by Dr. Will Cole
Chances are, you’ve heard about the “keto craze,” “the ketogenic diet,” “being in ketosis,” or some other version of this hot new trend. But what the heck is the ketogenic diet, and should you be doing it? I’m glad you asked because ketosis isn’t just a trend – it is a highly effective and healthful nutritional strategy that could help you lose excess weight, gain energy and mental clarity, and normalize blood sugar swings.
Put simply, the ketogenic diet is a low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF) way of eating. Huh? Let’s start with the basics: By eating according to a specific ratio of high fats, moderate proteins, and low carbohydrates, you can shift your body from burning sugar for fuel, into a fat-burning state. Using fat for fuel is also known as nutritional ketosis and it has a ton of health benefits.
Most of us use sugar for fuel, but it’s not the most efficient way to power the human body.
Before we talk about burning fat for fuel, it’s important to know that the majority of people are burning sugar – or glucose which the body makes out of carbohydrates and sometimes protein – for fuel most (if not all) of the time. That’s because most humans eat a lot of sugar and most standard diets are based primarily on carbohydrates.
First let’s look at sugar consumption: The typical American eats an average of 765 grams of sugar every five days – some of it from obvious sources (sugary coffee drinks, soda, doughnuts, cookies, etc.), but much of it from hidden sources in foods that don’t seem like they could be dessert (soup, salad dressing, condiments, bread). Compare that number to the 45 grams of sugar Americans ate in 1822 over the same 5-day period – that’s a massive increase.
To look at it in another startling way, every person in the U.S. eats and drinks an average of 130 pounds of added sugar every year, which is an average of 3,550 pounds of sugar over a lifetime. To put that in perspective, that is the equivalent of eating 1.7 million Skittles or an industrial-sized Dumpster full of sugar! Yuck. On top of that, most of us base our diets on foods made from grains: bread, pasta, rice, granola bars, cereals, and crackers, which the body also breaks down into – you guessed it – sugar.
Putting aside the startling image of an industrial-sized dumpster of sugar, let’s look at what all this sugar does to your body. Carbohydrates broken down into glucose results in the most easily accessible energy source. When glucose hits your bloodstream, you release insulin to help carry the glucose around your body and deliver it where it is needed. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? The problem is that most people today eat so much sugar and so many carbohydrates that we end up with blood glucose levels that are dangerously high, since our body doesn’t need nearly that much fuel.
High blood sugar is toxic and it can lead to serious health issues, but in addition, any sugar the body can’t burn gets stored as fat around your liver, stomach, and in circulating fat (known as triglycerides). On top of all that, the by-products of glucose metabolism are inflammatory to the body, especially when there is an excess of glucose. Look at it this way: Burning sugar as your primary source of energy is like using dirty fuel: You have to refuel often (or you will get “hangry” on that blood sugar roller coaster), and the burning of the fuel leaves behind pollution in the form of inflammation.
Ketosis to the rescue.
Fortunately, there is another way. You don’t have to get stuck on the blood-sugar roller coaster, with its erratic peaks and crashes and significant health risks. You don’t have to burn sugar for fuel. Instead, you could be burning fat.
Fat-burning is a more efficient fuel source for your metabolism. A by-product of fat metabolism is ketones, which your body and brain can use as a slow-burning, efficient source of fuel. This allows you to consume far fewer carbohydrates while simultaneously increasing your energy. Less blood sugar means less insulin, and as insulin levels fall and your body requires energy, your liver produces ketones to fuel your body. Your brain can also use ketones as an alternative fuel source when blood levels of ketones are high enough to cross the blood-brain barrier. This is great news because ketones have been shown to be very neuroprotective.
One reaction many people have to this concept is to wonder whether it could possibly be healthy to eat that much fat. Let’s consider some basic facts: Your brain is comprised of 60 percent fat. At birth, many of us relied on fat in the form of breast milk for brain development and energy. And for those who drank formula, MCT oil (derived from coconut and palm oil) is added to most formulas as a source of healthy fats. In order for the brain to work optimally, it needs a lot of energy, and from an evolutionary and biological standpoint, the most sustainable form of energy comes from healthy fats.
Good keto, bad keto.
Some people think that the benefits of a ketogenic diet are appetite reduction and that long-term fasting is part of maintaining a ketogenic state. While intermittent fasting can be beneficial for health and can also help you to get into a ketogenic state (if you’re interested in intermittent fasting, you can check out my guide here), a healthy ketogenic diet is not about starving your body of food. It’s about shifting your body into a healthier metabolic state.
That means you should not lose the ability to get energy from carbs. It means your body should be good at energy cross-training, or taking its energy from the best source available. Think of ketosis as converting your metabolism from a gasoline-chugging semi truck (sugar burner) to a hybrid engine that is able to work more efficiently by burning either fat or sugar when it needs to. This is called metabolic flexibility. A ketogenic diet ideally puts your body into a state in which it can use healthy fats for fuel and sugar only as a secondary form of energy, instead of the other way around.
There is another problem with many mainstream versions of the ketogenic diet (you know, the meals you usually see on Instagram): They include a high proportion of non-organic and processed meats and dairy products. If you look at the fat content alone, you might think this is a good way to get into ketosis, but the type of fat and the nutrient density of the foods on a ketogenic diet matter, too. Conventionally produced and processed meat and dairy products have been linked to many health problems. Yes, plant foods have some carbohydrates, but many people in the keto world are wrongly avoiding plant foods for fear of going over their carb limit. This unhealthy fear of plant foods results in the loss of a vital array of essential plant phytonutrients and prebiotic food (like fiber) for the gut microbiome.
If you’ve heard it’s not possible to be both plant-based and ketogenic, you’ve heard wrong. In my new book, Ketotarian, I describe my plant-based approach to the ketogenic diet. Eating according to the Ketotarian diet means getting the best parts of the ketogenic diet along with the best parts of a plant-centric diet, whether you prefer to eat vegan, vegetarian, or pescatarian. Fat-burning plus nutrient density and microbiome enhancement? It’s the ultimate and optimal way to get the best benefits from a ketogenic diet.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.
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