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Does the Keto Diet Impact Mental Health? An Overview for Those in Nutritionist School

As most aspiring nutritionists know, the food that we consume can have an impact on more than just our physical health. However, with the rise of processed foods, in part as a result of industrialization, it is becoming more difficult for many people to obtain the right nutrients from their diets. Notably, this “industrialization” of the human diet is mirrored by a rise in mental health problems among our world’s population (Ede, 2022). These issues have prompted more research regarding the impact of diet on mental health, sparking a science-backed narrative that the foods we eat have the power to impact our brain and even serve as a means for the treatment of mental health disorders (Ede, 2022). One of the diets that have frequently been studied in this line of research is the ketogenic (keto) diet.

If you are pursuing a career as a nutritionist, learn more about the keto diet and its potential benefits for the mental and physical health of your clients.

What is Keto? 

The keto diet is designed to trigger a metabolic process called ketosis (WebMD Contributors, 2021). In ketosis, our bodies burn fat for energy rather than using carbohydrates (WebMD Contributors, 2021). In order to achieve this, clients must consume a diet which consists of around 75% fat, 15% protein and 5% carbohydrates, the most important aspect being the maintenance of low carbohydrate intake (Tillery et al., 2021). While this diet was originally created to help people with epilepsy manage their seizures, it has since been adopted as a popular method of weight loss (WebMD Contributors, 2021). In addition to its potential to facilitate weight loss, keto has also been shown to have positive effects on mental health. Read on to discover why you might want to recommend this diet to clients after earning your nutrition diploma.

After earning your nutrition diploma, you may consider recommending a keto diet to your patients

The Health Benefits of a Keto Diet

Mental health disorders like depression have been linked to chronic inflammation (Shoemaker, 2020). Diets which are high in sugar can often increase inflammation in our brains (Ede, 2019). Since a low amount of sugar is consumed in a keto diet (due to its low-carb nature), it may help clients to improve chronic inflammation or prevent inflammation altogether (WebMD Contributors, 2021). 

Another benefit of low carbohydrate diets like keto is their effect on insulin levels (Ede, 2019). Insulin is a hormone responsible for managing our blood sugar levels, the instability of which can often result in heightened mood sensitivity and depression (Shoemaker, 2020). Insulin resistance can often develop from a high sugar diet, making keto a great option for regulating it (Shoemaker, 2020). 

Mental health problems like depression have also been traced to mitochondrial dysfunction (WebMD Contributors, 2021). Mitochondria generate the energy that cells rely on to properly function, and when they don’t have enough energy, this can lead to mental health problems (Shoemaker, 2020). Low carb diets like keto have been shown to improve the function and health of mitochondria, improving their potential as a means for helping those with depression (Ede, 2019). 

Excessive oxidative stress – otherwise known as the cell damage caused by unstable compounds (Shoemaker, 2020) – is widely associated with depression and other mental health disorders. A keto diet can stabilize stress hormones and reduce oxidative stress by increasing the number of antioxidants in the body (WebMD Contributors, 2021).

A keto diet has potential benefits for the mental health of patients

Considerations for Recommending Keto to Clients After Nutritionist School

If you are preparing to launch your career after completing nutritionist school, there are a few things to consider before recommending a keto diet to your clients. Given the strict adherence to low carbohydrate consumption in order to achieve ketosis and reap the benefits of this diet, keto might not be sustainable for everyone in the long term (Tillery et al., 2021). Additionally, there can be adverse side effects of keto, including fatigue, hunger and an increased risk of hyperlipidemia or kidney stones (Tillery et al., 2021). 

What’s more, the difficult adjustment period which often accompanies switching to a keto diet, in addition to the extreme restriction involved with the diet, can even enhance feelings of depression (Shoemaker, 2020). If not followed carefully, keto can lead to a nutrient deficiency or a situation in which clients are not getting enough magnesium and zinc, exacerbating depression (Shoemaker, 2020). When recommending keto to your clients, be sure that they understand the risks associated with switching to a keto diet, and that they are equipped with the knowledge and resources to safely make this transition.

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Works Cited:

Ede, G. (2022). Low Carb and Mental Health: The Food-Mood Connection. Diet Doctor. Retrieved April 22, 2022, from https://www.dietdoctor.com/low-carb/mental-health-guides

Ede, G. (2019). 8 Reasons to Try Low-Carb for Mental Health. (2019). Psychology Today. Retrieved April 22, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/diagnosis-diet/201906/8-reasons-try-low-carb-mental-health 

Shoemaker, S (2020). Does the Keto Diet Cause or Relieve Depression? Healthline. Retrieved April 22, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/keto-depression#Food-Fix:-Keto-Basics

Tillery, E. E., Ellis, K. D., Threatt, T. B., Reyes, H. A., Plummer, C. S., & Barney, L. R. (2021). The use of the ketogenic diet in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Mental Health Clinician, 11(3), 211–219. Retrieved April 22, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.9740/mhc.2021.05.211

WebMD Contributors (2021). What to Know About Keto and Depression. WebMD. Retrieved April 22, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/diet/what-to-know-about-keto-and-depression

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