- David Harper / BioDiet
- The keto diet is a trendy, high-fat plan that many people swear by for weight loss and improved focus, but some experts caution that it may not be for everyone.
- There are very few rigorous studies of the keto diet in people, in part because it’s so difficult to adhere to.
- A new study performed in mice suggests that the keto diet changes the way that immune cells in the lungs perform, and may help boost a body’s response to the flu. More research is needed to know if the same is true in people.
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The keto diet is a trendy and exacting eating plan that involves almost entirely eliminating carbs, instead subsisting on high-fat foods like oils, avocados, cream, and bacon.
People adhere to keto for all kinds of reasons. The keto diet can help fend off tough-to-treat epileptic seizures in children, and holds some promise as a way to manage type-2 diabetes in adults.
Now it appears there’s one more potential benefit: flu fighting-power.
Research released Friday from scientists at Yale University, and performed in mice, showed that rodents who were fed a ketogenic, high-fat, low-carb laboratory diet for one week before they were exposed to the flu were more likely to survive than mice on regular lab diets.
Keto mice may be slightly better flu-fighters because of how the immune cells in their lungs respond to running on fat.
In the study, researchers found that specific immune cells that help produce mucus in the linings of the lung are bolstered by being on a keto diet. More mucus production means more chances to trap the flu virus.
Mice on keto also maintained their weight better if they did get the flu, upping their chances of survival. The same wasn’t true of other mice, even if they were fed high-fat diets (which included more carbs), or were administered chemical ketone bodies, suggesting there’s something special about being in ketogenesis, the fat-burning metabolic state induced by eating a keto diet.
When a person (or mouse) enters ketosis, ketone bodies are produced naturally by the liver, creating needed energy for the body in the absence of carbs.
The authors caution that more studies will need to be done to determine if there’s any benefit to being keto when it comes to surviving the flu as a human. It’s also worth noting the effects weren’t that pronounced. Researchers gave the flu to 25 mice on regular diets and 33 mice on keto diets. 10 keto mice survived, while 7 non-keto mice lived (mice, generally, are not great at fighting the flu.)
Keto changes how the body runs, and may hold promise as a diabetes treatment
Some people (like the Kardashians, LeBron James, and many Silicon Valley tech workers) love keto, saying that it leaves them feeling energized and reduces hunger.
However, certain doctors hate keto, arguing that we don’t know much about the long-term health effects, and that diet plans which include “good” carbohydrates from plants like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are the most well-tested for long-term health.
Regardless of its merits, most people agree the keto diet is difficult to follow in our carb-centric world.
Keto diets change the way our bodies operate in all kinds of mysterious ways
The keto diet changes the way a body works, triggering the same fat-burning state that’s turned on by starvation.
Going keto also changes the way our bodies fuel up. It’d be like if you re-configured your car to run on avocado oil, instead of gas (or, in our case, carbs).
This overhaul, which triggers a fat-fueling state called ketogenesis, has been shown to reduce seizures in epileptic kids, and holds promise as a type-2 diabetes treatment. There are also some new studies of keto that suggest it has powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
“I’m not surprised that a ketogenic diet would promote enhanced protection from the flu,” keto diet researcher Jeff Volek, a professor and registered dietitian at the Ohio State University, who is also a co-founder of the pro-keto nutrition company, Virta Health, told Insider over email.
Volek has been studying how keto diets might help reverse cases of type 2 diabetes.
“We continue to see that a well-formulated ketogenic diet has broad-spectrum anti-inflammatory effects in people,” he wrote.
His research suggests there are different kinds of “metabolic signaling effects” that happen in a keto-adapted body that is running on fat.
Whether more research will be done on keto’s relationship with better flu-fighting remains to be seen, but at the very least, scientists have unraveled a new way that immune cells in the lungs play a key role in helping mice fight off the flu.
Lead study author and Yale immunobiology professor Akiko Iwasaki said she, for one, won’t be going keto any time soon based on these results.
“I love rice and pasta too much,” she told Insider over email, shortly before her study was released in Science Immunology. “I get flu vaccines instead.”