So, another major topic that has been circling like wild-fire the past couple of years is: The Ketogenic Diet. A lot of people have heard of it, but not so many really know what it’s all about, much less the exact parameters that mark out “being in Ketosis” [vs not].
In fact, just the other week – when I was writing Hot vs Cold: Injury & Recovery for CXP Zen– I was sat in Dutch Bros drinking a Keto Coffee (as some of you may have seen from my Instagram post that day); and while making the order, I was asked if I’d like to add Salted Caramel to it, to which I politely declined and served up a succinct reasoning as to why it would no longer make the drink “keto”, and the barista had something of a “lightbulb moment”…
With that experience at Dutch Bros (which I love, btw – just to clarify), and off the back of the last CXP Nutrition post – 3 Benefits of Intermittent Fasting – I wanted to lay out a roadmap of sorts that will guide you through the oft-treacherous terrain of ‘Going Keto’… Let’s dive in…
‘… when glucose is not an option, the brain can run perfectly fine off of ketones…’
Now, the first thing you should be asking is – What is Ketosis?
The simplest way I can explain this is that it is a metabolic state whereby your body [absent “sufficient” carb stores] will use ketones for fuel; these “ketones” are a byproduct that come about as a result of breaking down fat for energy (when carb intake is very low). Essentially, when the body is devoid of ample glucose [and glycogen stores], and both blood sugar and insulin levels are low (as a result), it will tap into stored fat as its new primary fuel source.
Breaking down fat involves a process called beta-oxidation, and once the ketones have been produced, they then become the fuel source for both the body and the brain. Fun fact: you’ll always hear experts harp on about how carbohydrates are the *preferred* fuel source of the brain. Notice the keyword here [being]: preferred! In other words, it’s not essential. It is absolutely optional. And when glucose is not an option, the brain can run perfectly fine off of ketones instead. Your brain may like running on carbs, but it is certainly capable of functioning [debatably *better*] on fat (ketones).
Some of the advantages of being in ketosis include:
Improved energy levels – as your body doesn’t rely on constant sugar-intake, you aren’t subjected to the persistent high and lows of your insulin levels rocketing and plummeting every time you eat or go too long without eating [carbs].
Decreased “brain fog” – your brain now has a consistent energy source; consider it like switching from cable to Netflix: with carbs you get all the commercial breaks (here being a metaphor for the “lows” of insulin/sugar crashes), whereas you don’t have to deal with that on Netflix (when “going keto”).
‘… you could almost say that “going keto” is akin to “going green”’
Improved endurance during physical activity – studies conducted on marathon runners showed that (when in ketosis) they actually didn’t hit the notorious phenomenon known as “the wall” (the point at which glycogen stores deplete [during an endurance event] and the body just doesn’t want to keep going, but it does as you then force it to switch fuel sources [mid-race], which is like pouring diesel in a tank that usually runs on unleaded).
[Potential for] Weightloss – your body is now accustomed to using fat for fuel (when in ketosis), and therefore, will tap into your stored bodyfat when energy is needed (but you’ve not eaten). While you’re not about to wind down into “single digits” [of bodyfat percentage] off being in ketosis alone, there is enormous potential (especially if you’re obese or overweight) to see a significant reduction in bodyfat down into the lower double digits (e.g. you could quite feasibly drop from 30% down to 15% or so); but your body knows not to deplete stored fat entirely as it will only do that in extreme circumstances (when it’s a matter of survival – think: trapped on Everest)!
Okay, so ketosis is another metabolic pathway through which the body can acquire energy… but how is it possible that we just happen to have another way of producing energy inside the body that we seemingly never knew existed before now? It’s like being told at the car dealership that your new car will only ever run on petrol, only to later find that it’s really been a “hybrid” all along that can run on electricity too! To that end, you could almost say that “going keto” is akin to “going green”…
Let me explain – see, one thing that is coming to light more and more as the researchers plough through their studies is that carb-sources [that are high G.I. (Glycemic Index) – in other words, high in sugar] are very much pro-inflammatory; therefore, consuming excessive amounts of carbs (especially foods that contain a lot of sugar) can lead to the worsening of inflammation-based conditions ranging from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), Arthritis, Asthma, Atherosclerosis, Bronchitis, Diabetes, and more.
Conversely, fatty-acids (like Omega-3s, Omega-7s, MCTs, etc) have all been shown to have *anti*-inflammatory effects on the body! Therefore, higher consumption of foods rich in Omega-3 [for example] can help reduce inflammation, where higher carb consumption would otherwise increase it. Skipping back to that “going green” comment – it’s like carbs are fossil fuels, and fats are solar-generated electricity: one leaves a significantly greater *CARBon* footprint [on your body] than the other… I’ll leave you to guess which!
So, ketosis will help to reduce inflammation, but what it will also achieve on top of that is improved regulation of hormones – especially ones that are linked to food consumption and metabolism!
See, with insulin/glucagon levels now more under control this leads to a knock-on affect on other hormones like Leptin and Ghrelin – if you remember in my last post for CXP Nutrition, I explained that these are linked to hunger: one tells you that you need food (Ghrelin), and the other tells you you’re full (Leptin)… or at least, that’s what they should do if they’re functioning properly. The problem with inflammation is it’s like the building is on fire, and although everyone in the building (your body) has been through the training (so to speak), in practice, signals just get lost in translation, and it all becomes chaos! Ketosis can help manage the chaos.
Not too shabby then – reduced inflammation, appetite regulation, blood sugar stabilization… seems like a lot of pretty neat perks! So, what’s the downside? Well, health-wise there’s very little downside, as the state of ketosis yields a lot of benefits. However, I’ll tell you two negatives that I see (and have experienced myself)…
The first issue is “sustainability” – really, we should never want to talk about *diets*… they’re usually temporary fixes that offer up no long terms solutions. Now, where “going keto” is generally considered a very sustainable, long-term lifestyle change, I’ll admit that the healthy fat sources [that you’ll want to eat] can become a tad monotonous. I mean, think about it – if you’ve heard of the Ketogenic Diet before and/or seen images on websites and pro-Keto Instagrammers’ pages, then you’ll most likely be picturing: bacon, avocado, eggs, coconut oil, and maybe even various nuts (like macadamias and walnuts). There are only so many consecutive days where I’ll enjoy eating these foods back-to-back… granted, you should also look to consume other proteins, and you do get to eat SOME carbs (that have to be very low G.I. like broccoli, spinach, bell peppers, cucumber, for example); but if you’re anything like me, you’ll have to find really creative ways to keep this from getting tiresome.
‘NO. We’re not *cutting out* carbs.’
Some of my personal solutions have included incorporating a broad gamut of herbs and spices. But also, cooking/preparing foods in different ways – eggs are a great example here: poached, scrambled, fried, boiled, folded into an omelette… it’s amazing how diverse they can be!
Another solution for helping you get into ketosis quicker is taking Exogenous Ketones. These are simply ketones that are not produced by the body [through the breakdown of fat], but rather, they’re ketone sources that have been “bottled up” ready for consumption; you may have seen or heard of Raspberry Ketones? Well, there are others on the market too – the idea being that they’ll help introduce higher levels of ketones into the body quicker. They’re not necessary, to be honest, but food for thought nonetheless.
The other BIG problem is: the balancing act! Now, off the bat, let’s be clear – if [like me] you’re used to counting your macros – then it shouldn’t actually be a problem. However, the percentage of fat, protein and carbs in your diet needs to be quite specific if you want to reach a state of ketosis, stay in that state, and [very importantly] AVOID *ketoacidosis*!!
So, let’s get into some numbers! How much fat do you need? How much protein can you have? And are we really cutting out carbs?
I’ll address that last question first: NO. We’re not *cutting out* carbs. We’re simply reducing intake “heavily” [compared to what we perceive to be ‘normal’]. The percentage of carbohydrates you’ll look to be getting your calories from is going to be between 5-10%, which equates to 100kcal to 200kcal coming from carb-sources based off a 2000kcal per day requirement; if you have a much higher Daily Energy Expenditure – mine is 3500-4000kcal – then clearly there’s room for more.
What does that look like? Well, it’ll be between 25g to 50g of carbs, which can go a long way if you’re eating leafy greens and cruciferous veg – broccoli has just 6g of carbohydrate per CUP, and one bell pepper has the same amount, so… You could easily have either a huge salad for one meal, or incorporate smaller portions of greens into each meal. On the flipside, rice/potatoes/pasta/legumes are all much denser sources of carbs, so just a half cup of rice or full cup of beans will set you at over half of that daily limit.
‘… we’re not talking about wolfing down sixteen hundred calories’ worth of bacon!’
Then we have protein… here you’re looking at 20-25% of your calories coming from lean sources. That’s roughly 400-500kcal, which will be around 100g of protein. In my opinion, this should be the absolute minimum that anyone should consume in a day anyway – especially if you take part in regular exercise! Now, a three-egg omelette will have about 20g of protein, an average chicken breast will have up to 30g, and a tin of tuna will usually have about 25g or so… that’s already three quarters of what you would need [for the Keto Diet].
Finally, we have the fats! If you’ve been keeping up with the math here, you’re eyeing up as much as 80% of your calories needing to be sourced from fat… In other words, 1600kcal from fat. For most of us, that sounds like an enormous amount, and hardly seems healthy. However, you’ve also got to consider that we’re not talking about wolfing down sixteen hundred calories’ worth of bacon! And do note that fat contains more than twice the calories [per gram] than carbs or protein.
Now, I want to point out one thing that I notice most Keto-based sites/experts/blogs don’t seem to allude to or make a big point of, and that is getting in different types of fats: saturated, Omega-3, Omega-7, MCT, etc. It’s important to get a variety in as the body has need for all of these different fats – not just one or two! Saturated Fats are needed for healthy testosterone levels (this is just as important for women!). Omega-3s and 7s are anti-inflammatory. And MCTs (Medium Chain Triglycerides) are one of the best sources of fat for being converted into energy (ketones) as their structure is more easily broken down and utilized. Each plays a vital role, and it’s important to strike a balance of intake between them.
For saturated – think bacon. For Omega-3, eggs or salmon. Omega-7 is abundant in macadamia nuts. And MCTs abound within coconut oil. Now, you’re probably thinking – well, these are the foods that we’re used to seeing when the Keto Diet is promoted. Yes. True. But what’s often left out are those little details as to *what* you’re getting from each (i.e. WHY you’re eating those fat sources more than others).
All the numbers are there, we now know how much of each we’re supposed to get in, but now it’s a balancing act because… well… we’re only human! We get asked to take out our Corporate Clients to lunch, and a celebratory beer or wine goes down the hatch. It’s Grandma’s birthday and you don’t want to offend her by *not* having some cake… The Girl Scouts turn up at the door, and now you have a cupboard rammed with Samoas and Tagalongs! Real life, basically, can creep up and it’s hard to avoid unless you are super disciplined with Keto…
I have tried to eat Keto – in the pure sense (abiding by those percentages) – and can manage just fine; but a couple of times per month, I’ll have a hankering for some VooDoo Donuts, or a pizza from Pieology…
Problem with these high-carb treats is that they will very quickly “knock you out of ketosis” (as you’ll commonly hear it expressed). See, in order to maintain that state of ketosis, your carb consumption has to remain super low – preferably within that 10% threshold. Any one of the examples I’ve given – from the cake to the wine to the pizza – could undo that state, spike your insulin levels, and potentially result in you no longer being in ketosis.
Now, this isn’t irreversible. Not at all. In fact, the first time you try the Ketogenic Diet and reach ketosis can be tough – typically, most people suffer through what is referred to as the “Keto Flu”; essentially, it is very much like “withdrawal symptoms” whereby the body seems to just start shutting down in some aspects, and has to be “rebooted” [with a new energy source – in the context of ketosis]. Once you’ve achieved this the first time, any time you fall out of ketosis and try to “recalibrate” in the future, it will be a little easier (as your body becomes more familiar with the process).
‘… there are a couple of versions that may sit better with you…’
Then we have the other end of the spectrum – the part that can be dangerous. Ketoacidosis. This is a state whereby the level of ketones in the body is extremely high, and the result can lead to the acidification of your blood, which can consequently be fatal. Now, it is important to note that this is most common among diabetics – blood sugar levels and insulin play a paramount role here, and where the Keto Diet can often help with the symptoms of Type II Diabetes, in Type I it can be a little trickier to monitor.
Ketoacidosis is very rare otherwise, but this is one of those points where you’d want to consult your doctor if you have any doubts or questions [as they may pertain to any specific health condition you might have or medication you might be taking].
The last thing you’ll want to be conscious of – health-wise – if you decide to try out the Keto Diet is the potential for dehydration (and the symptoms that come with that). Thing is, when glycogen levels are low, the body no longer retains as much water, as it’s that water that is needed to store the glycogen. Less glycogen = less need for water retention. You’ll also need to be mindful of electrolytes and mineral intake – this is linked to the effects of dehydration, so keep in mind that you’ll want to ensure you’re getting enough sodium, magnesium and potassium in you (especially if you’re exercising regularly!).
Those are some of the potential downsides. For the most part, they’re easily remedied/controlled. However, the final thing in this article that I just want to touch on briefly is regarding the variations of the Keto Diet…
So far, we’ve only focused on what is considered to be the “Standard Ketogenic Diet”. However, there are a couple of versions that may sit better with you, and offer up some flexibility that can be lacking otherwise. The two main ones that I commonly see are: “The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet” and the “High Protein Keto Diet”.
The former is the version you’d want to consider if you think you’d really struggle to cut carbs as ‘severely’ as is required in the standard version; with “cyclical” you eat the standard way for five to six days of the week, but then you get one (or two) days to consume more carbs – still staying within your calorie requirements, but just redistributing the percentages.
The latter – high protein version – is for people like ME! I exercise very regularly, and part of my job is constantly lifting/moving weights, so that extra protein is essential!! Typically, you’d simply reduce the percentage of fat to about 60%, keep carbs around 5%, but look to get 35% of your calories from protein sources. Fact is, you need protein to help rebuild muscle, so if you do more cardio/aerobic-based workouts, this isn’t AS important, but with lifting… well, it’s crucial!
But there you have it – the good, the bad and the ugly! Everything you need to know about going keto! My ultimate conclusion is this: I think it works great – from personal experience, and what some clients who have tried it have reported also. The negatives are actually pretty simple to get in check, and once it becomes habitual, you won’t even have to think about it. The “Keto Flu” can be tough on some, but once it’s passed, you’re clear sailing. And having those days that knock you out of ketosis aren’t the “be all and end all” of things – like riding a horse, ya just gotta get back on.
So, I hope this has helped! This is my longest CXP Nutrition post to date, but I wanted to be thorough. If you got a lot out of it and think that a friend, colleague or loved one should have a read through, then be sure to share this with them!
I’ll catch you in the next post, but in the meantime, remember: Eat Smart, and Eat Healthy!
Yours in Training,
Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO