In short, the ketogenic diet describes a specify way of eating that is high in fat, relatively high in protein, and extremely low in carbohydrates. With this, I should state that it doesn’t matter where these carbohydrates are coming from (whether it be fruits, vegetables, or junk foods), we essentially want to avoid them at all costs.
I should also add that when I say extremely low, I mean extremely low.
It is not uncommon for those individuals following the ketogenic diet as closely as possible to eat as little as 10 grams of carbohydrates per day – most of which will come from fiber.
To put this into perspective, a small banana typically contains a mere 20 grams of carbohydrates…
Taking all this into consideration, to adhere to the ketogenic diet we want to priorities the consumption of both lean and fatty meat products, such as lamb, pork, beef, and poultry, while also consuming an abundance of healthy fats. This means fatty vegetable such as avocadoes, low carbohydrate nuts and seeds, and delicious oils, such as coconut oil and olive oil.
In addition to this, I also recommend consuming an abundance of leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and lettuce, and broccoli. These vegetables are full of excellent vitamins and minerals, contain very few carbohydrates (of which the vast majority is fiber), and are incredibly filling. This makes them the perfect addition to any of other high fat and high protein meals.
With this consumption fats and proteins, we also want to avoid eating any high carbohydrate foods completely. This means steering clear of any grains, rice, starchy vegetables (think sweet potatoes, potatoes, pumpkins, carrots, and corn), breads, cereals, and essentially anything that comes in a packet (as you can be sure it was made in a factory and is therefore full of carbohydrates).
Now while this may sound like a bit of challenge at first, I can assure you that it isn’t all that difficult – because while we are denying the intake of many sweets and junk foods, we do get to compensate with high consumption of delicious fatty foods.
This essentially means by following the ketogenic diet; you get to eat eggs and bacon until your belly is full and your heart’s content.
It is also important to note that zero-calorie drinks, such as green tea, black tea, and black coffee, are perfectly fine to consume while following this way of eating – as long as no sugar is added.
So with all this dietary severe change, you might be asking yourself ‘what is the point of all this?’ – Which leads us very nicely into next…
Getting the body into a state of ketosis
The ketogenic diet promotes a seriously large move from the traditional western diet. But it does have its reasons; you see the primary goal of the ketogenic diet is to get the body into an active sate of Ketosis.
Now I should take the time to reiterate that while the term ‘ketosis’ does sound a little bit like a buzzword created by marketing gurus to sell a product, it is, in reality, a normal process that occurs within the human body in response to some unique dietary conditions (such as that induced by the ketogenic diet) .
So as I touched on in our previous chapters, the human body has developed the capacity to break down and use both glucose (from carbohydrates) and fats for energy.
With this in mind, I should note that it is typically thought that the body uses carbohydrates when we need to produce energy at a rapid rate (such as when we are performing high-intensity physical activity), and fats when we don’t (such as when we are either at rest, or performing low-intensity physical activity).
Interestingly, this is not really the case at all.
You see, at any single point in time, then the body will be breaking down both carbohydrates and fats for energy simultaneously .
To build on this notion further (when we are mainlining traditional dietary patterns), this ratio of energy production will change as exercise intensity increases – where a greater portion of energy will start to come from carbohydrates. On the other hand, as exercise intensity decreases this ratio shifts, and fats will become the body’s predominant source of energy .
Now interestingly, if the body has limited stores of carbohydrates (and as a result, does not have enough glucose available to meet the demand for energy placed on the body), it will increase the amount of fats being broken down for energy as a way to meet those demands .
The body is an incredibly efficient machine that can find a way around almost anything.
I should also add that during any process of ‘fat metabolism’ (describing the process of breaking down of fats for energy), ketones are produced as a bit of a byproduct.
Ketones are a small acidic compound that, as a bit of a bonus, actually have the capacity to be broken down and used for energy by the human body – which makes them incredibly useful (something I will touch on in subsequent chapters).
Under normal dietary conditions, Ketones are produced in extremely small amounts and are used quite quickly in various metabolic processes – meaning we rarely have any more than trace amounts in our system at any one time.
But, when we have limited carbohydrates available to breakdown for energy (and therefore start breaking down fats at a much greater rate), we start to see a huge increase in ketone production.
Once the amount of ketones in the body increases to a certain point, we reach a state of Ketosis.
So taking all of this into consideration, Ketosis essentially refers to a state we obtain within the human body where fats are our primary source of energy within the human body, and the body is producing and accumulating significant amounts of ketones as a result.
The benefits of Ketosis: How the ketogenic diet can help you lose weight, maximize performance, and improve health
We now know that the primary goal of the ketogenic diet is to get the body into an active and constant state of ketosis – but we don’t know why we want to be in this state.
Which is why in this chapter I am going to outline in detail the positive impact that ketosis can have on the body, taking into consideration both our physical and mental function, our overall health, and our physical performance.
The Ketogenic Diet and Weight Loss
One of the primary benefits of the ketogenic diet, and getting the body into a state of ketosis, is it creates an excellent environment to promote fat loss and large changes in body composition .
First and foremost, we obviously see a huge increase in the body’s capacity to use fat for energy . Because there are not enough carbohydrates available to provide the body with the required amounts of energy to maintain function, we obviously turn to fats.
This causes an immediate increase in fat mobilization, where the rate at which we move fat from the adipose tissue (or our fat tissue: think ‘love handles’) increases. This occurs primarily as a way to increase the amount of fatty acids found in the blood, making them more accessible as the body’s primary fuel source.
In addition to this, we also see a huge increase in fat metabolism, where the rate at which we breakdown and use those fatty acids for energy also increases significantly.
Through a combination these two factors, we essentially create an excellent weight-loss environment where not only are we making fat more available to be broken down for energy, but also increasing the amount of it we are breaking down for energy.
In conjunction with this, we also see a huge drop in the amount of insulin the body secretes on a day to day basis.
As touched on earlier, insulin is a hormone that promotes the glucose into the body’s cells where they can then be used for energy at a later date. What I didn’t mention earlier, is that insulin also promotes the movement of fatty acids from the blood into the adipose tissue (where again, it can be broken down and used for energy at a later date).
Again, it is important to remember that insulin is secreted in response to the rise in blood sugar that occurs after the consumption and digestion of carbohydrates.
But, by severely restricting the amount of carbohydrates we consume daily, we see a huge reduction in insulin secretion. As a result, we see a huge drop in the storage of fatty acids, making it much more difficult for the body to store fat.
As an added bonus, this further increases the availability of fats to be broken down and used for energy – the result of which is a more efficient and effective fat metabolism process.
This essentially makes the ketogenic diet the perfect option for those of us who are looking to make huge changes in body composition, allowing us to lose fat at an extremely rapid rate.
The Ketogenic Diet and Performance
In conjunction with some seriously impressive effects on how we look, the ketogenic diet also has the capacity to impact both our mental and physical performance in an extremely positive manner.
The Ketogenic Diet and Cognitive Function
In the previous chapter, I briefly mentioned that ketones are not only a byproduct of energy production, they also serve a use, in which they themselves can also be broken down and used for energy within the body.
And this is arguably no more apparent than in the brain.
You see, the brain and its associated neural tissue actually has the capacity to use ketones for energy, but generally opts to use glucose first as it is often the most easily accessible and readily available fuel source within the body.
But when we have minimal glucose available for energy production, and ketones just happen to be readily available for the body’s use (due to our current dietary-induced state of ketosis), the brain will proceed to prioritize the use of ketones for energy.
But the interesting thing about this phenomenon is that the brain actually receives more energy per single molecule ketone of than it does per single molecule of glucose. This, in turn, suggests that ketones may actually be a much more efficient source of fuel for the brain than glucose, which has a host of positive implications.
And this has been heavily supported by the scientific literature.
You see, being in a state of ketosis has shown some very strong associations with improved short and long-term memory, improved cognitive function, while also reducing feelings of lethargy and improving sensations of mental clarity.
Combined with the efficient use of ketones as a fuel source, as a byproduct of the ketogenic diet, we see a huge increase in our consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega 3 fatty acids are what is known as an essential fatty acid as they cannot be made within the body, and therefore must be obtained through the food we eat. These Omega 3 fatty acids are founds in high-fat fruits (such as avocadoes), fish, animal fats, olive oil, and coconut oils – all of which are obviously significant components of the ketogenic diet.
These same fatty acids are integral to the development and structure of both brain cells and other neural tissues, and by ensuring we have them in abundance, we can further maximize brain health and function .
As such, increased consumption of omega-three fatty acids has shown to lead to significant improvements in the short term and long term memory, cognitive processing, and learning capacities, while also increasing mood.
Through a combination of these two factors, it is not unrealistic to suggest that the ketogenic diet provides an optimal environment for the brain to function, thus improving our cognitive capabilities in their entirety.
The Ketogenic Diet and Physical Performance
Combined with the impressive effects on cognitive function that the ketogenic diet can induce, it has also been shown to have some positive effects on our physical performance – particularly for those individuals looking to undertake or compete in endurance-based activities.
As touched on briefly in our earlier chapter, once we have entered a state of ketosis, the body becomes much more efficient at using fat as a fuel source. This state is often described as fat-adaptation, as in this scenario, the body is now fully adept at breaking down fat for energy in a quick and efficient manner.
Taking this into consideration, it is also important to point out that gram for gram, a single fatty acid molecule provides a heap more energy than a single glucose molecule. As a result, when we are in a fat-adapted state, we can produce a huge amount of energy in an extremely efficient manner.
Additionally, further considering that our fat stores are essentially infinite, we can also maintain this energy output for an extremely long period of time.
This makes the ketogenic diet absolutely perfect for maximizing our performance during long-distance endurance-driven activities, such as cycling, running, swimming, and rowing. As an added bonus, because in this state we are no longer reliant on carbohydrates for energy, we won’t ‘hit the wall’ (so to speak) once our finite carbohydrate stores are depleted.
This will allow us to maintain a constant pace throughout the entire duration of our exercise, greatly improving our prolonged endurance performance.
Now, I should also add that while the ketogenic diet does lend itself towards improving endurance performance specifically, it has not shown to inhibit our ability to express strength or power in any manner.
This ultimately comes down to the fact that energy used for strength and power performance comes from breaking down the compound creatine phosphate, rather than either fats or carbohydrates. Creatine phosphate is a naturally occurring compound that is stored in the muscle tissue, and fuels our first ~10 seconds of exercise – making it perfect for feeding strength and power performance.
Interestingly, creatine phosphate is typically found in red meat, which is again a key component of the ketogenic diet.
Taking this into consideration, by following the ketogenic diet closely we are likely keeping our creatine phosphate stores at maximum capacity at all times – hence the reason we don’t see a drop in strength or power.
Can we build muscle on the ketogenic diet?
While we are discussing how the ketogenic diet can positively impact performance, it is also worth touching on how it affects those individuals looking to build lean tissue and promote muscle growth.
One of the most common misconceptions within the health industry is that we need carbohydrates to increase muscle size and promote the development of the muscle tissue – which is not the case at all.
While carbohydrates are somewhat anabolic in nature (we know that they interact with insulin to promote the movement of nutrients into the muscle tissue) and can, therefore, aid muscular hypertrophy, they are not essential to the process.
Which means we can certainly still build muscle tissue while following the ketogenic diet – as long as we tick three key boxes.
Firstly, we need to ensure that we are eating in a caloric surplus. This means eating more energy than we expend daily. If we are not in an energy surplus, the body will not have adequate power available to build new muscle tissue.
Secondly, we need to be consuming enough protein to provide the body with the nutrients required to repair and build new tissue. This may means shifting our diet breakdown slightly, in which we reduce our fat intake in a very minor way, while simultaneously increasing protein intake.
With this in mind, I recommend trying to consume at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day to ensure adequate protein is available to promote the growth and development of new muscle tissue.
And thirdly, we MUST be participating in heavyweight training on the regular. This means performing resistance training at least three times per week.
It doesn’t matter how this training is structured (you can train in your own personal preference), but weight training provides the necessary stress to stimulate the growth of new muscle, and as such is essential.
As a bit of a bonus, assuming that we tick these three boxes successfully, the ketogenic diet has the capacity to further enhance muscle growth by increasing testosterone production.
As mentioned earlier in the book, saturated fat is used in the production of the hormone testosterone. Arguably the most anabolic hormone in the body, testosterone is known to promote the development of muscle and connective tissue and increase recovery after exercise. Thus, by increasing testosterone production, the ketogenic diet is likely to improve further our ability to promote muscle hypertrophy.
Taking all this into consideration, this way of eating is undoubtedly an excellent way to improve performance and promote positive body composition changes.
The Ketogenic Diet and Health
While body composition and performance-based changes are beautiful, they are not necessarily the largest positive associated with this way of eating.
You see, the ketogenic diet has also been shown to have a huge impact on health.
Ketogenic diet and diabetes
We already know that reducing our carbohydrate intake severely can positively impact our resting blood sugar levels, but what we haven’t touched on is how this affects our health.
I am having a high resting blood sugar results in insulin being secreted at a near-constant rate, often to the extent where the body starts to become resistant to that insulin – meaning that even more nears to be emitted to move the glucose from the blood into the tissues of the body.
This results in a somewhat vicious cycle, where the body is constantly secreting absurd amounts of insulin to try and combat our ever-climbing blood glucose – the result of which can lead to the onset of type II diabetes (which obviously has a host of negative additional health implications).
But, through the exclusion of carbohydrates from the diet, the ketogenic diet results in a HUGE decrease in blood sugar levels, combined with a subsequent reduction in insulin secretion. As a result, the body is rarely subject to large amounts of insulin and therefore becomes much more sensitive to insulin.
This increase in insulin sensitivity leads to the body being able to manage its blood sugar levels much more effectively.
Taking this into consideration, the ketogenic diet has shown to reduce the likelihood of developing type II diabetes in those individuals who are at risk, while also reducing the amount of medication required by those individuals who classify as current diabetics.
The ketogenic diet and blood cholesterol
In conjunction with its massive effects on blood sugar, the ketogenic diet has also been shown to impact our blood cholesterol levels positively.
With thin blood, there are essentially two types of cholesterol – LDL cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol.
LDL cholesterol is often considered ‘bad cholesterol,’ as it has shown strong associations with increased plaque buildup in the arteries, an increased risk of heart disease, and a greatly increased risk of stroke.
HDL cholesterol on the other hand, is often considered ‘good cholesterol’, as it has been shown to have strong associations with improved markers of health, in combination with a reduced risk of both heart disease and stroke.
The action of HDL is essentially the reverse of LDL cholesterol, where it helps in the transfer of cholesterol from the blood to the tissues of the body, where it can be broken down and metabolized safely and effectively.
Research has shown that ultimately, through the increased consumption of healthy and saturated fats associated, the ketogenic diet can cause a huge increase in the amount of HDL cholesterol found in the blood . This, in turn, is likely to cause a large reduction in our risk of stroke and heart disease.
The ketogenic diet and brain disorders
And finally, the ketogenic diet has also shown to also have a positive impact on mental health – and considering the role that ketones play in providing the brain with energy, this is not all that surprising.
With this in mind, when the brain is using ketones as its predominant fuel source, it tends to function in an extremely efficient manner, in which we also see a reduction in ‘over stimulation’ of brain cells.
This has been shown to have an extremely positive effect on epileptic individuals, causing a large reduction in the frequency at which seizures occur, with some participants even reporting that they completely ceased after the application of the ketogenic diet.
Taking this concept even further, through these same mechanisms the ketogenic diet has even been suggested to improve the symptoms of both Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease , while also having a positive effect on those individuals suffering from depression and anxiety.