There is a little controversy and some confusion about ketogenic diets. Are keto diets healthy or harmful? That’s a good question. It all depends…
Ketogenic diets are powerful tools that are used for healthy weight loss and disease reversal. ANY form of a keto diet will cause these things to happen. At least, initially.
A couple of tweaks to your keto diet will give you long term results for weight loss and continued reversal of diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
The healthiest way to do a keto diet not only takes out the foods that create inflammation and disease, it also puts in the foods that create health and healing.
A healthy ketogenic diet will not only cause fat loss, but it will heal metabolic dysfunction. It does this by taking out sugar, processed foods, and chemicals that cause hormone imbalance. At the same time, it will add in nutrient dense foods that have vitamins, minerals, and phyto-nutrients that are necessary co-factors for proper metabolic function, energy production, and tissue healing.
Sugar and processed foods are taken out, and whole food, low carb plant sources are added in.
So let’s look at how the body was designed to create or metabolize fat, and mimic that design to create health.
How Is Fat Created By Our Bodies?
Our bodies have two main sources of fuel to use for metabolic processes: sugars and fats. Those can be both dietary sugars and fats, or stored forms of the same—glycogen and body fat.
Some excess dietary sugar gets stored as glycogen in the liver and muscle. Glycogen stores provide quick energy and are used in fight-flight responses, high intensity exercise or stressful situations.
The average weight person has the ability to store about 15 grams of glycogen. Anything over that gets stored as body fat.
The hormones in this hormone driven system which takes blood sugar out of the blood and stores it as fat, are insulin and glucagon.
Fat metabolism is a hormone driven process like all of the body’s systems. The two main hormones involved in that process of making fat or burning fat are insulin and glucagon.
Insulin is a storage hormone. Its job is to keep blood sugar levels within a normal range.
When insulin is released, triggered by increasing blood glucose levels, that insulin opens the gates of the cells in different tissues of the body. Sugar then moves from the blood, into the cells of tissue, which lowers blood glucose concentration.
When those cells have accepted all the sugar can, the excess is taken to the liver where it is converted to fat.
Fat is then stored in fat cells all over the body. This fat can also be stored in and around organs like the liver and pancreas which causes further dysfunction in those organs.
So, insulin increases when blood sugar goes up. What causes the blood sugar to increase? It’s all about what we choose to put into our mouths:
- foods that quickly turn to sugar in the intestines–grains (wheat, corn, oats, etc) and starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas, carrots, and sweet potatoes,
- starchy carbs and fats together,
- too much protein at one seating,
- too many calories at one seating.
Glucagon is the balancing hormone to insulin. It causes stored body fat to be taken out of the fat cells so that fat can be used as energy.
Glucagon is stimulated to go up as insulin and blood sugar levels come down.
So, when dietary sources of carbohydrate cause high blood sugar are eliminated from the diet, blood sugar goes down and glucagon is released.
Glucagon takes stored energy in the form of glycogen and fat and mobilizes it into a usable form of energy for the body’s tissues and cells.
Ketone bodies (or ketones) are the result of the stored fat being mobilized by glucagon.
They are the usable source of energy that is now available in the absence of high blood sugar levels.
Ketone bodies are NOT poison, as I heard one health guru state. They are simply a source of energy—and a very clean and efficient source, at that.
In other words, when ketone bodies are used in the metabolic process to make energy in the form of ATP, they burn cleaner than glucose does. The burning of fat produces less oxidative stress than the burning of glucose. That’s good for our bodies.
The Ultimate Goal in a Keto-Diet
The ultimate goal of the ketogenic diet is healing the underlying metabolic dysfunction created by eating a diet high is sugar, grains, and processed foods.
That metabolic dysfunction is the cause of the lifestyle diseases that are plaguing our society.
Lifestyle diseases include Type II Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune diseases, high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid dysfunction, depression and anxiety, estrogen dominance, PMS, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and more.
How Does the Body Achieve Ketosis?
Ketosis happens by keeping blood sugar low.
If blood sugar is kept low, then insulin will go down and glucagon will go up.
If glucagon goes up, stored body fat, rather than sugar, will be mobilized and used for energy production.
Isn’t that AMAZING?
All we have to do, is make food choices that decrease insulin and increase glucagon! And stored fat just melts away!
A person gets into ketosis (i.e. burns body fat) by manipulating their dietary choices so that insulin stays low (which stops the storage of blood sugar as fat), and glucagon increases (which increases the mobilization of fat).
That’s what happens in everyone’s body. It’s how that insulin/glucagon system was designed to function and everyone’s body works the same way.
This is why we can eat fat, and not get fat. Fat doesn’t increase blood sugar, and therefore doesn’t cause spikes in insulin.
Not Your Mother’s (or Grandmother’s) Unhealthy Atkins Diet
A high protein diet is not the healthiest way to do keto.
A person can get into ketosis by eating a high protein, low carb diet like the Atkins Diet, because initially insulin is low due to the low carb consumption.
Eventually, the high amounts of protein will begin to raise blood sugar, which causes a the person to stop losing weight.
When a high protein diet is first initiated, the total calories from fat, (both body fat and dietary fat) exceed the total dietary protein. Since the body will always use fat before it uses protein for energy, it will choose to use the fat for energy.
But as the body stores of fat begin to decrease, that ratio changes. When there begins to be much more dietary protein than overall fat, the body switches to using dietary protein for its energy source. In order for protein to be used as energy, it must be taken to the liver where it is metabolized into sugar by a process called gluconeogenesis.
That sugar is then released into the blood, causing insulin to increase and glucagon to lower. Because glucagon has gone down, fat loss to stops.
So, a high protein diet (even if it’s low carb) can eventually cause rising blood sugar levels. This is contrary to what we want to happen.
If you’re on a high-protein version of the keto diet and you 1) hit a weight loss plateau, or 2) see blood sugar levels rising again, then evaluating your protein consumption is essential to your continued success.
Gluconeogenesis and Diabetics
Diabetics and pre-diabetics will have a more difficult time getting into ketosis because of their insulin resistance.
Even a moderate protein consumption in insulin resistant people will be enough to start the process of gluconeogenesis. Of course, this will keep insulin high and glucagon low. And we know that those are the perfect conditions for fat storage rather than fat mobilization.
If you are trying to reverse diabetes (or any of it’s related metabolic conditions like PCOS), you will need to have a low protein consumption, and track your food choices with a good nutrient tracker like Cronometer.com
For more information on that, please see the articles “Three Potentially Life Saving Benefits of a Low Protein Keto Diet” and “Protein in a Ketogenic Diet: the Good and the Bad”.
Protein is also an issue because high consumption is clearly linked to some cancers—moderating genes like mTOR.
The Unhealthy Version of the Keto Diet
An unhealthy version of the Keto Diet is one that is high in protein and/or has protein sources from conventionally animals.
There are only 3 macronutrients to choose from: fats, protein, carbohydrate. We’re already trying to keep net carbs low. If we also need to keep protein low to moderate, then our energy source has to come from fat.
In truth, carbs can be eaten plentifully. Just choose the ones that don’t cause increases in blood sugar. See the post on Carbohydrates and Keto Diets: The Good and The Bad for a more in-depth discussion on the best carbs to eat to stay in ketosis.
The Healthy Version: The Plant-Based Ketogenic Diet
The healthy version of a Keto Diet is one that is low to moderate in protein consumption, high in healthy fats (see post “Good Fat, Bad Fat”), and HIGH in non-grain/non-starchy plant carbohydrates.
This type of a Keto Diet gives you all the anti-inflammatory benefits of low blood-sugar AND all the powerful healing benefits of non-grain plant-based vegetables, herbs, and spices, without the potential problems of a high protein diet.
When Keto is done in this way, it doesn’t just decrease your weight. It also decreases your risk of ALL lifestyle diseases because it heals the underlying cause of those diseases by healing the metabolic dysfunction.
Win, win, win. We all win.