The keto diet and mental health: how closely should the food industry watch this trend?

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Yagi Studio
Image: Getty/Yagi Studio

Related tags: keto, Mental health

Most consumers go keto – often-tipped as the next big diet trend – to lose weight. But proponents hope it can gain favour amid growing awareness of the relationship between diet and mental health and wellness.

The ketogenic diet is high-fat, moderate-protein and low-carbohydrate. Ketogenic diets make the body produce ketones, which are used as an alternative fuel when blood sugar levels are low. Ketones are produced in the liver from fat, making the ketogenic diet a popular approach to weight loss.

There is also evidence emerging that the keto diet may help treat serious mental health disorders. A new clinical trial by James Cook University in Australia will undertake clinical trials to determine whether a diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates could be used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“The way ketogenic therapy works is to provide alternative energy sources in the form of so-called ketone bodies (products of fat breakdown) and by helping to circumvent abnormally functioning cellular energy pathways in these mental disorders,”​ said Associate Professor Carlo Longhitano, Head of Psychiatry at JCU and a co-investigator in the study.

He added that only well-designed and controlled clinical trials such as those now underway can allow conclusions that support evidence-based medicine. “Without them it is just anecdotes and hearsay,”​ said Dr Longhitano.

Andy Welch, CEO of Seriously Low Carb, which sells products to over 250,000 consumers in 15 countries, stressed the wider, positive mental wellbeing effects of a healthy diet, but remains excited about the potential for ketos diets to answer many diverse problems including mental health.

“Typically today’s western diets lack a lot of the nutrients required to feed the body and look after our precious organs – especially our brain,”​ he told FoodNavigator. “Introduce a keto diet, or a Low Carb Lifestyle, as I like to call it, and you essentially ditch many of the highly processed carbs and sugars that dominate Western lives. An appreciation of healthy foods like leafy greens and the essential nutrients they offer such as superior brain health sits at the heart of keto thinking, namely how to help your body operate at the peak of its powers.

“In the case of leafy greens your brain gets what it needs at a nutrient level, functions better and as a result you will too. By maximizing your potential to appreciate even the smallest experience, you foster your mental wellbeing.”

Another way to think of low carb is the avoidance of ‘bloatiness’, he said, adding that a low carb lifestyle avoids or minimises access to these debilitating foods. “If you feel better in your body then your mind has an indirect driver to also feel better.  And that’s just generic body benefits – there are studies on Keto as a dietary intervention of Rheumatoid Arthritis providing anti-inflammatory benefits which result in patients experiencing significantly reduced pain. The less pain you feel the more likely you are to feel mentally robust.”

EY Global Consumer Senior Analyst Jon Copestake, however, warned the food industry against throwing too much weight behind the keto movement.

“I have a challenge with popular diets as being seen as defining trends. I still remember the excitement around the Atkins diet, the California beach diet and going back further supplementary diets like slimfast,”​ he told FoodNavigator. “Diets like Keto and Paleo are likely to go the way of every diet that preceded them in fading away when the next big thing comes along, but leaving a residual element of utility in the way consumers eat.”

But he added there is a growing awareness among consumers to look to food to improve mood. “What the diets point towards more broadly is an appetite to use diets not to define weight loss, which has typically always been the focus, but to also improve physical and mental well being,”​ he told us. “Skin health, brain health, sleep and relaxation are becoming just as prominent drivers of diet as weight loss which reflects a fairly fundamental change in the way consumers see their relationship with diets.”

He added that it’s a challenge for brands responding to trends that may prove ‘transient and potentially contradictory’.

“The number of fasting programs continues to grow, which puts brands out of the mix altogether. Some diets push people towards veganism, others focus on proteins and iron driving a much more red-meat based consumption,”​ he explained.

From a brand perspective there’s a threefold response. One is focused on reformulation. Increasing turmeric, kale, beetroot, pulses and omega-3 content in the prepared meals they sell to tap into a trend without completely falling for a fad that could change tomorrow. A second is launching supplements that specifically favour a trend – this is where the drinks industry leads and the food industry follows – nootropics, adaptogens, CBD, microbiome, probiotics, raw fermented products all started as drinks led mood enhancers that are bleeding into food through supplements… which are increasingly sold as gummies.

"More recently the power of mushrooms seems to be becoming more prominent with mushroom gummies seen as the new mood enhancer because of their high nootropic and adaptogenic qualities rather than because of their psychedelic properties.”

He recommended brands take a ‘general health approach’. “Continuing on the same path of reducing unhealthy ingredients and increasing vegetable content, ramping up pulses and green ingredients-  these don’t respond to specific health fads but latch onto the longer term underlying trend and point to the fact that most dieticians generally see a balanced, healthy diets as delivering better physical and mental well being.”

He also suggested food brands continue to their nod from evolving trends in the beverage industry.

“Typically it’s much easier for drinks brands to be agile here and this is what they’ve done,”​ he elaborated. “Mood and mental wellbeing enhancing drinks have gone from being virtually nowhere a decade ago to being almost ubiquitous today. From a food perspective its about tapping into the right trend and responding quickly. Food companies are increasingly using AI to trawl and analyse food trends through social media thanks to the predilection for younger consumers to publish a photo of every meal they have. From knowing what’s hot there’s a choice between driving emerging ingredients or food trends into your existing product formulation or creating new lines to accommodate them. The really interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that, while drinks companies will adapt their portfolio for any dietary trend they can, food companies are much slower – they take a wait and watch approach and have a lot of food safety and other regulation to consider. If you look at the 'diet' led assortment of ready meals in any supermarket today you’d still find them dominated by calorie controlled foods rather than foods that promote energy levels or brain power.”

For more on Food and Mood listen to the FoodNavigator Podcast, out October 19

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