The keto diet (also known as the ketogenic diet) asks you to make major changes to your daily eating habits. This high-fat, low-protein program drastically restricts carbohydrates, including bread, cereals, grains, and even many fruits and vegetables.
The keto diet may be challenging, but some people find that when they follow it carefully, they get benefits that outweigh the drawbacks. People over 50 may have success on the keto diet, because it has the potential to promote weight loss, control blood sugar, and possibly protect against heart disease.
But this eating plan does have risks, and you should always check with your doctor or a licensed nutritionist before you start any new diet.
How Does the Keto Diet Work?
It’s a partial fast. Typically after you eat carbs, your blood sugar goes up, and that sugar powers the body’s cells. But when you don’t eat carbs for a while, your blood sugar runs dry, and the liver begins using stored body fat for fuel. It’s like a back-up system for your body. This process is called ketosis.
Because the keto diet is not a full fast, your body still has an alternative source of energy, and you can maintain lean muscle mass.
Foods You Can Eat on the Keto Diet
When you're on the keto diet, you’ll eat a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb diet. If you do this carefully and consistently for 2-3 weeks, your body will enter into a state of ketosis.
The keto diet uses a ratio of macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbs). Typical ratios used are 4:1 or 3:1, meaning your diet will be made up of 4 or 3 grams of fat for every 1 gram of protein and carbohydrate combined. This equals about 70% to 80% fat and 20% to 30% protein plus carbohydrate. For a typical 2000-calorie diet, this amounts to roughly 165 grams fat, 75 grams protein, and 40 grams carbohydrate.
The foods you can eat on a keto diet include:
- Dairy products
- Greek yogurt
- Small amounts of meat and fish
Foods to Avoid on the Keto Diet
The diet asks you to avoid high-carbohydrates foods. Some of these are:
- Fruits. (Berries may be okay in small amounts, because of their high nutritional value.)
- Refined and whole grains, and starches (such as breads, cereals, pasta, rice, wheat, rye, barley, potatoes, starchy vegetables)
- Beans and legumes
- Processed foods (like cereal, microwave-ready meals, and most fast food)
Benefits of the Keto Diet
One thing many people will notice first on the diet is weight loss. But much of that is water weight. Sugar is stored in your body and bonded with water. So, when you start cutting carbs, your body uses the sugar and releases the water, creating the appearance of weight loss.
Aside from dropping pounds, other benefits of the keto diet include:
Blood sugar control. The diet is linked to lower blood sugar.
Heart health. The keto diet can improve total cholesterol levels and sometimes boost the level of “good” (HDL) cholesterol. This may help lower the risk of getting heart disease.
Retaining lean body mass. As we age, it's common to lose muscle and sometimes feel weaker. The keto diet may help you keep muscle longer, which is likely because you’d be getting more protein and limiting unhealthy foods.
Risks of the Keto Diet
This eating plan isn’t recommended for people with:
- Pancreatic disease
- Liver conditions
- Thyroid problems
- Eating disorders, or a history of them
- Gallbladder disease, or if you’ve had your gallbladder removed
There are both short-term and long-term health risks for anyone looking to try the keto diet. For instance, you may get:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Upset stomach
- Dizzy spells
- Trouble sleeping
- Muscle cramping
- Sugar cravings
- Brain fog
Some long-term health risks are:
- Kidney stones
- Liver disease
- Vitamin deficiency
The high-fat nature of the keto diet could also pose risks for heart disease and other chronic health problems, especially as you age. This is due to the restriction of foods that could limit essential vitamins and minerals. Avoiding beans, grains, and fruits might lead to weight loss, but you'll also be struggling to get enough fiber, which is crucial for protecting your heart.
Is the Keto Diet Safe After 50?
It can be if you do it under the care of your doctor, so talk to them before you try it. If your doctor gives you the green light, first make sure you’re getting enough sleep and drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated.
Ask your doctor about how to get a good balance of important nutrients while on the keto diet. This may mean taking vitamin and fiber supplements.