January 16, 2020 at 11:12PM
There’s a good chance you’ve heard a thing or two about the keto diet. After all, the high-fat, low-carb lifestyle has been making its rounds, nabbing a spot as the most popular diet in 2018 and only gaining momentum throughout 2019.
But is it healthy? To put it simply, we don’t recommend the standard ketogenic diet. Not only is the low-carb, high-fat lifestyle light on plants and heavy on animal products, but it can lead to inflammation, long-term gut issues, and even the dreaded keto flu. (More on all of that in a bit.)
So, you might be wondering if a plant-based keto diet is healthier? Well, it certainly is a better option in that it involves a lot of plants. But we still have concerns about living the ketogenic life, even if it is heavy on the produce and low on the butter and bacon. Here are three things to know about how eating a plant-based keto diet may affect your overall health:
1. Long-term data is lacking.
Plant-based keto takes the emphasis off of animal-based staples, like bacon, red meat, butter, and cheese, which is a big deal. It also does a better job of providing nutrient-dense foods containing lots of fiber to improve the health of many tissues, namely your microbiome.
Much like a standard keto diet, it’ll still lead you to ketosis—a state where your body operates in a low-glucose environment and begins to burn fat for energy—but in a cleaner way by leaning on nutrient-dense plants to get you there.
But here’s the thing: Plant-based keto is still keto, and the long-term data on it is lacking. Until there is more research on the effectiveness and potential health risks of a ketogenic diet (plant-based or not) over the course of five or more years, we’re skeptical.
Furthermore, there isn’t any long-term research to show whether living in a state of ketosis is more beneficial than not living in a state of ketosis. The verdict is still out until the science is in.
2. It’s effective, but it also leads to glucose intolerance.
Adhering to a keto lifestyle will bring you results, it’s true. You will likely see a lower number on the scale, improved energy, lower cholesterol, and improved blood glucose values. But while those all sound like good things, the truth is they aren’t the big picture.
While keto dieters—whether animal- or plant-based—will see lower glucose levels, they also eat themselves into glucose intolerance, which limits their ability to eat carbohydrate-rich foods including fruits, starchy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. And because a keto lifestyle isn’t very sustainable, the moment they increase their carb intake—a banana, bowl of quinoa, or french fries—their muscles and liver are unable to efficiently metabolize glucose for energy, resulting in either high blood glucose or high insulin.
All of that leads to insulin resistance, which can result in type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. And while insulin resistance can occur no matter the version of keto you choose, a plant-based lifestyle has been proven to reduce the risk of and even reverse chronic disease, which is the exact opposite of the link science has established between an animal-based diet and myriad diseases.
3. Carbohydrates help you live longer.
Here’s the thing: When it comes to carbohydrates and whether or not they should be a part of your everyday diet, the proof is in the people. Author Dan Buettner—who discovered the Blue Zones, or the five places in the world where people live the longest—drives this point home when he says, “If you want to live to a healthy 100, eat like people who lived to 100.”
And guess what? The people who live to 100 are not on a low-carb diet. In fact, long-lived populations with low rates of chronic diseases (in particular, heart disease) eat high-carbohydrate diets that are lower in fat and low in animal products.
In a 2017 study published in the Lancet, researchers conducted coronary artery calcium tests on 705 indigenous South American Tsimane people in Bolivia. All of the people were over the age of 40 and ate a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet containing approximately 72% of calories from carbohydrates, 14% of calories from fat, and 14% calories from protein from mainly rice, plantains, cassava, and corn. The results were shocking—97% of people studied showed no signs of atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of fat and cholesterol on the artery walls. They also had extremely low total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol).
While this one study doesn’t prove that this diet is conclusively linked to low rates of cardiovascular disease, it’s worth paying attention to, given that the Tsimane “have the lowest reported levels of coronary artery disease of any population recorded to date,” according to the study.
And they aren’t alone. There are many populations around the world who eat plant-rich diets and have extremely low rates of heart disease, including the Bantus of Central and Southern Africa, natives of New Guinea, certain Ecuadorian villages and Native Americans in Mexico, as well as the five Blue Zones originally documented by Buettner.
So, now what?
Here’s the thing: You can stick to a whole-food, plant-based diet without going keto and still reap the benefits of eating foods that are rich in carbohydrates while reducing your risk of chronic disease and premature death. We’re talking about eating a diet that is known to promote weight loss, as well as improved glucose levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
But if you absolutely must give keto a shot, then plant-based keto is the way to do it. It will still pack in the greens and nonstarchy vegetables—think arugula, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, cabbage, and broccoli—as well as olives, avocados, oils, coconut meat, nuts, and seeds to keep your diet on track.
Sure, we still have concerns with a low-carbohydrate, plant-based diet, but it’s “safer” than a low-carbohydrate, animal-based diet. So if you want to achieve ketosis and make it the healthiest version of the ketogenic diet possible, then plant-based keto is the way to do it. Whether it’s the diet of 2020 or not, you just can’t go wrong with plants. Period.