The ketogenic diet, better known as keto, has been in the health and wellness spotlight for a couple of years now. In case you’re not familiar: it’s a high-fat, low-carb eating plan originally designed to treat epilepsy but that many now use to lose weight and improve health.
Because the diet is radically different from how most people eat and because it goes against recommendations from health authorities, many question the diet’s safety, especially for seniors.
So, should seniors worry about using this diet to lose weight or improve health? Let’s check the research to find out.
First, What Is Keto and How Does It Work?
The keto diet is a very-low-carb diet that Mayo Clinic researchers developed in the 1920s to help treat childhood epilepsy. The diet puts the body in a metabolic state called ketosis, from which the diet got its name. In ketosis, the body burns fat to make ketones — molecules that replace glucose as fuel.
Despite commonly held belief, ketosis is a completely normal metabolic state to be in when you’re relatively healthy. It is not to be confused with ketoacidosis, a life-threatening condition that can happen as a result of untreated diabetes.
The main health benefit of ketosis is enhanced fat burning, which is great for when you’re trying to lose weight. On top of that, studies show that ketosis spares muscles during weight loss, improves metabolic health, and reduces inflammation.
Other possible health benefits of ketosis include:
- Improved cognitive health
- Enhanced mood
- Increased energy
- Glycemic control
- Reduced cancer risk
Is Keto Generally Safe?
Many of the promised health benefits of the ketogenic diet and ketosis are especially beneficial for older people. That’s simply because overweight, diabetes, cognitive decline, and cancer are problems that tend to increase in probability with age.
But as with all changes in diet and lifestyle, safety should come first.
Some major concerns with the keto diet include:
- Is it nutritionally adequate, or is there a risk of developing deficiencies given that it involves extreme carbohydrate restriction
- Does the higher fat intake on this diet put people at risk of imbalanced blood lipids and heart disease?
- Can the diet cause or worsen osteoporosis?
- Is there any risk to being in ketosis for extended periods of time?
Researchers are definitely working hard to answer these and many other questions. Here’s what major studies have discovered:
A study analyzing data on over 80 000 women following low-carb and keto diets from the Nurses’ Health Study found that these diets don’t increase your risk of coronary heart disease.
A study examining the safety of using keto to lose weight found the diet didn’t cause any negative changes that would be linked to bone mineral loss, liver health, kidney health, and blood lipids.
A systematic review of studies examining keto’s safety when used to treat childhood epilepsy concluded that keto is a safe dietary therapy, but that it can cause side effects.
Is It Safe for Older People?
When it comes to the safety of keto for those 65 and older, we can mostly draw some conclusions based on studies on keto in neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
A review published in the journal Nutrients, for example, found that there was a greater risk of nutrient deficiencies when older people with cognitive decline followed the keto diet. However, this complication is not a direct consequence of the diet itself as much as it is of trouble maintaining good nutrition while dealing with cognitive decline.
When keto is tested in non-demented elderly patients, however, it boosts working memory, visual attention, and task-switching without causing major problems. That’s likely because these patients are better able to follow the diet correctly and consistently.
But the diet isn’t without its risks. There have been rare reported cases of healthy people developing ketoacidosis on this diet. The diet may also change how the body handles calcium, putting people at risk of kidney stones and frail bones. However, this was only reported in children, and we know little about how it can affect the bones of older dieters.
So, Should I Follow the Keto Diet?
The keto diet can be a great tool for things like weight loss, glycemic control, and brain health. Countless studies show improvements in these areas. However, studies on the diet’s safety, especially for older people, are lacking.
Because nobody can guarantee that you can follow this diet risk-free, it’s wise to speak to your doctor first before considering it. This is especially important if you have an underlying medical condition like diabetes or osteoporosis, since the diet can affect both.
Under careful medical supervision, the keto diet can help you lose weight, keep your blood sugar within healthy levels, improve your cognitive functioning, and more. You also need to develop a well-balanced meal strategy to avoid nutrient deficiencies on this diet since it is fairly restrictive and known to reduce appetite.
We can Help! Our local advisors can help your family make a confident decision about senior living.