The more we age, the more our necessity and struggle to achieve a good state of health increases. In the age of abundant information, the quest to find an approach which can help you achieve your best state of health has actually become less clear; we live in a conundrum of more opinion, less clarity.
With new diets seemingly coming out every week, each with their own miraculous (and mostly speculative) range of benefits, it’s difficult to know which to go for and, quite honestly, which you can even trust.
One of the few approaches that may be worth trialling is the ketogenic approach. While it may have only become popular in more recent years, researchers have been trialling the diet in various populations across a whole range of health conditions for decades.
In this article we’re going to introduce you to the ketogenic diet, why it may be of benefit to you and how you can begin to practice a ketogenic approach in a healthy and sustainable fashion.
What is a ketogenic diet?
To put it simply, the keto diet is “low-carb, high-fat” approach to dieting.
Essentially, you are switching out the traditional, primary source of energy in both the eastern and western diets, carbohydrate, to dietary fat.
This forces metabolic adaptation, leading to the use of fat as our primary fuel source and increased fat oxidation (breakdown).
With traditional diets, our body will break down carbohydrates into glucose to be further broken down in respiratory processes to produce energy.
In the absence of carbohydrate, our body is made to use fat as its fuel source instead. Fats are broken down in the liver to produce ketones, which can also be incorporated into respiratory processes to produce energy; hence, the keto diet.
Traditional diets, at least in the Western world, appear to be a contributing factor to the ever-rising prevalence of obesity and poor controlled weight management cases.
While high carbohydrate diets themselves may not be necessarily to blame here, the quality and or type of carbohydrate being consumed, and in the quantities / frequency of which they are consumed, may be the issue.
We are eating more easily digestible, processed carbohydrates as opposed to wholegrains and fiber rich sources. The aforementioned will trigger a rapid release of a hormone called insulin, which essentially acts to help shuttle carbohydrates into cells (as excess carbohydrate in the bloodstream can be potentially dangerous).
This may be of benefit in certain situations (for example, just after exercise when we are looking to restore our carbohydrate stores rapidly), however, it is mostly an undesirable process (the rapid release of a large amount of insulin) with any excess carbohydrate being stored within fat cells.
Imagine repeating this process multiple times a day over the course of many years within a lifestyle that is also devout of other healthy behaviours (like regular exercise and adequate sleep for example). Over time our body will actually have to produce more insulin to achieve the same effect as our cells become increasingly more insulin insensitive. This insensitivity to insulin eventually leads to metabolic disorders like pre-diabetes and eventually type II diabetes itself; the main risk factor for all cause mortality related to heart disease.
A ketogenic approach may however offer a solution to this problem, as well as many other health issues plaguing our society.
The benefits of a keto diet for seniors
Keto diets have actually been in use since the 1920s as a therapy for epilepsy and can, in some cases, completely remove the need for medication. From the 1960s onwards they have become widely known as one of the most common methods for obesity treatment and since then many other health conditions.
Blood sugar control and metabolic disorders
Insulin resistance is the primary feature underlying type 2 diabetes (T2D) but it also exists across a continuum in the general population. To be insulin resistant is not as if you were to turn a light switch on or off, but more like the turning of a dial.
Insulin resistance disrupts insulin action in cells, which can cause a wide spectrum of signs and symptoms. A primary feature of insulin resistance is an impaired ability of muscle cells to take up circulating carbohydrate. A person with insulin resistance will divert a greater proportion of dietary carbohydrate to the liver where much of it is converted to fat, as opposed to being oxidized for energy in skeletal muscle.
When dietary carbohydrate is restricted to a level below which it is not significantly converted to fat (a threshold that varies from person to person), signs and symptoms of insulin resistance improve or often disappear completely.
Both short and long-term studies have evaluated ketogenic diets in treating metabolic disorders and insulin sensitivity and found it to be significantly beneficial.
While improvements in metabolic state appear to present with or without the loss of bodyweight, the benefits of the keto diet to weight management efforts has been well documented.
There are a number of mechanisms which could explain the consistent success attached to ketogenic dieting and weight loss;
- Reduction in appetite due to higher satiety effect of more dietary proteins effects on appetite control hormones and to a possible direct appetite-suppressant action of the ketones themselves
- Reduction in lipogenesis (creation of new fats) and increased lipolysis (fat breakdown).
- Greater metabolic efficiency in consuming fats.
- Increased metabolic costs of gluconeogenesis and the thermic effect of proteins i.e. we spend more energy creating carbohydrate and metabolizing protein.
An approach which facilitates you feeling less hungry and eating less, as well as reducing the amount of fat we are creating and storing and increasing our energy expenditure will be one that can certainly help with weight management efforts (and the research shows it!).
Heart health and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease
It may seem counterintuitive at first; “How could a diet higher in fats possibly be good for my cardiovascular health?”
That is a reasonable concern, given the increased risk of cardiovascular disease associated with fat intake. However, not all fats are created equal, and the fats which are associated with poorer cardiovascular health are the “unhealthy” saturated and trans fats. These two forms of dietary fat can increase your levels of “bad” cholesterol (i.e. those which form the plaques in your blood vessels) and increase your blood triglycerides.
This assumes though that the ketogenic diet promotes these kinds of fats which it most certainly does not; the keto diet promotes the increased intake of heart healthy fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
In fact, research shows that limiting carbohydrates to the point in which ketosis occurs can actually;
- Improve blood triglyceride levels
- Improve total cholesterol levels
- Increase the level of “good” cholesterol
All of these factors are directly linked to a decreased risk of developing heart disease. Additionally, reversing metabolic disorder can also reduced the risk of developing heart disease. Statistics show that nearly 70% of people with a form of metabolic disorder will die of heart disease and over 15% die of having a stroke.
Read Also: How To Gain Muscle As A Man Over 60
While cardiovascular health is important at all ages, paying particular attention to it as you age is important given what we’ve discussed around the current Western lifestyle and its effect on our metabolic profile.
More recently, there has been a swath of research into the field of ketogenic dieting and neuroprotection. The prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia, is rising and there appears to be some kind of link between metabolic disorder and cognitive disorder.
When hyperglycaemia – which is the technical name for high blood sugar – develops, the excess sugar damages the blood vessels, frequently causing inflammation, hormone imbalances, and more. Because blood vessels supply blood and nutrients to major organs – like the brain – those organs then become affected and their respective functionality may decline.
While more work needs to be done in the field, initial results are promising and suggest a significant neuroprotective benefit!
Lean body mass retention and the reduced risk of fall rate
One benefit of a ketogenic diet that may be unique in comparison to other strategies is its effect on retaining lean body mass.
This matters a great deal to those who do fall into the seniors and over 60s category as sarcopenia, which is age related muscle wastage, will become ever more significant.
With loss of lean body mass / muscle mass comes increased frailty and risk of falling; falling accounts for the second great accidental mortality rate amongst elderly populations and increases the number of those who require additional care.
This is likely due to the increase in protein and anti-aging effect associated with a ketogenic diet; not only is it a great approach to protect your mind, but body as well!
Is a keto diet safe for seniors?
While the approach appears to have many benefits, it’s important that it is implemented correctly. A poor-quality diet is a poor-quality diet, regardless of what you call it, and replacing easily digestible carbohydrates with the saturated and trans fats which we mentioned earlier is likely to not do your health any favors.
In clinical settings, when the diet is being coached and or provided by a team of expert researchers, the results are great and the approach appears to be completely safe.
In practical, real world settings, it’s important to know what the potential pitfalls can be and how you can prepare for them and or address them within your diet.
One of the first things to mention is that many first-time keto dieters have reported suffering from flu like symptoms; the dreaded “keto flu”.
Included in the list of symptoms are: stomach pain, “brain fog,” dizziness or confusion, nausea, irritability, diarrhoea or constipation, muscle cramping or muscle soreness, lack of focus, sleep problems, and sugar cravings.
The severity of these symptoms may be worse in the first few days of a ketogenic diet.
Knowing that you may experience it and adjusting your schedule to prepare for this possible condition is important; a large focus on sleep should be emphasized, maintaining hydration levels and getting an intake of adequate electrolytes (find the best keto friendly ones here) and planning out a well-balanced, nutrient targeted meal plan.
If you find yourself struggling with the associated cough, we’ve also written about the best keto friendly cough drops too!
Another important point to mention is fiber intake; many make the mistake of completely cutting out fibrous fruits and veggies in their diet. While you need to be more mindful of which you consume and the quantities of carbohydrate within them to ensure you remain in ketosis, you don’t have to cut them all out.
As you figure out which to keep in your dietary routine and which options you may have to minimize your intake of, using a fiber powder supplement can prevent you from suffering any digestive issues.
Incorporating a keto friendly multivitamin would also be recommended, at least in the initial stages of your dietary changeover.
As mentioned, one of the mistakes many first time keto dieters make is to cut out fruits and vegetables, which are naturally abundant in vitamins, minerals and unique, health boosting phytochemicals.
The use of a well formulated multivitamin can act as a “safety net” in some ways, as you begin to piece together a well-rounded diet following keto principles.
Is a keto diet sustainable for over 60s?
The main issue when it comes to a ketogenic approach is the sustainability; at the end of the day, it is a very restrictive diet and requires more attention to detail.
There are the initial considerations and hurdles (such as the associated flu, the necessity of fibre awareness and a potentially nutrient restricted diet depending on the food choices you make), however, the ketogenic approach does appear to get easier as time goes on. Our keto guide for beginners is a great read for those considering the approach after this article and reading about all the possible benefits it may confer.
For those who are utilizing a ketogenic approach to enhance their weight loss and subsequent management efforts, the rapid initial weight loss may actually increase long term adherence and motivation to continue the diet, thus giving a chance to develop a means of incorporating a keto approach fully into your daily life.
There are some who may encounter a plateau when it comes to their weight loss efforts however. While you simply can’t diet forever, we’ve tackled the topic of keto weight loss plateaus in a separate article so you don’t end up giving up on it because your progress has slowed!
Additionally, understanding how to manage your hunger on a keto diet is important too; with the reduction in food volume (due to reduced wholegrains and fibrous, voluminous fruits and veggies) it is only natural that you may be feeling a bit hungrier.
A few simple sustainable tips to manage your hunger as you transition into ketosis are;
- Increase your protein intake (pushing towards 30% of total energy intake if possible)
- Ensure you’re getting adequate fiber intake (The American Heart Association recommends are between 25 to 30g a day; this is where a fiber powder supplement may come in handy!)
- Ensure you’re adequately hydrated and even throw in some carbonated zero kcal drinks to help improve your satiety if you are still struggling!
- Ensure you’re getting quality sleep and around 7 to 8 hours if you can (8 hours preferably!)
- Ensure you’re managing the stressors in your life well
- Exercise every day (at least 30 minutes of relatively intense work)
Ultimately, the sustainability of any diet depends on how it fits your lifestyle. A diet should compliment a lifestyle, a lifestyle should not be built around a diet; that is an unsustainable approach.
Read Also: How To Overcome Keto Weight Loss Plateau
If you’re going out, plan in advance; we have a range of keto based articles for suitable options when eating out at different restaurants and takeaways!
If you’re struggling with hunger, incorporate the techniques and strategies we laid out.
Use the keto guide for beginners and resources such as this to determine which fruits and vegetables will be suitable for you and which you can incorporate.
Read up on keto-friendly recipes and books too; nothing helps more with dieting than being excited for what you’re going to eat!
But, ultimately, practice patience and compassion; don’t critique yourself for getting it wrong, that’s a predictor of future failure! Plan, learn, understand and slowly incorporate.
There’s no rush to overhaul your diet overnight, the benefits will be there and they appear to be achieved in a relatively short space of time too so, again, no rush!
The keto diet is a wonderful approach for seniors and over 60s to at least trial given its wide range of benefits. If the only thing you take away from it is improving your dietary fat sources and upping your protein intake, then that’ll help you immensely with protecting and even improving your health as the years go on.
Its worth a shot, and if you can grin and bare some of the tougher aspects of the diet, the benefits you reap will be more than worth it!