Two things are true of the human body: We are extremely adept at storing fat, but we are also extremely adept at burning it for energy…under the right conditions. That’s the basic premise of the ketogenic diet, to turn you into a “fat-burning machine.” A phrase you’re probably familiar with if you’ve ever even googled anything keto-related.
Keto(ne) – Any of 3 water-soluble compounds created when the liver oxidizes (burns) stored fats to fuel the body during periods of fasting or low carb/sugar intake.
Genic – The creation or production of
Quick Keto Overview
The ketogenic diet has been around since the beginning of the 19th century. Back then it was used to control diabetes, and later in the 1920’s to treat epileptic children who weren’t responding to conventional treatment. That means long before you’d heard of the ketogenic diet, or any of its new-age predecessors – Atkins, Paleo, South Beach, etc. – healthcare practitioners were studying and using the ketogenic diet for treating serious ailments.
Unlike the Atkins, Paleo and South Beach diets, the ketogenic diet focuses on fat intake while keeping protein intake fairly low to moderate. Excess protein in the body that can’t be utilized will be converted to sugar and then to stored fat by the liver. Not only that, but excess protein intake is hard on both the liver and kidneys.
The rules of keto are simple:
- Get the majority of your calories from healthy fats – 70% - 80%
- Keep calories from protein moderate – 10% - 20%
- Keep calories from carbohydrate/sugar sources low – 5% - 10%
- For a 2000 calorie diet, that’s roughly 165g of fat, 75g of protein and 40g of carbs
The goal is to trick your body into a pseudo-fasting mode by restricting carb intake. Glucose is the primary fuel for all cells in the body, but humans can’t make it in our bodies and we can only store about 24-hours’ worth. Instead, the carbs we eat are broken down and converted to glucose, and a large amount of that is demanded in steady supply by the brain to maintain proper function.
When the body is starved of carbs, it’ll start to rely on glucose stores in the liver and begin to break down or “catabolize” muscle to release additional glucose. After a few days of this, all glucose is fully depleted, muscle catabolism stops, insulin levels drop and the body begins mobilizing stored fat to be used for fuel. These fats are oxidized by the liver, and the liver releases ketone bodies, which are the only source of fuel outside of glucose that can be used to fuel cells in the body. This is what makes a ketogenic diet so attractive.
While in ketosis, the body is using dietary fat and stored body fat as sources of fuel, overall making you much more efficient at burning fat (fat-burning machine). On top of that, our bodies have a very tough time converting the fats we eat into body fat the way it does with carbs. Which basically means, you don't get fat from eating fat!
The ketogenic diet has a bunch of cool benefits. What’s thrust it into popularity lately is its ability to accelerate fat-burning, making weight loss much easier. But let’s take a look at some of the other health aspects that going keto may benefit.
Hunger/Appetite Control has been reported in both low-carb studies and by individuals practicing the ketogenic diet. The theory is, this has to do with how our “hunger hormones” are affected by the shift in diet. Leptin and ghrelin are hormones that balance energy (calorie) intake. They should naturally rise and fall depending on a person’s body weight and eating patterns. Leptin decreases appetite when appropriate, while ghrelin is fast-acting and increases appetite. For example, if a person is beginning to store excess fats, leptin levels should rise since there’s an excess of energy and make the individual less hungry. On the other hand, if a person is underweight, losing weight or fasting, ghrelin levels should rise to increase appetite since the body needs energy.
Leptin and ghrelin should always have some sort of balance, but in some overweight individuals with poor diets, leptin sensitivity may be compromised, leading to unchecked appetite and overeating. A 2013 study showed that despite patients being in ketosis, they had lower amounts of ghrelin in their blood and reported being less hungry even as they were losing weight.
Fitness Benefits in the form of decreased muscle loss and increased overall exercise capacity have been verified in both human and mice studies. During ketosis, insulin is low, which usually would cause muscle loss as the body starts to break down muscle tissue for glucose. But, during ketosis the body no longer seeks to feed on glucose, leaving muscle mass intact.
Not only that, but in both of the studies mentioned above, once the subjects had adapted to a high-fat diet, there was an overall increase in the amount of time they could workout to exhaustion. They were also more efficient at burning carbs, meaning they could do more with less and it had little to no effect on the quality of even high-intensity workouts. That coupled with decreased muscle loss creates a good environment for both fat loss and muscle gain.
Insulin Sensitivity is another important benefit of the ketogenic diet. The CDC reports that as of 2017, more than 100 million Americans have either diabetes or are pre-diabetic. That’s more than 30% of the population and it’s growing every year. A carbohydrate-heavy diet is a sure way to increase insulin resistance and lead you on the path to diabetes. Insulin is released into the body when glucose is present in the blood, which is natural. But chronically increased levels of glucose in the blood signals more and more insulin to be produced in order to compensate for the excess which is hard on your pancreas and could eventually lead to diabetes.
During ketosis, glucose stores have been depleted and the signal for the body to release insulin is reduced. Since fat is being burned as a fuel source during ketosis, individuals will lose weight as well and a normal body weight helps improve insulin sensitivity. A 2018 study showed that a diabetes patient was able to regenerate pancreatic cells and stop insulin injections with a mix of exercise, probiotics and cycling on and off of a ketogenic diet.
Improved Heart Health was shown in a long-term study of 83 obese patients. Weight loss is an obvious benefit to the heart, but lower levels of triglycerides, LDL (bad cholesterol) and blood glucose are extremely beneficial to heart health as well. At the same time, there was a overall increase in HDL (good cholesterol).
This is one I can personally attest to. In the midst of my ketogenic diet experiment, my LDL cholesterol dropped to within normal range, my HDL cholesterol increased, overall triglycerides normalized and my blood pressure was lower than I’d seen in years. I actually asked the nurse to check it again b/c I didn’t think it was right.
What to look out for
As with many fad diets, some people jump on the bandwagon just to sell you the “next big thing.” Fitness experts and evangelists often promise you a diet plan allowing you to eat as much of A, B or C as you want, and still lose weight. The real question is, are you losing weight the healthy way? The key is to practice keto in a healthy BALANCED way, which should come from a mixture of:
- Healthy fats, like nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, grass fed butter, palm oil, seeds etc.
- High-quality protein, like grass-fed meats, wild-caught fatty fish, pasture-raised poultry, cage-free eggs, organ meats, bone broths and full-fat dairy products
- Nutrient-Dense/Low-Carb Veggies, like leafy veggies, cruciferous veggies, zucchini, cucumber etc.
- No fruits, high-carb foods, conventional dairy, sugary drinks or desserts
One particular example is a fitness expert I see in tons of Facebook ads holding up package after package of meats (including processed meats) and slinging vegetables to the side. Diets like keto work on a person-to-person basis. Your current build or metabolism might be strained by a meat-heavy diet, and genetics can play a factor as well. I know for a fact that people, like myself, of African American descent are susceptible to heart problems, diabetes and kidney problems which all have been linked to diets that rely too heavily on processed and red meats. Too much of ANYTHING could be bad for your health. You should always think about balance.
One of the drawbacks to keto is the discipline it requires over long periods of time. With busy lives where we can’t always cook for ourselves and have a lot of take-out options, many find it difficult to maintain ketosis for long periods. In my personal opinion, that’s fine since a ketogenic diet should really be done in cycles. Going in and out of ketosis promotes metabolic flexibility which is great for overall gut health. And gut health is good for your entire body. Extended bouts of ketosis aren't advised anyway, as the extremely long term effects of ketosis still need more research.
Keto could be a powerful addition to your weight-loss goals and to your overall health, but should always be discussed and practiced under the supervision of a nutritionist or medical professional who can properly assess whether or not a ketogenic diet is safe for you in your current state of health.