Will Going Keto Clog Your Arteries? Here’s the Scoop on Keto and High Cholesterol
If you’ve read up on the ketogenic diet, you might have some questions — especially about eating so much fat if you have high cholesterol. Can eating piles of cheese and avocado really help you lose weight? And will it be at the expense of your heart health?
We were curious too — if you haven’t noticed, health is kind of our thing — so we looked into what science has to say. The general consensus: Plenty of studies have found the keto diet beneficial for heart health and improving lipid profiles (the amount of fat in your blood).
The only caveat? Many of these studies were short-term (less than a year), so we’re not quite ready to make any long-term health claims.
Remember that it’s best to chat with your healthcare provider before making major diet changes. Knowing your numbers and family history is the best way to ensure you’re choosing the right lifestyle for you, trends be damned!
Here’s what we know so far about the keto-cholesterol connection.
Remind me: How does keto work?
The ketogenic diet is a very low carbohydrate, high fat diet that was developed to help children and adults experiencing epileptic seizures. It’s now used to help people reach a number of health goals, including weight loss.
The diet requires getting roughly 5 to 10 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates, 15 to 20 percent from protein, and a whopping 70 percent from fat. Severely restricting carbohydrates (your body’s preferred source of fuel) forces your body to burn fat for energy instead.
Is it healthy?
You ask such tough questions! Let’s just say it’s not not healthy. If you choose the right foods — like better-for-you unsaturated fats, lean proteins, and complex, fiber-filled carbohydrates — then yes, it can be “healthy.”
These foods will help ensure you’re getting important nutrients, but the diet is still super restrictive, meaning you may miss out on other essential nutrients and put yourself at risk for certain deficiencies. Plus, it’s not necessary (or sustainable) long-term for most people.
While there are undoubtedly short-term benefits, including weight loss and improved blood sugar control, the science is lacking as far as long-term health benefits and/or risks associated with following a ketogenic diet.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in your blood. It’s produced by your liver (which means you don’t need to get it from outside sources like food) and is a key player in ensuring that your body functions properly.
You can thank cholesterol for things like hormone production, building tissues and cells, and absorbing fat-soluble vitamins (oh, hey, vitamin D!). Cholesterol can also be found in food — mostly in animal products like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.
What types of cholesterol does keto allegedly affect?
The keto diet has been shown to affect both LDL (“bad”) and HDL (“good”) cholesterol, but studies have been small and short-term with varying results. (
Some studies have found that the keto diet has beneficial effects on LDL and HDL cholesterol levels, while others have found no effect. Some have reported an increase in LDL cholesterol.
It’s kind of a toss-up, but science seems to agree that eating nutrient-dense foods while on the keto diet won’t negatively affect your cholesterol levels or heart health.
How to eat within the keto diet for optimal cholesterol
What does the keto diet do to your cholesterol levels?
The keto diet appears to improve cardiovascular health markers, including (according to certain studies) cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Research from 2004 suggests that people with obesity and high cholesterol experience greater weight loss and bigger improvements in triglyceride and HDL levels when on a keto diet than on traditional low fat diets.
Fewer studies point to poor outcomes like increased LDL and decreased HDL levels, and those tend to improve over time. The important thing to remember is that the types of foods you eat really matter.
Is it safe to be on the keto diet with high cholesterol?
Bob Harper will be the first to tell you it’s best to talk to your doctor before attempting something like the keto diet.
Some people, particularly those with familial hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol levels inherited from your fam), kidney disease, and liver disease, are not good candidates for keto because it can often make these conditions worse.
Some may find their bodies can’t handle taking in that much fat on the daily.
Even for otherwise healthy people, a keto diet filled with saturated fats from red meat and full fat dairy that’s also low in fruits and vegetables won’t lead to improved cardiovascular health in the long term and may actually do some damage.
In fact, a 2011 study found that otherwise healthy men had an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes after eating a low carb diet rich in saturated fat.
What foods are keto-approved?
A keto diet is typically mapped out using some specific calculations to make sure you enter and stay in ketosis (a fat-burning state) and meet your individual needs. Eating more than 5 to 10 percent carbs will usually take ya right out of ketosis.
You’ll be eating mostly:
- red meat
- dairy (cheese, yogurt, milk)
- non-starchy vegetables
For most people, getting 5 to 10 percent of calories from carbs means eating 50 grams or less per day, and it can be as low as 20 grams. For reference, 2 cups of cooked broccoli or 1 1/2 cups of strawberries roughly equals 20 grams of carbs, which is more than the measly 1/2 cup of rice you could eat for the same 20 grams of carbs with hardly any nutrients.
Once you’ve figured out your carb sitch, it’s all fat and protein from there.
Technically you can choose to eat any fats and proteins you’d like, but stick with unsaturated fats and lean proteins — like eggs, fish, seeds, and nuts — to maintain or even improve your health, depending where you’re starting from.