You hear about it all the time – the Keto diet – low carb, high fat, starve you body of carbohydrates and force it into a state of fat burning Ketosis. In a nutshell, eat your bacon, limit your veggies. It’s supposed to help you lose weight, reduce cancer risks, improve heart health, reduce blood sugar and insulin levels and may even lower blood pressure. But, if the Keto diet is so amazing, why is the Mediterranean diet considered to be one of the healthiest in the world? With similar health benefit claims, and a history of one of the healthiest and longest living populations in the world, the Mediterranean diet by contrast has at its base a healthy dose of carbohydrates. the two diets seem in pretty stark contrast to one another. Let’s take a look at these two today and unpack the strengths – and weaknesses of both diets.
What is The Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet has it’s own special “food pyramid” which stresses fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, beans and legumes, seeds/nuts and herbs and spices at it’s base. Every meal should be based around these items. Equally important to this base, light exercise is also stressed – walking, dancing, playing sports, swimming etc. In a nutshell, any physically active leisure activity. Next up the pyramid we see seafood and fish – these should be consumed often – at least twice per week. Next up the pyramid we see dairy – smaller quantities daily. This covers things like milk, cheese and Greek yogurt. At the very top of the pyramid we have lean meats and sweets. These should be consumed less often, and not really the focus of the meal – think pasta with a sauce that is topped with a few ounces of lean beef or chicken instead of a 14 oz rib eye with a side of pasta. Also included is red wine primarily for it’s heart benefits. This doesn’t mean a bottle or two a day! For men, 5 ounces a day is recommended, and for women 3 ounces daily – and plenty of water!
For more detailed information, including how to get started with the Mediterranean diet, check out the resources at the end of the post.
This diet clearly advises a wide option of food types, with a strong focus on choices we know to be healthy – whole grains – plenty of protein from both plant and animal sources, and healthy fats from options like avocado and olive oil. It discourages the use of processed / prepackaged foods and sugars with any regularity. In addition, there is a focus on slower eating – literally – meals should be a social event shared with friends and family, which may also help to reduce stress.
The variety of food types and choices make this a relatively easy diet to follow over the long term, allowing it to become a lifestyle choice instead of a short term strategy.
Benefits claimed by the Mediterranean diet
- Weight loss
- Helps prevent heart disease and stroke
- Reduced risk of Alzheimers
- Prevention of frailty
- Reduced chance of developing Parkinson’s disease
- Protects against type 2 diabetes
Long term effects and cons of the Mediterranean diet
I had a hard time finding anything negative about the Mediterranean diet. Even using search terms looking for negativity, I was unable to find anything really damning, especially relating to the long term effects. Everything supported the claims of improved overall health.
The biggest negatives I could find were some people had concerns over the cost of consuming seafood vs. cheaper animal protein sources.
There are also mercury concerns related to the increased consumption of fish. From the research I found, 2 6-ounce servings a week is considered safe. It’s also best to steer clear of larger fish as they’ve been shown to have higher concentrations of pollutants. Stick to lower mercury content seafood like shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon etc.
Lastly, people with diabetes attempting to make the switch to this type of diet should discuss the change with their doctor or a nutritionist first to discuss any special considerations.
What is a Keto Diet?
A Keto – or Ketogenic – diet is a low carb diet that seeks to ensure that the calories that you consume are derived primarily from protein and fat sources rather than carbohydrates. The diet prioritizes removing simple carbohydrates from your diet (sugar, breads, soda etc.), and limiting your consumption of complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables etc.).
The concept behind Keto diets is that by restricting your consumption of carbohydrates to less than 50 grams per day (per WebMD) your body will quickly run out of energy and be forced to burn protein and fat for fuel (in a state of ketosis), leading to weight loss.
In all fairness, this diet is (or should be) a short term solution pursued for weight loss instead of for overall health benefits, so maybe it’s unfair to contrast this to a more long-term lifestyle choice like the Mediterranean diet. However, I think there is enough confusion because of the current popularity of Keto diets, and their use to treat certain medical conditions – like epilepsy.
If a ketogenic diet is something you think you’d like to try, talk to your doctor before starting it to make sure it’s safe to try – especially if you have any pre-existing health conditions like diabetes.
With that said, let’s look at some of the benefits of this diet.
Benefits claimed by Keto diets
- Weight loss
- May reduce acne (but also may CAUSE acne – depending on the type of keto diet)
- May help the efficacy of certain cancer treatments (by controlling blood sugar)
- Improves heart health (this is a stretch – I had to fish for the provided link, and it seems conditional)
- Increased focus, mood, better sleep quality and more energy (Full disclosure, I couldn’t find any accredited sources that backed these claims. They may be dependent on the particular diet, or individual.
- May protect brain functioning
- May reduce seizures (especially in children)
From what I can tell, there is a lot of fogginess concerning the claims surrounding a keto diet for anything other than weight loss and seizure treatment. This is not surprising, considering the variations of the diet, as such, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much research available as something longer term, and far older – like the Mediterranean diet. If you’re considering the Keto diet for any of the claimed benefits other than weight loss, please talk to a doctor or nutritionist to make sure that what you’re considering – and how you’re considering doing it – is safe.
Long term effects and cons of a keto diet
As mentioned, keto diets should be a short term strategy used for weight loss and NOT a long term lifestyle change. Some of the biggest complaints about a ketogenic diet is the difficulty to stick with it due to the restrictive nature of the diet and the fact that the western diet is so typically carbohydrate heavy (The American diet is typically composed of around 50% carbohydrates – not that this is good!) Additionally, people in ketosis complain of bad breath, short term fatigue, headaches and short term decreases in performance.
Over the long term, it appears that numerous sources recommend strongly against it, including Harvard Health and Medical News Today had the following list of negative side effects from a keto diet:
The ketogenic diet may have health benefits – including quick weight loss. But it’s important to note that staying on the ketogenic diet long-term can have adverse consequences to your health. These include increased risk of:
– kidney stone formation
– acidosis (high levels of acid in the blood)
– severe weight loss or muscle degeneration (for long-term use)
In many cases, immediate side effects of the diet may include:
– low blood sugar
– These symptoms are especially common at the beginning of the diet as your body adjusts.
Your brain and body’s primary and preferred source of energy comes from glucose. Because of this, a drastic elimination of carbohydrates isn’t typically a sustainable method of reaching optimal wellness.
Perhaps unsurprising to anyone following this blog for any length of time, I am not a fan of short term weight loss strategies. Because of this, I’m not a fan of any restrictive diet – keto or otherwise. Especially one that restricts the consumption of a macronutrient. Especially as a long term strategy, I wouldn’t suggest a keto diet – nor is it intended to be a long term strategy. but even as a short term strategy to kick start your weight loss, I wouldn’t recommend something like a keto diet. I think you’d be far better served transitioning into a healthier lifestyle change that you can sustain instead of yo-yo dieting. The Mediterranean diet certainly seems like a healthy option with a massive body of research supporting its benefits, and it’s sustainability over the long haul gives it my thumbs up.
So what are your thoughts? I know there are a lot of people who have had success with Keto dieting, and swear by it. What are your experiences?I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
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HelpGuide – The Mediterranean Diet
EatingWell – 8 Ways To Follow The Mediterranean Diet For Better Health
NCBI – Mediterranean Diet and Prevention of Chronic Diseases
Healthline – Mediterranean Diet 101: A Meal Plan and Beginner’s Guide
WebMD – What is a Ketogenic Diet?
MD Anderson Cancer Center – The keto diet and cancer: What patients should know
Harvard Health – Ketogenic diet: is the ultimate low-carb diet good for you?
Harvard Health – Should you try the keto diet?