15 Health Benefits of Low-Carb & Ketogenic Diets (I Love No. 9)
Remember in the 90s when low-carb diets were getting all the media attention?
At the time, for a lot of people, low-carb was just another fad, questioning whether low-carb was healthy at all.
Concerns were raised over whether a high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Since then, however, low-carb diets have been studied extensively.
Not only is low-carb great for losing weight, but it turns out it is the healthiest diet you can eat, including benefits for your cardiovascular health!
Low-carb might have been a fad in the 90s, but it isn't 'just another fad diet.' It works.
The following are the scientifically-proven weight loss and health benefits of low-carb ketogenic diets:
1. Low-Carb Increases Your HDL ('Good') Cholesterol Levels
If you have concerns about your cardiovascular health or you are just a health-conscious person, you probably have heard of HDL vs. LDL cholesterol.
HDL stands for 'High-Density Lipoprotein,' and is often referred to as 'good' cholesterol, whereas LDL stands for 'Low-Density Lipoprotein,' and is typically called 'bad cholesterol.'
Neither term refers directly to cholesterol itself, so the phrases 'HDL cholesterol' and 'LDL cholesterol' are misnomers.
Rather, HDL and LDL are names for the specific types of lipoproteins which ferry cholesterol around your bloodstream.
- LDL moves cholesterol from your liver to other body systems
- HDL transports cholesterol from areas throughout your body back to your liver
- Once at your liver, cholesterol can either be used again, or it can be excreted as waste
This may seem counterintuitive to you if you have heard time and again throughout your life, as so many of us have that fat is terrible for your cardiovascular system.
2. With Low-Carb, You Can Control Your LDL Cholesterol
As mentioned previously, HDL is typically referred to as "good" cholesterol, while LDL is usually called "bad" cholesterol.
This is something of an oversimplification.
Elevated LDL levels are associated with a heightened risk of heart disease, but studies have discovered that there are different sizes of LDL particles and that the smallest LDL particles are the ones that increase the risk of heart attack. The larger LDL particles do not seem to significantly increase the risk of heart disease (11, 12, 13).
Low-carb diets help you out with your LDL cholesterol in a couple of ways. Eating low-carb both reduces the amount of LDL in your bloodstream, and raises the size of the particles (14, 15, 16, 17).
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3. Lower Your Triglycerides with Low-Carb
If you are following your cardiovascular health markers, you are looking at your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and triglycerides.
What are triglycerides? Fat molecules!
It is well-known that higher levels of triglycerides in your bloodstream are associated with an increased risk of heart disease (18).
You might assume that intuitively, triglycerides would increase the more fat you eat, but ironically this is not the case at all.
4. Blood Pressure Decreases on a Low-Carb Diet
It is a well-known fact that chronic high blood pressure can lead to hypertensive heart disease (24).
High blood pressure is also a factor which can increase your risk for kidney failure or stroke.
High blood pressure is extremely common, so much so it is nearly ubiquitous. According to the CDC, around 1 in 3 American adults suffer from high blood pressure. That is 70 million people. Even young people and children can suffer from high blood pressure.
If you are looking for a long-term diet to decrease your blood pressure, low-carb is an ideal choice. Studies demonstrate that low-carb can help to lower chronically high blood pressure, lowering your risk for related diseases (25, 26, 27).
Additionally, it has been demonstrated that controlling your insulin levels can reduce blood pressure (28).
Low-carb diets help to control insulin levels (29).
5. Manage Your Insulin with Low-Carb
What is insulin? Insulin is an important hormone which controls what your body does with glucose (store it or burn it).
When you are healthy, and your insulin is working properly, you do not experience spikes in your blood glucose levels or subsequent 'sugar crashes.'
If however, you have insulin resistance, your cells do not properly read the messages that insulin is sending, which can result in blood sugar problems.
These problems may even take the form of type 2 diabetes.
In type 2 diabetes, your body cannot properly produce the right amount of insulin.
This leads to a vicious cycle since you now have an even harder time regulating your blood sugar.
But where does glucose come from?
This brings us back to carbohydrates. When you eat carbs, your body has to break them down. Carbs are composed of sugars, so they convert to glucose in your digestive system.
By eating fewer carbs, you are giving your body less glucose to process.
In fact, low-carb ketogenic diets are so effective at managing insulin levels that many people with diabetes who switch to low-carb can reduce their medications or even stop taking them altogether (35, 36).
6. Shed Excess Water Weight
Let’s talk about water weight. We have all heard that we carry extra baggage around in the form of stored water, especially if we are dehydrated. Is this the reason that the scale sometimes reads a few pounds higher than you expect it to?
Water weight is a confusing topic because there are two forms it can take:
- Bloating, which is sporadic and temporary
- Chronic water retention, which is a long-term condition resulting from kidney or hormones malfunctioning
Your kidney is involved with both types of water weight. Your kidney is responsible for deciding whether to hold onto the water or flush it out. So you want your kidney to be functioning at its best.
There is an important relationship between your kidneys, sodium, and insulin.
Sometimes when you have a salty meal, your kidneys will decide to hold onto more water to dilute the sodium content. This is why you get temporary bloating.
Insulin plays a key role in blood pressure and nutrient reabsorption.
In other words, when your insulin levels are properly regulated, your kidney function improves.
With the kidney performing more efficiently, your body retains water for a briefer period of time.
This prevents bloating and may also prevent chronic water retention.
The result is that you can shed more of your excess water weight, dropping a few pounds.
This means that low-carb diets are perfect for shedding excess water weight.
7. Fight Metabolic Syndrome
If you are concerned about your heart health, you may be familiar with (and even worried about) what is known as 'metabolic syndrome.'
Metabolic syndrome is not just one disorder, but a set of risk factors, which combined significantly raise your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
These risk factors are (44):
- Low levels of HDL-cholesterol (the 'good' cholesterol)
- High triglycerides
- Obesity, particularly in the abdominal area
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar
Because more and more people are obese, metabolic syndrome is becoming a particularly pervasive problem in today’s world.
In fact, metabolic syndrome is so common that researchers believe it may soon overtake smoking as the number one cause of heart disease.
Researchers also emphasize that you can treat metabolic syndrome through lifestyle changes.
A low-carb diet is the perfect example of a lifestyle change which can treat and possibly even cure metabolic syndrome.
Remember, we have already demonstrated that a low-carb diet can raise your HDL cholesterol, lower triglycerides, control blood sugar levels, and reduce high blood pressure.
Next, we are going to address how low-carb helps to control body weight, and may even help you burn fat in the abdominal area.
All five risk factors of metabolic syndrome improve significantly on a low-carb diet.
8. Suppress Your Appetite, So You Are Less Tempted to Overeat
One of the ways in which a low-carb diet helps you to lose weight is by controlling your appetite.
Hunger is one of the reasons it is typically hard to diet, especially if you are sticking with a typical crash diet which involves giving up a lot of proteins and fats.
No one likes being hungry all the time, so this is a common reason why dieting fails.
Imagine if you could go on a diet that would help you lose weight without being hungry all the time.
That’s what you can do with low-carb!
A low-carbohydrate diet reduces hunger (45).
You are eating more fats and proteins when you reduce your carbohydrate intake on a low-carb diet. Protein can help you to feel full (46).
By eating more fat (moderate protein) on a low-carb ketogenic diet, your body adjusts to predominately burn fat (ketosis) for energy. Having access to your body fat for energy, you won't feel the need to snack on carbohydrate foods to top up your blood glucose levels (47).
Sugar is also highly addictive and may even be more addictive than cocaine (48). This causes you to snack more on sugary foods. On a low-carb diet, you eat fewer carbs and hence less sugar so you won't be tempted to snack because of addiction.
As a result, you will naturally end up eating fewer calories (yes, even with all those fats) on a low-carb diet than you would if you were eating a low-fat diet.
Hunger is one of the reasons that dieters on low-fat plans need to actively restrict calories.
On a low-carb diet, do not be surprised if you feel so satisfied after and between meals that you do not even need to count calories to stay on track.
9. Boost Your Mood
The same study above that demonstrated that low-carb diets improve satiety (49) also demonstrated another benefit.
It turns out that low-carb diets not only help you feel full but also regulate your mood.
This means that if you struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders, you may feel more level-headed, relaxed, and balanced when you eat a low-carb diet.
If you suffer from chronic depression or anxiety, you know that these disorders not only reduce your quality of life on activities and relationships but that they can also produce physical symptoms in your body.
Over time, these ongoing side-effects can reduce your overall health. For example, depression is strongly linked to cardiovascular disease (50).
Boosting your mood is thus yet another way in which a low-carb diet protects your overall well-being. Ultimately this includes your physical as well as your psychological health.
10. Enjoy Rapid Weight Loss
If you want to burn fat quickly, what do you typically do? Many people resort to crash diets.
Crash diets, however, are unhealthy, and their weight loss effects are temporary. After you return to a regular diet, that weight comes back fast.
A much better way to lose weight fast and keep it off is a low-carbohydrate diet.
Why does a low-carb diet lead to more rapid weight loss than a low-fat diet? We have already discussed the main reasons.
- A low-carb diet helps you to shed excess water weight (see point #6).
- On a low-carb diet, you experience lower insulin levels, which means your kidneys start purging excess sodium.
Research has demonstrated that a low-carb diet may be very effective for weight loss for at least six months (53).
Why not longer? The study above states that 'adherence was poor and attrition was high in both groups.'
In other words, many study participants gave up after that time period.
As a result, studies still need to conduct longer-term studies to know just how effective low-carb may be over the long run.
It is entirely possible that low-carb continues to burn fat quickly for longer than six months and anecdotal testimonials suggest this is so.
In either case, low-carb is not a crash diet and is sustainable over the long-term if you stick with it.
Doing so will give you the best results in the short-term and the long-term, both in terms of weight loss and overall health.
11. Burn Belly Fat
Earlier we talked about risk factors for metabolic syndrome, one of which is belly fat.
While fat distribution patterns may differ from person to person, many of us remember having a 'pear' shape when we were younger, where fat tended to settle around our hips.
But as you get older, it is common for your fat to instead gather at your waistline.
This results in a characteristic 'apple' shape.
Research shows that belly fat is worse for you than other fat distribution patterns. This is true not only for people who are overweight but for people who have a normal weight as well.
Belly fat is visceral fat. This is a type of fat which accumulates around vital organs like the liver.
If you have a lot of fat in the abdominal cavity, you can develop a number of different health problems, including metabolic dysfunction, insulin resistance, and inflammation (54).
You already know that low-carb diets can result in greater fat loss than low-fat diets. But it turns out that they can also lead to a greater percentage of fat loss in the abdominal area (55).
That means that if you want to get rid of that 'apple' shape, a low-carb diet is one of the best approaches you can take.
Once you burn that visceral fat, you reduce your chances of developing insulin resistance and other diseases.
Even if you are not overweight, if you have belly fat which you have been struggling to burn, low-carb is a great approach.
Many people believe that they can 'target' fat loss using exercise. This is a myth.
But you can target fat loss through diet!
12. Low-Carb Diets Can Be Used to Effectively Treat Epilepsy
While most of the research and interest in low-carb diets centers around benefits for weight loss and cardiovascular health, there are other advantages as well.
If you have epilepsy, a low-carb diet may help you to reduce your symptoms.
The ketogenic diet (KD), which is high in fat, low in carbohydrates, and moderate in protein, has been used as a treatment option for epilepsy in children since 1921.
The premise is that the brain can use ketones that are formed on a low carbohydrate diet for energy rather than depend on glucose.
In 1998, Blue Cross Blue Shield ran a meta-analysis of 19 different studies on 1084 pediatric patients with epilepsy to evaluate the effectiveness of this low-carb diet.
Blue Cross Blue Shield discovered that 16% of patients became seizure-free, while 32% experienced a 90% or greater reduction in seizures. For 56%, seizures dropped by half or greater (56).
While most research on the low-carb diet and epilepsy centers around children (57), research on this promising treatment is also being conducted on adults.
13. Low-Carb May Also Have Benefits for Patients with Alzheimer's Disease and Parkinson's Disease
The benefits of low-carb diets for epilepsy are also emphasized in yet another study (58).
This research also indicates that low-carb may be useful in treating 'a broad range of neurological disorders characterized by the death of neurons.'
In particular, research has focused on Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
The study above suggests that a ketogenic diet low in carbohydrates could thwart Alzheimer’s disease by delivering more essential fatty acids than you would get from a regular or high-carb diet.
Studies have also demonstrated that taking in higher amounts of unsaturated fatty acids may help prevent the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease (59).
Wait what about saturated fat? A study of 5395 participants found that
higher saturated fat consumption reduced the risk of dementia by 9% (60).
A study that included 937 elderly people over the course of 3.7 years found that those who consumed (61):
- The most carbohydrate had an 89% increased risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
- The most protein had a 21% reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
- The most fat had a 44% reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
The study reveals that a low carb high fat ketogenic diet reduces the risk of cognitive impairment.
14. When You Eat a Higher-Protein Diet, You Enjoy All the Added Benefits of Protein for Your Health.
When you eat a diet which is low in carbohydrates, you typically replace those carbs with fats and proteins.
Proteins are essential for human health. In fact, if you ignore water, around 75% of your body weight is composed of protein.
Proteins have numerous functions and benefits in the human body:
- Protein is essential for the process of DNA replication.
- Enzymes are composed of proteins. Enzymes are responsible for breaking down food and releasing nutrition to your body. That means that when you eat a diet high in protein, you get more out of all the nutrition you consume.
- Many types of tissue in your body are made up of protein, including muscles and skin.
- Protein is vital to immune system function (62, 63)
- Protein helps you to feel full and provides you with energy throughout the day.
- Boost your metabolism, helping you burn more calories throughout the day (64, 65, 66)
These are just a few of the benefits of protein. Since protein makes up the majority of your body tissue mass (not accounting for water), it is vital to all of your body functions.
15. Bulk out If You Work Out
If you are working out while you are dieting and trying to bulk out, you may have struggled to do so while eating a low-fat, low-protein, high-carb diet.
While dramatic increases in protein are not necessary if you do only mild to moderate exercise, that all changes if you are working out extra hard.
High protein consumption can prevent the loss of lean muscle mass while dieting (64).
Additionally, proteins are the building blocks for health muscle tissue.
For that reason, eating more protein in your diet provides your body with the nutrition it needs to repair and grow muscle mass.
That means that if you eat a low-carb diet which is high in protein while working out, you can build muscle more efficiently.
Low Carb Has Numerous Health Benefits: The Evidence Is There
Now you know exactly why so many dieters swear by low-carb. Getting used to a ketogenic diet requires an initial adjustment phase, but as you can see, it can be well worth it.
Stick with a low-carb diet over the long-term and turn it into a lifestyle choice, and you will be able to take advantage of the full benefits for weight loss, cardiovascular health, neuron function, and more.
Now over to you! Did I miss out any health benefits? Whats your experience of low-carb and ketogenic diets? Please share in the comments!
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