How many times in the last couple of weeks did you hear the word keto? I have been hearing this quite a lot from people who are fairly new to fitness and from the diet conscious. What is a ketogenic diet? Why is it so famous among the people who are trying to lose weight? What is so special about this diet? Is it beneficial or detrimental? Let’s have a detailed look at it.
What is ketosis?
Ketosis is just another metabolic process where your body uses fat as the fuel source instead of glucose. This happens when there is a shortage of glucose in your blood but you are still active. Keto-diet or ketogenic diet or low-carb diet is when a person cuts down on carbohydrates to less than bare essential at around 5% or less on the entire caloric intake. This, in turn, forces the body to switch it’s primary source of energy from glucose to fats thereby burning all the stored fat.
Relationship between carbs handling and ketosis
All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose during the digestion process. There are 2 major classifications of carbohydrates namely simple and complex. Simple carbs get converted into glucose quicker and complex carbs take longer. You can refer to a diet table called the Glycemic Index chart to know which foods are simple and which are complex based on the Glycemic Index (GI level). Insulin is a hormone that acts as a key that opens up something called the glycogen stores in the muscles and feeds them with the glucose that is available in the blood. Now when you are in a caloric surplus but don’t require that extra glucose, your body turns them into fat in a process called lipogenesis which is also aided by the same hormone, insulin. Insulin, in a non-diabetic human body, is very sensitive to blood sugar levels. Greater the glucose level in the blood, proportionately greater will be the amount of insulin that is secreted. This means every time you consume excess calories, glucose is going to be converted as fat! But have you ever wondered why our human bodies do such a thing? Well, the answer is simple. Glucose that cannot be used by the body at that moment, will be stored in the form of fat so that it can be mobilized during a time of fast in a process called Lipolysis. Ketosis is the secondary process of Lipolysis where the fat is further broken down releasing ketones in the blood-stream. With all this the stored fat is burned at a higher rate by the liver and energy is supplied to other organs.
Origin of the ketogenic diet
Dr. Hugh William Conklin in the early 19th century treated patients with epileptic seizures by asking them to fast for quite a long time to get rid of a toxic substance secreted by Peyer’s patches, which according to his opinion was the root cause for such epilepsies. These long hours of fasting led the liver to produce 3 compounds that are water-soluble namely beta-hydroxybutyrate, acetoacetate, and acetone (altogether called ketones) which were accepted as energy sources by the body. Following this and a lot of researches, the ketogenic diet became widely accepted and was practiced to forcefully burn fat.
What should you do to follow the ketogenic diet?
In a ketogenic diet, the macro caloric split goes like this; 75% from fats, 20% from protein and 5% from carbs. People do tweak this a little bit where they cycle between no carbs to 5% carbs to have more efficient results in fat burning. People who follow this diet are highly dependant on mostly meat and cholesterol-rich foods. The 5% carbs are typically consumed as leafy greens or some form of starchy vegetables.
Benefits of Ketogenic diet
With Dr. Conklin’s findings, this diet has been prescribed by several doctors to lower the frequency of epileptic seizures in children and adults. Owing to neuroprotective effects, scientists are still figuring out the possibilities of using it to treat several related brain disorders like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. However, there are no solid studies made with convincing results to support any of the above as of yet. The ketogenic diet is also used as a quick way to reduce fat from the body due to its fat-burning nature.
Myths that are tied with the ketogenic diet
- Better insulin sensitivity – Well, yes reduced carbs intake can lead to better sensitivity, but what people fail to understand is that protein is also insulinogenic and lead to the secretion of insulin when consumed in a substantially higher amount. As we all know ketogenic diet gets 20% of the total caloric input from protein which easily nullifies the claim
- Better fat mobilization and metabolic advantages – I would agree to this but it doesn’t hold good if the diet is prolonged for more than a couple of months. The idea behind this myth is that lower carbs intake will result in less insulin secretion, therefore, better fat mobilization. However as mentioned above, the protein itself can trigger insulin secretion by stimulating the release of Acylation Stimulating Protein hormones. This, in turn, contributes to fat storage if you are in a prolonged energy surplus. What needs to be understood is that the major cause for fat storage is actually being in a caloric surplus and not just the secretion hormones. The ketogenic diet is benefitted just by higher protein intake as protein takes longer to digest as it is highly thermogenic. The person following this diet will be in a caloric deficit unconsciously since fats and protein can be satiating.
- Better results in weight loss – Initial weight loss success in this diet plan is usually connected to the depletion of glycogen stores (reduction in carbs based energy stores) and water loss. Diet sustainability will be the key to any success after this point which is pretty hard to maintain for many people. I mean who doesn’t like to have ice cream, desserts, and milk once in a while?
Dangers of the ketogenic diet
There is a risk of developing ketoacidosis, a complication that is caused by excess ketones in the bloodstream. This is very common in diabetic patients due to lower insulin levels. Ketogenic diet replicates the exact scenario where your insulin levels are very less. Ketones are acidic and in people with existing diabetic conditions may cause some serious damage to the kidneys, liver, and brain if left untreated. Diabetic patients need to have a tailored diet plan since different variables may cause a detrimental effect. Elimination of carbs (most fibrous type and many fruits) leaves people with very little choice of food to pick from and can force people to consume comparatively less nutrition.
While all the above said is true according to science, following any diet plan boils down to just one question which is, will you be able to sustain this diet 5 years from now? Some people have successfully adapted to the ketogenic diet with absolutely no problems and if you are one among them I would advise you to keep going as your body has probably safely accepted this change. One 2014 meta-analysis study by Johnston and colleagues (Read Abstract) states that significant weight loss was observed in any low-carb diet (ketogenic diet) or low-fat diet and any differences between them are very small supporting the claim that adherence to a particular diet is the key.