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Keto vs the Standard American Diet

Keto vs the Standard American Diet

This article is the first in an intended series comparing ketogenic diets with other possible eating regimes. As to which diet is the better, this first comparison is something of a no brainer I’m afraid. The benefits of keto are manifold, as are the problems of the Standard American Diet. For the sake of at least attempting to be cover my bases though, I wanted to start the series at the simplest level and work up from there.

What is a Keto Diet?

The ketogenic diet is a low carbohydrate, high fat diet (LCHF). In recent times, the majority of people following the diet do so in order to lose weight. If this is your goal, keto is a great way of getting there, perhaps even the best. However, it also comes with a wide range of other health benefits to boot.

The diet relies on a metabolic mechanism that, in the absence of carbs, pushes the body towards using ketones rather than glucose as its main source of energy. This has a range of physiological and psychological benefits for the person in ketosis.

There is ample evidence demonstrating keto’s positive effects with regards to inflammation, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, to name but a few. Done properly, it can be a profound and fundamental health intervention.

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What is a Standard American Diet?

The Standard American Diet (SAD) is a high calorie, but often low nutrient diet, that is commonly consumed in the US and across the Western World. It is so ubiquitous now that some authorities refer to it as the Western Pattern Diet (WPD).

The majority of calories consumed on SAD usually come from highly processed and nutrient-depleted products that are often presented in a packet of some sort. Often these ‘foods’ and beverages are loaded with sugar, hence it is a high carbohydrate diet. Oddly, its emphasis on carbs grew out of the notion that a healthy diet required the negation of fats, particularly saturated animal fats. I would suggest that subsequent history, and the obesity epidemic that has hit every country adopting this diet, has shown that the emphasis on carbs as the main source of energy is profoundly mistaken.

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Interestingly, those promoting the more extreme plant-based diets often promote the idea that the problem is still that the SAD is too rich in animal products and their fats. This is the very opposite of the reality that America’s consumption of animal products and fat has decreased markedly over the past four decades.

The Standard American Diet is, essentially, a plant-based diet. Nearly 50% of all calories consumed come from carbohydrates. Interestingly, carbs are the one non-essential macronutrient. A human being cannot survive without fats or protein but can do just fine without carbohydrates.

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Benefits of a Keto Diet

The list of the benefits that accrue from being on a ketogenic diet is long and profound. As mentioned above, the weight normalization that comes from long term adoption of this diet is very attractive to many people rendered overweight, or even obese, by following diets rich in processed foods and carbs.

The keto diet has proven to be protective against many of the standard ills afflicting people in our modern world. Apart from the physical diseases mentioned above (cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes), ketogenic diets are also increasingly proving to be effective interventions in a range of psychiatric ills. Georgia Ede’s work is particularly interesting in this regard.

Benefits of a SAD Diet

This is a difficult one … how to find any benefits at all for the Standard American Diet? I suppose, at one level, any danger of calorie deficiency is easily avoided by most people. Beyond that, it is hard to find any benefits to a diet that is highly processed, carbohydrate and sugar-rich, often lacking in essential fats, proteins and other basic nutrients.

On a personal level, when I first met my wife, she felt she had a problem gaining weight. I told her that I could easily increase her weight by her target 5 kgs (11 lbs), if that was what she really desired. Over the next month I simply had her eat lots of carbohydrate and sugar-rich and sweet foods and, voila, the desired weight gain was achieved. She felt bloated and unhealthy though and, immediately following this experiment, reverted back to her previous diet.

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The one other obvious benefit is convenience. Our shops and supermarkets are packed wall to wall with high sugar, carbohydrate-rich, highly processed food. Indeed, I sometimes sally forth into stores and realize there are no sensible choices to be had from their shelves whatsoever. Merely aisle upon endless aisle of processed junk food, but … it is readily available at least.

Drawbacks of a Keto Diet

The keto diet can be difficult to maintain in the long term. This is likely because of the relatively limited range of foods that can be consumed on this regime. One does need some imagination, and some creative cooking skills, in order to enjoy sufficient variety on the diet.

In the early weeks of the diet, many people will suffer the symptoms of the infamous keto flu. These are normally short term, usually lasting from a week to ten days. They are, however, quite challenging. Many people give up at this stage, before experiencing the benefits that would inevitably accrue if they had simply persisted with the diet.

Some folks also report cravings for high carbohydrate foods when they first convert on to a keto diet. This is hardly surprising, many of these people have been eating sugar-rich products for years. This creates an almost drug-like dependency on these foods. Again, though, with persistence, determination and patience, the benefits of sticking with keto will become increasingly apparent.

Drawbacks of a SAD

In contrast to the drawbacks of keto, the problems with the Standard American Diet are too numerous to list in a relatively short blog such as this. On this diet, nearly 65% of all Americans are either overweight, obese or severely obese. Levels of obesity have increased decade on decade since the McGovern committee (1977) recommended decreasing fats, particularly animal fats, and increasing the consumption of carbohydrates. To state it simply: the results have been a disaster.

Type 2 diabetes has increased hugely due to the SAD. This has been observed not only in the US but increasingly in other countries as they adopt the diet. High rates of stroke and cardiac disease are associated with this mode of eating. In the decades since the adoption of the SAD, Alzheimer’s has become a major problem. Cancer rates have also increased greatly since the 1970s.

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Recommending the consumption of carbohydrates from grains and plant-based foods is essentially advising people to eat sugar. All these carbs, whether they be from sucrose or fructose, are converted into glucose in the body. Glucose is a form of sugar. What is being recommended is actually a massive increase in sugar consumption. When put like that, it should be obvious that such a diet cannot possibly be described as healthy.

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I think that almost any fair comparison between the Standard American Diet and Keto would be bound to conclude in favour of the latter. The extent of the benefits of keto may be open to some debate, depending on your point of view. The problems with the SAD are obvious though, as is the decline in nutritional standards since the McGovern committee recommendations were adopted as guidelines in the US in 1980.

The so-called ‘food period’ could be completely inverted, meat and animal fats at the base and bread and wheat at the pinnacle, and that would likely produce a much healthier diet. It is hard to see how the committee could have got it more wrong. The years of increasing obesity and incidence of type 2 diabetes since the adoption of those guidelines provide evidence enough.

I have to admit a certain amount of bias when it comes to this question, this is admittedly a keto-based blog. On the other hand, given the four decades of evidence regarding the SAD, and the long list of benefits of keto style diets, it seems clear which is both the logical and healthy choice. Adopting a ketogenic diet does take a little more effort, that much is clear.

The question becomes: would you rather make the effort that keto requires or, alternatively, remain on something like the SAD and watch your health deteriorate as your weight increases, year on year?

The choice, as ever, is yours.


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