Scientists from Yale University found a ketogenic diet—which provides 99 percent of calories from fat and protein and only 1 percent from carbohydrates—produces health benefits in the short term, but negative effects after about a week.
The results offer early indications that the keto diet could, over limited time periods, improve human health by lowering diabetes risk and inflammation.
The keto diet has become increasingly popular as celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Lebron James, and Kim Kardashian, have touted it as a weight-loss regimen.
In the study, researchers found that the positive and negative effects of the diet both relate to immune cells called gamma delta T-cells, tissue-protective cells that lower diabetes risk and inflammation.
A keto diet tricks the body into burning fat. When the body’s glucose level is reduced due to the diet’s low carbohydrate content, the body acts as if it is in a starvation state—although it is not—and begins burning fats instead of carbohydrates.
This process in turn yields chemicals called ketone bodies as an alternative source of fuel. When the body burns ketone bodies, tissue-protective gamma delta T-cells expand throughout the body.
This reduces diabetes risk and inflammation and improves the body’s metabolism.
But the team found when the body is in this “starving-not-starving” mode, fat storage is also happening simultaneously with fat breakdown.
When mice continue to eat the high-fat, low-carb diet for one week, they consume more fat than they can burn, and develop diabetes and obesity.
The team says long-term clinical studies in humans are still necessary to confirm the claims of keto’s health benefits.
These findings help researchers better understand the mechanisms at work in bodies sustained on the keto diet, and why the diet may bring health benefits over limited time periods.
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The research was published in Nature Metabolism and conducted by Vishwa Deep Dixit et al.
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