While many believe that the origin of the keto diet stems from efforts to create a new weight loss approach, it actually has links to early medical treatments, and also emulates the diets humans evolved with for millions of years.
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Is Keto Just Another Fad Diet?
If you have been following keto for any length of time now you have probably encountered situations in which you have had to explain what it is.
You may be the type of person that enjoys telling everyone that you have committed to a way of eating that makes you feel great, and has helped you achieve your health and weight loss goals, but the response you get may not always be positive.
I don’t generally go around advertising the fact that I follow a keto based diet, however it does come out occasionally when someone inquires about what I have done to improve my skin, hair or physique, when I have made seemingly unusual food substitutions at a restaurant, or have politely declined a food item such as birthday cake at a group event.
Once it has been divulged, it is often met with a variety of questions or comments of genuine interest such as,
- What is keto?
- Why are you on keto?
- That’s interesting.
- I have considered keto, but not sure it’s for me.
- How do you like it?
Or immediate dismissal,
- I could never do keto.
- It’s too restrictive.
- It’s just another fad diet.
A common assumption from both those who are familiar with keto, and those who are not, is that it is something new.
In their defense, as a mainstream diet approach it is somewhat novel, but its origin goes back to at least the 1920s as a formulated diet approach within the medical field, and even further if we look at its parallels to the diet humans evolved with for millions of years.
Epilepsy and the Keto Diet
Up until the early 1900s, potassium bromide was the primary treatment for epilepsy, and although it was reasonably effective at reducing seizures, patients experienced slowed metal capabilities.
An experiment conducted in 1911 found that fasting significantly reduced the frequency and severity of seizures, without the downside of diminished cognitive functions.
Additional studies were conducted based on the belief that epileptic seizures were triggered by a toxin secreted during digestion, and found that extended fasting (18-25 days) could be used to eliminate the toxin. The benefits of fasting could then be maintained through a diet free of starch and sugar.
This diet was difficult to adhere to, as one can imagine, and was therefore not considered a complete win.
It's All About Ketones
In 1921, endocrinologist Rollin Woodyatt made the connection that ketone bodies, or ketones for short, produced in the liver during severe food restriction were involved in reducing epileptic seizures. He has also been credited for identifying the fact that a diet rich in fats and low in carbohydrates is more effective at producing ketones than extended fasting and ultimately much easier to sustain.
This treatment approach was ultimately called the “ketogenic diet”, and became the primary treatment for epilepsy at the time.
In the 1960s, additional research identified the benefits of consuming medium-chain triglycerides (MCT’s) as a means of elevating ketone production even further. In 1971, Peter Huttenlocher created a ketogenic-based diet in which 60% of the calories came from MCT oil, which allowed more protein and carbohydrates to be included in comparison to the original ketogenic diet.
In more recent years, the introduction of new anticonvulsant therapies has largely replaced the MCT and/or ketogenic diet for the treatment of epilepsy. However, in the 20% to 30% of epileptics that don’t respond to these new medications, and for children in particular, these diets have reemerged as viable treatment options.
Thankfully, the ketogenic diet is also becoming more recognized for its benefits in treating and/or preventing other conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, Parkinson’s Disease, Autism, Alzheimer’s, Metabolic Syndrome, and traumatic brain injuries (just to name a few).
Ketosis & 'Fat Adaptation' Goes Back a Little Further
My fascination with keto actually stemmed from my interest and research into human evolution, and our preagricultural diets. As a biologist, I have studied the diets of numerous wildlife species as well as humans, and find it truly alarming to see how far we have strayed from anything resembling a natural diet.
My quest to understand and implement a dietary approach more in tune with our evolution and physiology lead me to initially adopt the paleo diet, however as a stand-alone diet, paleo has a few critical shortcomings.
Where the Paleo Diet Falls Short
The guiding principles of the paleo diet are:
1) focus on food items that best resemble those available during the paleolithic period, also known as the ‘Stone Age’, which accounts for approximately 2.5 million years of human evolution, and
2) exclude foods that became prevalent more recently as a result of the First Agricultural Revolution (12,000 years ago) such as grains, soy, dairy, root vegetables and legumes.
Foundationally the paleo diet is very solid, and I still utilize its guidelines with respect to the food exclusions listed above. However, the standard paleo diet, as it is marketed, does not specifically address carbohydrate or fat intake, and therefore does not adequately support ketosis or ‘fat adaptation’.
Without incorporating the macronutrient parameters of keto, people that follow paleo as a stand-alone diet often continue to struggle with inflammatory issues, elevated and fluctuating insulin, appetite control, and weight management.
There are a variety of ways to implement paleo, but it is important to understand that essentially none of the foods we have access to today are the same as what was available during the Stone Age, and we do not process or prepare them the same way.
For instance, fruit is a staple of the paleo diet, but through cross pollination, and various other selective propagation practices, fruit today has considerably more sugar, less fiber, and is not as nutritious as wild fruit available historically.
Research has also confirmed that our early ancestors consumed more than 10 times the amount of fat than we do today, and a commonly supported theory among scientists is that a high consumption of omega-3 fatty acids in particular contributed to the increase in brain development documented in Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) approximately 230,000 years ago.
The Human Diet - Combining Paleo, Keto & Fasting
It is important to understand that the terms paleo, keto, and intermittent fasting are labels that have been created to help identify the parameters of each dietary approach independently, and allow them to be isolated and marketed. In my quest to emulate the complete human diet I have found it necessary to apply all three approaches simultaneously.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors subsisted on a mixed diet of tart wild fruits, nuts, seeds, and a variety of animal protein and fat. For extended periods, both seasonally and during periods of persistent ice, animal protein would have dominated the human diet, as vegetative food sources would have been unavailable. The use of fat as the primary fuel source and ‘fat adaptation’ were necessary mechanisms for survival.
I noticed considerable improvements in my overall health and well being when I excluded grains, dairy, soy, and root vegetables from my diet, but I still experienced severe fluctuations in my energy and mood, and constantly struggled with hunger and food cravings. It wasn’t until I lowered, and stabilized my insulin by reducing carbs, and increasing fat, that I was able to manage my diet successfully.
Early humans also did not eat three to five meals a day, and often went days between feedings. These extended periods of fasting allowed the body to purge damaged cells, toxins, and other harmful elements through a process called autophagy. We are able to mimic these benefits by incorporating periods of fasting as part of our dietary approach.
If you are new to any of these dietary approaches, implementing all three strategies may seem a little daunting. Personally, I view it as one complete diet, comprised of three synergistic elements.
I utilize elements of paleo to identify which foods to include or exclude, keto as my macronutrient guide, and intermittent fasting to regulate the timing of my food intake and give my body a chance to heal itself.
I was unable to adhere to, or significantly benefit from, any one of these diets when I approached them independently. It wasn’t until I incorporated them all simultaneously that I found balance and success.
If you are still on the fence about adopting keto, paleo, or intermittent fasting, or have already included one or more of these approaches into your diet, you may find it comforting to know that they have been around for a very long time.
Some key benefits of their recent surge in popularity however, is that there are more resources available to help us navigate these diets successfully, and more incentives for food companies to produce healthier, organic and humanely raised food options.
Please consider sharing your experience by commenting below to help support others navigating a healthy keto lifestyle. You do not need to provide your email address to leave a comment.
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