Has the fountain of youth been sitting on your dinner plate?
Two new scientific studies independently concluded that a ketogenic diet increased lifespan and preserved memory and motor function in mice.
For advocates of the diet, the results are another feather in their cap, but the question remains if the science really outweighs the hype for humans.
“The conclusion we draw out of this is that it’s a robust effect,” said Dr. Eric Verdin, president and chief executive officer of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and senior author of one of the papers, in a press release. “The two studies reinforce each other because they both show the same global effect on healthspan.”
Many are taking notice.
“This is a really exciting finding and long overdue,” Susan A. Masino, PhD, a professor of applied science at Trinity College in Connecticut, told Healthline. “[Ketogenic diets] mimic the metabolic state of fasting, or caloric restriction — which has many similar benefits.”
Masino has spent years researching the ketogenic diet, metabolism, and brain health — that is, how what we eat affects our brains.
How the studies were conducted
In Verdin’s study, some mice were fed between 70 percent and 90 percent of their daily food calories from fat.
That was compared with control groups receiving only 13 percent to 17 percent from fat, with carbohydrate calories making up the bulk of the difference.
The mice on higher fat diets had longer lives, lower midlife mortality rates, and performed better on tests pertaining to certain cognitive functioning.
The results “clearly demonstrate that lifespan is increased in mice consuming a ketogenic diet,” compared with a control group, the authors wrote.
But, it’s impossible to say that such a conclusion could be reproduced in humans.
As such, some experts are more measured in their assessment of these findings.
Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDE, CDN, a dietitian and diabetes educator, agrees that the results are promising, but she cautions that it is still “too soon to recommend” the diet to many individuals.
Keto diet is controversial
The ketogenic diet has become pervasive in the United States in both popular culture and fitness circles for its myriad health benefits, but it remains contentious.
The diet is based on the simple premise that when carbohydrate intake is drastically lowered, or stopped entirely, the body must find a new primary source of energy.
That source is fat.
Ketosis is different from ketoacidosis, which is the leading cause of death of people with diabetes under 24 years of age.
Ketosis is identified by the presence of ketones in the bloodstream, a chemical that the body produces when it burns stored fat.
The ketogenic diet has proven effective in helping to control seizures in some people with epilepsy.
Advocates have also hailed its ability to help shed pounds.
These new results, Masino said, are further proof of what some researchers, herself included, have believed for years.
However, any time a diet, scientifically backed or not, takes over Americans’ dinner plates, there are bound to be complications.
Healthline’s expansive article on the ketogenic diet pointed out a number of problems individuals can have with the diet.
These include the risk of muscle loss, fatigue, and, of course, the many health issues associated with yo-yo or fad dieting.
Even in that story, many experts were at odds with each other.
But Weiner and Masino both agree that for the average American, cutting down on carbs is probably a good thing.
“Most adults would benefit from reducing the overall amount of carbohydrate in their diet significantly,” said Masino. “Following a strict ketogenic diet is probably not necessary or realistic for most people unless they have very specific health goals.”
Trying to stay on the Keto diet
The “unrealistic” aspect of the ketogenic diet is that it can actually be difficult to maintain.
It requires a strict adherence to a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet, with little wiggle room for “cheat meals,” and absolutely no sweets or alcohol.
“In any kind of nutrition change there has to be sustainability,” said Weiner.
For individuals who are out to lose weight, choosing a difficult diet can be taxing, and may cause further setbacks rather than help.
“When you stop short, it does affect people feeling bad about themselves because they can’t keep up with it necessarily at the pace that it’s being recommended,” Weiner said. “So they feel it’s another failure in their trying to lose weight.”
The ketogenic diet has been called “antisocial” because dining out becomes difficult, depending on how strictly one is adhering to the diet.
“It can be very socially isolating,” said Weiner.
Even when preparing food at home, time management and cost are also factors for individuals who want to cook their own meals.
“The social and economic situations affect this decision as well,” said Weiner.
The bottom line is that individuals hoping to embark on a nutritional diet should be aware of the multifold ways in which it can impact their lives, beyond potential health benefits or harms.
While this new research on the ketogenic diet is exciting, there still remains significant work to be done in human trials. Even then, it may not be beneficial for everyone.
But as interest in it continues to grow among the general public, the more informed decision an individual can make about their diet, the better.
Weiner said proponents of this [diet] suggest that our current nutritional habits may lead to an increase incidence of obesity, prediabetes, cancer and type 2 diabetes. More studies are needed to determine if the ketogenic diet should be recommended for those at high risk for developing these conditions.
For most Americans, having to adhere to a strict ketogenic diet is more difficult than simpler dietary steps such as eating fewer sweets and carbohydrates, and eating more fresh vegetables.