Multiple Studies Agree: Keto Diets Could Hurt Your Heart Health, But Eating More Plants Could Help It

Ketogenic diets (often referred to as just “keto” for short) are more popular than ever. In fact, research suggests that in 2020, keto was the most Googled diet in the US, and in 2022, around seven percent of Americans were actively following the diet. However, multiple studies have already warned that this approach to eating—which is widely followed for weight loss—could be harmful to health, and in May, more data was released noting that following the diet for an extended period could damage the heart and the kidneys.

The new data, which was published in the journal Science Advances, noted that the keto diet, which is high in fat (often animal fats) and low in carbohydrates, could induce senescence in the heart and kidneys much faster than normal if followed for a long period. Senescence, in layman’s terms, refers to the biological process of aging and the increased vulnerability to diseases.

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However, an intermittent keto diet (taking regular breaks from the keto pattern of eating) was found to be less risky, the researchers noted. “To put this in perspective, 13 million Americans use a ketogenic diet, and we are saying that you need to take breaks from this diet or there could be long-term consequences,” lead author David Gius, MD, PhD, said in a statement.

“Despite the risks of the cholesterol-laden ‘keto diet,’ many people try them in hopes of losing weight. What they lose is their heart health. We need stricter warnings about these fad diets.”—Neal Barnard, MD, President of the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, speaking on the keto diet research.

The study is not the first to warn of the health consequences of the keto diet. Earlier this year, research was presented at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session and the World Congress of Cardiology warning that a “keto-like” diet could double the risk of cardiovascular events, like blocked arteries, heart attacks, and stroke.

Which diets are beneficial for heart health?

In contrast to the keto findings, another recent study, published in the European Heart Journal, found that vegan diets can actually benefit heart health. The study, which is reportedly the largest of its kind, examined the eating habits of 2,000 people and concluded that a plant-based diet could reduce the levels of LDL cholesterol and fat in the blood, both of which are risk factors for heart disease.

The researchers even noted that following a plant-based diet “corresponds to a third of the effect” of cholesterol-lowering medication, like statins, for example. “If someone were to maintain a plant-based diet for five years this would result in a seven percent reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease,” said study author Professor Ruth Frikke-Schmidt in a statement. 

She added: “One regimen does not exclude the other, and combining statins with plant-based diets is likely to have a synergistic effect, resulting in an even larger beneficial effect.” Frikke-Schmidt also explained that the longer a person follows a vegetarian or vegan diet, the bigger the impact is on their heart health. 

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Another diet linked with supporting heart health is the Mediterranean diet, which is typically high in plant-based whole foods and low in animal products. In fact, earlier this year, it was crowned the healthiest diet in the world by The US News & World Report.

“The Mediterranean diet focuses on diet quality rather than a single nutrient or food group. Numerous studies have shown that it reduces the risk of chronic health conditions, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes while promoting longevity and improving quality of life.”—The US News & World Report

A similar eating pattern to the Mediterranean diet is also seen widely across the Blue Zones, which are five regions of the world where people consistently live longer, healthier lives, with a lower risk of chronic disease. To find out more about the Blue Zones, and how to eat like a Blue Zoner, you can follow our guide here. 

The best part about the Mediterranean diet, the vegan diet, or the Blue Zone diet is that you can start whenever, no matter your age, and still reap some benefits, research suggests. 

“Starting at any age will make you live longer,” says Dan Buettner, the explorer who has extensively studied the Blue Zones. “At age 60, you could potentially add six extra years. And at age 20, if you’re a male, you could potentially add 13 extra years if you live in a Blue Zone lifestyle as opposed to a standard American lifestyle.”

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