If you follow the ebb and flow of dietary trends, then you may have heard of the ketogenic diet. At first glance, it may seem like just another high-fat fad, a sort of “get fit quick” scheme that can yield fast results but isn’t ultimately sustainable.
But many health experts believe that it’s much more than just a fad. A huge amount of ongoing research suggests that eating a ketogenic diet can balance and align your metabolism on a fundamental level, increase energy levels, boost brain function, and aid with fat burning and weight management.
And unlike the Atkins diet and other extreme eating styles, ketogenic diets are entirely sustainable, provided that you’re making healthy choices within the guidelines of the diet. The main problem with Atkins was its “have as much bacon for breakfast as you want, as long as you skip the toast” mentality—any nutritional doctrine that ignores basic principles regarding healthy vs. unhealthy foods is doomed to failure).
So what is a ketogenic diet?
“Ketogenic” literally means “ketone generating.” In order to understand what that phrase means in the context of your nutrition, we’ll need to take a detour into discussing how the body generates the energy it needs in order to function.
The body powers itself using two types of fuel sources: glyocgens (which are made out of sugars) and ketones (which are made out of fats).
The glycogen cycle is the energy generation and storage method with which you’re probably most familiar—through this process, the body turns sugar (glucose) into a usable form of energy. Glucose is the quickest and easiest energy source, so the body “prioritizes” it (meaning that whenever you consume sugars or carbohydrates, the body will power itself with glycogens, even if you’ve also consumed the fats necessary to make ketones).
So why not just stick with the quick and easy way of generating energy?
Here’s the problem: the process of glycolysis (i.e. the creation of glycogens to fuel the body) leads to a “blood sugar cycle.” Blood sugar rises as sugars are processed, insulin is released to signal the storage and usage of the newly created energy, and then blood sugar falls as your body runs out of glycogens. This is the crash that occurs anywhere from three hours to thirty minutes after eating a carbohydrate-rich meal—and as you probably already know, it’s not a great feeling.
Before you know it, you’re stuck in an endless cycle of refueling with more sugars, in order to prevent the lethargy, brain fog, and moodiness that accompanies the inevitable blood sugar crash. And the hunger felt during these low blood sugar states is of the desperate variety, so it doesn’t exactly promote healthy food choices—these are usually the moments when we give in to our cravings, which are most likely for the sugary, starchy, carbohydrate-rich foods that started the whole cycle in the first place.
And the repercussions of this kind of glycogenic diet are serious and far-reaching (as if dealing with the symptoms of this perpetual blood sugar roller coaster weren’t bad enough). Constant insulin spikes decrease insulin sensitivity over time and lead to diabetes, sugars cause chronic inflammation (the “root of all disease”), and these bodily conditions make it nearly impossible to maintain a healthy weight or function at peak performance.
Break the cycle with ketones
There’s another option: by dramatically decreasing your carbohydrate intake, you can switch your metabolic state from glycolysis to ketosis, during which the liver uses fat to form an energy source called ketones.
The formation and usage of ketones doesn’t necessitate blood sugar fluctuation or insulin release, so it’s a much “cleaner” way to power the body. Ketones also burn much more slowly, so you won’t experience crashes, cravings, or desperate feelings of hunger every couple hours. In fact, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the incredible boost in overall energy that a ketogenic diet can provide.
And ketosis doesn’t just feel better for you—numerous studies have also confirmed that it carries a whole host of benefits. It dramatically accelerates weight loss, and helps heal diabetes (by improving insulin sensitivity) and cancer (by starving cancer cells of the sugar they need to grow).
The brain also loves ketones. Because your brain is an incredibly sensitive and sophisticated organ that uses up to 25% of the body’s total energy, it’s particularly stressed by both the ups and downs of the blood sugar cycle, as well as the free radicals that are created through glycolysis. Ketones bypass all of these problems, and thus provide the brain with high-octane fuel that allows for greatly improved mental clarity and cognitive function. Studies have even demonstrated that ketogenic diets can be used to heal epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and other neurological disorders.
Remember, though: ketosis only occurs when you train your body to use fats instead of sugars for energy. As soon as you eat any carbohydrates, your body hops right back into glycolysis. The process of teaching your body to burn fat efficiently can take a bit of time (it’s referred to as “keto-adaptation”), so be patient with yourself.
There are many different variations of the ketogenic diet, but the “standard ketogenic diet” consists of 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbs. Stick with the kind of healthy fats that we’ve discussed in other articles, especially coconut oil, macadamia nut oil, and olive oil. Eating your carbs only before periods of activity will help with weight loss (this process is called carbohydrate sequencing), but don’t worry about it too much if you’re just getting started.
Give it a try for at least a month or two. Within a week or two, most people realize that this is the real deal—and while the process of keto-adaptation can sometimes be challenging, the weight loss, skyrocketed energy levels, crystal-clear cognitive performance, and long-term benefits are well worth the effort.