Keto Diet During Pregnancy - Your Questions Answered
The ketogenic (‘keto’) diet has become increasingly popular over recent years. You may well know friends or family members who have tried it, but were they able to answer all of your questions? This article draws together previous research to explain the keto diet, its pros and cons, and whether or not it is safe for pregnant women.
What is the Keto Diet?
Sharing similarities with the Atkins diet, the keto diet involves the consumption of minimal carbohydrates1. It has a relatively high fat content in order to replace the missing carbs1. This puts your body into a metabolic state known as ketosis.
When fat provides the most energy for your cells - which occurs when there is less glucose, the body’s preferred fuel, available - the ketone concentration in the blood increases2.
Fatty acids are released from the body’s fat stores and transformed, in the liver, to ketones3. Therefore, the person’s fat content decreases, and so they lose weight.
Blood sugar and insulin levels can also be dramatically reduced by following the keto diet4. This can generate notable health benefits, though it also comes with some potential risks.
What are the Different Types of the Keto Diet?
The main types1 of the keto diet are as follows:
- Standard ketogenic diet: Low carbohydrate intake (around 10%), a moderate amount of protein (20%), and a high proportion of fat (70%)5.
- Targeted ketogenic diet: With this version, you can eat more carbs around when you work out physically.
- High protein ketogenic diet: Similar to the standard ketogenic diet, but with a higher proportion of protein; the typical amounts are 60% fat, 35% protein, and 5% carbohydrates.
- Cyclical ketogenic diet: This takes the standard ketogenic diet but puts it into a pattern with high-carb intake days; for example, you may follow the standard version for five days, then have two days of eating lots of carbohydrates.
What are the Benefits of The Keto Diet?
There have been many reported health benefits6 of the keto diet, including:
- Supporting weight loss
- Reducing risk of cancer
- Improving PCOS symptoms
- Helping combat acne
- Heightening heart health
- Protecting brain function
- Reducing seizures
Supporting Weight Loss
The foods usually eaten as part of the keto diet fill you up, contribute toward reducing hunger-stimulating hormones and increase metabolism7. Therefore, weight loss can be achieved. Studies have shown that people following the keto diet lost 2 pounds more, on average than people following low-fat diets for a period of 12 months8.
Reducing Risk of Cancer
Although research in this area is currently limited, there is some evidence to suggest that the keto diet can help to reduce the risk of developing certain cancers. Furthermore, it can potentially be used as a treatment for cancer because it will cause more oxidative stress in cancerous cells, causing them to die9.
Improving PCOS Symptoms
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can cause hormonal changes in women that affect their ovaries and reproductive system and increase their volume of male hormones10. High carbohydrate diets have been found to exacerbate issues for people suffering from PCOS; therefore, it is logical that the keto diet may be of some benefit. But, again, scientific research is limited, though some studies indicate that many markers of PCOS can be improved by following the keto diet11.
Helping Combat Acne
For some people, acne is caused and made worse by eating a high quantity of carbohydrates because of how this causes their blood sugar levels to change dramatically. Research has shown, therefore, that following the keto diet can reduce acne in such people12.
Heightening Heart Health
This benefit comes with the caveat that healthier fats need to be eaten as part of the keto diet (e.g., eating avocados rather than bacon rind). If that advice is followed, the body can end up having less so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol and an increase in ‘good’ cholesterol, thereby improving the health of their heart and circulatory system13.
Protecting Brain Function
The ketones generated through following the keto diet can strengthen and protect cells in the brain and nervous system14. This means that brain function is less likely to be negatively affected over time, suggesting that the keto diet can help reduce the likelihood of developing conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Keeping to the keto diet has been shown to positively affect people - especially children - suffering from epilepsy in that their frequency and severity of seizures have both reduced15. However, as with other benefits discussed here, more research is required to fully understand the mechanisms behind this success.
What are the Risks Associated with The Keto Diet?
Despite all of the health benefits, there are some potential risks16 regarding the keto diet. These include:
- Keto flu
- Bone health
- Digestive issues
- Chronic diseases
- Kidney stress
A drastic reduction in your carbohydrate intake may cause shock to your body that can result in temporary flu-like symptoms17. These include headaches, dizziness, constipation, nausea, and fatigue18. Although these symptoms usually diminish after a couple of weeks, it remains essential to keep hydrated and eat foods rich in electrolytes like potassium and sodium.
As your body adapts to ketosis, the mineral composition of your bones could be affected, making your bones weaker19. However, as with the benefits mentioned above of the keto diet, there is currently insufficient empirical evidence to confirm the severity or likelihood of this side effect.
It can be challenging to maintain a sufficiently high intake of fiber when on the keto diet, which can cause complications for the digestive system. For example, one study illustrated that 65% of those undertaking the keto diet reported constipation as a side effect thereof20.
The likelihood of developing a chronic condition or of suffering a premature death due to the keto diet would seem to depend on what your diet actually consists of. For example, it has been demonstrated that people following the keto diet with a high animal content may be more likely to develop heart disease or cancer. In contrast, those on the keto diet with a large proportion of vegetable matter have improved health outcomes and a lower chance than the average person of succumbing to a chronic disease21.
Eating a high amount of animal foods (e.g., meat and eggs) can cause your blood and urine to become more acidic, making the chance of developing kidney stones increase22.
Can You be on The Keto Diet When Pregnant?
Essentially, the answer to this is no. It is not advised to follow the keto diet if you are pregnant because the premise behind how it works (i.e., training your body to use ketones as fuel instead of glucose) is not appropriate for growing foetuses23. Glucose is essential for the healthy development of unborn babies.
Furthermore, academic studies have shown that pregnant women following the ketogenic diet can lead to abnormalities in the organic growth of their babies24. This could cause organ dysfunction and potentially even organ failure once the baby is born.
The ketogenic (‘keto’) diet helps people lose weight and can potentially demonstrate many other health benefits, such as reducing acne, maintaining heart health, and maximizing brain function. However, it also has risks, including weakening bones, increased susceptibility to kidney stones, and ‘keto flu’.
For pregnant women, the risks massively outweigh the benefits. There are additional risks when pregnant, such as causing the baby’s organs to develop improperly.
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