I am about to write on a topic I never thought I would – the possible benefits of a ketogenic diet on eating disorder behaviors. The ketogenic diet is one that has recently become a diet culture fad, with many touting it as the next “miracle diet.”
Unsurprisingly, these promises are false, and, in most cases, a ketogenic diet is harmful and ineffective at helping the individual achieve weight loss or health.
A recent study considered how a ketogenic diet may be helpful in treating binge eating disorder behaviors, and the results are absolutely worth reviewing, but let’s start with clearing up some questions you may have about this diet.
What is a Ketogenic Diet?
A ketogenic diet is a “high-fat, low-carbohydrate, moderate-protein dietary patterns in which the body’s principal energy source is fat .”
Individuals that engage in a ketogenic diet cut back on carbohydrates to 50 grams a day or less, which leads the body into a state of ketosis. In ketosis, the body is forced to burn fat instead of sugar, to gain energy.
As registered dietitian Haley Goodrich of INSPRD Nutrition specifies, “Ketosis is a form of ketoacidosis: a life-threatening condition resulting in high levels of ketones in the blood. It is an “unhealthy metabolic state .”
While those that engage in a ketogenic diet do initially lose weight, most studies indicate that they will gain this weight back, and possibly more, long-term. This is common for most diets but appears to be even more so with a ketogenic diet .
The Dangers of Ketogenic Diet
Let’s begin with the first symptoms of this diet. Within the first week of a ketogenic diet, most individuals report experiencing gastrointestinal distress, vomiting, lethargy, and fatigue.
These side-effects are known as the “keto flu” and maybe a permanent staple if the diet is followed long-term.
Doctors are pretty unanimous in stating that those not recommended to engage in a ketogenic diet for health reasons put their bodies at risk if they engage in it long-term.
Studies have also determined that the promise that a ketogenic diet improves athletic performance doesn’t seem to be scientifically true, as one study found that individuals that engaged in a ketogenic diet for four days performed worse in high-intensity cycling and running tasks than those that were on a high-carbohydrate diet .
We can’t discuss the dangers without returning to the possibility of ketoacidosis occurring, which damages the liver, kidneys, and brain and can be fatal if left untreated .
Carbohydrates are our primary source of energy AND the body’s preferred source for energy. When we restrict our carbohydrate intake, we starve our bodies and brains, and the list of how this can harm us physically, mentally, and emotionally is almost endless.
Is it Ever Beneficial?
Ketogenic diets have proven to be effective in improving symptoms for a few disorders. However, most research on this is still fairly new and should be taken with a LARGE grain of salt.
Some possible illnesses that a ketogenic diet MAY help with include epilepsy, metabolic syndrome, PCOS, and autism.
However, you are far better off consulting with your doctor on the most evidence-based and scientifically effective treatments for these disorders.
So, About that Study…
Perhaps now you can see why I am surprised to learn there may be evidence that a ketogenic diet is helpful in the treatment of binge eating disorder and food addiction.
A study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders examined the progress of 3 individuals that reported binge eating and food addiction symptoms and were prescribed a ketogenic diet for 6 or 7 months .
The study posited that a ketogenic diet may improve these symptoms based on information that “sustained nutritional ketosis induces a series of physiological changes involving appetite suppression, lower hunger, greater satiety, greater rates of lipolysis, reduction of lipogenesis and increased metabolic costs of gluconeogenesis and thermic effect of proteins .”
This information made researchers consider the possible benefits it may have for those struggling with binge eating or food addiction behaviors.
The results supported this hypothesis, indicating that “patients reported significant reductions in self-reported symptoms of binge eating episodes and food addiction .”
Not only that, the 3 individuals studied showed reduced depressive symptoms as well .
The study does specify the limitations that only 3 individuals were studied and that there was no other diet to compare results to.
I am all for researching treatment innovations for eating disorders. However, these are results that I will not be running with for the time-being in treating my own clients or advising others.
The research is incredibly limited, and the dangers too high to prescribe this at this point in time.
Even so, it is helpful to learn as much as we can about possible treatments for any disordered eating behaviors.
Resources: Carmen, M. et al. (2020). Treating binge eating and food addiction symptoms with low-carbohydrate Ketogenic diets: a case series. Journal of Eating Disorders, 8:2.  Rollin, J. (2018). 4 popular diet trends debunked by experts. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/four-popular-diet-trends-debunked-by-experts_b_5a4ab0d9e4b0df0de8b06c57?fbclid=IwAR06PFJquz69qXeBRy_Q5AVtoViXf-p2bFoxiGk4j5Qrk-HTswLVjev3LxA.  MacMillan, A. (2019). 7 dangers of going keto. Retrieved from https://www.health.com/weight-loss/keto-diet-side-effects.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published June 5, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on June 5, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC