Ketogenic eating as a lifestyle is, often times, very misunderstood. It's unfortunate, but many ketonians eventually face questions about whether or not their new lifestyle is really just an eating disorder disguised as a health movement. It can be easy to become discouraged or upset when faced with that question, but is it true?
Is Keto an Eating Disorder?
According to the Diagnostic and Statisical Manual for Mental Disorders (aka, the DSM-5), an eating disorder is usually characterized as irregular or abnormal eating patterns that cause clinically significant distress or impairment. Examples with which one may be familiar are conditions such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or pica. In addition, eating disorders are, universally, demonstrably harmful to the sufferer, often resulting in acute physical and mental harm and even death. When compared honestly with those criteria, it's hard to see how a ketogenic way of eating would fall into a disordered classification. So why do we encounter this association between keto and harmful behaviors?
For the past half-century or more, we have been inundated with the idea that healthy persons eat everything in moderation. Except fat, of course. Fats have been demonized, while grains and sugars have been praised as nutritional powerhouses. We can daily walk through our local grocery store and find "heart healthy" labels on sugary cereals and helpful little notes assuring us that sugar and grains- heavy consumption of which are strongly linked to metabolic conditions like diabetes- are necessary to a healthy, 'balanced" diet. Couple those messages with the ones we see on billboards and on television, constantly whispering their sweet nothings into our ears (and delighting our eyes), bombarding us with slogans that insist we "deserve" some delicacy or other, and we now have a society that not only believes you must eat things that are demonstrably harmful to be healthy, but also that we are somehow unhealthily depriving ourselves of some measure of joy and quality of life if we avoid certain foods.
Do We Need to Eat a "Balanced" Diet?
Biologically speaking, the human body cannot produce all the fatty and amino acids we need to survive. We can, however, produce the small amount of sugar needed by the body via a process called gluconeogeneis. Hence, we must eat fats and proteins to survive and thrive, but we do not need to eat carbohydrates. That's why you read about essential amino and fatty acids in biology texts, but never essential carbohydrates or essential sugars and starches. Further, in many cases, eating a lot of carbs is demonstrably harmful. We currently have epidemic levels of societal obesity, metabolic disease, and diabetes (and cardiac disease, and cancer, and PCOS, and insulin resistance, etc.) to show for a half-century-plus of eating carbohydrate-heavy diets. It follows, logically, that restricting these foods should be helpful to a populace that only becomes fatter and sicker year-over-year.
Contrary to what we have been told, the ketogenic community regularly sees what amount to borderline miraculous health turn-arounds. Obesity is conquered. Diabetes is successfully managed with little or no medication. Inflammatory conditions are eased. Persons suffering from years of infertility due to PCOS finally conceive. Every day, we see health improvements and positive results from those living a ketogenic lifestyle. Thus, we find it difficult to classify keto as harmful to practitioners, which would certainly contradict the idea that it is disordered in some way.
The Verdict Is In
So, is keto an eating disorder? By evaluating the definition of an eating disorder, as well as examples, and considering how harmful high carb and sugar consumption has been to society, as well as the results we have seen within the community, the reasonable conclusion is no, it is not. It is simply a way of eating that is very focused on taking in essentials, in their most natural forms, and not so much on the non-essentials. Ketonians should be confident that, while their food choices may be different than the standard western diet, it is a perfectly healthful way to live!