High on fat

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Ketosis is a word that gets tossed around a lot – to some, it’s a magical weight-loss formula, to others, it’s a way of life, and to others it’s just asking for adrenal fatigue. But understanding what ketosis really is (not just what it does), and the physical causes and consequences of a fat-fuelled metabolism can help you make an informed decision about the best diet for your lifestyle, ketogenic or not.

High-protein, low carbohydrate diets have been widely promoted as effective weight loss plans. These programs generally recommend that you get 30%-50% of your total calories from protein.

Normally your body burns carbohydrates for fuel. When you drastically cut carbs, the body goes into a metabolic state called ketosis, and it begins to burn its own fat for fuel.  Biologically, the human body is very adaptable machine that can run on a variety of different fuels, but on a carb-heavy diet, the primary source of energy is glucose. If glucose is available, the body will use it first, since it’s the quickest to metabolise. So on a standard diet, your metabolism will be primarily geared towards burning carbohydrates (glucose) for fuel.

It’s important to understand that some organs in the body (especially the brain) require a base amount of glucose to keep functioning. If your brain doesn’t get any glucose, you’ll die! But this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need glucose in the diet – your body is perfectly capable of meeting its glucose needs during an extended fast, a period of famine, or a long stretch of very minimal carbohydrate intake.

Why Ketosis

For some people the most common reason for attempting to go into ketosis is to lose weight. Several studies have shown that a ketogenic diet has outperformed either a typical low-carb diet or a calorie-restricted for weight-loss. When the body is already running on fat for fuel, it’s metabolically easy to burn the stored fat already on the body as well as the fat obtained through the diet. Ketosis can even help heal some of the longer-term damage brought on by having a carb-heavy diet; in obese people who are insulin resistant, a ketogenic  diet can help restore insulin sensitivity and restore regular metabolic  function.

As an added weight loss benefit, ketosis also well-documented appetite suppressing effect, due in part to its effect on blood sugar levels. A ketogenic diet minimise swings in blood sugar, so you don’t get exhausted and cranky when you haven’t eaten for a few hours. This makes it easier to stay within a reasonable amount of food every day, even without   conscious calorie restriction (which is generally a bad idea!)

However, whether you go on a low-carb diet for weight loss or to manage a health condition, you’ll be eating fewer carbohydrates, much more fat and more protein than on a typical diet. While some studies suggest that a ketogenic diet is helpful and safe for significantly overweight or obese people. However, other clinical reviews point out that patients on low-carbohydrate diets regain some of their lost weight within about a year.

Risks and Drawbacks of Ketosis

Rapid weight loss is dangerous, low carb, high protein, high-fat diets like for example Atkins are based on this technique. That’s why they work in the short term. However, most of the dropped weight is water weight. Once your body enters ketosis, you also begin to lose muscle, become extremely fatigued, and eventually enter starvation mode. Then it actually becomes even harder to lose weight. Ketosis diets should only be considered in extreme cases, it can do more harm than good. It can damage the heart, which is also a muscle.

Remember that ketosis is metabolically very similar to starvation. With an 800-calorie-a-day diet you’re essentially starving yourself, so of course you will drop weight. Anything under a 1200-calorie daily diet is considered a starvation diet and is not meant for long-term weight loss.

If you’re trying to increase your fertility or if you’re currently pregnant, ketosis can actually counterproductive. Fertility is greatest when the body feels well-nourished, so a very low carbohydrate diet that imitates starvation is not ideal for conception. Similarly, the healthiest nutritional state during pregnancy is being consistently well-nourished; ketosis can be dangerous for both mother and baby.

People who do a lot of high-intensity metabolic conditioning should also avoid ketosis. This kind of activity demands glucose for fuel. Your body can make its own glucose from fat and protein, but not at the rate you need it for regular sprint workouts or metcon sessions. If you regularly try to push yourself through this kind of workout on a low-carb diet, you’ll burn through all your stored muscle glycogen right away, and then see your performance start to decrease. Instead of injuring your body and your metabolism by forcing yourself to keep going, match your carbs to your workouts and enjoy some sweet potato or brown rice.

As well as risks that apply only to certain groups of people, some risks can also affect anyone on ketogenic diet. Kidney stones are a well-known example: long periods of ketosis are a serious risk factor. Some studies also indicate a risk of bone density loss, a problem that could lead to osteoporosis or further complications down the road. A less serious but irritating side effect is constipation (possibly caused by the reduction of fibre –rich grains) and carbohydrates in the diet. Other risks of very low carbohydrate diets in general include Thyroid problems, Vitamin C deficiency, low energy and mood disorders.

All of these side effects mean that it’s important to consider both sides of the issue if you’re thinking about a ketogenic diet. It might seem like a weight loss miracle diet, but it’s not without some downsides.

 

Minimising the Risks of Ketosis

Even if you decide that the possible benefits of a ketogenic diet outweigh the risks, most people aren’t thrilled at the thought of developing kidney stones or even a less severe problem like chronic constipation. Since any kind of ketogenic diet is really just a means to an end (ketosis), it follows that the best ketogenic diet is one that minimises these risks – the diet that induces ketosis in the gentlest, least harmful way possible.

Certain dietary supplements can help give you a little leeway on a ketogenic diet. The amino acids lysine and leucine support ketosis and allow a diet to include more protein without compromising ketosis. Short-chain fats like Coconut Oil are also very ketogenic because they signal the liver to make more ketones. These supplements are very useful because they make for more flexibility in the diet: achieving ketosis by carbohydrate and protein restriction alone is possible, but a slightly higher level of protein and carb intake, supplemented with these ketogenic foods, can help reduce side effects and make the diet safe for the long term. Supplementing with Vitamin D (which most of us should be doing anyway) can also help to minimise the risk of bone density loss.

It’s also possible to choose a more moderate approach called a cyclic ketogenic diet. On this kind of plan, the goal is not to be in ketosis all the time, but rather to support a very flexible metabolism that can easily dip into and out of ketosis day by day. Cyclic ketogenic diets usually involve a few days of ketogenic eating; followed by a high-carbohydrate day or two approximately once a week. This lets you benefit from ketosis most of the time, while maintaining a much higher level of athletic performance and also enjoying much more dietary flexibility and variety.  This kind of cyclic ketogenic diet is probably preferable to constant ketosis for most people, since it delivers the benefits of insulin sensitivity and weight management while minimising many of the risks of long-term ketogenic dieting.

Conclusion: is Ketosis for You?

The answer to that question is, of course, “it depends”. Since we have evidence of hunter-gatherer tribes eating such a wide variety of macronutrient ratios, it seems clear that human beings are not evolutionarily designed to be in ketosis all the time; it’s more likely that we have a very flexible metabolic structure that can function quite well burning either ketones or glucose for fuel.

Thus, if you’re pregnant, extremely athletic, or have another contraindicating factor, or if you do just fine on a moderate-carb diet and see no reason to change, then there’s no reason to try for ketosis. If you’re interested in the potential benefits but don’t want to go all the way, a cyclic ketogenic diet might be a better choice – it lets you experiment with ketosis without risking the side effects of a long-term low carb diet. On the other hand, if you feel better on a fat-burning metabolism, want to lose weight, or you’re trying to manage a neurological disease, there’s no reason to worry that ketosis is somehow harmful or unnatural.

For people who suffer from obesity or neurological disorders like epilepsy, it can be a safe and effective treatment, but that doesn’t mean that perfectly healthy people should necessarily adopt it. Glasses are also a safe and effective treatment for poor vision, but that doesn’t mean that people who can see perfectly well already should go all out and get them. Think of ketogenic diet as one of several equally legitimate options, and choose the way of eating that works best for you.

There is no magic bullet for long-term weight loss. For long-term weight control a diet that is focused on right balance of vitamins an minerals with right amount of marconutrients for your body an energy expenditure, is one that can be healthy for life. We fall prey to crazy diets, but the truth is there’s no quick fix.  Cutting refined carbs and replacing them with fresh vegetables, fresh fruits and lean protein, cutting processed foods, and avoiding too many additives will keep you healthy in the long term.

The healthiest approach to weight loss is to set realistic goals and ask yourself of your diet plan is:

  • Good for the long term
  • Includes exercise
  • Meets your long-term health goals

If the answers are NO, then that is a red flag!

My best advice is not to skip meals because your body goes into overdrive the next time you eat. That can actually cause you to eat more, not less. Exercise, of course, is also vitally important. Every pound of muscle equals 50 calories burned, so a plan that includes a muscle-enhancing regimen will help you reach your goal faster.

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