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Have you been a bit keto curious? It’s hard to avoid the conversation surrounding ketones and the ketogenic diet – it’s such a big trend, but what’s the science behind it? I want to be here to help you make sense of it all. Let’s dive into the world of ketones, and what it really means for your body to be in a state of ketosis, today.
You see, there’s a big part of the story that I think we are missing, and it really is born out of how we often view these nutritional facts. Oftentimes we like to identify a “villain,” a food product that is the root of all evil for our bodies. At that point, removing them is something like a magic bullet for our health. In order to help you, it’s my job to help you unpack that – so let’s get started right now…
Nutrition History: All About Heroes and Villains
Back in the 1980’s, the popular opinion was that fat was the enemy that we could all rally against. To that point, we have now gotten to a place where we have realized that cutting out all fat is a real mistake. Those that did cut out fat, simply filled it up with junk carbs, and nothing really got better. This all goes back to that big picture idea of the quality of the foods we are eating, and less about the ratios (when it comes to macronutrients).
Especially within the category of fuel, here is where some of the most important work starts. When we talk about fuel, we are often discussing some very basic (but very important) categories. These would be:
- Alcohol (which should not be a lot of your fuel)
So how could you cut out one of your main sources of fuel? When it comes to both fats and carbs, it really does not matter how you arrange them. What matters is the height of quality in each category. You can have just as much fats as carbs, so long as they are both good versions of both – the mix, really, is secondary.
But, back to our history lesson in nutrition! So, we soon realized that fats were not all that bad and that a little bit of olive oil on your toast was not going to do much damage to your body. Naturally, we had to find something new. Carbs then became the new enemy (1).
All of these phobias really occur in distinct phases. Let’s go back to our conversation about fat for just one moment. We can understand this aversion to fats in the following stages:
- Going “Low Fat”
- Going “Fat-Free”
Key Insight: When we determine the villain in our diets, we typically try to decrease the overall consumption (so we “go low”). When the benefits do not materialize, we double down on it and “go free” of the product entirely. We have seen it with fats, and with carbs, and now we are seeing it with ketones.
When an idea does not seem to be working, typically because it is a bad idea, we often double down on it before we give it up entirely. What I want you to take away from this is that the movement towards ketones is really just doubling down on the carb-free stage that we are currently in.
Bottom Line: In our pursuit in uncovering some sort of “perfect villain” that is the cause of all of our problems, and cutting them out, we should instead be considering how the variety that we need in our diets helps to inform a healthier, and more productive, version of ourselves.
Understanding The “Keto Movement”
The popularity of the keto movement really began a couple of years ago. In the same vein as the paleo diet, which I have discussed with you before (2), it really caught on as an easy way to shed pounds by way of engendering a state of ketosis in your body.
The general mindset behind keto movement is that if you put your body into a state of ketosis, by following a ketogenic diet, that you are going to trigger a chain reaction in your body in which your body is burning up fat faster than you can supply it – shedding the pounds like it is nothing.
It is the idea that eating these ketogenic foods will inform a process in your body, where you will:
- Lose Weight
- Feel Healthy
- Have Better Brain Function
Key Insight: The most attractive aspect of the ketogenic diet is often that it does not matter how much food you are consuming, so long as you are still within a ketogenic state.
So, let’s do some unpacking and get to the bottom of the ketogenic movement. This way we can learn a little bit more about ketones, what they do for us, and that little kernel of truth that has grown a bit out of control and become the present ketogenic diet.
What Are Ketones?
Otherwise known as ketone bodies, ketones are alcohol-related compounds that we can consider another version of fuel. This can be a fuel that we consume, in the form of supplements (like medium chain triglycerides, or purer versions like beta-hydroxybutyrate).
In the same way that ketones can be akin to carbs, fats, and alcohol, in terms of fuel for our bodies, this is where we can really see the law of thermodynamics in action. This means that if your body is going to take in fuel, it is either going to:
There’s no two ways around it, this is just what your body does. By that same token, a ketogenic diet can be understood as where your only fuels force you to burn fats in a way that makes ketones. Now, your body burns fats best when it also has some carbohydrates and some protein.
The ketogenic diet is one that forces the body to use ketones for fuel, because too little fuel is available from carbs and proteins. Fats can be burned as fuel, but only when carbs and proteins can provide OAA (oxo acetoacetate). Without them, fats are converted to ketones.
Key Insight: A ketogenic diet converts dietary fats to ketones, not body fats. You’re burning fat, but not your fat.
Metabolic Ketosis & A Ketogenic Diet
Here is the big difference: when you are in a state of metabolic ketosis, any time that you are not getting enough fuel, your body will convert fats into fuel (and will eventually use your own fats, if you run out of glycogen). That process does result in some ketones being made.
In most cases, we do this just about every day – specifically through the course of the night. That is basically how we keep our blood sugar and energy levels steady when we are not eating for long periods at a time.
Bottom Line: You can definitely go into metabolic ketosis on a diet that is made up of nothing but rice. When you have enough of that rice, the amount of fuel in your system will cause a state of metabolic ketosis to exist. It is not a question of fuel type, it is all about quantity.
On the other hand, the ketogenic diet is where all you can do is burn ketones. That has no bearing on whether or not you are getting too little, too much, or just the right amount of fuel. A ketogenic diet does not have apparent ways in which it engenders a state of fat loss in your body. Unless, and only if, there is a fuel deficit.
Honestly, you achieve the same (if not a greater) level of fat loss when you are getting a fuel deficit, but with a broader range of fuel. There are actually some biochemical reasons to suggest that your body burns fat better when you are not in a state of ketosis. It might sound counterintuitive, but you can burn fat better for fuel when you have got some more carbs and protein on your side. This is what we call beta-oxidation.
Making Ketones: The Positives
We have heard so much about ketones, so let’s go through some of the basics of why ketones are generally considered to be good for you. Put simply, ketones can:
- Help suppress appetite
- May help mental focus
- Data has shown that it can treat children with untreatable seizures
Bottom Line: The positives of ketones all come from a fuel deficit state, where we need to be able to suppress our appetite and stay sharp.
Making Ketones: The Negatives
Now, there are also some negatives when it comes to making ketones. They are as follows:
- It can consistently slow (and shut down) thyroid function
- It can raise stress hormone levels (like cortisol)
- It can impair your sleep quality
- May cause loss of muscle mass
- Can hurt your gut flora and encourage yeast overgrowth
- It can cause you to be low in micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and fiber)
Bottom Line: The overall idea here is that you want to be able to have a state of fuel flexibility. You want your body to be able to burn fuel, and to store fuel, as needed, while not being dependant on certain types of ratios of food (and to be able to have some leeway).
Big Picture: The Ketogenic Diet
The big promise of the ketogenic diet only leads to weight loss if there is a fuel deficit in your body. This means that there really is no chain reaction, and it does not inspire your body to start burning up fat out of control.
If you want to go into metabolic ketosis, where you can be below a threshold in terms of having less hunger, that is reasonable. The key to doing that is all about eating a good variety of quality protein, lots of plant foods, and lots of fiber-rich foods, too.
Aside from weight loss, you might be thinking of ketosis in terms of brain aging or brain functioning – and preserving both of these. There is a lot of theory behind this, but 11 of the 12 human studies completed suggest that there is a lot of data against high-fat diets in preserving brain health (specifically saturated fats). While we do need fats, we might be in a stage right now where we are focusing too much on them.
Understand Ketosis, Understanding Your Thyroid
The ketogenic diet might seem the miracle cure you have been waiting for, but you should always be wary when you do not know the whole story. For our purposes today, we dove into the ketogenic diet and the science behind it. It turns out that the diet itself is not necessarily as effective as it may seem, although a state of metabolic ketosis would seem to be beneficial for those looking for a low-fuel diet.
All of that aside, do you recall when I mentioned that the negative impact of ketones was that they often ran the risk of slowing down – and potentially shutting down – your thyroid? Well, that leads me to an even more important question: how is your thyroid doing? Let’s talk a little bit more about your health, and the state of your thyroid, with the Thyroid Quiz (3) today. Take the quiz, learn a little bit more about your health, and the steps you can take to enjoy a healthier you.
Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet.
Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.