What is a Ketogenic Lifestyle, and Why Should I Care?

Let me be honest here. I am not a doctor. I am not a dietician or nutritionist. Heck, I’m hardly any good at college-level biology. These explanations and commentaries I offer to you should in no way replace any kind of medical advice or treatment. Rather, I hope to offer my thoughts and experience on the ketogenic lifestyle, a lifestyle that may work to compliment your regular routine. For a big ol’ scientific explanation of ketosis and its effects on the human body, read here. A write-up from Vanderbilt University can be found here.

That said, a ketogenic lifestyle is not an easy fix to a difficult problem. I use the word lifestyle in place of diet because the word “diet” has a certain connotation in our very Western culture that implies a provisional change in habits as a means to an end, i.e. a sudden change in eating habits as a way to lose weight/gain weight. These kinds of changes, while effective in their own way, imply no permanence, as if reaching the end goal will somehow magically keep you at the end goal without further thought or deliberate action. This, in part, is why so many diet plans fail to deliver results in a lasting way, leading to yo-yo dieting, eating disorders, obesity and a plethora of dangerous health conditions. Lifestyle, however, implies that permanence. A lifestyle change can be as small as waking up 30 minutes earlier each day to eat a whole breakfast, or as large as quitting smoking or drinking. The results are intended to be permanent, and with the right amount of dedication and patience, they can be very permanent, very positive changes. It’s important to know the difference between these two words when approaching something like Ketogenesis as a method of losing weight because the health impacts are far-reaching and positive for most people. It is important, however, to listen to your body and consult with your medical practitioner when attempting to induce ketosis, because every body reacts differently to such a dramatic change.

So, what is the ketogenic lifestyle and how do I make it work for me?

Put simply, the ketogenic lifestyle, which will be referred to from now on as “keto,” is a lifestyle in which carbohydrates are avoided and high-fat, high-protein food items are consumed at a much higher frequency than what you might be used to. If this sounds familiar, that’s because this lifestyle was very famously detailed by Dr. Robert Atkins back in the 1970s, and is still used as a weight-loss method to this day. It is also a method that has been used for decades in the treatment of epilepsy, and more recently, PCOS. His approach was (and still is) very controversial, mainly because the conventional wisdom of the food pyramid is turned on its head, stating that carbohydrates (both complex and simple) are harmful to the body when consumed in excess, because they induce a rapid spike in blood sugar after consumption, leading to the rapid production of insulin. Insulin is the thing in our bodies that controls blood sugar, and is the biggest factor in how a diabetic person chooses his or her food items. While a spike in blood sugar is not immediately dangerous to one’s health, the long-term effects of elevated insulin levels can be catastrophic, leading to heart diseases, insulin resistance, and diabetes, among other things.

After the body spikes its insulin production, it works quickly to remove the sugars from the bloodstream. The body uses these sugars from carbohydrates as fuel, and anything that it is unable to convert into fuel is turned into body fat, which then collects largely around the abdomen. Spikes in blood sugar and insulin also lead to dramatic changes in hormones in the body, with the most notable change occurring in the production of androgens (male hormones.) Elevated levels of androgens, especially in the female body, can lead to other types of health issues (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a condition in which the ovaries form cysts instead of releasing eggs into the fallopian tubes, is thought to be aggravated by high androgen levels in the bloodstream due to high insulin levels).

All of this points back to carbohydrates and sugars as culprits. You might not assume at first that bread and a bag of skittles have a whole lot in common, but we must examine the two at a molecular level to really understand how both are harmful in the same way. Carbohydrates, which are found in all types of pastas, breads and bakery items, can be simple or complex in nature, but when you consume these carb-rich foods, your body converts the carbohydrates into glucose, which is a form of sugar. When these enter your body, you will immediately begin metabolizing them as fuel, resulting in a spike in energy (blood sugar rises = energy spike. Think of drinking a sugary soda as a child and the initial spike in your energy, followed by nap time.) Whatever goes unused gets stored directly as fat. When you consume skittles, the same exact process happens within your body, leading to the exact same result.

Carbohydrates are found naturally in most food items, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who can actually survive healthfully on a zero-carb diet. The highest levels of carbohydrates found naturally occur in fruits and starchy vegetables like potatoes. Although these food items are natural and contain minerals important for good health, their effect on the body is similar to that of bread or skittles. So, we turn to natural foods that are low in carbohydrates and sugar and high in fiber, minerals and vitamins: vegetables and leafy greens.

“What?? I’ve been eating whole-grain bread and fresh fruit for my entire life, and you’re trying to tell me that it’s bad for me? I don’t know if I can believe that.”

When one thinks logically about keto, the idea behind it sounds a bit crazy at first. Conventional wisdom tells us that half of our sustenance must come from healthy whole grain foods, and that fats and proteins should be limited accordingly. Humans, though, have only been harvesting and processing grains for the past 10,000 years or so. That sounds like a long time, but when you consider that we’ve evolved from ancestors that go back several hundreds of thousands of years, 10,000 years just seems insignificant in its evolutionary impact. Taking that idea even further, grains are not edible by humans until we process them, which includes cracking the husks, extraction of oils and starches, milling, parboiling, polishing, puffing and rolling. Many industrialized processes include a variety of chemicals and additives, including bleach, that give flour its pure white appearance. And you think that this is good for you? Keto and paleo (paleo is similar to keto, to be detailed later) beg to differ.

Keto proposes a more instinctive, natural approach to food. Instead of stuffing your face with “diet” foods and highly processed, chemical-laden foods, take a step back and reach into the primeval part of yourself that years for the kinds of foods that bolstered human evolution for thousands of years. What kinds of foods? Well, any kind of animal flesh (sorry vegans/vegetarians), natural fats (oils, avocados, nuts, fatty fish, etc) leafy greens and vegetables. No more baguettes with chicken noodle soup. No more chocolate cake or bagels or pizza or mango smoothies from Jamba Juice. It may seem impossible from a physical, psychological or even cultural perspective to give up these kinds of foods, but it’s not because of weak willpower. It may be because, as a culture, we have become addicted to these kinds of foods without realizing it. (HERE is a very interesting, informative article that details the mechanisms of sugar addiction. What you read may surprise you.) What I aim to do–and what I hope you will do for yourself–is break the addiction and dependence upon these foods slowly, through small lifestyle changes over a course of a few days or weeks, leading to an eventual shift in behavior patterns and the lessening of cravings for carbohydrate-laden foods.

“How the heck does it work then? Certainly I can’t eat fatty steaks and buttered vegetables all the time and be healthy, can I?”

When the level of carbohydrates in the body drops below the maximum threshold (approximately 30 grams per day from natural sources), the body has to find a different way to keep itself fueled. This, friends, is the magical process of ketosis, in which the body switches its mechanisms to adjust to a different type of fuel: fat. In essence, being in ketosis means burning fat as energy. Put scientifically, ketogenesis occurs when fatty acid breakdown results in production of ketones in the body. It is a physical response to a deficiency in glucose in the bloodstream (blood sugar!), and once all carbohydrate stores are used up, lipids (body fat) are broken down into a chemical known as acetyl-CoA, which triggers ketosis. When one induces ketosis by restricting carbohydrate consumption, fat is oxidized by the body and used as fuel, turning the body into a lean, mean, fat-blasting machine.

But hold on. You can’t just stop eating bread and loose 20 pounds without keeping a close eye on your protein and fat intake. Because there is limited “quick” energy produced by carbohydrates, you have to consume proteins and fats that will not only keep you satiated throughout the day, but that also provide slow-releasing energy for the body that helps maintain muscle mass and regulate normal bodily functions.

“Great! So how do I get started? This should be easy!”

No, actually, it’s not easy, and it’s not something you can do overnight, especially if you’ve been eating carbohydrate-rich foods for most of your life. While you can take effective steps to make it easier for yourself (clearing your cabinets of carb-rich/sugary foods, purchasing high quality meats and vegetables, setting up the grill), you need to educate yourself on the risks and benefits to make sure it’s right for you. One thing that is common for many ketards is the occurrence of flu-like symptoms that can last for several days up to a few weeks. You will need to closely monitor your intake for several weeks, if not months, until you are able to gain a better idea of the kinds of foods to avoid and how to balance your carb/fat/protein ratios to maintain ketosis. Another thing that is common among keto followers is the loss of valuable minerals, such as magnesium and potassium, which can cause several unpleasant side effects. Read more at www.keto.org and marksdailyapple.com to get a better idea about to start off on the right foot and how to plan your meals accordingly. If you have ever used reddit.com, there is a strong community of keto followers who are always willing to provide help, insights and advice on getting started. Find the /r/keto community here.

Best of luck in your investigations. I will be back soon with a progress post for myself!

2 thoughts on “What is a Ketogenic Lifestyle, and Why Should I Care?

  1. Great post. My body suffered during the 90’s from the diet fad of the time low fat/low protein/high carb, and never recovered… An anti-candida diet book literally fell at my feet, and I was led from there to Atkins, G.I. and so on. Over the course of almost 20 years I’ve found a middle way eating as much whole food as I can and avoiding except occasionally sugary or processed foods. You’re correct, a zero carb diet would be very difficult but again as you say small changes, and education are the key. Good luck. 🙂

    • I, too, ate mostly carbohydrate-laden foods for most of my life. It’s odd how we come to believe that these things are necessary, despite millions of years of evolution. It just never occurred to me to question the logic of a high-carbohydrate diet until recently. Best of luck to you in your health pursuits, as well!

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