The basics, the rationale, and implementation of the ketogenic diet.
FIRST AND FOREMOST. This article is not an attempt to persuade you that the ketogenic diet is superior to any other diet. In many cases, it’s not. This article is also not to persuade you to try the ketogenic diet. Yet, this article serves to give you straight up information about what the ketogenic diet is, the principles behind it, and how it’s implemented.
I feel it’s appropriate to start off with a list of key terms. These will be instrumental in the understanding of this article. It will also help alleviate some headaches you may get while reading this post. Much of the information here (although very much so research backed) has been presented to you as the ultimate evil when dieting by our ever-so-knowledgeable media coverage teams. Please, brace yourself and bring an open mind. This may blow your mind.
Beta-Oxidation – catabolic process by which fatty acid molecules are broken down in the mitochondria
Gluconeogenesis – metabolic pathway that results in the generation of glucose from non-carbohyrdrate substrates such as pyruvate, lactate, glycerol, and glycogenic amino acids. [speculatively some amino acids can be converted into sugar but I am not convinced they are able to do so in any significant degree. My basis is off self testing blood sugar levels after eating strictly protein from various sources. You can read more about that in Does Protein Raise Blood Sugar?]
Ketogenic – a metabolic process that occurs when the body does not have enough glucose for energy. Stored fats are broken down for energy, resulting in a build-up of acids called ketones within the body.
Ketosis – a condition characterized by raised levels of ketone bodies in the body, associated with abnormal fat metabolism and diabetes mellitus [By “abnormal fat metabolism,” it means that your body actually uses it for energy which is not normal for the typical americans, as our diets set us up for the exact opposite. By “associated with diabetes mellitus,” this a very biased way of getting people to view this in a negative context.]
Ketone – an organic compound containing a carbonyl group =C=O bonded to two groups, made by oxidizing secondary alcohols. The simplest such compound is acetone. [this a byproduct of the breakdown of fatty acids being converted to usable energy in the absence of sufficient glucose availability]
Glucose – a simple sugar that is an important energy source in living organisms and is a component of many carbohydrates [important yes, necessary no]
Glycogen (Muscle) – multibranched sugar molecule that serves as a source of stored energy in animals.* [this source is readily available, especially in muscle].
*paraphrased for easier understanding
All the definitions are taken off of google. I simple put the words into the search box and wrote the definition they gave me. I do not own or attempt to pretend that those are my definitions. My commentary is in brackets.
Keep in mind I (along with the majority of my readers) am more interest in regimes that help with optimal body composition (i.e. gaining muscle, losing fat, etc). That will be the primary lens that we’ll look through. Now, that doesn’t mean anybody not interested in that aspect won’t benefit, but in my experience, most are interested in optimal body composition, AKA looking good naked. If I’m wrong, please let me know.
Metabolically, fasting and the ketogenic diet are very similar. If we look at what happens during starvation, we will see very similar metabolic adaptations. This is a great thing when it comes to burning body fat. However, the body can only go so long without nutrition. The ketogenic diet allows you to reap the benefits of fasting/starvation while mitigating the propensity of death.
There is lots of research on this diet. When I first started looking into the research, I was surprised at just how much there was and their findings. It’s very effective in children with epilepsy, as it helps control seizures to a significant degree. In the obese, it helps lose body fat and maintain lean body mass, often times doing it better than high carbohydrate diets.
According to Lyle McDonald, there is more evidence to believe that the ketogenic diet may be useful on other conditions including respiratory failure, pediatric cancer, and head trauma.
Lyle outlines his sources in his book. I have it cited down below. If you are interested in more info on the ketogenic diet and it’s use in clinical use, I will allow you to do so on your own. This post is more about the ketogenic diet and it’s use on fat loss and optimal body composition. [E]
I said all that, to say this. The ketogenic diet is nothing knew. It’s been around.
The Set Up
Your macronutrient ratios would look something like the following:
15-25 % Protein
Most people are in the market to burn some fat. The amount of money spent on nutritional “weight loss” supplements speaks to this. Would it be so hard to believe that you could lose weight with diet alone? Seems preposterous, aye?
In the ketogenic diet, it’s all about getting your body to adapt from being dependent on carbohydrates to fats as it’s primary energy source. You do this by limiting your carbohydrate intake, drastically.
Even the leanest individuals have days of stored energy in their body in the form of fat. For example, take a man at 170 lbs with 15% body fat. Said individual has ~144.5 lbs of lean body mass (LBM) and ~25.5 lbs of fat. (It’s really not that simple to calculate those numbers. I’ve simplified it for illustration purposes only. Please, don’t crucify me for it.)
25.2 lbs ==> 11,567 grams
There are 9 calories in each gram of fat.
11,566 X 9 ==> 104,094 calories
Let’s estimate his metabolic rate is around 2,400 kcal per day.
104,094 / 2,400 ==> 43
The individual in our example has 43 days of energy on him.
The ketogenic diet uses this as an advantage. By forgoing carbs, the body is forced to find an alternate fuel source. It does so with very little complication.* Your body begins to utilize ketones.
Ketones are produced by the liver through a process called beta-oxidation. Our bodies actually thrive off of ketones. As I will discuss later, many use this diet for brain optimization. As I spoke to earlier and will touch on briefly down below, this diet also has uses in the medical realm.
One could argue that the ketogenic diet gives you all the fat burning capabilities of starvation while not actually starving. This diet allows you to really ramp up your fat burning while preserving muscle mass.
*Some people adapt easier than others. Individual experience may vary.
Why Would You Do Such a Thing?
As I said previously, your body and, more specifically, your brain thrives off of ketones. Many experience an increase in cognitive function, a better sense of well-being, and a more sustaining feeling of energy. Currently, I don’t have any research to back these claims up but it seems to be a constant thread throughout many people’s experience on keto.
Turns your body into a fat burning machine
Your body has no other choice but to take your fat stores and convert them to energy. Assuming that you are consuming adequate protein, not excessive but adequate, there is no reason your body will turn to your muscle stores for energy. This is a very common misconception. It is much easier for the body to turn adipose (fat) tissue into energy versus muscle tissue. The body prefers efficiency.
Potentially Cures Cancer
There are many out there attempting to see how the ketogenic diet can help with cancer. As mentioned previously, being in ketosis has demonstrated remarkable abilities to control seizures in children with epilepsy. [D]
A huge potential of this diet is in it’s effectiveness of preventing the spread of cancer. Cancer cells thrive off of glucose (for the most part). They have yet to show an adaptation to ketones. This doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to in the future but as of this writing, there is some implications for those with cancer.
Not all Skittles and Rainbows: The Adaptation Process
You’ll experience a few hiccups during the transition from being glucose. Symptoms are similar to the flu. They call this process the “Keto Flu.” Some will really experience the severity of these symptoms while others won’t be affected much.
You can expect to be a bit “foggy.” Unmotivated and lazy is a pretty common feeling and ironically, you may experience a struggle to sleep. Personally, I have never had any trouble getting to sleep on keto or on any other diet for that matter. However, until you fully adapt and your hormones get up to speed with keto, you may experience some difficulty.
If no other sleeping issues exist, I’d recommend this natural sleep aid. It makes me sleep like a baby and I wake up feeling refreshed. If you travel a lot, especially across timezones, the melatonin will help reset your clock (i.e. circadian rhythm).
Some people will get into ketosis faster than others. There’s no way to tell how quickly it will take you. Not to disappoint anybody but it could take up to 3 months. On the flip side, it could be as little as 1-2 weeks. It all depends.
There are a few ways you can boost the process:
1. Glycogen depleting workouts
– similar to what bodybuilders would do 1-2 weeks out of a show
2. Fast (24-48 hours)
– a “fat fast” can also be beneficial
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. No carbs? I won’t have any energy!
A. Did you even read the article? Fat is a very abundant source of energy. Even the leanest of individuals have weeks worth of energy in the form of stored fat. This diet allows you to tap into that fat source more often buy eliminating carbs from the diet. After the initial adaptation phase, most people often experience improved cognitive function as well as superb energy levels.
This study done by Stephen Phinney concludes, “submaximal endurance performance can be sustained despite the virtual exclusion of carbohydrate from the human diet.” [C]
Q. Won’t my workouts suffer? I need carbs for fuel.
A. Initially, yes your workouts may suffer during the adaptation process. After you adapt, you should regain some drive and strength that once was lost. Paoli et al concludes that that using a very low calorie ketogenic diet will not have any negative effects on strength performance in high level athletes short-term (i.e. 30 days). [B]
I would take this even further from 30 days. The adaptation process could take up to 2 weeks or so. I believe the ketogenic diet is one that can be beneficial in the long term. This study by Hussein et al demonstrates the benefits of a long-term ketogenic diet in obese patients and found no negative side affects. What they did find was a significant increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and decreased levels of trigylcerides, total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and glucose. [A]
Q. Lower protein intake? Won’t my muscles fall off?
A. I’ve done intermittent fasting for the past 4-5 years. The same thing is brought up on that protocol. “You won’t maintain muscle with that,” they say. Poppycock! I’ve gained significant amount of muscle mass while on an IF protocol.
Q. No carbs will yield no muscle glycogen, right?
A. Well, a ketogenic diet is actually quite muscle sparring. Since your body is not dependent on glucose as it’s primary energy source, it doesn’t drain the muscle of it’s glycogen as a normal diet would. This study actually concludes that very low carbohydrate ketogenic diets have more favorable changes in LBM, muscle mass, and body fatness as compared to a traditional western diet in resistance trained males. [T]
Q. Is this the best diet?
A. Best diet for what? Fat loss? Arguably. Is this the best diet for you? More than likely no. Throughout my years, I have seldom run across an individual who would happily give up their carbs. William and colleagues compared a low-carb, ketogenic diet with a low-fat diet. They found that the low-carb diet had greater retention; therefore, allowing for great weight loss. [E]
I was unable to dig deeper into the methods, as that would’ve required a subscription. This is a free blog, ya know? With that said, I do happily accept donations via PayPal. Any amount is greatly appreciated and goes toward bringing you more quality content such as this. Send to my email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Sorry to digress.
Q. But Nick, you’ve always harped on high protein! Shouldn’t your protein be higher?! Won’t you lose muscle?!
A. Yes, it is true. I am a protein Nazi. What can I say, I love my protein. Not only that but I love how it helps body composition. There is quite the speculation that excess protein can convert to glucose via gluconeogenesis. The research is very mixed on this. I am not convinced that protein is converted into glucose in any significant degree as long as protein is not absurdly high.
To be safe, I would limit protein a bit while implementing a ketogenic diet. I do believe that you can get a way with more protein than most recommend, especially if you’re very active and/or strength training. Personally, I lowered my protein from ~200g down to about ~100g. As of now, I haven’t pin-pointed that as kicking me out of ketosis.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the ketogenic diet is very muscle sparing. Once adapted, I think you’ll be just fine maintaining and even building muscle with less protein. Sorry, no studies to cite here. This is merely my speculation after looking at the research and personal experience.
The ketogenic diet is not something to be taken lightly. While it’s not scary, it’s not the diet to half-ass. This diet is one you must follow 100% if you want results. There is little room for error and much patience and a renewed mindset is a must. Anybody wanting to start a keto diet, I suggest you get with a knowledgeable individual to help you get started. In the future, I will be posting more on ketogenic diets. This is simply a brief overview.
[A] Hussein et al.: “Long-term effects of a ketogenic diet in obese patients.” Experimental & Clinical Cardiology, 2004 9(3): 200-205. Print.
[E] McDonald, Lyle. “The ketogenic diet: A complete guide for the dieter and practitioner.” 1998. First Edition. Sixth Printing.
[B] Paoli et al.: “Ketogenic diet does not affect strength performance in elite artistic gymnast.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2012, 9:34. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-9-34
[C] Phinney, Stephen D. “Ketogenic diets and physical performance.” BioMed Central. Nutrition & Metabolism, 2004. 1:2. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-1-2
[T] Rauch et al.: “The effects of ketogenic dieting on skeletal muscle and fat mass.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2014. 11(Suppl 1): P40. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-S1-P40
[D] Swink, T.D., Vining, E.P., & Freeman, J.M. “The ketogenic diet: 1997.” Advances in Pediatrics, 1997. 44:297-329. Print.
[E] William et al.: “A low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet versus a low-fat diet to treat obesity and hyperlipidemia: A randomized control trial.” Annals of Internal Medicine, 2004; 140(10):769-777. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-140-10-200405180-00006
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