Is The Keto Diet A Starvation Diet? Exploring Dangerous Claims

I’ve long admired Dr. Weil, one of the great leaders of the alternative health movement for decades. He has written some great books, cares about engaging in agricultural politics, and I really appreciate his calm and welcoming tone. He recommends a sensible approach, never an extreme one – his advises people to just, ‘Enjoy some ice cream now and then and be happy.’ 

However, I do take some exception to a few of his comments in this article, which predictably pulled a salacious headline: “Keto is a starvation diet.” Look, keto doesn’t necessarily have to be a starvation diet, so that’s not a logical characterization. Keto can be so many things, including the very common trend of people taking hall passes on keto and over consuming fat. Within the parameters of “keto” and “paleo” (and even beyond to “plant-based” or “pescatarian” or “vegan”) the focus is on consuming unprocessed, whole foods in their natural form. Unfortunately, people can get tricked up by the perceived “rules” of each diet. When you’re following any kind of diet, you’re going to inevitably have to cut something(s) out as part of the deal – so in the case of the keto diet, carbs are dead last on the VIP List of Very Nutritious Foods. Yes, carbs are restricted in order so your body goes into ketosis. But restriction never has to equate starvation. In the case of keto, it just means being mindful enough (but never stressing or obsessing) about your macros so you can ensure you’re meeting all your performance and health goals while on this diet. 

What’s more, many people in the ancestral health world will challenge Weil’s assertion that we “need healthy carbs.” The USA is the fattest population in the history of humanity and in the article Dr. Weil himself even admits that the best way to lose fat is to cut carbs. It is undisputed in science that there is no biological requirement for carbs for humans, unlike the need for protein and essential fatty acids. Populations have thrived on zero or near-zero carb diets for millennia. Humans have existed in ketosis for long periods of time, for 2.5 million years! 

Here is the Weil quote that might warrant some second guessing: 

“Ketosis — a normal process in the body that occurs when there is no glucose to burn for energy, so the body burns fat — ‘is an abnormal state; it’s a starvation state,’ he says. ‘You’re eliminating carbohydrates — it’s not a good idea to cut out a whole macronutrient. I think there’s a risk of getting serious deficiencies,’ says Dr. Weil, Director and Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.” 

In my opinion, the real problem in modern life is that people see, ‘Dr. Weil says a little carbs are okay’ and then they leverage this insight with occasional or frequent indulgences into less healthy carbs. Add it all together (including the common pattern among health-conscious folks to over-consume things like fruit year-round) and it becomes epidemic disease patterns. Not to mention the fact that even Dr. Weil said in an interview on his website that he himself is, “quite sensitive to high-glycemic-load carbohydrates…Cutting back on them has helped me get my weight down, because my metabolism is certainly carbohydrate sensitive.” Dr. Weil has been criticized for being a bit overweight himself, and yet challenges back that people with a little extra weight are healthier. This does not seem like a strong argument because you may be counting ill people who are too skinny into the mortality stats.  

Contrastingly, Dr. Weil has also stated that since he has lost a significant amount of weight, he is “much happier.” Now, I am certainly not going to get on someone’s case for merely changing their mind or sometimes making a contradictory statement, and in this rapid, always-changing, new-studies-out-every-day cycle of the alternative health movement, it’s normal and expected that people will adopt new beliefs and change their minds when new research is presented. But when it comes to keto, we’re talking a looooong time of this diet working well for humans. Of course, it’s understandable and even inevitable that with the increasing popularity of the keto diet, well-known/ “celebrity” doctors like Dr. Weil will be asked to share their opinion on the matter. But to explicitly call it a starvation diet, and then for a publication to use that headline so irresponsibly, is where the problem lies, because people just see a salacious statement (one not even rooted in the truth) that is intended to shock and scare, rather than receiving the whole picture. 

In addition, it’s important to note that while Dr. Weil’s quote refers to keto as a “starvation diet,” he has also written about the benefits of keto for his site, noting that, “some studies have found that ketogenic diets may have value for treatment of other health problems.He elaborates on this, highlighting how ketosis has been known since the 1920s to decrease seizure frequency in children aged 1-10, and how an international team of researchers published a review in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013 about how there is, “ample evidence to support the notion that a low-carbohydrate diet can lead to an improvement in some metabolic pathways and have beneficial health effects.” Their research showed that following a keto diet can lower your risk for cardiovascular disease, including elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels. This review cited the results of various studies to showcase the positive results people have experienced from going keto, like how the improved glucose control and insulin sensitivity that comes with following the diet can help those who suffer from metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. The researches also noted the, “persuasive, although not yet conclusive” evidence that points to a keto diet doing wonders for acne, as well as the promising evidence that the keto diet can act, “as an aid in at least some kinds of cancer therapy and is deserving of further and deeper investigation.” On top of that, Dr. Weil adds that researchers believe that keto could be extremely useful in treating polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). 

All that said, if one follows Dr Weil’s advice, one will be very healthy. But it’s easy for things to spin out of control with all the temptation and decadence in everyday life. Consequently, embarking on a project like a ketogenic diet can deliver a lot of benefit, especially when people have a right to want to look better and become slimmer for happiness and self-esteem reasons, even if they are not in metabolic disease risk category. The only way to find out if the keto diet works for you is to just try it out – it’s been working pretty well for people for the past 2.5 million years – and see how you feel when you switch to burning fat for energy. It makes a remarkable difference when you commit to it, and it never needs to be the kind of super-strict situation where you’re longing for foods and never satisfied. The whole point of keto is you feel full of energy (and not hungry)! And like Dr. Weil says, it’s ok to enjoy a little ice cream now and then – the important thing to remember is that the keto diet is not a starvation diet, and it is entirely possible to commit to keto and enjoy yourself and your food – and certainly with no signs of starvation in sight! 


Brad Kearns
Brad Kearns
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