The ketogenic diet seems to be all the rage right now. Every day there’s some new celebrity crediting it for their dramatic body transformation. Keto is great for weight loss and also a whole lot more - increased energy and focus, anti-inflammatory effects and neuroprotective benefits.
Ketosis is a state the body naturally goes into when you don’t consume many carbohydrates, which is 20-50g net carbs (carbs excluding fibre) depending on the person. Then over the few days, the body switches from running on carbs to fat, be it from dietary intake, or from the body’s own fat stores. Similarly if you don’t eat for about 10-16 hours, your body will go into a fasted state and start producing ketones. Ketones bodies are the by-product of the breakdown of fatty acids, and are used by the brain and body for energy.
The body does not actually require any dietary carbohydrates to function – it can create the small amount it needs itself. However the body does require protein and fat. A ketogenic diet is a high fat diet, with very low carbohydrates and sufficient protein.
This is the main reason I started experimenting with keto. Once the body is in ketosis, our brains get a massive boost. You know what all those foods you’re supposed to eat for good brain function have in common? Think fish oil, avocados, coconut oil etc. They are all full of healthy saturated fats. Your brain is mostly fatty tissue – it needs fats to survive, and it thrives on ketones.
Keto increases GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) and BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), improving memory, learning, and higher cognitive functioning.
This is the other reason I started keto. Ketones trigger an increase in energy production by increasing the number of mitochondria in cells. It also stimulates the expression of other genes involved with energy metabolism, resulting in more energy, though you might feel flat while initially adapting. Once adapted, you mood and energy levels should increase.
When in ketosis, you no longer require a regular influx of carbohydrates. If you don’t eat, your body starts burning it’s own fat stores instead – no more big energy crashes. Note that it can take a little while for this to start to happen efficiently – if you have been on a high carb diet for a long time, your fat burning machinery will have atrophied from disuse, and the body needs time to adapt. Some people switch with no problems, others take a few days, some take a couple of weeks.
Burning glycogen actually produces free radicals and triggers inflammation. Burning ketones does not. The body can clean up a certain amount of inflammation, but it’s thought that long term inflammation in the brain leads to the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
A ketogenic diet can help treat or even reverse diseases such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, gliomas, and possibly strokes and mild cases of Autism!
Similar to the above, keto reduces inflammation throughout the body, helping with pain and numerous diseases thought to be caused by long term inflammation including high blood pressure, heart disease, arteriosclerosis, fatty liver and many forms of cancer. Many have reported a decrease in allergies and even better skin and hair.
Carbohydrates, and large amounts of protein, trigger the release of insulin in the body to store energy and nutrients. As insulin is kept low on a keto diet, the body is gradually re-sensitised to it, effectively reversing type 2 diabetes.
With the body burning fat as fuel, it can last a much longer time before you run out of energy. In fact the body becomes much better at using fat for fuel over glycogen, even up to around 60-70% of maximum power output (VO2 max). This full adaptation does take some months, with the exception of maximum explosiveness that always requires glycogen (see below). However once that happens, the body can use glycogen more sparingly, generally increasing overall performance.
Yep, we come to the most popular application of keto. Weight management is easy on keto because you don’t crave so much food, and you don’t crave sugar. Improved insulin sensitivity means your body doesn’t store so much energy as fat. Instead it can start burning fat when you’re in a caloric deficit, although in reality there’s so much more going on here than calories in vs calories out. In short, you can drop weight without feeling like you’re starving.
If you love your sugar and fluffy white carbs, this isn’t for you. But if you are eating so many of them that you get brain fog and lethargy, or they are slowly killing you, maybe it’s time to try something different. Even healthy carbs like fruit, root vegetables and honey are restricted on keto, so it can take some getting used to. Thankfully there’s many great keto-friendly recipes (see below).
Eating out is not as hard as you may think either. You can still maintain any other dietary restrictions or preferences on keto, be it as gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian or vegan.
For maximum power output (think sprinting), the body requires glycogen. If you’re doing sports that require explosiveness, there are a few things you can try. One is the “train low, race high” approach. That is, train low carb and compete high carb. The low carb training makes the body better at using fat at higher power outputs. Then when it’s time to compete, you load up on some carbs for explosiveness.
You can also just eat some carbs (anywhere from 15 - 50g) before sports. You’ll drop back into ketotsis soon enough. Obviously this isn’t a viable approach if you’re managing a disease by being in ketosis.
Some people just don’t function well on keto. For these people, they still feel terrible even after a few weeks for adaptation, though this seems to be a fairly small percentage of people who try it. These people function better sticking to a high carb, low fat diet.
Switching your body’s fuel system can take a little while, but it’s well worth the experiment for all the reasons listed above. The increase in energy and cognitive functioning is why I stick with a ketogenic, or at least low carb, diet the majority of the time. A low carb diet will give some of the benefits listed above, though not to the same degree.
Note that the huge drop in weight (2-4kgs) in the first few days of switching to a keto diet is mostly due to water weight. Water binds to glycogen in the body, so when glycogen stores decrease, water is released. Also with this excreted water comes salt – if you get headaches or feel terrible during the adaptation period, eat more salt.
I’ll be creating some keto-friendly recipes in the near future – if you want to be kept up to date, add yourself to my newsletter (below).
Or if you need any further help with nutrition or holistic personal training, drop me a line.