Here’s what you need to know:
-Metabolic Ketosis can provide many health benefits in many individuals.
-Despite its profound therapeutic properties, a ketogenic diet can prove to be difficult to implement even amongst the most obsessive food and fitness junkies, making it somewhat impractical for the general population.
-Macro nutrient needs are highly individual based on the genetic make-up, hormonal profile, and state of metabolic health of each person.
-A ketogenic diet may be most beneficial for individuals looking to shed a rather significant amount of weight, have insulin resistance to some degree, inflammation, or dislipydemia, which unfortunately, is many overweight Americans.
-Ketones are a unique fuel source that have evidence to show many medical, health, performance, and neural benefits
-Exogenous Ketones are a possible alternative for those wanting the health and performance benefits of ketosis, without necessarily having to practice a ketogenic diet.
-Human biochemistry is infinitely complex and every individual has their own unique needs. Ketosis does not always meet those needs. There’s a time and a place.
Ahhh ketosis. So many memories flash through my mind when the subject comes up. The savory aroma of bacon cooking on the stove. The salty and rich taste of my butter soaked veggies. The privilege of being able to go for hours on end without eating and not having any unpleasant changes in appetite or energy levels. The looks on dietitian’s faces when I told them I ate nearly 80% of my calories from fat…most of which being “artery clogging” saturated fat (gasp)!
It’s almost enough to make me set down the banana and pick up the stick of butter all over again……
That is until the less enchanting memories crawl into my consciousness.
The constant analyzation of every bite of food I took every day. The even more obsessive than normal (hard to imagine) eating habits that caused me an abundance of distress in social situations involving food. The overwhelming sensation of food and its macro nutrient profile controlling my life. And worst of all…the extra 15-20 lbs. of body fat I carried and couldn’t seem to get rid of.
What started as a dietary based intervention to control epilepsy has over the years become one of the most practiced nutritional strategies among elite athletes and couch potatoes alike. The Ketogenic Diet has built a following that rivals even the fiercest of foodie and fitness cults and has given the industry one more thing to continue its perma-cyber-war! (PCW. It’s a real thing you know.)
So what gives? Is ketosis the holy grail of health and fat loss? Or one more bandwagon to disappoint?
Let’s take a gander shall we?
“But Brendan, what exactly is Ketosis anyways?”
A fine question indeed my duckling. As a quick Google search would prove, thousands of articles and resources have been created to educate the masses on this topic, but if metabolic ketosis is fairly new to you, for the sake of this article I think the following explanation is sufficient:
Metabolic Ketosis is the body’s biochemical adaptation to keep up with energy demands in an environment in which there is insufficient glucose to fuel the brain and red blood cells. Sometimes (although I think somewhat inappropriately) referred to as “starvation mode”, ketosis occurs to varying degrees during periods of fasting or closely controlled dietary interventions (mainly carbohydrate intake). During such situations acetoacetate, acetone, and β-hydroxybutyrate are produced by the liver to act as a backup fuel source.
If you’re fairly familiar with ketosis and serious about learning more, I’d suggest you take the time to read about it from the Keto Man himself, Mr. Peter Attia, who wrote an amazingly thorough two-part series on his blog The Eating Academy. Check it out here.
“Okay, so why would I do this keto thing? I happen to kinda’ sorta’ like my carbs.”
Don’t we all! However, I doubt most of us enjoy the residual fluff that tends to accumulate around our midsection from these saccharide savors. A ketogenic diet has many health benefits including:
-A lower appetite
-Consistently stable energy levels throughout the day
-A decrease in cravings
-An increase in mental clarity, energy, and cognition
-Increased fat utilization as a primary fuel source
-Being able to go longer without food due to not being reliance on a constant influx of glucose
-Improvements in blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity
-Improvements in lab markers for those with dyslipidemia
-Decrease in body inflammation
“Daaayyyuuuuummmmm! That sounds fan-freaking-tastic! HONEY, I’M GOIN’ TO THE STORE TO GET ME SUMMM BUTTER PRONTO!”
Hold your horses there turbo! A ketogenic diet is no small undertaking. It requires a thorough foundation of good nutritional practices and a keen attention to detail in your macro nutrient breakdown. It is a diet that can prove to be challenging for even the most obsessive food and fitness junkies to get into, let alone sustain. This makes it a somewhat impractical strategy to implement with most, albeit not all, individuals long term.
Having personally practiced, studied, and preached keto living for nearly two and a half years when I was a new fitness and nutrition professional, I can attest to the pros and cons of implementing a ketogenic diet. I experimented with my macro nutrient breakdown relentlessly. On average I’d consume 65-80% of my calories from fat and keep my carbs as low as possible, as 50 grams or less (ideally under 30 grams) is the widely accepted threshold for ketogenesis. Although I did feel pretty good, and mostly had consistent and stable energy and appetite levels, I found that I struggled to lose excess body fat. When my at the time boss started calling me “beefcake” I knew something wasn’t right.
My personal nutrition is always a top priority, however during that time I was even more obsessed than normal to ensure every bite of food was precisely measured, accounted for, and recorded. I was convinced that keto was a superior way of eating and hell bent on making it work for me.
Ultimately after much experimentation, obsession, research, and frustration I reached a point where I realized to continue on with the strategy would be a demonstration of Einstein’s definition of insanity. Now to be fair I will disclaim that I wasn’t measuring my blood levels of ketones and I’m sure I could have implemented it more precisely. But my point is at what cost? It was controlling my life, driving me crazy, and making my relationship with food more turbulent than ever!
So finally after two years of high fat, low carb trial and error I found myself a discouraged 220 pound “nutrition coach”. I was the heaviest I’ve ever been and I’d imagine my body fat was probably about 20%. I’ve never in my life struggled with excess body fat until I practiced a ketogenic diet!
In order to carve out my true self that lay somewhere under the extra “fluff”, I decided to simplify it all by “getting back to my nutritional roots”. I vowed that I would eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted as long as 1) It was all whole foods from the earth (with the exception of protein powder), and 2) The only thing I would “track” was my protein intake to ensure it was high enough (I’ve never really been one to crave meat). I wanted to let my body guide me towards the food I needed, when I needed it rather than let scientific rules, theories, and strategies dictate my every bite. It might sound like Paleo, which it basically was in a sense, but again NO RULES (yes, even Paleo has rules that don’t need to apply to everyone) other than eating the food the earth has supplied our species through its evolution for thousands of years.
If I wanted to eat five bananas for dinner…I’d eat five bananas. If I wanted a pack of bacon with some berries and veggies…I’d eat the dang bacon! If I wanted to drink olive oil…I’d ask myself “WHO DRINKS OLIVE OIL?!” and would have a handful of nuts instead. I think you get the point.
No nutrient timing. No dairy. No grains. No food logging. No eating even if I wasn’t hungry. No eating extra fat. No force feeding. No deprivation.
I simply stayed in tune with my body’s cues and nourished it appropriately until satisfied.
Listen to your body and do right by it? What a novel concept!!
So how did my paradigm re-alignment pan out for me you might ask?
Well, basically over the course of about six months I effortlessly dropped all the excess body fat and then some. I might also add this happened through the winter months when normally most of us gain a healthy layer of fluff. I even found myself lean enough in the spring that I looked up what bodybuilding shows were coming up and decided to sign up for one only five weeks in advance. Deciding to do a show that last minute is nearly unheard of in the competitor world. I didn’t do a “show prep”. I tightened up my nutrition a bit for the last five weeks and hit the stage taking second place in my weight class. Better yet, while all the other competitors who had been depriving themselves for months on end, were stuffing their faces with pizza and cookies that the show sponsors provided, I simply indulged on a chipotle bowl and went right back to normal life. No binge episodes. No rapid weight gain. No struggling to find a sense of balance to life. None of the nasty lingering effects that can be typical of physique competitions.
Me taking second place after my “five week prep”. Roughly seven months after abandoning my keto ways.
“So does this mean ketosis doesn’t work?”
ABSOLUTELY NOT! In fact, my most significant client success story to date was on a very high fat, very low carb (HFLC) diet throughout her dramatic transformation in which she ultimately lost about 130 pounds! Was it a ketogenic diet? Not sure. It’s not like we were pricking her finger every day to measure blood levels. Such obsessive and neurotic measures tend to do more harm than good with clients…or really anyone.
I simply found that the ketogenic diet wasn’t for me personally. Now whether that is due to psychological or physiological factors (ie; my relationship with food vs. my body’s reaction to different intakes) could be up for argue, but the point is that it wasn’t an enjoyable or sustainable way of eating for me in order to feel how I want to feel and look how I want to look. That simple guys and gals’!
I am however still a firm believer in the power of a properly conducted ketogenic diet for certain individuals in certain situations, to help with certain physiological needs.
“So why does a ketogenic diet not work for everyone?”
The million-dollar question! Part of that of course depends on how you would qualify what “works” or “doesn’t work”, but seeing as we all have our own unique genetic make ups, hormonal profiles, tolerances, goals, psychological traits, habits, and needs…it should come as no surprise that there is no “one size fits all” approach to nutrition. Sure there are many principals that apply to most of us, but ultimately we must all find what works for us (in the context of real food I might add. Pop tarts “don’t work” for anyone).
The mechanisms behind how different macro-nutrient compositions change human biochemistry gets infinitely complex and goes beyond the scope of this article, although I do plan on covering more on the topic in upcoming articles. With that said, energy transformation and metabolism is a really cool system that can be manipulated through different nutritional and lifestyle approaches.
There are different theories and strategies to help individuals determine what their macro nutrient breakdown should look like, but it all gets down to each of our unique metabolic tendencies. If you remember back to biology and/or physiology class, you might recall (if you were able to stay awake) a little thing known as the Krebs Cycle. It is our central metabolic pathway for energy production and just like any biochemical reaction, it’s efficacy is dependent on the availability of the substrates, co-factors, and functional enzymes.
You may be familiar with the adage “fat burns in the flame of carbohydrates”. Although a bit outdated, and possibly misleading, this phrase in its essence explains individual nutritional tolerances and needs. I think the statement would be more accurate if it said glucose instead of carbohydrates, or better yet, pyruvate instead of glucose, or still more accurate (sick of me yet?), oxaloacetate instead of pyruvate. Yeahhhhhhhh…fat burns in the flame of oxaloacetate! Damn I have a way with words!
Oxaloacetate is actually the final acceptor compound in the Krebs cycle to keep the “wheel spinning” and continue to produce energy (ATP). However, this molecule, in a low glucose/carb environment will also be used to produce glucose (via gluconeogenesis…my favorite word) thus affecting oxidation rates. Ketogenesis, or ketone production, is actually directly linked to the availability of oxaloacetate and its ability to meet energy demands through continuing the Krebs cycle.
All the sciency’ details aside, different macro nutrient compositions obviously supply your cells with different quantities of amino acids, fatty acids, and saccharides that will directly impact how fast you are able to oxidize substrate, aka burn fuel to produce energy! This is precisely why both high fat/low carb and low fat/high carb diets can be flawed for many. There are only three macro nutrients…chances are they all serve a purpose, so perhaps taking it to extremes isn’t always helpful…
“But what about these Ketone supplements I keep having thrown in my face?”
A while back exogenous ketones were formulated as a way to get some of the metabolic benefits of ketosis, without having to follow a strict dietary regimen. They’ve been around for a while, but have recently exploded into the new fad of the supplement industry. I guess people got tired of rasberry ketones?
Here’s the deal on exogenous ketone supplements, they are what they are…which is an exogenous source of ketones…which is a fuel source our cells can use…just like protein powder, carbohydrate powder, or olive oil powder (yes, there is such a thing). The difference is ketones are unique in that we can’t “eat them” as they are produced within our bodies when glucose is insufficient as aforementioned. Thanks to cool technology you can now drink them.
I personally have tried exogenous ketones and I’ll admit I liked it. If it wasn’t so overpriced I would probably drink them more often. But drinking ketones isn’t a magical solution to your wight loss and/or fitness goals. In my eyes I think this technology is better suited as an athletic performance supplement (very much like creatine) and potentially a therapeutic supplement for those with epilepsy and/or other medical conditions, although there is still much research that needs to be done. Outside of those scenarios, exogenous ketones don’t necessarily seem to have a ton of use, other than simply feeling a bit better while it’s in your system…just like caffeine…or tequila…yeahhhhh’ tequila. Yes, ketones are a unqiue fuel source with therapeutic properties, but that has now become a sales pitch being bashed into people’s heads, which I’m not a fan of. I think it’s great technology with great potential and honestly I think it’s sad to see it turning into a weight loss supplement fad.
Although I personally believe “good nutrition” is pretty simple (eat the foods our species has evolved off for the past 200,000 years and you’ll probably be okay), individual nutritional and biochemical needs are not. Metabolic ketosis has it’s benefits but it’s definitely not for everybody and certainly not always a permanent thing. The human body is amazingly complex and I feel like ketosis has become the big thing lately because it sounds sciency’ and cool. “It increases your ability to use stored body fat”, and other such claims, I think are misleading. The science is actually quite complex and even more complex when you start factoring the person’s individual biochemical needs and make up. In my eyes ketosis belongs in the same category as other short term therapeutic protocols such as: an anti candida diet, low oxalate diet, low histamine diet, low fodmap diet, or really any other type of short term, specialized, therapeutic dietary intervention. We, as a society, have officially WAY over complicated this whole nutrition thing and in many cases the “science” has gotten so botched that we have everyone getting paralyzed with information overload and more confused than ever.
In my humble opinion, I would say success with nutrition comes down to a healthy relationship with yourself, awareness/consciousness of your habits, consistent efforts towards your goals, being in tune with your body’s biofeedback (appetite, cravings, mood, energy etc.), and real food from the earth. Keep it simple and consistent. When things go wrong, or aren’t working the way they should, that’s when it’s time to seek out a qualified specialist that can conduct an appropriate health investigation (Yes, like myself. I’m not trying to pull any “holier than thou crap”, but this is my website.)