It seems every week a new diet hits the market. Each one claims to melt away unwanted fat, give you tons of energy and at the same time, improve your health. When evaluating a new diet fad, it helps to review some basic biochemistry and physiology. This helps separate the fact from the frauds.
Let’s start by giving a brief background of how and why the body stores fat.
I have heard over and over again that the secret to losing weight is simply to burn more calories than you consume. Unfortunately, this line of thinking is not only wrong but can also be dangerous, because a calorie is not always a calorie. The body will have different physiological responses to different calories, or lack thereof.
Let me explain with an example.
It is not uncommon to see zero-calorie diet soda on the shelves of your local grocery store. If you buy into the “a calorie is a calorie” philosophy, you might think that these diet sodas are a good option for a treat without thwarting your weight loss efforts.
Unfortunately, when the sweet taste of your zero-calorie soda hits your brain, it signals your pancreas to begin releasing insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin is how the body stores sugar. Insulin is also responsible for storing excess calories as fat. In the case of our zero-calorie soda, insulin has been released to deal with the expected sugar in the blood, but what happens when there is no sugar in the blood? It disrupts the body’s natural metabolic process.
Several studies have shown a link between regularly drinking diet soda and metabolic syndrome, a collection of symptoms that includes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels.
Counting calories is not the same as understanding how the body reacts to those calories. So, if calorie counting as a way of controlling your weight doesn’t work, what does?
The key to understanding weight gain or loss is in the pancreas.
Role of the Pancreas and Insulin in your weight control
The pancreas secretes the hormone insulin.
Insulin’s job is to adjust how much glucose is in the blood. When we eat a meal that is high in carbohydrates, much glucose enters our bloodstream. Insulin comes in and removes excess glucose.
To explain the process further, insulin first stores the excess blood sugar in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen, about 1,200-2,000 calories (300 to 500 grams) in total. Once they reach their capacity, the remainder of the blood glucose gets converted to fats, in the form of triglycerides. The body also keeps blood glucose at about 70 to 120 mg/dl, which is about 1 teaspoon of glucose (4 grams of carbs) in your entire blood volume.
So, odds are that if you are eating carbohydrates, they are getting stored as fat.
Also, insulin prevents your body from burning fat, oxidation, inflammation, and accelerated cell division characterized by hyperinsulinemia
As scientists begin to focus more on insulin’s role in the metabolic process, diets are evolving to control and manipulate this fat-storing hormone.
The diet that’s on the rise lately is called a ketogenic diet.
Understanding Ketogenic Diet
Ketogenic diet restricts your carbohydrate intake to just 20-50 grams a day. This ensures that insulin won’t show up and start storing excess energy in the form of fat. In addition, when the body’s insulin levels are low, it starts using fats for energy, not only from the food you eat but also in the food that has been stored as fat, resulting in a good amount of weight loss.
The diet is called ketogenic, or simply keto because when the body uses fat for energy, it manufactures ketone bodies as a byproduct.
Keto can also be used as a verb, to mean that the body is in ketosis.
In this context, Keto is a state of metabolic efficiency where you are able to burn stored energy in the form of body fat and ketones.
When you switch to a keto diet, your body becomes more efficient at using your stored energy sources and less dependent on relying on a constant supply of carbohydrates for energy. This will prevent the ups and downs in energy that we all go through before and after a typical meal.
In addition, because your body is now using an abundant energy source for fuel, you will find that you will no longer suffer from the hunger pains that your brain usually signals when your blood sugar drops from a carbohydrate-rich diet.
A ketogenic diet stabilizes the hormone ghrelin, which signals your body that you are hungry. A Ketogenic diet also upregulates the metabolic processes to prioritize fat burning, and lastly, due to the high healthy fat content of the foods you eat, you feel more satiated and less likely to overindulge in calories.
More benefits from a ketogenic diet: Altered gene expression and optimized cellular function
The health-giving advantages of the ketogenic diet go beyond weight loss. The most life-altering benefits come from the ability of ketones to influence gene expression and cellular function.
Ketone burning upregulates the production of internal antioxidant enzymes like catalase, glutathione, and superoxide dismutase (SOD). These enzymes help protect against inflammation and oxidative stress (damage to the cells). SOD is particularly effective in keeping your skin looking healthy and youthful; SOD binds directly to collagen, preserving its elasticity and protecting it from the free radical damage that causes the skin to wrinkle and sag.
Studies have shown ketones might help you avoid both cognitive diseases as well as some cancers, that are becoming more closely linked with diet and excessive caloric intake. At least part of the health benefits derived from ketones lies within its anti-inflammatory effects, as research has shown that inflammation can be particularly damaging to age-related cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, ADHD, and autism, all of which are characterized by inflammation and poor oxygen delivery to the brain. Inflammation has also been linked to chronic diseases, autoimmune conditions, and some cancers.
Ketogenic diet safety concerns and how to minimize them
Ketogenic diets are generally considered safe. They have been around for nearly 100 years. It was developed in 1924 by Dr. Russell Wilder at the Mayo Clinic, who discovered that drug-resistant seizures could be managed with amazing effectiveness when patients adhered to an extremely low carbohydrate and moderate-protein eating pattern.
Although it is usually safe for most healthy people, there may be some initial side effects while the body adapts.
The primary concern of medical professionals with regards to keto diet is ketoacidosis. Unfortunately, ketoacidosis is often confused with ketosis. It’s particularly important to understand the distinction between ketosis (a metabolic state quantified by blood or breath meter values) and ketoacidosis.
Ketoacidosis is a potentially life-threatening condition that almost always occurs only in Type 1 diabetics who can’t produce insulin or in alcoholics with poorly functioning livers. Ketoacidosis occurs when blood levels rise to above 10 mmol⁄L— virtually impossible to attain if you have a normal liver function.
To avoid the risk of this condition, keep your healthcare provider informed of your eating plan to guide your choices.
When becoming keto-adapted, your kidneys release much of the salt (and associated water) that they hold onto with higher-carb diets. You need to add more water and electrolytes to ensure that you don’t get dehydrated. You also might want to reduce your workouts and activity levels during the first couple weeks.
Aside from water, ketogenic diet can also change the mineral balance of your body, so adding extra salt to your meals or taking mineral supplements may help.
An unpleasant-smelling breath
As your body enters ketosis and begins releasing ketones through urine and from your breath, this can result in an unpleasant-smelling breath.
Keto flu, sometimes called carb flu, can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Metabolic changes happening within as your body weans itself from burning glucose for energy may result in heightened feelings of lethargy, irritability, muscle soreness, light-headedness or brain fog, change in bowel movements, nausea, stomachaches, and trouble focusing and concentrating.
To minimize this, you can try a regular low-carb diet for the first few weeks. This may teach your body to burn more fat before you completely eliminate carbs.
A ketogenic diet has notable benefits that go beyond fat loss. But the process of getting into ketosis is different for everyone and also may not be the right fit for every person. Always speak with a healthcare professional about your eating plan and goals to decide if a keto diet matches your preferred diet style, fitness goals, and tastebuds.