For Obese People, the Keto Diet Might Be Healthier Than Exercising

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If you’re trying to lose weight or eat healthier food, it’s not always a good idea to go on a diet. Achieving a healthier, more sustainable bodyweight (and a better sense of well-being) is a matter of making long-term healthy lifestyle changes, not some fad diet or flavor-of-the-month fitness routine.

That said, some diets have attracted attention among scientists and regular folks—especially the ketogenic diet, which essentially forces the body to draw energy from fat reserves instead of dietary carbs. (Here’s a primer on how the keto diet works.) Keto, as it’s known, has been shown to offer some real health benefits: weight loss, healthier insulin levels—even controlling seizures, helping to treat tumors, and sharpening your memory. The keto diet is also earning attention for its ability to help severely obese people, who—for a multitude of health reasons—can’t necessarily exercise or diet like fairly healthy people can.

In fact, for overweight and obese people with signs of metabolic syndrome—a combination of factors that can increase a person’s risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease—going on the keto diet and not exercising might actually be a healthier option than exercising and maintaining a standard American diet, according to a new study. Specifically, the ketogenic diet—with no exercise—can help control and reduce the metabolic factors that lead to diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, according to the study, which was conducted at Bethel University in Saint Paul, MN.

In the study, researchers rounded up three groups of obese men and women ages 18 to 65 who’d been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, Type 2-diabetes, and/or metabolic syndrome (a collection of symptoms found to up the risk for diabetes, stroke, and heart disease). The researchers then put one group on a keto-type diet (fewer than 30g of carbs a day with no exercise); asked a second group to eat the same, but work out three to five days a week for 30-minute sessions; and kept another group on its regular diet with no exercise.

The results: The keto diet significantly reduced the participants’ weight, body-fat percentage, and BMI over the course of the study—better, in fact, than the exercise group. “The results show that while ample evidence indicates that exercise is beneficial, unlike a sustained ketogenic diet it did not have the ability to significantly alter the metabolic imbalance that accompanies metabolic syndrome over the course of the 10-week study,” the researchers confirmed.

Just be aware: The keto diet can require a challenging adjustment as the body shifts from carb energy to fat energy. Here’s what to expect when shifting to a keto diet.