A ketogenic diet is one form of a very low carbohydrate diet. However, you need to cut almost all sources of sugar in order for your body to produce ketones for energy, instead of using glucose (sugar) for energy. You can look at ketones as a fourth macronutrient, along with protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
Fasting, and other dietary regimens, have been used to treat epilepsy since at least 500 BC. The ketogenic diet can mimic the metabolism just like when fasting, and has been used successfully to treat many epilepsy patients since the 1920s. Nowadays, it’s well known for its benefits in treating many forms of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes (type1 and 2), obesity, kabuki syndrome, and more.
A traditional ketogenic diet, with around 85 percent fat, 5 percent carbohydrate, and 10 percent protein, is really hard to do and takes a lot of work and discipline. It is also sometimes surrounded by controversy — like most dietary approaches, along with the benefits there are some potential downsides too, especially for some people who find it difficult to digest fat or to stay on the diet long-term.
However, if you don’t have any health problems you still can get benefits and improvements in overall health by lowering just the refined carbohydrates and added sugars in your diet, and replacing them with healthy fat sources such as butter, ghee, wild salmon, and avocados.
Our body’s fat fuel stores are normally around 40,000 calories (kcal), and the carbohydrate fuel stores around 2,000 kcal. Since fat contains 9 kcal per gram and is stored with minimal water, they are a very efficient storage form of energy that can be mobilized quickly when blood insulin levels are low.
Ketone bodies are produced in the liver and are utilized in other tissues as an energy source when hypoglycemia occurs in the body. There are three ketone bodies: acetoacetate (ACA), beta hydroxy butyrate (B-hydroxybutyrate or BHB), and acetone.
The ketogenic diet increases blood ketones and decreases blood glucose by simulating the physiological response to fasting, thus leading to high rates of fatty acid oxidation and an increase in the production of acetyl coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA).
When the amount of acetyl-CoA exceeds the capacity of the tricarboxylic acid cycle to utilize it, there is an increase in the production of the ketone bodies BHB and ACA, which can be used as an energy source in the brain.
One reason, for example, why the ketogenic diet can be effective in treating cancer is that normal cells in our body can readily use ketones as an alternate energy source, so are unlikely to be adversely affected by reduced glucose, but cancer cells are much less flexible with their primary energy source, and thus require glucose. So reducing the glucose in the body and replacing it with ketones can “starve” the cancer cells.
There is also emerging evidence now that the metabolic changes induced by low-carbohydrate and high-fat (LCHF) or ketogenic diets enhance various aspects of athletic performance and endurance.
The ketones help supply the brain with energy when glucose levels fall. This gives even a very lean athlete access to more than 40,000 kcal from body fat, rather than starting a prolonged event depending primarily on around 2,000 kcal of glycogen. For this reason, many endurance athletes use a LCHF diet to enhance their performance.
You may not need to go to the very far end, but I suggest that everyone should eliminate or minimize the added sugars and refined carbohydrates in our diets, from sources such as baked goods, highly processed package foods, sugary drinks, and even diet drinks with artificial sweeteners. This will not produce ketones, however you will still seeing huge health benefits by doing it.
In my future articles, I will go deeper into the ketogenic diet, and how it benefits athletic performance, weight loss, and cancer and diabetes treatment and prevention.
Ayda Ersoy is a nutrition and fitness director at The Diet Doc Hawaii. She can be reached at DietDocHawaii.com, Ayda@DietDocHawaii.com or (808) 276-6892