The ketogenic diet has been around for almost a century. But it is only in the past couple of years that the diet has gained in popularity, at least according to Google Trends. One reason why keto is going through a big resurgence is that more and more studies are supporting its many health claims such as weight loss, blood sugar control, and cancer prevention.
Keto dieters who are just starting this diet are curious to learn how exactly does this diet work. If you're one such ketoer, read this comprehensive overview of the most well-known keto diet benefits.
Most keto diet benefits are directly related to nutritional ketosis. Nutritional ketosis is an altered metabolic state where most of your body's energy comes from fat and ketones. It's opposite to glycolysis, your usual metabolic state of sugar burning. But despite being an altered state, ketosis is healthy as you'll learn in the following lines.
However, some keto diet benefits are due to the keto diet itself. To understand how the ketogenic diet and ketosis work together to improve your health and well-being, take a look at these top 9 keto diet benefits.
Weight loss is the most sought-after keto diet benefit today. That's not surprising given that we're in the midst of a worldwide obesity epidemic  and that the ketogenic diet is proven to be more effective for weight loss than other weight-loss diets . But how exactly does keto help people lose weight?
It all has to do with ketosis, that magical metabolic state often referred to as fat-burning mode. When you are in ketosis after following a ketogenic diet for a while, the body burns fat in order to make energy. But many other things happen during ketosis that help accelerate weight loss and that include:
Reduced insulin levels
Higher insulin levels stimulate fat and glucose storage, while low insulin levels stimulate their burning, thus leading to weight loss.
The ketogenic diet naturally suppresses appetite, which also helps people lose weight. The exact mechanisms behind this are not fully understood. Lower insulin is probably the main reason keto suppresses appetite. Ketones seem to suppress hunger hormones, also contributing to this effect.
Researchers found a link between chronic inflammation and weight gain . Nutritional ketosis reduces inflammation, and, in this way, contributes to easier weight loss.
Besides ketosis, the diet itself helps you lose weight. Keto is very low in carbohydrates, macros that have the strongest effects on appetite by stimulating insulin production. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are popular on a keto diet, are also proven appetite-suppressants .
The ketogenic diet is a promising treatment for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Diabetes refers to diseases in which the body's ability to make or respond to insulin is impaired. This results in problems with metabolizing carbohydrates, leading to elevated blood glucose levels.
The ketogenic diet, being a diet low in carbohydrates, is considered a promising treatment for diabetes. That's because the diet helps lower blood glucose and insulin levels. Some studies even show that the diet improved glycemic control in diabetes patients so much so that they discontinued their medication . Studies also found the diet improved Hemoglobin A1c .
Besides its direct effects on blood sugar, keto also helps manage diabetes indirectly. For example, the diet promotes weight loss and reduces inflammation – both are risk factors for diabetes.
However, most of these are referring to keto diet benefits for type 2 diabetes. When type 1 diabetes is concerned, the research is inconclusive. There are studies that found the keto diet to restore normal insulin production in those with type 1 diabetes . Most studies, however, only noted improvement in blood glucose levels in type 1 diabetics following keto.
Whatever the case may be with keto and type 1 diabetes, you should speak to your doctor about starting this diet. Because insulin production is compromised with this disease, you may be at a higher risk of ketoacidosis when starting keto. It's important to manage your insulin properly to avoid this dangerous problem.
The ketogenic diet was originally conceived as an epilepsy treatment back in the 1920s. However, with the advent of anti-seizure medication in the 1950s, its use as an epilepsy remedy declined. Now, keto is only prescribed to children (and adults) with intractable epilepsy.
Researchers are still not sure how exactly the keto diet helps control seizures, but what they do know that it is effective in this regard . Some theories on how keto reduces seizures include increasing GABA (a neurotransmitter) production, reducing oxidative damage, and boosting energy production in brain cells. All these benefits come directly from ketosis and ketones.
As far as the diet's effectiveness as an epilepsy therapy goes, systematic reviews shot it reduces seizures in 85% of all cases and leads to complete absence of seizures in at least 55% cases . If you're an adult considering the keto diet to manage epilepsy, you can do so safely on your own after doing careful research and speaking to your doctor.
However, if you want to help manage your child's epilepsy with a low-carb, ketogenic diet, then you need to follow the advice of a specialist. Children have very different dietary requirements than adults. A carefully-planned keto diet should help your child develop normally while also controlling seizures. And, you likely won't need to keep your child on keto for more than 2 years to help manage this brain condition .
Studies show that many cancer cells rely on glucose and glycolysis to spread and survive . Furthermore, these same studies found that some types of cancer cells are unable to metabolize ketones. That's why experts are now looking into the ketogenic diet and ketosis as adjuvant cancer therapies.
Researchers also believe that by reducing blood glucose and insulin levels, the ketogenic diet helps reduce insulin-like growth factors, important drivers of cancer cell proliferation.
However, this anti-tumor effect of ketogenic diets and ketosis was not the same for all cancers. So far, researchers observed the greatest benefits for certain types of brain cancer (glioblastoma), colon cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, stomach cancer, and liver cancer.
Patients with severe weight loss and muscle wasting due to advanced cancer should not be put on the ketogenic diet. Most patients that are good candidates for keto as an adjuvant cancer therapy are advised to continue with conventional cancer treatments along with this diet for best outcomes.
And as far as using the keto diet to prevent cancer is concerned, there were very few studies to know if it works in this regard. But given that the diet is known to reduces major cancer risk factors such as obesity, high blood sugar, high insulin, inflammation, and oxidative stress, it's safe to assume that this diet can also help prevent cancer.
Coronary artery disease and heart attack are examples of cardiovascular diseases (CVD). These diseases are the leading causes of death worldwide . Medical experts and health organizations have for a long time blamed high-fat diets for the global rise in CVD-related deaths. However, a growing body of research shows that this is a myth and that CVD is much more complex than that .
As it turns out, insulin resistance, systemic inflammation, excess fructose and refined carbohydrates, and a high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio are the reasons behind CVD. These problems when bundled together impair normal blood vessel functioning and lead to arterial plaque formation. So, how does keto help with this?
The ketogenic diet insulin resistance and lowers inflammation. The diet also includes plenty of saturated fats, which are better for your health than omega-3 fatty acids. Studies also found that keto improves total blood lipids . More specifically, the diet raises HDL (good cholesterol) and lowers triglycerides. It also raises LDL cholesterol, which is considered to be the bad cholesterol. However, it also increases LDL particle size – larger LDL particles are protective against CVD.
The most common type of liver disease is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD prevalence is between 20 and 30% among adults in Western countries . The disease is much higher in people with obesity, diabetes, and hyperlipidemia.
It's a fairly common misconception that higher fat intake leads to NAFLD. This disease is actually a part of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of problems like diabetes (and pre-diabetes), high blood pressure, elevated blood lipids, and being overweight. These problems lead to increased synthesis of fatty acids in liver cells and retention of lipids in the liver.
Metabolic syndrome is often a result of inactivity combined with refined carb intake. By reducing your carb intake with a ketogenic diet, you also reduce your risk of metabolic syndrome and NAFLD. The keto diet also boosts fat burning within liver cells, further reducing your risk of this common liver problem.
Studies have examined the effects of ketogenic diets on NAFLD, and the results were almost always promising. For example, a pilot study involving 5 patients with NAFLD found that after six months on the diet, they experienced improvement in their liver health .
We already explained that keto is great for epilepsy. But what about other brain diseases? Because the ketogenic diet is such an effective epilepsy treatment, it also incited curiosity as a viable remedy for problems like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ADHD, traumatic brain injury, bipolar disorder, and depression. While the etiology of these disorders varies, the benefits seem to be similar – keto reduces symptoms and supports normal brain functioning.
The ketogenic diet does so by increasing ketone levels, which are a much easier fuel for the brain to use, requiring less oxygen than glucose to produce energy. Ketones also reduce inflammation in the brain. This is especially valuable for Alzheimer's patients, whose brains are known to have trouble using glucose for energy. The same holds true for traumatic brain injury.
The keto diet was also found to be promising as a treatment for a range of psychiatric disorders . Keto is known to increase the levels of GABA in the brain. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. It is important for regulating communication between nerve cells, but it also keeps you calm. Normal GABA functioning reduces anxiety, insomnia, and depression.
Besides reducing the severity of symptoms of brain and psychiatric disorders, keto increases cognitive functioning in relatively healthy people. Many keto dieters report better memory, focus, and mental energy when they're in ketosis.
More and more athletes are jumping on the keto bandwagon, and for a valid reason. Being on a keto diet for a couple of months leads to something called keto-adaptation or fat-adaptation. What that means is that the body has become perfectly adapted to burning fat for fuel. For an athlete, that means that their body is able to tap into its own fat stores when glucose starts running low – almost like having boundless energy .
As already said, ketones are a much more efficient fuel than glucose. First, they provide more energy per unit of oxygen used. Secondly, your body can make ketones from both the fat you eat and its own fat stores. Just consider that your body stores 30,000 – 100,000 calories in the form of fat and only 2,000 calories in the form of glycogen. Tapping into those stores can give you superhuman endurance.
Unfortunately, not everyone is fat-adapted. In fact, most people are metabolically inflexible, i.e. their bodies have trouble switching from burning sugar (glucose) to burning fat (and ketones). By becoming fat-adapted with the help of a keto diet, you will be able to boost your metabolic flexibility, and with that, your physical endurance.
The ketogenic diet boosts weight loss, and this obviously leads to a healthier body composition. For reference, a healthy body is one that has between 8-20% body fat (for men) or 21-33% (for women). Having too much body fat leads to an imbalanced body composition and a higher risk of diseases like diabetes, CVD, and even cancer.
The ketogenic diet is probably among the best eating strategies for improving body composition, not only because it boosts fat burning, but it also spares muscle mass. Most weight-loss diets, unfortunately, sacrifice a bit of muscle before taping into fat stores. That's because muscles spend a lot of energy, and because your body perceives dieting as an energy crisis, it shuts down major spenders of energy.
The keto diet is different. It does not lead to an energy crisis in terms of calories, but carbohydrates. It gets plenty of energy from the fat you eat and from your fat stores to help fuel the brain. Because this type of energy crisis is handled by making ketones to help the brain thrive, it spares muscle glycogen .
The ketogenic diet will not reduce your resting metabolic rate (RMR), which is also important for maintaining a healthy body composition.
The ketogenic diet is providing a wide range of health and other benefits that research is just beginning to uncover. Many of these benefits are a result of ketosis, a state of greater ketone production and fat burning. Some benefits are due to the change in type of food you eat on this diet. But whatever is behind these benefits, all are being backed by science.
If you want to learn more about the keto diet and its many benefits, read our article covering 6 Ketosis Benefits Besides Weight Loss and read Everything You Need to Know About the Ketogenic Diet.