Last updated on October 12th, 2018
The whole world it seems is banging on about Ketogenic Dieting. There is so much Keto Hype and utter BS I want to scream
I have written this article to separate the fact from fiction.
I am not adverse to the principle or the theory – I am opposed though, to the total nonsense that is spouted by people who don’t understand the process or do and should know better.
Did you know that in ketosis you are actually burning pure fat and have 5 times more energy, so you can get lean and strong much quicker than everyone else?
Did you also know that by following a ketogenic diet, you trigger your “immortality” genes and basically live way longer than people who eat carbs?
The above statements are examples of the hype and zealotry that have arisen from the recent wave of low-carb-high-fat keto diet popularity.
I say ‘recent’ because ketogenic diets and low-carb-high-fat (LCHF) diets are nothing new, despite what many people now ardently following them think.
Ketone bodies, ketogenesis and ketosis are all parts of a cyclical system that our bodies use in certain circumstances – like when the liver is processing an abundance of fat and very low carbohydrate quantities.
People have been inducing dietary ketosis – either through choice or lack of it – for so long that the timescale is practically irrelevant. Put it this way, the ketogenic diet is not a post-millennial invention.
For anybody that’s heard bits and pieces about keto but doesn’t really understand it, or those who want a completely unbiased opinion about the pros and cons of following a ketogenic diet, then this article is offering to you.
You may have heard ketogenic dieters vilifying high protein consumption because they believe it can “kick you out of ketosis”.
Or perhaps you’ve read how keto fixes insulin resistance and turns it into a super hormone.
Whatever you’ve read, or heard, or been told about the ketogenic diet, I think what you read in the following paragraphs will be a worthy addition to your knowledge of the subject in any case.
What is Ketogenic Dieting?
There are countless explanations of the keto diet on the internet, so basically I’m about to lob another one on to the pile.
I have noticed, however, that many of these explanations are either from keto advocates, or pro-keto websites.
When it’s not coming from #teamketo, it’s often coming from scientists, and they very rarely resist the urge to whip out the vernacular and start drawing venn diagrams and flow charts containing all manner of shiny abbreviations that are nonetheless meaningless to the vast majority of humanity.
So, I find simple and neutral works best.
Ketogenic dieting is when the major proportion of your daily calorie consumption comes from fat.
About 5% or less of a keto dieters calories come from carbohydrates. In fact, to be considered a true, card carrying, keto club member you would eat less than 50 grams of carbohydrate a day.
The rest of the calories are protein of course.
A typical ketogenic dietary macro split might look like this:
- 75% calories from FAT
- 20% calories from PROTEIN
- 5% calories from CARBOHYDRATE
When you consume less than 50 grams of carbs per day, your liver is forced to manufacture ketones, or ketone bodies, from fat so that it can (a) store its meagre offering of carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, and (b) deal with the high volume of fat passing through it.
The liver itself cannot use ketones for energy because it lacks an enzyme that converts them into the correct form. Hence why it hoards its glycogen.
So, as levels of carbs get really low, the liver converts fatty acids into ketones. Ketones can travel to many parts of the body, including the brain, and be used as a source of energy.
When ketones are being produced by the liver, the process is known as ketogenesis. This actually happens for everybody to a certain degree, not just keto dieters.
If levels of carbs are low enough that the liver is forced to do this in order to supply energy, the body is said to be in ketosis.
Ketosis is a normal metabolic process that can occur as a result of intense or endurance exercise, fasting and involuntary starvation. Basically any situation when carbohydrate intake is low enough and fat becomes the main source of fuel.
What we are discussing here is diet-induced ketosis, or nutritional ketosis, where the macronutrients are apportioned in such a way as to force the body into this state.
What Are Ketones?
Ketones can be called ketone bodies, and they are chemicals that are produced by the liver when it processes excess fatty acids.
In a way their production can be seen as a marker for a high fat to low carb ratio.
The 3 ketone bodies are:
These ketones/ketone bodies are made from acetyl-CoA (aka acetyl Co-enzyme A), which is a basic carbon-bearing fuel which enters the citric acid cycle (aka Krebs cycle) to be used as energy by any mitochondrial cell.
The citric acid cycle takes place within the mitochondrial matrix of cells. The mitochondria are like little power stations, and their matrix can be considered to be within the confines of their own little membrane.
Those 3 ketone bodies are water soluble and can be transported by blood around the body.
They can cross the blood-brain-barrier and enter through cell membranes.
Once inside the cell, they can be converted back to acetyl-CoA, which can donate its acetyl group to the citric acid cycle to yield energy.
This is important because fatty acids themselves cannot cross the blood-brain-barrier (BBB) so ketones are extremely important for central nervous system (CNS) function in the absence of glucose.
The brain does still require a certain amount of glucose to operate, as does the liver, kidneys and blood. If this is not supplied in the form of carbohydrates, or in times between carbohydrate consumption, then the process of gluconeogenesis (the generation of glucose from non-carb sources) is employed.
Gluconeogenesis is discussed in more detail in the Protein and Keto section below.
Which Organs and Tissues Can’t Use Ketones?
There are several cells in your body that cannot use ketones / ketone bodies:
- Renal medulla (inner part of kidneys)
- Red Blood Cells
- Parts of the Brain
These rather important body parts, not to mention red blood cells, still rely on glucose. For example, the liver doesn’t have enough of the transferase enzyme which converts the ketones to their energy-yielding form and red blood cells don’t have mitochondria.
Ketogenic dieters needn’t worry though, our bodies undergo a process called gluconeogenesis: the generation of glucose from specific non-carbohydrate sources.
Gluconeogenesis is a highly regulated, accurate process, whereby the necessary quantity of glucose for the maintenance of blood sugar, brain function and liver function is generated.
One of those sources is protein, and that brings be to the subject of protein consumption in the context of a ketogenic diet.
Protein and Keto
I’ll begin this section by highlighting a fear that many ketogenic diet worshippers have.
If I consume too much protein, won’t its conversion to glucose kick me out of ketosis?
The short answer is: no.
Let’s elaborate on the perceived problem. When you’re in ketosis, you’re using fat as your main source of energy.
Carbohydrate intake can definitely interrupt ketosis, that much is obvious, but since the body prioritizes glucose/glycogen as an energy source, surely it will start converting those substrates that it can into sugar via gluconeogenesis.
Furthermore, excess protein (in order to prevent muscle wastage) might be used as that substrate.
To reiterate: the above fear is unfounded.
Scientifically speaking, the process of gluconeogenesis is not driven by the supply of excess substrate – i.e. protein and glycerol (from lipids e.g. triglycerides) – it is driven by demand.
In other words, excess protein won’t be converted into glucose unless it’s needed for the liver, kidneys, blood or brain.
Studies have shown that this remains the case regardless of any additional consumption of protein. [source]
Gluconeogenesis is a system that constantly strives to maintain a perfect blood sugar concentration, and it doesn’t care whether you are in ketosis or not. A well regulated blood sugar concentration is a must for everybody.
Due to liver glycogen and blood sugar being rather short term stores, and easily depleted, gluconeogenesis is extremely important for restoring them and preventing the negative physiological responses that occur as a result of severely low glucose levels.
One of the reasons for this is the low rate by which gluconeogenesis occurs. Unlike carbohydrates, the conversion of protein and glycerol to glucose are a slow process.
The concomitant glucose production certainly cannot have the same impact on blood sugar levels as can carbohydrate ingestion. And beyond that which is needed for this and other purposes, such as muscle growth, extra protein does not appear to result in extra glucose production.
An interesting response to the gluconeogenesis fear is one that pertains to glycerol.
Given that glycerol is part of triglycerides, which are lipid molecules that form the main constituent of body fat, it is available to be converted to glucose by the liver. Yet despite its abundance, a person in ketosis will not start generating excess glucose from fat deposits.
Protein, particularly whey protein supplements and certain amino acids like leucine, causes ain insulin response. This can be another source of confusion for avid keto dieters and those who are testing the keto waters alike.
The blame for this mostly lies at the feet of popular online keto advocates who – usually due to financial motivations – purvey a mixture of fact, pseudo-science and utter quackery to increase their base of followers and their bottom line.
Insulin is often the subject, or focus, of the ketogenic proponent’s debate. The stronger opinions amongst #teamketo appear to agree that keeping insulin levels down is one of the primary objectives of the diet.
One can’t really discuss keto without at least touching on insulin and even offering something of an argument to the debate.
Insulin and Keto
As with most things biochemical, context matters.
For keto-pushers, context is irrelevant, because it doesn’t fit their agenda of making ketogenic dieting a cult.
Insulin is required for the metabolism and storage of all three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat.
When you eat, insulin is released and directs your body’s cells to store the nutrients as required.
Some keto-pushers refer to insulin as a fat storage hormone. Basically, if you eat sugar then insulin stores it in fat cells, and that makes us fat.
The problem with this stupidly simplified muppet-science is that they are discussing insulin way out of context, and unfortunately the current epidemic of obesity – and people’s desperation to lose weight – only serves to bolster their stance.
Mitigate the excess sugar intake
People that overeat become obese over time. Excess food gets stored, that’s just the way it is.
Now, because carbohydrates, and especially those carbs closer to its simplest form – glucose – are digested the quickest and raise blood sugar quickly, insulin’s response to this food source is equally fast.
So when blood sugar is raised, or “spikes”, as a result of fast carbohydrate consumption, insulin is released and tries to store as much of it as possible in order to maintain a steady blood sugar level.
If there is nowhere other than fat cells to store the extra glucose, that’s where insulin is going to store it.
Should this happen frequently enough and on a chronic basis, without any exercise to mitigate the excess sugar intake (I’ll get to that), insulin can become desensitized and simply rush out and store the sugar in fat.
In fact, it can do this so quickly and without care that it removes more sugar from the blood than it should. This causes what has become known as the “sugar crash” where there isn’t enough sugar in the blood for the brain to work properly, and so fatigue sets in.
Once fatigue sets in and blood sugar is low, it can lead to more food cravings to correct the blood sugar. And so the cycle continues, because the more it happens the more it damages insulin’s response.
This problem is known as insulin resistance. Basically, the insulin response has become so poor that it has no beneficial effect anymore.
Insulin resistance can lead to Type II Diabetes eventually.
BUT insulin is not the root cause of this problem. Overeating is.
Think of it like this: when insulin has nowhere left to store glucose but in fat cells, that’s what it must do.
The reason it has been given no choice is because the body’s energy requirements have been saturated by the consumption of too many calories, too often.
Insulin is essentially an anabolic hormone. It adds energy to cells, and because stored energy = mass, the result is cell growth.
When it stores amino acids, the result is more muscle protein, which means larger muscles. The same can be said for the storage and conversion of glucose to glycogen. Muscle glycogen is a fuel store for the muscles. Use your muscles enough and they need this fuel to perform optimally.
Muscle tissue will also grow as a result of the training stimulus and dietary protein and so will need more fuel to power the larger mass.
Insulin is a hero for anyone that exercises, especially bodybuilders.
But back to the problem at hand.
Your bodyweight relies on a balance of energy in versus energy out. When you consume more calories than you burn per day, the extra energy gets stored.
If you don’t exercise much then your muscles won’t need to store any, so it inevitably gets stored in adipose – fat – tissue. Insulin is the major driver of that, hence why it is often vilified.
Eat less total calories than you burn per day and the insulin problem goes away because there is no extra energy to store. In fact, your body must call on the energy it has stored and use it to power its metabolic processes. This involves catabolic hormones which break down stored fat and glycogen to be used as fuel. Weight loss is the end result of this breakdown and burning of fuel.
When insulin does its job properly it is said to be sensitive. Proper insulin sensitivity is what everyone should strive for.
You can repair insulin resistance and increase its sensitivity by doing a couple things:
- Eat a calorie deficit while making sure you get adequate protein for your bodyweight
- Exercise regularly
A mix of resistance training and cardio-vascular exercise works wonders because it re-sensitizes insulin that much quicker. Post-exercise your insulin is much more adept at storing the macro-nutrients in the right places. Muscle tissue, for example, is very receptive to protein and glucose uptake during the first couple of hours that follow a workout.
Exercise also primes your muscles to the need for added glycogen storage. Fast carbohydrates following an intense workout, combined with protein, is one of the best things to consume for recovery and muscle growth. Sadly, many ketogenic dieters still forego this practice because of their preconceived notion that carbohydrates are inherently bad for them.
Training also allows you to be in a hypercaloric condition (calorie surplus) and not damage your insulin sensitivity. Yes, you will put weight on, and yes some of it will be fat, but provided you have not harmed your insulin health, that weight gain – even the fat – is useful. We would not be able to add lean mass without insulin.
Hopefully, you can see that insulin is not the problem and that eating a high fat low carb, or ketogenic, diet in order to reduce insulin levels is only useful if that diet helps you to sustain a calorie deficit.
Furthermore, fat does not really need insulin to be stored as fat. If you overeat and your main macro is fat, it’s going to be stored as such, whether you have low insulin levels or not.
Carbohydrates don’t even necessarily spike insulin levels
Keto proponents that use the insulin argument are the worst of the worst because they don’t even understand their own subject.
Carbohydrates don’t even necessarily spike insulin levels, it all depends on the type of carbohydrate you are eating. What’s more, with healthy insulin sensitivity, sometimes a spike is a good thing, especially at certain times, such as immediately after a workout.
There’s no need to demonize or deify one of the body’s hormones, because in different contexts it is different things.
Similarly, there’s no need to cut out an entire macronutrient from your diet if you don’t want to.
Ketogenic dieting is just one way to achieve an end result. The same result can happen with carbohydrates included in your diet.