What is keto?

I figured the best place to start this site is at the beginning. I think it’s important to know some of the foundation info and history before starting a ketogenic lifestyle. Success and longevity for me is supported by knowing the ins and outs of what is actually happening in my body. I’ve become interested in nutrition and how keto works. Researching is a hobby and I now have many YouTube videos, TedTalks, articles, books, and postcasts about nutrition under my belt. I encourage you to do your own research but please be wary of the source and info quality.

Strap in for a long read. Yes, it will be detailed and scientific but that, in my opinion, is what makes keto so special and amazing. Disclaimer: I am not a scientist or doctor, and am recounting facts here from my own research and experience.

Keto basics
The term keto is short for ketosis which is a metabolic state of burning ketones for fuel or energy instead of carbohydrates. There are only three macro nutrients making up our nutritional pie chart – carbohydrates, proteins, fats – so when the amount of one macro is altered then the other two need to compensate. The keto diet promotes consuming very little carbs, high fats, and moderate or adequate protein. Typically, a keto diet is viewed as one which is derives about 5-10% of your daily macros from carbohydrates and and about 70-75% from fat. But there is a saying in the keto community: if it fits your macros. Everyone has different nutrition needs and you can do some experimentation and search online for a macro calculator to find your ideal nutritional ratios. Also, your ideal ratios will change if you gain or loose weight so you may need to re-calculate from time to time. Each person may have different macro needs or ratios. This is why it sometimes bothers me when I see something advertised as ‘keto’ as technically there is no real way to define if a food or recipe is or is not ‘keto’. Ketosis is a metabolic state and no foods are off limits as long as you can fit it in your daily macro limits. Perhaps the better phrase is ‘keto-friendly’? But for many people, counting daily ratios and nutrients is cumbersome and not realistically sustainable hence the generally understood principle is that ‘keto’ means a diet high in fat and very low in carbohydrates (and moderate protein – I’ll get into that later). This will promote the body to produce more ketones and use them for fuel.

Ketone bodies are molecules produced by the liver from fatty acids when there is a restricted diet (fasting states, low-carb diets, after prolonged exercise, or starvation). The body produces ketones when there isn’t enough insulin to turn glucose (sugar) into energy. The keto diet essentially shuts off, or at least extremely limits, insulin responses in the body. Ketones are the body’s backup energy source and allows it to burn fat as fuel. With a keto diet, you can eat (ie. not starve!) to promote ketone production by limiting carbohydrates and consuming much more fat than the typical North American. The benefits of switching your body to this alternative source of fuel are many and I’ll get into those in future posts.

There are three types of ketones: beta-hydroxybutyric (BHB); acetoacetate (AcAc); acetone. The first two, BHB and AcAc, transport energy from the liver all over the body. Acetone is the least used ketone and is created as a by-product of AcAc. It typically isn’t needed for energy and breaks down and is removed from the body as waste. However, it’s presence is a tell-tale sign someone is in ketosis because acetone is the culprit for ‘keto breath’ or fruity breath of those in ketosis, as well as sometimes smelly urine.

Once the body is ‘fat adapted’ it will produce and burn ketones for energy. Ketones are a constant source of energy for the brain and rest of the body. Many find not relying on the standard energy source, glucose, freeing as they do not need to eat as frequently, stay fuller longer, and have that steady supply of energy which often translates to being more alert and efficient. Personally, I am more energetic and organized when in ketosis, and notice a less cravings for sugar. I sleep better, am in a better mood, and retain information better when in ketosis.

A carb is not just a carb
Just try to eliminate carbohydrates from your diet. You can’t. Carbs are in everything so even when you attempt to severely restrict carbs you will still inevitably consume some and that’s okay as long as it fits your macros. Additionally, the body makes glucose for any cells that need it all by itself. The liver converts amino acids (from protein) and glycerol (from fatty acids) into glucose by the process gluconeogenesis. Later in this post, this process will come up again with regard to over-consuming protein.

Many following a keto diet count ‘net carbs’ instead of total carbs when figuring out their macro ratios for daily nutrition. Net carbs are the total amount of carbohydrates in a food minus the fiber. Fiber isn’t digested and absorbed the same as other parts of carbs. The body’s gut bacteria breaks down fiber into fatty acids. Some individuals also back out any sugar alcohol as they find those don’t affect their blood sugar. Others avoid sugar alcohols altogether and I hope to write a post on sugar alternatives soon.

There are two types of carbohydrates: starches (complex carbs) and sugars (simple carbs). Starches are long chains of individual glucose or sugar units linked together. Though they take a little longer to digest in your system, starches are absorbed into the bloodstream the same as pure sugar. Sugar itself consists of much shorter chains and sometimes are just a single molecule. An example of a sugar short chain is lactose (glucose and galactose) and an example of a single molecule is just fructose by itself. These shorter chains or individual molecules metabolize very quickly in the body and are responsible for that sugar high and inevitable sugar crash after eating sweets.

Starches and multi-unit sugars are too big to be absorbed into the body so enzymes are produced to help break them down into single-unit sugars. Single-unit sugars are handled differently in the body depending on the type. I know! I didn’t know this until recently either. Glucose causes blood sugar levels to rise immediately and the pancreas produces the hormone insulin to deal with that and get it out of your bloodstream. Fructose goes straight to the liver which converts it to glycogen for storage. Small amounts of fructose found in real, whole food (eg. fruit) are typically handled well by the body. But consuming high amounts of fructose can be detrimental to the liver even though they may not spike blood sugar levels, such as in fruit juice, agave sweetener, soda, some salad dressings, etc.

What about protein?
If you recall, I mentioned that a keto diet consists of consuming moderate or adequate protein. This is because if you consume too much for your macro allowance then the body can convert the amino acids in that protein into glucose. This derails your efforts to get into ketosis. The body has a process called gluconegenesis whereby it turns non-sugar sources into sugar. So if the body is flooded with these amino acids, the gluconegensis process is triggered and starts providing glucose energy for the body instead of ketones. Protein also triggers insulin release which tells the body’s cells they don’t have to burn fat or produce ketones. So you can see why consuming more than an adequate amount of protein can derail your keto diet efforts.

A little history
Our bodies were built with the system for ketosis and our ancestors likely used it frequently when food sources were scarce. Even with food security, our typical North American diet didn’t consist of the same abundance and carbohydrate rich foods we see today. In a relatively short period of time in mankind’s history our food sources and culture has dramatically changed. Our diet has changed drastically over a relatively short period of time and our bodies adapted to the changes. Our livers took in more toxins, produced more insulin, and got fattier. Doctors started seeing increased mortality rates from diet-related illnesses as people’s bodies just couldn’t deal with the large amounts of new food that quickly became standard.

A ketogenic diet has been regularly used to help those with brain diseases such as epilepsy since the 1920s. Possible applications have been studied for other ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, brain cancer, Parkinson’s disease, even sleep disorders. Further, since keto first restricts a person’s sugar consumption, it has also been suggested for those fighting cancer or wishing to prevent it as cancer cells feed on sugar. Restricting carbohydrates can lead to healing the liver and pancreas for individuals who are pre-diabetic or suffering from diabetes. Many are able to manage their conditions with diet and avoid medications and complications. Finally, a low-carbohydrate diet has been found to help with some mental illnesses and I can attest to that personally. Kicking sugar and switching to a keto lifestyle has worked wonders for my own depression and anxiety symptoms. I think it’s greased the wheels to help my therapy and other interventions work more effectively. I’m going to get into that, and the link with fasting, in a future post, too.

A conspiracy
So why did our society switch to thinking fat is evil and we need so many carbs to complete daily nutritional recommendations? Canada’s food guide suggests adults eat 6-8 servings of grains each day and to limit butter and other sources of fats. And we’ve long been told to eat several small meals a day to keep a continuous supply of glucose energy and help regulate blood sugar. The body is a complicated machine and each one can differ from each other with regard to sensitivity and tolerance. Yet, we’re snacking all the time, eating low-fat Oreos, and no one is getting healthier or happier. Metabolic diseases and obesity are epidemics throughout the world.

Just sixty short years ago, a group called the Sugar Research Foundation – funded by sugar companies – published information refuting earlier claims that sugar aided heart disease. This was done without disclosing funders or motives. And the article pointed to dietary fat as the cause of our troubles. The sugar industry paid to change public discourse about their products. Blame was placed on fat and the marketing ploy worked to distract everyone from the harmful effects of sugar. Now we have low-fat everything on our grocery shelves. And if you look closely (which you will need to do if you decide to do ‘keto’) you’ll find that sugar is in everything.

There has been some debate about the sugar industry’s influence and the famous study conspiracy. But I think sugar tastes good, is addictive, and the business is a tough nut to crack. But as I stated at the beginning, if you alter one part of the macro nutrient pie chart then the other parts need to compensate. So if fat is lowered, and protein is expensive and not easy to add, then carbs need to go up. See for yourself by going to the grocery store and compare the regular and low fat versions of foods. And there’s lots to compare because low fat, no fat, and diet labels are everywhere in our society. Usually the lower fat ones have higher carb and sugar counts. And beware because there are over FIFTY different names for sugar hiding in those food nutrition labels. All the nutritional information presented above supports the idea that lowering carbohydrate (eg. sugar) consumption is beneficial and I know first-hand it’s helpful.

Looking ahead
Here are some specific topics I want to explore and write about on this site:
– Different types of keto
– Fasting
– Health worries
– Health benefits
– Supplements
– How to start (or how I started) keto
– Alcohol
– Navigating social situations while keto
– What to eat or best food options
– Insulin and glucose

I’ll add to this list as needed, and will link to each post when its created.

Thanks for reading!

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