Hey, guys! Before I get down to business, I’d like to give you a little insight into how much this post has grown and evolved since the idea first sparked in my brain. Here’s a little history: A while back, I started listening to some Jimmy Moore podcasts – he’s a pretty radd dude in the low-carb/Paleo “scene”, so be sure to check him out if you haven’t already. Jimmy has been doing a little experiment with “nutritional ketosis”, which sounded kind of familiar… I was pretty sure Mark Sisson had said something about that in The Primal Blueprint. Right?
The more I listened, the more curious I got about this idea. I heard wildly differing opinions: it’s great, it’s shit, it’s only great if XYZ… All I knew was that Jimmy was reportedly getting fabulous results, in terms of weight loss and health markers, but it sounded a bit too cuckoo and difficult for me. Still, my inner nerd wouldn’t rest until I learned a bit more about it.
Simultaneously, on a different train of thought, I was getting pretty curious about trialling a sugar-free lifestyle. When I eventually decided to take the plunge with my program (I’m just about finished!), I decided to also start tracking my macronutrient ratios (how much carbohydrate, fat and protein I was eating). And that’s where things got interesting. It would seem, from the self-observation data I’ve collected, that this whole “nutritional ketosis” thing is a lot closer to home than I thought. This lit a fire under me, and I started digging.
And I dug up a lot.
So, all of those factors conspired to bring you the post you’re currently reading. (And, I’d wager, a few more to come.) See, when I got the idea to decode “nutritional ketosis” for you all, I didn’t realise how big a topic I was actually taking on. I’m also mindful of the fact that many of you aren’t anywhere near as nerdy as I am, nor as familiar with the scary hairy world of nutrition, so I can’t just blather on without taking a moment to explain, and letting those explanations marinate.
In the immortal words of the lovely Julie Andrews, then, let’s start at the very beginning. I’m going to explain what “low carb” actually means, how it relates to ketosis, and give you a bit of background. In future posts, I’ll be delving a bit deeper into how it all works and how it all relates to where I’m at, but I think this will do us for now. Onwards!
What Does “Low Carb” Really Mean?
I’m fairly certain that, even if you’re completely uninitiated in the world of nutrition, you’ve heard of “low carb” diets before. You might have heard of Atkins. You might have seen someone pass on the bread at dinner because they’re “cutting carbs”. There are as many low-carbohydrate approaches as there are low-fat approaches (and almost all of them posit that all the others are completely wrong).
Essentially, low carbohydrate diets restrict or minimise sources of carbohydrate in the diet, and include proportionately more of the other macronutrients (protein and fat). If we’re looking at this in relation to ketosis, we’re focusing on “LCHF” = low carb, high fat.
The basics: eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy, oils, and vegetables that grew above the ground. Avoid sugar, starch (including grains), fruit and alcohol. Eat until you are satisfied – this is not an exercise in withstanding hunger, but rather in being selective about where you get your fuel.
This approach is believed to stabilise blood sugar (because it is carbohydrate that pumps up your blood glucose after eating), which leads to decreased insulin production, which leads to less fat storage (insulin being the “storage hormone”), and so forth.
If you want to get more technical, as per LCHF theory, excess consumption of carbohydrate means that your glycogen (sugar) stores in the body are chronically over-filled. Your body has to handle that somehow, so the extra carbs are converted into fat in the liver (a process called “de novo lipogenesis”). When this occurs, fat utilisation is blocked, and any dietary fat that is consumed is stored straight away. So, eating too much carbohydrate, and not using enough of it through movement, stops your body being able to burn fat.
Adherents to a LCHF lifestyle also claim that it improves blood pressure, cholesterol profile, stomach ailments, mood and mental health… the less carbohydrates consumed, the more pronounced the effect. There have been several studies demonstrating that low-carb diets are the most effective for weight loss; of course, we could argue about the methodological strengths and weaknesses of such studies for days, but I’d really rather not (just thought they were worth mentioning).
Anyway, the adherents I mentioned – of which there are many – have formed a worldwide community, with its own offshoots and branches and sub-sections. And in an ever-expanding subsection, there is an almost Paleo-esque emphasis on food quality, as well as macronutrient breakdown. It’s not just carbs and fats, it’s where you get them from that matters – for instance, seed oils and margarine are being eschewed in favour of fats like butter, olive oil, and coconut oil. Obviously, I’m not going to argue with that! The lack of attention to food quality has always been my biggest concern about any “low carb” approach. “Low carb energy bars”, with their palm oil and sugar alcohols and what not, are out – healthy, fresh, real food is in. Yay! Indeed, there are quite a few parallels between these communities, and a lot of crossover between them – Jimmy Moore, who I mentioned at the start of this post, being a prime example.
So, that’s LCHF in a nutshell. Note that this isn’t the type of low-carbohydrate diet you’d typically see touted in a fitness magazine, or whatever – those sources often emphasise what is more of a moderate-carb/high-protein approach, but they label it “low carb” just the same (technically, it does involve decreasing carbohydrate a little below the “standard” intake, but not to the extent of LCHF). To be honest, it really kind of gets my goat when people bandy about terms like “low carb”, without actually understanding what they’re talking about or what that means. That “low carb bread” you’re eating? It might be lower in carbohydrates than WonderWhite, but you’re kind of missing the point. (Swedish advocate of LCHF, Dr Andreas Eenfeldt, refers to these foods as “low carb fairytales”, which I think is absolute gold!)
Anyway, acknowledgement and awareness of LCHF is spreading. Which brings us to…
What’s This “Ketosis” Thing?
Right, so: nutritional ketosis is a type of metabolism, a way your body breaks down and utilises energy. Specifically, your body will preferentially use fat, and a group of compounds that we refer to as “ketones”, for energy - instead of carbohydrates/sugar/glucose.
A “ketogenic” diet is one that causes these ketones to be generated by your liver, which sifts your body’s metabolism away from using glucose and towards using ketones + fat. Ultimately, the production of ketones is determined by your carbohydrate intake, because it is carbohydrate intake that determines whether your body uses sugar or fat for fuel. So, to induce ketosis, you have to go to the pretty extreme end of a LCHF diet.
With me so far?
The History of Ketosis and Ketogenic Diets
Ketogenic diets, used to induce ketosis, have been a long-established treatment for epilepsy. It would seem that they increase the ATP/ADP ratio in the brain (in English: they make more energy available for the brain to use, helping it run more efficiently). Ketogenic diets have been prescribed for treatment of childhood epilepsy as far back as the Middle Ages, in various forms, but they fell out of favour with the discovery of new epileptic drugs in the 20th century. They were “rediscovered” in the 90s, and used for difficult-to-treat cases. They are now also being investigated as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s, and several types of cancer… but most people use ketogenic diets in an effort to lose body fat, while maintaining lean body mass (i.e., bone and muscle).
Ketogenic diets have been used this way for at least a century. Indeed, they became very popular – albeit under a different name – with the popularisation of the “Atkins diet” in the 70s (hello, low carb!). Of course, it fell out of favour when Atkins was criticised harshly by the AMA – and, admittedly, Atkins’ early work wasn’t all that great – but we are now witnessing quite the resurgence.
Nonetheless, ketogenic diets (indeed, any LCHF approach) remain quite on-the-outer when it come to nutritional recommendations, and there are a variety of reasons for that. One of my favourite soap boxes to jump on relates to the economic interests in our continued intake of dense sources of carbohydrates (grains, legumes, sugar), and how these interests have influenced the production of our “official” dietary guidelines. When you look at it from that perspective, a ketogenic diet is quite subversive, a big “eff you!” to Big Agriculture. But that’s not really the point here. The point is this: ketogenic diets are very popular in some circles, but remain much maligned by mainstream nutritionists and authorities. So, if you decide to go down this road, you’ll likely face a bit of resistance on more than one front.
So, What Are These “Keto” Folks Eating?
The specific macronutrient breakdown differs for everyone. However, to induce a state of nutritional ketosis – where your body burns fat and ketones for energy, instead of sugar – the bulk of your calories (roughly 65%) should come from fat, a moderate amount (roughly 30%) from protein, and a minimal amount (roughly 5%) from carbohydrates. This is trickier than it sounds. Of course, this breakdown varies greatly depending on your muscle mass, activity level, genetics, etc. As a general rule, though, any diet with a carbohydrate >100g per day cannot be ketogenic.
(Quick cheat sheet: if you’re getting a bit lost in all of this fat/protein/carbohydrate talk, just try to remember that if it grows in the ground it’s a carb, but if it’s from an animal it’s protein + fat. Obviously, this isn’t 100% accurate all of the time, but it’s a good heuristic to remember, just the same.)
To induce a state of nutritional ketosis, you will likely be eating predominantly animal products, oils, and low-carbohydrate vegetables (usually ones that grow above the ground). Fibre doesn’t really “count” as a carb in this situation, either – fibre is mostly cellulose, a type of sugar/carbohydrate that our bodies can’t metabolise (use for energy), so it can’t raise your blood sugar, and consequently won’t affect ketosis. Veggies like spinach, lettuce and broccoli, all quite high in fibre, won’t throw out your macronutrient balance if you’re aiming to induce ketosis.
The Take-Home Message
“LCHF” is a dietary movement that has been around for a while, but is experiencing a recent resurgence in popularity. It involves eating proportionately less carbohydrate, and proportionately more fat. Many who take this approach go down the route of a “ketogenic diet” (“keto” for short), reducing their carbohydrate intake to such an extent that their body no longer relies on them as a primary fuel source, and instead burns fat and ketone bodies (produced by the liver) for energy. This can be achieved by consuming primarily meat, fish, dairy, eggs, oils, and low-carbohydrate/high-fibre vegetables. Such an approach is often harshly criticised by mainstream nutrition authorities, but is reported to have amazing health benefits, according to its adherents.
I’ll leave it there for now, but I’ve just barely scratched the surface of the world of ketosis – there’s a lot of ground to cover! I’ll be delving a little deeper in future posts, so feel free to get in touch if you have any specific questions or concerns!
Have you ever heard of a ketogenic diet? Have you ever tried it? What do you think – good idea, or bad?