Is A Ketogenic Diet Healthy ? (Part 1)

When it comes to ketogenic diets there is no shortage of controversy, some people will argue that it is the the holy grail while others will go out their way to call it a metabolic disaster.  

Just like with any nutrition protocol there are some benefits and drawbacks. Certain  people will do well on a ketogenic diet while, and others will feel terrible and encounter problems.  

I have tried a ketogenic diet and was eating a low carb for a long period of time until recently, and the results have even surprised me.

I have some evolving thoughts on how well a ketogenic/low carb diet works for me and I’ll share those in a future blog.

I can’t say what exactly will work for you, and this isn’t a blog discouraging or encouraging you to eat a ketogenic diet.

The goal is to explain what a ketogenic diet is, what’s happening in the body and why we make ketones. Lastly we’ll take a brief look at the history of the ketogenic diet.

I’ve gotten a decent amount of questions on ketosis lately and thought what better way to answer these than with a blog post.

What Is A Ketogenic Diet ?

Any diet that causes ketones to be produced in the liver, and shifts the body away from metabolizing glucose and towards using fat for fuel is considered a ketogenic diet.

The main ways that someone gets into state of ketosis is through fasting or restricting carbohydrates.

If you combine fasting with a ketogenic diet you’ll enter ketosis quicker. This post is going to cover the carbohydrate restriction route to ketosis.

When carbohydrates are restricted  for a long enough period of time your body switches   from burning carbohydrates to metabolizing fat as a source of fuel.

Many of our tissues and systems in the body can use fat as a fuel source but some can’t. Your brain and nervous system can’t use fats, but they can be fueled with ketones.

When fats are metabolized in the liver there are small organic molecules named ketones that are a byproduct.

There are three separate ketones bodies that are produced in the liver; acetoacetate (ACA) and acetone. Beta - hydroxybutyrate (BHB) is the third one, but is technically not a ketone because of its structure.  

These ketones are used as an alternative fuel source for the body to make sure the machinery that can’t use fats keeps running.

When enough of these ketones are present in the bloodstream is causes the metabolic state known as ketosis.

In the state of ketosis there is a decrease in the utilization of glucose, and the process of protein being broken down to make glucose is reduced.

This protein sparing effect is an attractive benefit to people who want to lose fat but maintain muscle mass.

Insulin and Glucagon

The adaptations of ketosis are made possible by the hormones insulin and glucagon. Insulin is our main storage hormones that delivers nutrients from bloodstream to the right tissues. Insulin can deliver glucose and amino acids from the bloodstream into muscle cells.

The hormone glucagon helps to mobilize fuel and encourages stored glycogen to be broken down into glucose so it can be used to provide energy.

When someone eats an extremely low carb or ketogenic diet insulin levels will be very low and glucagon levels will be elevated.

As a result of very low insulin and higher glucagon levels  fatty acids will be let out of fat cells and delivered to the liver to be broken down and used for fuel.

The high amount of fatty acids being metabolized in the liver is what leads to the manufacture of the ketones, and the state of ketosis.

Survival Of The Ketogenic

The ability to use fatty acids and ketones for fuel is a survival mechanism, and the reason why someone can fast for 40-60 days and stay alive.

If we were solely reliant on glucose for survival and hit a famine we would die within a few days, and the ability to use ketones allowed us to survive without glucose or calories.

There are some arguments that because ketosis like starvation can be stressful on the body it can cause an overproduction of the stress hormones that over time can lead to a host of problems.

Some people can go on a ketogenic diet and never experience any problems while others will have issues within a matter of days or weeks.

Beyond Fat Loss

Fasting to induce ketosis used to be a treatment for childhood epilepsy and was named starvation ketosis. Because of problems with extended fasting researchers needed to mimic the process of fasting while allowing patients to eat.

The result was a minimal protein, very low carb and high fat diet, known today as nutritional ketosis. This form of the ketogenic diet was highly effective at reducing seizures, even when drugs couldn’t.

One of the main challenges of a ketogenic diet was the restrictiveness, and as more drugs became available for epilepsy the ketogenic diet was forgotten about in 50’s.  

In the mid 90’s the ketogenic diet was rediscovered and popularized again for epilepsy, but also had implications for helping with traumatic brain injury and for certain forms of cancer.

Ketogenic have been used by bodybuilders for ages, including Arnold’s trainer Vince Gironda. Gironda was popular for his famous steak and eggs diet, can you guess what the diet was made up of...

The cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD) approach for bodybuilding was originally introduced by Michael Zumpano and Daniel Duchaine.

On a CKD the person alternates periods of a ketogenic diet and then high carbohydrate and low fat consumption to refill muscle glycogen, trigger growth and keep hormone production sufficient.

In the 90’s Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale’s book “The Anabolic Diet” gained a lot of attention using a CKD approach.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for Part 2  in this series next week! Next week we’re going to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of a ketogenic diet.

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