The ketogenic, or keto, diet is an extremely popular meal plan. Originally developed in the 1920s to help reduce the symptoms of childhood epilepsy, it’s now celebrated by nutritionists, life coaches, and even movie stars as the holy grail of healthy eating. It even has its own day of recognition – January 5 is National Keto Day.

What’s the big deal about keto, anyway? Beyond being an effective way to lose weight, studies have shown that the keto diet has a number of positive health benefits, especially for patients with diabetes.

What is the Keto Diet?

At its core, the keto diet is a low-carb, high-fat eating plan. When following the keto diet, the majority of your daily calories – between 50 and 70 percent – come from fat. Ideally, you should focus on foods that are high in unsaturated fats, as saturated fats can lead to heart disease and high cholesterol. High-fat foods that are encouraged on the keto diet include eggs, avocado, nuts, cottage cheese, and fish.

You’re also allowed a moderate level of protein, which should account for 20 to 30 percent of your daily calories. You are required to strictly limit carbohydrates to under 50 mg per day, even those that come from healthy sources like vegetables or whole grains. To put that in perspective, one medium banana has 27 grams of carbs.

This makes the keto diet extremely restrictive – but that’s the point. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of sugar, or glucose, which it uses for energy. Without carbohydrates, the body is forced to convert fat into ketones, a fatty substance that can be used for energy. This is a condition called ketosis, and achieving it is the ultimate goal of the keto diet.

The Keto Diet and Diabetes

Studies have shown that following the keto diet can help those with type 2 diabetes lower their blood sugar levels, reduce their A1c and maintain a healthy weight. Reducing carbohydrates is a common recommendation for patients with type 2 diabetes, as large quantities of carbs can cause blood sugar spikes when they’re converted to sugar. Consuming fewer carbs means lower blood sugar levels, which could also help some patients reduce their need for medication.

There are fewer studies regarding the effectiveness of the keto diet for type 1 diabetes. While lowering carbohydrates is beneficial in reducing high blood sugar levels, it also puts you at greater risk of hypoglycemia, or blood sugar levels that are too low. Patients with type 1 diabetes are also at increased risk of diabetic ketoacidosis, a deadly condition caused by dangerously high levels of ketones in the blood.

Should you try the Keto Diet for your Diabetes?

The keto diet is most beneficial for patients with type 2 diabetes who have trouble controlling their symptoms, especially those who need to lose weight. It’s important to note that the keto diet’s restrictiveness is hard to maintain, and patients may experience side effects like bad breath, fatigue, headaches, brain fog, or flu-like symptoms.

Diabetic patients should speak with their doctor before starting the keto diet, especially those with type 1 diabetes. You may need to make changes to your medication, have more frequent monitoring, or conduct regular ketone tests to ensure safe levels. As always, you’ll need to check your blood sugar levels regularly.