Where did it all go wrong? In the infamous olden days people didn’t worry what they ate, they worried if there was enough. Can you imagine a medieval peasant talking about going vegan, or cutting out carbs? They just ate whatever they could, and yet they didn’t die of Western diseases nearly as readily as we do.
We’ve never had better access to cheap and plentiful food, but nor have we ever had so much obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s… This is probably why there are more diets than religions these days (and why discussing them is just as heated!).
Fats vs. carbs, meat vs. plant-based, GAPS, Paleo,… – every faction of the nutritional world is doing their research and touting the benefits, making food a minefield for the rest of us.
In the fat camp is the Ketogenic diet. Ketogenic eating is all about harnessing our body’s capacity to be dual fuel machines, not purely reliant on glucose but also able to run on fat. Why else do we store the stuff?
Clean Burning Energy
There’s evidence that a ketogenic (‘keto’) diet improves conditions like autism, obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, cholesterol, cancer, Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, IBS, heartburn, fatty liver disease, anxiety, depression, epilepsy….
Studies suggest that in a state of ketosis the body is running 25% more efficiently, and levels of inflammation are reduced. In turn this leads, it is argued, to a recovery from illness. The keto diet is also well known anecdotally as being effective for weight loss.
Keto fans say they feel great while they’re doing it, with reports of better athletic performance, faster healing, increased mental clarity, more energy and greater stamina.
Get the diet right and they say your body behaves in a similar way to when it’s fasting. Not by breaking itself down in ‘starvation mode’, but with many of the healing benefits.
Do I Only Eat Lard?
The diet requires you to get the majority of your calories from fat, eat reduced amounts of protein, and very low amounts of carbs.
The exact proportions vary from person to person but the typical macronutrient breakdown is around 70% of calories coming from fat, 15-30% from protein, and just 5-10% from carbs.
Eating this way causes insulin levels to fall and fat stores to be released. The liver turns the fat into ketones and the body enters ketosis. Now you’re running on a totally different fuel – ketones instead of glucose – with some seemingly radical benefits.
Foods that are typically popular for a keto diet are coconut oil, butter, olive oil, seafood, cheese, eggs, meat, dairy and veggies (the majority of veggies are low in carbs, particularly those that grow above ground).
The trick is to keep carbs down below about 20-50 grams, which isn’t particularly easy. You can blow it just by eating a banana or two.
But I’m Plant-Based!
It’s true that ketogenic diets typically include seafood and animal products due to their high fat and low carb status, but it is possible to stay in ketosis on a plant-based diet, by eating plenty of fats and ‘above ground vegetables’, while omitting grains, sweet fruits and legumes.
Can I Upgrade My Organs Too?
One of the more recent suggestions is that when we enter ketosis, we burn the fat in and around our organs first, and so improve their ability to perform better.
How Will I Know If I’m In The Zone?
Many of us enter mild ketosis during the night, which contributes to morning breath. Your partner might keep you updated on your breath, but you can more accurately measure ketosis via urine, blood, or proper breath analysis.
Each can be tested with a simple strip or device, and each mode of measurement varies in cost, with urine testing being the cheapest but least reliable in terms of the body’s actual state.
Ketosis starts when our blood levels of ketones reach about 0.6mmol (‘millimoles’) per litre of blood. Levels can go up above 3.0 on a serious keto diet or fasting. Generally you’re getting benefits if you’re sitting between 1.5 and 3.0mmol.
Will Keto Make Me Live Longer?!
One of the key benefits of ketosis may be the reduction in mTOR. mTOR is an ‘accelerator’ that helps increase metabolic activity and build muscle but also increases the negative and damaging byproducts of metabolism, including ageing and possibly even cancer.
Lower levels of mTOR (seen in fasting and ketogenic diets) cause the body to increase ‘autophagy’, a process in which the body clears out unwanted cells that are no longer helpful.
Current thinking is that, in this way, the body prioritises the scavenging of pre-cancerous cells, cysts, weak mitochondria, and general junk that has built up from all the boom times.
Is This Too Good To Be True?
There’s certainly evidence that long-term ketogenic eating can start to send your health in the wrong direction.
We can sometimes reduce the impact of unfriendly inhabitants of our gut by lowering our carb intake. However at the very low carb levels of a keto diet we may also weaken our friendly gut bugs and lose out on some important benefits they provide.
Is It Practical?
Perhaps the main drawback is that it’s an extremely fiddly diet, and not the most sociable way to eat. Your hosts, partner or waiter might not want to weigh out your carbs for you! And one slip on a banana can send you out of ketosis.
Keep in mind that it takes a lot of work to calculate your correct macronutrient levels (fats, carbs and protein), and you’ll need to monitor your ketone status regularly in order to remain in the zone.
Learning From The Past
If we follow periodic or intermittent fasting our body will naturally dip into ketosis for a few hours each day. This is certainly a good way to get some of the benefits without all the hard work of actually following the keto diet.
And keto diets seem to be very healing for some. Anecdotal success stories are certainly common, with claims of easy weight loss, lowered inflammation, and the healing or easing – or even disappearance – of chronic health conditions.
The keto diet might also be a reminder of lessons to be learned from our ancestors. During Summer and Autumn, food was plentiful and they ate as much as possible. They put on fat and their bodies would amp up, building muscle and laying down precious fat reserves for the hard winter ahead.
Once the stores of foods ran low during late Autumn and early Winter, our ancestors were potentially dipping in and out of ketosis or even staying in it continually. During that time their bodies were naturally clearing out unwanted metabolic by-products and excess fat, experiencing the benefits, and priming their bodies for the next season of plenty.
But they didn’t stay in ketosis indefinitely. They experienced seasonal and intermittent cycles of boom and bust.
In contrast, most of us in the 21st century stay in boom all the time, never giving our gut and metabolism a break, and we wind up with a host of health problems.