When I turned 50, I took a good look in the mirror and was depressed at the state of my body. The glory days of being a collegiate swimmer were definitely many decades behind me. The countless nights attending to young children, flipping time zones on airplanes, and cocktail parties had taken their toll. Despite considering myself fairly active, having run a few marathons over the years, I learned that you simply couldn't outrun a poor diet no matter how hard you tried. The more books I read, the clearer this point became.
Hence, I began my journey on the ketogenic diet because, by science, it’s one of the most effective ways to change your body composition, reducing fat while maintaining muscle mass. Four months after starting the Ketogenic diet, I lost 35 pounds and didn't lose any lean muscle mass. Not only that, I found that my focus at work improved, and I also felt more emotionally even-keeled. Ironically, I began appreciating the cognitive benefits more than I appreciated the weight loss! I gained a new insight into how a diet can affect our mental and physical states.
I'll say upfront that the Ketogenic diet is not for everyone. It's one of the most restrictive diets you can ever try, and it is a good idea to consult your doctor before trying it. But the results I experienced motivated me to write about it and give you an account of what worked for me. But before I go any further, it's essential to know a little about where the Ketogenic diet came from, what ketones are, and what it means to be in nutritional ketosis.
A Quick History of the Ketogenic Diet
The Ketogenic diet has been in use in medical settings for about 100 years. According to medical researchers, the diet was developed in the 1920s to mimic fasting diets that were used as early as 500 B.C. to treat epilepsy and other seizure disorders. The classic therapeutic Ketogenic diet was developed for the treatment of pediatric epilepsy in the 1920s and was widely used into the next decade.
In the early 1920s, Mayo Clinic doctor Russell Wilder, M.D., started tinkering with a fat-centric diet that mimicked the effects of fasting by depleting the body of sugar. He tested his theory on epileptic patients who had failed to respond to other treatments and found that many experienced significant reductions in seizures after following his diet. Since then, the Ketogenic diet has been used to treat epilepsy and other neurological disorders.
A Primer on Ketones and Ketogenesis
Ketogenesis is the process by which your liver produces ketones, which are used as an alternative fuel source when your blood sugar levels are low. Three ketones are produced as a part of ketogenesis, acetoacetate (AcAc), beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), and acetone. AcAc is the first ketone to be produced during ketogenesis. It's formed in the liver when fatty acids are broken down, a process called lipolysis.
After AcAc is produced, it is converted into BHB. BHB is an important ketone because it is used by your body's cells, including your brain cells, for energy. BHB is actually the most abundant ketone in your blood during ketosis.
Acetone is a byproduct of the breakdown of AcAc into BHB. It's not used for energy like AcAc and BHB are, but it's still an important part of ketogenesis. Acetone is actually excreted from your body in your breath, which is why breath monitoring is one of the ways to measure your ketone levels.
What Is Nutritional Ketosis?
Nutritional ketosis is a state in which the body burns fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates. The blood ketone concentration for nutritional ketosis is typically between 0.5-3 millimoles per liter (mmol/L), hence it is critical you measure your blood ketone concentration regularly, we'll get into ways you can measure ketosis later.
Nutritional ketosis is achieved by limiting carbohydrate intake to a low level, typically 20-50 grams per day. When the body is in a state of ketosis, it produces ketones, which are used as fuel instead of glucose. Ketones are molecules that can cross the blood-brain barrier and provide energy for your brain and other cells in the absence of glucose.
The Ketogenic Diet
The Ketogenic diet is about achieving the state of nutritional ketosis, a state in which the body burns fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates by limiting carbohydrate intake to a low level, typically 20-50 grams per day. When the body is in a state of ketosis, it produces ketones, which are used as fuel instead of glucose.
Generally, your macronutrient intake should be about 70 to 80% fat, 20 to 25% protein, and 5 to 10% carbohydrate. However, your percentages may vary. Typically, people with more muscle can initiate and maintain ketosis while eating more protein and carbohydrates. Others may need more fat.
Measure, Measure, Measure
It's important to measure your blood ketone levels regularly while attempting this diet. There is no other way to tell whether you are in ketosis otherwise. The optimal ketone blood concentration for nutritional ketosis can vary from person to person, but generally, a range of 0.5-3.0 mmol/L is considered ideal.
The most common means to measure your ketone levels are with ketone meters that require a small blood sample from a finger prick, just like a glucose monitor used by diabetics. As a matter of fact, many glucose monitors can also measure ketone levels. A decade ago, these devices had only a few options, such as the Abbott Precision Extra. But now there are many to choose from, and the prices have drastically fallen, making them more affordable than ever. You can find manufacturers that produce devices specifically for ketogenic dieting. The system that I have found success with is called Keto-Mojo.
There are other means of measuring ketones other than blood sampling, such as urine strips and breath analyzers. But their accuracy is often questionable. Urine strips detect ketones in urine, but the strips lose validity over time because as your body adapts to ketone metabolism, there will be fewer ketones in your urine even though you may be in ketosis. Breath analyzers measure AcAc ketones mentioned above and may provide a good indicator of fat metabolism.
How I Got Into a State of Nutritional Ketosis
I must stress that there are many ways to get into ketosis, and my way is just one of them. I aimed to dive into it as fast as possible.
- I began with a 24-hour fast. At the end of 24 hours, my ketone level was near 0.4 mmol/L. I went on a 30 min brisk walk and measured again after 1 hour and was able to attain 0.6 mml/L. However, be patient if you don’t get there, it may take up to 10 days of eating keto to get into ketosis.
- I mixed powdered coconut oil with my morning coffee. Coconut oil has medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), the type that's easily digested. I found that it helped to satiate my hunger for carbohydrates upon waking.
- Skipping breakfast helped me increase my ketone levels by noon by quite a bit. I was able to achieve 1.5 mmol/L after three days.
- Taking keto-helping probiotics. I found this to be a hack that is rarely discussed in keto-diet circles. It definitely helped me obtain higher levels of ketosis, the biggest surprise in my ketogenic journey. By taking probiotics, I found that I could loosen up my macros to allow for more protein and carbohydrates without falling out of ketosis. And if I had fallen out of ketosis, I could more easily get back into ketosis with the help of probiotics. I took Sugar Shift as a regular part of my ketogenic diet.
- Eat leafy salads with plenty of oils and apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegar helps to lower your glucose levels. Another salad that’s great for ketogenic diets is a spinach salad with warm bacon dressing; it is decadently delicious. You can find many different recipes on it; even your friends who are not on the ketogenic diet will love it! Trust me. Eating these salads with probiotics is essential as the biotics need fiber to thrive, not to mention a vital source of micronutrients that are often deficient in people who are on the ketogenic diet.
- Taking electrolytes rich in potassium and magnesium. Many people experience electrolyte depletion while on the ketogenic diet. I suffered some nighttime leg cramps that went away after supplementing with electrolytes. Try taking magnesium before bed. Good electrolytes to look up are Aussie Trace Minerals, Jigsaw MagSmoothe, or Dr. Berg Original Electrolyte Powder.
Some Surprising Benefits I Gained from the Ketogenic Diet While Taking Probiotics
- Once I was able to get into a state of ketosis for a while, I found it easier to get back into ketosis when I fell off.
- Chronic shoulder stress went away. I would often have tightness in my right shoulder and would attribute it to too many hours on the computer. But after two months on the ketogenic diet and probiotics, that tightness went away and has yet to come back even after not being in ketosis. It turns out that there is such a thing as referred pain that originates in your internal organs and refers to other parts of the body. I'll write about it in another blog, but it is fascinating!
- I felt a greater sense of equanimity. I felt calmer and more composed while in ketosis. Perhaps, this effect goes hand in hand with the greater ability to concentrate.
Some Final Thoughts
Maintaining a perspective on the Ketogenic diet is important.
Some people feel they need to stay in ketosis continuously to benefit from the diet. However, there is even more benefit in gaining metabolic flexibility. That is the ability of your body to switch between glucose and ketones. Trying the ketogenic diet is about training your body to burn fat when needed and not having to rely on sugar. A book that I recommend on this topic is Keto Flex: The 4 Secrets to Reduce Inflammation, Burn Fat & Reboot Your Metabolism, by Ben Azadi. Most of us who eat the Standard American Diet (SAD) have some level of insulin resistance from all the processed food in it. The Ketogenic diet helps retrain our bodies to be more insulin sensitive, repairing our metabolism to regain the function that we would otherwise have by eating whole foods.
- According to a study published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, there is strong evidence that ketogenic diets can address glucose hypometabolism, neurotransmitter imbalances, oxidative stress and inflammation.
- Some studies have shown that the ketogenic diet can reduce seizure frequency by more than 50% in about half of children with epilepsy who try it1. It may also improve other aspects of their health, such as cognitive function, behavior, mood, sleep, and quality of life1
- Effects of 30 days of ketogenic diet on body composition, muscle strength, muscle area, metabolism, and performance in semi-professional soccer players | Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)
- The Three-Month Effects of a Ketogenic Diet on Body Composition, Blood Parameters, and Performance Metrics in CrossFit Trainees: A Pilot Study - PMC (nih.gov)
- Inside the Rise of Keto
- What Is the Ketogenic Diet
- Ketogenic Diet
- The Ketogenic Diet: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide to Keto
Ken Kubota is a remarkable digital health product leader, who brings both passion and expertise to his work. He began his career as an engineer. From there, he went on to work directly with the legendary Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel, as the managing director of his Parkinson’s disease philanthropy for over a decade. During this time, Ken led teams of scientists in developing groundbreaking new technologies and treatments for Parkinson’s disease, including the first digital motor test battery and a cutting-edge wearable sensor system.
Ken is also a recipient of the prestigious BioIT award, and the founder of the innovative digital health company, RosettaMD. His passion for health and wellness comes from his own experiences as a child struggling with asthma, which he overcame through competitive swimming. Today, he loves nothing more than helping others achieve their own personal peaks, and finding new and innovative hacks to help them along the way.
At his core, Ken believes that we’re all underdogs in one way or another, but that’s what makes us strong. He loves placing bets on the underdogs because they remind us that “where there is a will, there is a way!” So if you’re ready to take your health and wellness to the next level, Ken is the perfect partner to help you get there.
Martha Carlin, is a “Citizen Scientist”, systems thinker, wife of Parkinson’s warrior, John Carlin, and founder of The BioCollective , a microbiome company expanding the reach of science and BiotiQuest, the first of it’s kind probiotic line. Since John’s diagnosis in 2002, Martha began learning the science of agriculture, nutrition, environment, infectious disease, Parkinson’s pathology and much more. In 2014, when the first research was published showing a connection between the gut bacteria and the two phenotypes of Parkinson’s, Martha quit her former career as a business turnaround expert and founded The BioCollective to accelerate the discovery of the impact of gut health on all human disease. Martha was a speaker at the White House 2016 Microbiome Initiative launch, challenging the scientific community to “think in a broader context”. Her systems thinking background and experience has led to collaborations across the scientific spectrum from neuroscience to engineering to infectious disease. She is a respected out of the box problem solver in the microbiome field and brings a unique perspective to helping others understand the connections from the soil to the food to our guts and our brains.
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