The first time I heard about the ketogenic diet, my buddy from college, Carlos, asked me if I’d heard about it for building muscle and making “gainz.”
I definitely wasn’t learning about it in medical school and anything I could find was related to ketoacidosis, a life threatening condition in diabetic patients. I didn’t really think too much of it for general health.
Fast forward a few years, and now the ketogenic diet has been covered on the Tim Ferriss Show, at medical conferences dedicated to transforming medicine, and in a growing body of evidence and research around ketosis not just epileptics, bodybuilders, and athletes, but in cancer, diabetes, longevity, and overall health.
Is this is just a fad or a foundation of staying healthy for the long run?
I’m going to find out.
What is the ketosis?
Ketosis means that you have an elevated level of ketone bodies (ketones) that can be measured in your blood, urine, or breath.
There are two major energy currencies our body uses to produce energy, glucose and ketones. (There is also lactate for those short bursts of anaerobic exercise, but we’ll discuss this another time.)
Glucose is a type of sugar or carbohydrate made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. There are a lot of different types of sugar, most ending in with ‘-ose’ at the end. Think cellulose, sucrose, lactose, fructose, and of course, glucose.
Glucose is commonly the carbohydrate used and stored in muscle and the liver as glycogen (long chains of glucose) and is eventually used to produce energy as adenosine triphosphate, or ATP.
We can’t directly consume ATP, which is why we eat food, drink water, and breathe air for the purpose of creating ATP. Once your cells stop making ATP, you die.
Mainstream nutrition has told us that glucose is the ideal fuel for the body and brain. What hasn’t been emphasized is that glucose is NOT an essential nutrient, which means the body can produce glucose without ever having to actually consume glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis.
If you’ve taken biochemistry, you learned the mechanics of this process but may not actually have thought about it in the context of…REAL LIFE.
One other energy currency the body has access to are ketones.
Ketones are produced from the breakdown of fat through a process called beta-oxidation. Our body uses ketones as fuel during the fasting state when we aren’t eating for extended periods of time.
The health and performance benefits happen when your body’s metabolism can more readily access fat as fuel to make ketone bodies.
Who doesn’t want to use fat more effectively as fuel?
What are real-world benefits of the ketogenic diet?
The ketogenic diet is one way of eating that promotes ketosis, which appears to have many possible benefits:
- More consistent energy, glucose regulation, and lowered insulin levels
- Anti-cancer effects
- Improved gut health
- Improved immune function
- Less inflammation
- More stable mood
- Reduced sugar and carb cravings
- Improved athletic performance – better endurance, more strength and power
- Disease prevention
- Anti-aging and longevity
- Less body fat
- Hormone balance
- Better stress response
- More and more benefits are being uncovered now that more research is being dedicated to studying ketosis.
It seems like a magic pill. Is it too good to be true? Why aren’t more people doing the ketogenic diet if it is so magical?
Like most things, the ketogenic diet isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but the underlying principles of lower carbohydrate intake and healthy doses of whole foods and healthy fats seem to be a solid foundation for optimal human health and performance.
The challenge will be implementing a ketogenic diet that works for your individual tastes, preferences, and biochemistry.
Some Misconceptions About Ketosis
1) Myth: Ketosis is dangerous
The dictionary defines ketosis as:
“A condition characterized by elevated levels of ketone bodies in the body, associated with abnormal fat metabolism and diabetes mellitus (Type 1 or Type 2).”
This is more than cause for concern to the untrained reader and most doctors—I was one of them.
However, you have more than likely been in ketosis without knowing it if you have gone 8-12 hours without food, because this is what the body is designed to do!
Don’t trust your dictionary for health advice!
In medical school, ketones were only mentioned in the context of ketoacidosis—a life threatening level of ketones in the blood that Type I diabetic patients can experience. If you are not a Type 1 Diabetic, it is practically impossible to reach this level of ketones in your blood.
However, the ketogenic diet has been used as a medical therapy to control seizures safely and effectively in children and adults for decades. So, we know that a ketogenic diet has a long track record of overall safety.
2) Myth: Ketosis is just for bodybuilders, athletes, and epileptics
As I mentioned in the benefits above, I think it’s safe to say that if you are human, you would want those benefits.
On the surface, this dietary approach seems extreme because it seems way different than what we are used to. We may not be able to relate to athletes, bodybuilders, and epileptics who tend to be those who want or need the benefits of a ketogenic diet, so it’s easy to dismiss the ketogenic diet as extreme.
However, if you want to improve your energy throughout the day, build more muscle, lose some excess belly fat, and live a long and healthy life, ketosis seems to be worth at least experimenting with.
3) Myth: Eating fat makes you fat and causes cardiovascular disease
Science gets things wrong sometimes before it gets things right.
Washing hands before delivering babies between autopsies on deceased patients was once thought to be “quackery” among the medical establishment.
“There’s NO way that this could be why women were dying of infections during birth!”
The man who fought for hand-washing was banished from the medical establishment.
Sounds pretty ridiculous, but we have the benefit of hindsight.
Another “fact” that medicine realizes is not true is that eating fat clogs up arteries and causes heart attacks and strokes. We now know this is oversimplified and it’s a lot more complex than this. Even with decades of low-fat diet foods and beverages millions of people are still dying every year of cardiovascular disease.
Does this mean you can go eat tons of fried food without consequence?
I don’t think so.
HEALTHY fats are a critical component of a balanced diet that we need to make important hormones, maintain healthy cell membranes, and to use as an energy source. Fats will be important for staying full longer and becoming less dependent on carbohydrates as fuel.
My 30 Day Keto Challenge
For 30 days, I’m going to experiment with a ketogenic diet.
The goal is to see just how easy or hard it is to live like a normal human being on a ketogenic diet.
Two ways to reach ketosis are through periods of fasting (not eating food) or nutritionally by eating less carbohydrates and more healthy fats. I’ll be using a combination of both.
I’ll be looking for answers to these questions:
- Is the ketogenic diet right for me?
- How do I customize the ketogenic diet for individual needs?
- How will I know I’m in ketosis?
- What do I eat on a ketogenic diet?
- What will I do when I’m out eating dinner with friends and family?
- Can I enjoy my life on a ketogenic diet?
- As a runner and generally active person, how will it effect my speed, endurance, and overall recovery?
- Is the ketogenic diet something I will have to do forever or just periodically?
- Will I lose muscle mass on a ketogenic diet?
- I have a history of eczema, so will my skin improve?
- How much carbohydrate can I handle to maintain ketosis/keto-adapatation?
Want to follow along? I’ll be sending out a list of equipment and tips for getting started on a ketogenic diet. Sign up for me email list if you’re game.
Have questions about the ketogenic diet? Just comment below.
Disclaimer: Although I am a doctor in real life, I may not be YOUR doctor. I can’t possibly know your individual health history or individual needs without having met you. Dietary changes are relatively safe compared to a lot of other interventions, but please reach out to me for a consultation or talk to someone educated in this specific dietary intervention if you have any doubt whatsoever that this is right for you. Like anything else, there is NO one-size-fits-all solution.