We’ve all been programmed by the media and academia to believe that eating a high-fat diet is bad. We still have countless jokes scattered throughout pop culture about how someone eating bacon is basically the equivalent of Russian Roulette. However, what if reality were more like Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper. He wakes up in a 21st century where what they thought was health food is now bad for you. Hence, let’s explore the idea of whether eating fat is healthy and whether the ketogenic diet reduces or adds years to your life.
To understand a ketogenic diet, it’s important to know how the body burns fuel for energy. The body-fuel sources include carbohydrates, protein, and fat. When we consume more carbohydrates, which turn to sugar (glucose or fructose) in the body, than our body can properly metabolize (or burn for energy), the liver will turn the extra sugar into fat and then secrete that fat into the bloodstream in the form of triglycerides. Triglycerides are then stored in our fat cells to be used for energy later.
When our diet chronically consists of high-carb, high-sugar foods—the standard American diet today—those triglycerides go unused as more continue to be stored. More importantly, the carbs cause excessive insulin secretion which blocks natural fat burning processes. All of this causes a variety of metabolic-syndrome issues, such as weight gain (particularly with fat accumulation around the midsection), high triglycerides and blood pressure, chronic inflammation, and certain diseases. People in the high-carb, high-sugar boat are likely burning sugar as their primary fuel. This sounds like a good deal, right?
Unfortunately, no. If your body’s primary source of energy is carbs and sugar, it’s missing out on its optimal, and what should be its primary, source of energy—fat. Why should fat be our main source of energy? The difference is in how the body metabolizes fat. Fat is a sustainable, long-burning, powerful form of energy that even burns while you’re at rest, while sugar is a fast burner that depletes itself quickly (in other words, it’s an unsustainable form of energy).
The idea behind the ketogenic diet is to switch your body from metabolizing primarily sugar to metabolizing primarily fat, and in order to do this, carbs and sugars are drastically cut (typically to <50 grams per day) and fats are increased. When your body starts primarily burning fat, it produces by-products called ketones, and this signifies the body is in a state of ketosis, the goal of the ketogenic diet. When your body is in ketosis, you burn more fat and you eat less, effectively losing weight, resetting your metabolism, and lowering your risk of metabolic syndrome and all that comes with it.
Does it work? Studies have been promising, and our feature study today even suggests a ketogenic diet could help us live 10 years longer! Before we review the study, let’s talk a little more about the dietary fat we’ve all been programmed to hate.
Not only is a low-fat diet a bad idea, but your body actually needs saturated—yes, saturated—fat to properly function. The history of the low-fat movement is a heavily tainted one, and the health benefits of a diet including healthy fats (e.g., the ketogenic diet) have come to light in the past few years. I’ve covered a number of studies over the years that support eating fat and debunk the low-fat myth:
The new study was designed specifically to study the effects of high-fat, low-carb diets on lifespan, health quality, and metabolism. Mice subjects were separated into three groups: a low-carb diet group, a ketogenic-diet group, or a control group. Calories were equal in all three groups. The low-carb diet was defined as 70% of its calories from fat. The ketogenic diet was defined as 89% of calories from fat. And the control diet was defined as 65% of calories from carbohydrates.
The result? Compared to the control group, the ketogenic group as a whole experienced more than a 13% increase in its lifespan. This translates to a significant 7- to 10-year increase in human lifespan. The low-carb group showed a moderate increase in lifespan, but it wasn’t significantly higher than the control group. Additional significant findings in the ketogenic group when compared to the other two groups were the preservation of memory, coordination, strength, and endurance; greater muscle mass, better protein metabolism in the liver, and a decrease in the incidence of tumors.
Some questions still remain, such as comparisons to calorie-restrictive diets, but with ketogenic diets being such a hot topic these days, it’s a good idea to stay on top of the research to perhaps one day determine how the diet truly benefits a human population.
The upshot? Maybe Woody Allen was right: maybe what we thought was health food is really bad for us! In the meantime, I’ve always been a big believer in low-carb diets. While I don’t know if they’ll help me live longer, I do feel better cutting out the sugar!
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About the Author
Christopher J. Centeno, M.D. is an international expert and specialist in regenerative medicine and the clinical use of mesenchymal stem cells in orthopedics. He is board certified in physical medicine as well as rehabilitation and in pain management through The American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.…