What is “Nutritional Ketosis”?
Nutritional ketosis is a healthy metabolic state in which your body is efficiently burning fat as its primary fuel source instead of glucose. You can think of it as converting yourself from a “sugar burner” to a “fat burner”. Simply reduce your carbohydrates, increase your intake of healthy fats, and consume only an adequate amount of protein to meet your body’s needs.
By following a ketogenic diet that is high in fat, very low in carbohydrates, and adequate in protein (adequate in protein, NOT “high” in protein). By consuming more lipids you are enhancing your body’s fat burning function by up-regulating the enzymes and other “metabolic machinery” needed to burn fat more efficiently, therefore making it easier for your body to tap into stored adipose tissue as an energy source (i.e. you turn yourself into a fat-burning machine!).
But don’t we NEED carbohydrates?
While it’s true that our red blood cells and a small percentage of brain and kidney cells are exclusively glucose dependent or dependent on carbs, the body can GENERATE carbohydrates in a process called gluconeogenesis in which certain non-carbohydrate substrates like proteins and certain constituents of fatty acids can be converted into glucose. The quantities of glucose produced by the body are enough to meet the needs of these particular cells and also help to balance the body’s blood sugar levels.
Ketogenic diets are not necessarily ZERO-carbohydrate diets and were typically able to get enough carbohydrates from vegetables, fruit, and some beans and legumes.
There is also a common misconception that the brain can run only on glucose, BUT, there is in fact a fuel source that the brain actually prefers over glucose: KETONES.
And what exactly are ketones?
Ketone bodies are byproducts of the breakdown of fat and can replace glucose as a primary fuel source for cells of the brain. The brain cannot directly utilize long-chain fatty acids for fuel since these types of fats cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. However, ketones can easily pass through this barrier and your brain becomes more efficient at utilizing ketones over time.
Beyond just providing the brain with fuel, ketones appear to have many therapeutic effects on the functioning of neurons and are being intensely researched in their applications for epilepsy, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety and other cognitive disorders.
But doesn’t eating fat make you fat? And clog your Arteries? And cause high cholesterol?
Well, the answer to this question is yes and no. Yes, eating an excess of ANYTHING beyond your daily caloric needs can potentially cause weight gain, whether it be fat or carbs. BUT the answer is also NO – the consumption of fat in and of itself does NOT cause weight gain nor does it clog your arteries and directly lead to heart disease. This is a long-held myth that unfortunately continues to persist as part of the dietary advice administered by many doctors and practitioners.
What Does a Ketogenic Diet Consist of?
This graph depicts typical ratios for a ketogenic diet. While this appears to be very restrictive it’s important to bear in mind that these ratios will vary greatly depending on MANY factors: your current state of health, your level of metabolic damage, hormonal imbalances, physical activity, weight, body composition, genetic makeup, age, gender, etc.
For example, someone who is young, lean, fit, works out on a regular basis, and who doesn’t have a predisposition towards insulin resistance may have a higher threshold of carbohydrate intake and be able to enter ketosis more easily than someone who is older, overweight, and diabetic who has sustained a great deal of metabolic damage due to years of excessive carbohydrate consumption. The latter individual may initially have to be more restrictive about their carb intake in order to induce nutritional ketosis (essentially, those with insulin resistance can sort of be viewed as having a “carbohydrate intolerant disorder”), but they may eventually be able to increase their intake of carbs after they have been able to regulate their blood sugar and repair their metabolic damage over time.
So How Many Carbs Can I have? And What About Protein?
Generally, most people can initiate ketosis by reducing their carbohydrates to daily total of 30-50 grams per day (approximately 5-10% of daily calories) while also consuming an adequate amount of protein (which is calculated based upon your gender, body weight, and lean muscle mass). It’s essential to keep protein at a moderate level as excess protein on a low-carb diet can get converted into glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis. Your protein needs should not be calculated as a percentage of your total calories, but instead should be based on your body weight, total lean mass, and level of physical activity.
Carbs and protein together will make up about 20-30% of your diet. As for the rest of your calories? All from FAT! On a ketogenic diet you will derive approximately 70-80% of your daily calories from healthy fats (i.e., pastured animal fats, pastured eggs, grass-fed butter, coconut oil, ghee, olive oil, avocados, macadamia nuts, etc. *PLEASE AVOID* margarine, canola oil, soybean oil, and other similar inflammatory polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Please also note: It’s very important to work with a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner who is versed in low-carb dieting who can help you create a well-formulated, nutrient dense ketogenic diet that takes into consideration your own unique needs and bio-individuality. One of the keys to a successful experience with nutritional ketosis is to maximize your nutrient density (by eating enough plant-based foods such as veggies, nuts & seeds, etc.), supporting all phases of detoxification, and ALSO by optimizing your metabolism to efficiently burn fat and produce ketones. This is NOT about stuffing yourself full of butter and bacon all day! You must also be sure to obtain enough vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and minerals from plant foods.
One other important consideration: the “Adaptation Period”
It’s vital to keep in mind that it takes some time to convert your body over from a state of primarily “sugar-burning” to “fat-burning”. The length of time will vary from person to person based on the same individual factors listed above that dictate your total carb intake, but the typical adaptation period can range anywhere from 3-6 weeks.
During this time, you could experience some symptoms related to “carbohydrate withdrawal” such as headaches, fatigue, light-headedness, etc otherwise known as “keto flu.”. Typically, these are all TEMPORARY experiences while your blood sugar rebalances, and your body adjusts to its new fuel source (fat & ketones). Additionally, until your brain “learns” how to utilize ketones as its primary fuel source you may also experience temporary “brain fog” and problems with focus, concentration, and memory.
Some symptoms could also be caused by mineral deficiencies, dehydration, or electrolyte imbalances that may occur in the initial stages of a ketogenic diet when your body is depleting its glycogen stores and ridding itself of excess water. Increasing your water intake along with consuming extra salt and electrolytes often helps to alleviate these symptoms. Also, be mindful of your caloric intake and try not to be restrictive during the adaptation period to give your body the energy it needs.