Ketogenic diets, raspberry ketones, and all things fat-burning are all the rage. What is the truth about your metabolism and ketones?
When I was in Naturopathic Medical School, the Atkins diet was making a come-back. Originally developed in the 1960’s by the cardiologist Dr. Atkins, the paperback book about it came out in 1981. By the late 1990’s the New Diet Revolution came out, and that is what I discovered.
With my basic medical school background in biochemistry, it seemed genius to get into the starvation mode of fat-burning ketosis while preserving muscles by eating plenty of protein. Unfortunately, my biochemistry studies did not include the nuances of what else happens in a ketotic, or fat-burning metabolic state, and honestly, a lot of it may not have been known in 1995.
I played with the Atkins diet at that time, seeing how to do it by staying in ketosis, while eating as “healthy” as I could manage. Plenty of vegetables have little carbs, so I was able to eat them and still stay in ketosis. At first, I lost weight, but later, while still on the diet, I stopped losing weight.
Maybe I wasn’t doing it right, I thought. Well, the keto sticks showed I still was in ketosis, so what gives? I eventually gave up on it, and now I understand what was happening.
There is a big difference between the body making ketones and losing weight.
Let’s explore the myths and truths of ketones and ketosis.
Fuel: Our bodies can only burn a few different molecule types for energy. These fuel molecules are known as carbohydrates, fats, alcohol, and ketones. If the body cannot burn any of these for energy, it stores it in some form for later.
Ketones are an alternative source of fuel for the body. It resorts to making ketones when there is not enough food intake. Ketones are also constituents of food, and are created synthetically as supplements.
Metabolic ketosis is the state in which the body has run out of carbohydrates to burn for fuel, and turns to fats to burn for fuel. The body then converts fats to ketones to burn for fuel. It is a survival mechanism for the brain because when we are starving and have no glucose to burn, we can burn ketones for energy.
A ketogenic diet is where there are not enough carbs and protein from the diet to burn for fuel, so the body is forced to make ketones for fuel. With some carbohydrates and some protein, an intermediate called “oxo acetoacetate” is made which is necessary to burn fats as fuel. Without that, the body makes ketones from fat for fuel.
Diabetic ketoacidosis is the state of untreated diabetes mellitus. Blood sugar is high because insulin, the hormone that escorts sugar into the cell to be burned as fuel, is nearly absent. Therefore, the body creates ketones from body fat to burn for fuel. It is similar to an exaggerated state of starvation, however the blood sugar and triglycerides are high.
The effects of ketosis
- Ketones can help suppress appetite
- Ketones may help with mental alertness and focus
- Ketones have been shown to help Epilepsy that does not respond to medication
- Ketones have been speculated to help Alzheimer’s disease, although there is not enough evidence
- A consistent ketotic state can slow and even shut down thyroid function
- Since your body gets messages you are starving, this state can raise stress hormone levels such as cortisol
- For the same reason, sleep can be affected
- As in starvation, this state may cause loss of muscle mass
- It can hurt your gut flora and encourage yeast overgrowth
The truth of how your body burns fuel
Between meals, the body may begin to make ketones as a source of fuel when it has run out of what has come from the meal and can’t make glucose fast enough from its stored form, glycogen. Overnight, this is usually true. The body may also make ketones for fuel under prolonged exercise, more than about 70 minutes. Any time there is not enough fuel of any kind the body will make ketones for fuel.
That means that if you only ate one candy bar a day, your body would be making ketones for fuel. You would be losing weight because your requirements for fuel are not being met by your dietary intake. However, I do not recommend this kind of plan for weight loss.
The myth of the ketogenic diet
Where I went wrong with the Atkins diet, and what I see said about the ketogenic diet for weight loss, is that it does not matter how much food you are consuming, so long as you are still peeing on the keto sticks proving your are producing ketones, you will lose weight.
There is a myth that if you follow a ketogenic diet, putting your body into a state of ketosis, that your body is burning up your own body fat and you shed pounds like it is nothing, due to this metabolic miracle.
The reality is a ketogenic diet is where all you can do is burn ketones. That has no relation to whether or not you are getting too little, too much, or just the right amount of fuel. The only way you can lose weight on a ketogenic diet is to eat less fuel than you need to burn in a day.
And research has shown that any change in diet can often accomplish that, because you are paying attention to what you can eat and can’t eat, often resulting in eating less than ususal.
Are you on a ketogenic diet, or have you been on one? What has been your experience? Please comment below.