-term research hasn’t quite caught up with the new ways that people are applying a keto lifestyle. Potential side effects include an initial “keto flu” (which feels much like a seasonal flu, and can last a few days), lowered libido, kidney or heart damage, bad breath, irregular cycles in women, sleep problems, reduced bone density, and constipation.

It’s easy to get excited about the potential benefits of following a ketogenic diet. But, there are some important considerations as well. First, the research is far from conclusive when it comes to the possible benefits (or safety concerns) associated with the ketogenic diet. Additionally, many people find it unsustainable to stay within the strict diet guidelines over time. So as always, be sure to have a discussion with your healthcare team before trying it yourself!