Keto & Metabolic State
Keto is the shortened version of the word, “Ketosis”, which is a metabolic state in which your body gets some (or most) of its energy from ketones in the blood, rather than glucose (as occurs in “glycolysis” – more on that below). Getting your body into this metabolic state, and keeping it there, is the main goal of the Keto diet.
What’s a “metabolic state”, you ask? Well, there are two ways that your body’s metabolism produces the energy which keeps you alive. Your metabolic state simply defines which way your body is working at any particular time to provide your energy.
The Old Food Pyramid and Lasting Misconceptions
In my case, I’ve lived over 40 years without knowing there was a “second” way. If I did know about it, it was forgotten quickly, after a cursory health test in which “ketosis” was mentioned briefly in the 8th grade or something like that. I’ve lived my entire life (until very recently) getting all of my energy from glycolysis. This is the metabolic state based on using carbohydrates to produce energy.
If you’re an American child of the 80’s or 90’s, you probably remember the food “pyramid” from your youth:
What’s meant by this pyramid is that you should get most of your energy from bread, cereal, pasta, and “all things carbs”, and stay away from fat! Fat is bad (or at least, this is what we were told). Sugar = good. Fat = bad. 80’s logic!
The only problem is, refined sugar is not something available in our natural environment (the closest you can get is sugarcane, which is not at all the same as the refined white stuff you probably have in your sugar dish). In contrast, fat is everywhere in our natural environment (nuts, meat, fish, eggs, olives, coconuts, etc). Strange, right? Most children in my generation were taught these basic truths about food from the time they were small. It’s very ingrained in society.
Gaining Weight on Carbs & Our Caveman Ancestors
What’s wrong with this idea, you ask? Well, getting energy from carbohydrates works great when you’re a kid, and you run for 2 hours per day, every day. I played travel soccer and ran at least that much, meaning each day I was pretty much burning all of the carbohydrates that I ate, and I didn’t gain any weight.
But what if you’re not an “active” kid? Or what if you’re unable to get that much exercise? Then you gain weight. And when you enter adulthood and work a desk job, it gets worse, very quickly. This is because your body (or more correctly, the bodies of all of your ancestors, the cavemen!) evolved that way over the last 40,000 years or so.
Your body is made to be able to survive incredibly lean periods, where food is extremely scarce. Famines happened to our ancestors all the time. For people in North America, famines occurred as recently as a hundred years ago, and for those in less fortunate parts of the world, famines and lean periods are still happening. This means that your body must have another way of getting energy without readily available food. This comes from your fat stores, and is called ketosis.
Because the ability to get energy from fat stores, and fat in general, has been with humans since our species was first called “humans”, it is very natural for your body. But the idea of staying in this metabolic state all the time has only become popular in the last few years. It has been practiced for much longer than that, however. It was first recognized as having potential to treat epilepsy in 1928. It has been used since the 1960s to help treat children with epilepsy who do not respond to other medications. Thus, there are people who have been living on the Keto diet for 60+ years. In fact, longer term people who follow the Keto diet call it a “way of eating (WOE)” rather than a “diet”.
Intermittent Fasting & “Starvation”
So, how do you get your body into ketosis? Well, you severely limit your carbohydrate intake, that’s how. Sounds drastic, right? I mean, almost all modern food has carbohydrates! Yes, this is true, but it is not as daunting as it seems, at first. And the benefits you will see from adopting this way of eating will likely be so life changing that you will not want to go back to the “old” way.
So, what about “Intermittent Fasting”? What is that? The simplest answer is “skipping a meal”. Or multiple meals. To which you say, “But you’ll throw yourself into starvation mode!“. You probably said that in your mother’s voice right? Well, that’s because it’s what we’ve always heard, and if you ever tried it (a Catholic like me tried it a few times during lent, and Muslims do it for 40 days during Ramadan!) then you know it’s not very pleasant. But the reason it is so unpleasant is because you were eating the carbohydrate style of eating. As soon as you reduce your carbohydrate intake in this way of eating (my last 40 years!), your body will slow down your metabolism and scream for more carbs. This makes fasting very unpleasant.
Your Brain Loves Ketones
In contrast, if you try fasting while in ketosis, it’s VERY easy. In fact, people in ketosis FORGET to eat. This is because when your body is running on fat (you feed it fat, protein, and a bit of carbs as your main sources of energy on Keto), it easily transitions from the fat in your stomach to the fat in your body. In fact, you won’t even know it’s transitioned. The only way you can tell is that you will likely lose some weight each day.
This is why so many people report feeling “great” while fasting. Your body is perfectly content to use your fat stores for energy, and won’t even make you feel hungry. And on top of that, your brain is more efficient using ketones, meaning your brain is happier! You may notice that you can think more clearly, or have more “ideas” during this time. This is no coincidence. It is directly related to the fact that your brain runs better on ketones than on glucose. This single benefit is, for me, more valuable than the weight loss I have seen.
Fasting On Keto != Fasting on Carbs
I used to be ravenous when I missed a meal. I would often overeat in these situations. I would just go crazy on cookies, chips, or ice cream. Whatever carbs were in my freezer or pantry!
Since I’ve been on Keto, I never feel this way anymore. Even when going 24 hours with no solid foods. In fact, I feel great when I do this, and it is perfectly healthy, as long as you have at least 10% body-fat as a man, or 12% body-fat as woman. And honestly, if you are at those levels, you don’t need any advice from me!
I will outline the actual method for getting yourself into ketosis in my next post.