The buzzy diet is said to potentially alleviate the symptoms of various mental health conditions but is it too good to be true?
In the health world, the ketogenic diet has become about as ubiquitous as Lululemon leggings at a yoga class.
Halle Berry’s a fan of the high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet. Kim Kardashian West’s a “keto” devotee. And “ketone” drinks are now on the market for you to gulp your way to your optimum weight.
But while the buzz around its potential to aid weight loss has been met with a healthy dose of skepticism by experts, the focus is now shifting to the ketogenic diet’s potential to alleviate the symptoms of various mental health conditions – from anxiety to depression.
So how could a simple diet affect not only your waistline, but your mind, too?
In order to understand this, let’s unpack how the diet works first. Our bodies are mainly fueled by glucose, most of which is derived from carbohydrates (hello, mashed potato). By eating high-fat foods and lowering your carb intake to below 50 grams a day (farewell, jam toast), we limit the amount of glucose our body can convert to energy.
As a result, a process called ketogenesis begins, whereby our liver starts to break down fat into “ketones”, which it can now use as a replacement source of energy. Once this is happening, your body is in a metabolic state called ketosis and the serious fat-burning begins.
This is where the potential mental health benefits could also kick in. The ketones not only replace glucose as our body’s main fuel source, but our brain’s too, affecting our neurotransmitters.
A recent University of Tasmania paper called The Current Status of the Ketogenic Diet in Psychiatry, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, outlined case studies where the diet had positively impacted participants’ mental health.
From bipolar disorder sufferers whose symptoms improved more on the diet than with their meds, to autistic patients who saw their social abilities strengthen, the case studies are anecdotal, sure, but could they be proof the ketogenic diet could work on our mind?
According to the University of Tasmania’s Dr Emmanuelle Bostock, who co-authored the paper, it’s certainly something worth exploring further.
“While improvements seen in anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder may be related to changes in neurotransmitters while on the diet, this is the tip of the iceberg and much more research is needed to clarify the role of the ketogenic diet in mental disorders,” Dr Bostock explains.
Despite the ketogenic diet’s use in psychiatry since the 1920s (it’s been prescribed for epileptic patients to reduce their seizure activity for decades), many experts are reluctant to recommend it to mental health patients at this stage.
Dr Bostock says the diet should always be conducted with close medical supervision due to it being so “difficult to follow”.
“Plus, at the start of the diet – when transitioning from a presumably standard diet – one may experience ‘keto flu’,” Dr Bostock explains.
Keto flu refers to a period of adjustment where your body switches from fueling itself with glucose to fat. While it might not sound overly significant, it’s something Susie Neilson, and many others, describes as “torturous”. The journalist tried the diet in an attempt to alleviate the symptoms of her mental health issues, but found that it only worsened them.
“After two days of eating fewer than 30 grams of carbs, it hit – a period of low energy and weakness that keto experts call ‘the low-carb flu’. I woke up achy and sluggish, confused and depressed,” she wrote in an article for The Cut.
“By Thursday, I noticed blearily that my anxiety was gone – I was simply too tired to be nervous about anything. But my depression had deepened, sending me into a dull blue fog… I battled depression and physical fatigue for ten days straight, and still, my ‘flu’ raged on.”
While every second health influencer might seem to be breezing by on their keto journey (and they have the bacon shots to prove it), dietitian and founder of Functional Food Solutions Peta Carige says there’s something to be said for just trying to stick to a balanced diet. Is it sexy? Not particularly. But it’s better for your health holistically.
“It’s important to find a diet plan that works for you personally. I have seen some patients have great success with the ketogenic diet and others that have found it terrible, uncomfortable and too restrictive,” explains Carige.
“Listen to your body and every ‘new’ diet plan should start with increasing your vegetable and salad intake.”
Plus, the ketogenic diet was recently named the worst diet of 2018 by the US News and World Report panel (a group made up of 25 experts in the health and wellbeing field) due to its ineffectiveness in terms of long-term weight loss and ease of use.
The takeaway here? When it comes to changing your mental health or waistline, it pays to do your due diligence before getting sucked into the latest diet du jour.
While the ketogenic diet may have some indicators that it could benefit your mental health, there’s currently more evidence to suggest that, at best, it’s just a short-term weight loss solution.
Yes, you have our permission to stay friends with mashed potato for now.