Keto or ke-no: What’s the best diet for cognitive performance?
It’s both accurate and slightly misleading to call the keto diet a “fad diet”. On the one hand, the keto diet has in recent years become a fad, taking over a big space in the diet industry and spawning countless articles, books, YouTube videos, documentaries and supplements. But unlike other fad diets, the keto diet actually puts your body into an alternate and natural metabolic state, one called ketosis.
In simple terms, ketosis is when your body starts burning fat instead of carbs for fuel, and this generally leads to rapid weight loss. But exactly what does ketosis do to the brain?
Some research suggests that the diet can help boost memory, prevent migraines and improve cognitive performance. On the more anecdotal side, some people claim that the keto diet can clear up “brain fog” and help alleviate depression and anxiety. But much remains unclear about how the diet affects the brain.
What’s certain is that diet, in general, affects the functioning of your brain. If you eat unhealthy foods, your mental health and ability to make good decisions will likely suffer. After all, the decision-making parts of the brain, like the frontal cortex, need a certain amount of energy to function properly, as neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky tell us:
“Willpower is not just a metaphorical term,” Sapolsky says. “Neurons need more energy. When you’re running out of energy in [the frontal cortex], you’re more impulsive, you have more trouble with a working memory task… You’ll have more trouble doing the everyday little things that take a little bit of extra effort.”
Healthy brain functioning is all about maintaining a healthy equilibrium. So, can the keto diet be part of that equilibrium, and what can science tell us about the diet so far?
Let’s take Sapolsky’s recommendation of having a steady caloric intake to maximize cognitive function and apply it to the raging debate surrounding the ketogenic diet.
Mental Health Benefits
The keto diet may help with mental and emotional health, and that might be due to what the diet doesn’t include: sugar. A sugar-heavy diet (e.g. one high in carbs) is known to increase inflammation in the body, and inflammation is linked to (at least some forms of) depression, with studies showing that:
- People experience more symptoms of depression and anxiety when given proinflammatory cytokines.
- Chronically high levels of inflammation from medical illnesses are linked to higher rates of depression.
- Neuro-inflammation has been shown to play a critical role in the development of depression.
So, because the keto diet reduces sugar intake, it might also reduce inflammation, which in turn alleviates depression. Other studies suggest that the keto diet can: boost cognitive performance, enhance memory, protect against Alzheimer’s, prevent migraines, and increase the production of GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps reduce stress and anxiety.
It’s worth noting that the typical modern diet—eating three carbohydrate-heavy meals a day—tends to cause sugar spikes, which not only contribute to inflammation, but also throw our bodies out of a healthy equilibrium. Because the keto diet is low in sugar, it could help you stay in a more balanced state. As Sapolsky told Big Think, it’s better to aim for a steady caloric intake throughout the day.
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