Making keto diets work
Ketogenic diets (more specifically cyclical ketogenic diets) are the most effective diets for achieving fast, ultra-low levels of body fat with maximum muscle retention. Now, as with all these general statements, there are circumstantial exceptions. But if done right, which is rarely the case, the fat loss that can be achieved on a ketogenic diet is staggering! And despite what people may tell you, you’ll also enjoy incredible energy and an overall sense of well-being.
Despite these promises, more bodybuilders / modelers have had negative experiences than positive results. The main criticisms are:
- Chronic lethargy
- Unbearable hunger
- Massive decline in performance in the gym
- Severe muscle loss
All of these criticisms are the result of not heeding the warning above: ketogenic diets must be done right! It should be noted that they are a completely unique metabolic modality that does not adhere to any of the previously accepted ‘rules’ of the diet. And there is no way in the middle; 50 grams of carbs per day plus a high protein intake is NOT ketogenic!
So how are keto diets ‘done right’? Let’s quickly see how they work.
Introduction to ketosis
Simply put, our bodies, organs, muscles, and brains can use glucose or ketones for fuel. The function of the liver and pancreas (mainly) is to regulate that fuel supply and they show a strong bias towards glucose. Glucose is the “preferred” fuel because it is derived in abundance from the diet and is readily available from liver and muscle stores. Ketones must be deliberately synthesized by the liver; but the liver can also easily synthesize glucose (a process known as ‘gluconeogenesis’ that uses amino acids (proteins) or other metabolic intermediates).
We do not get beta hydroxybutyrate, acetone, or acetoacetate (ketones) from our diet. The liver synthesizes them only under pressure; as a last measure in conditions of severe glucose deprivation such as starvation. For the liver to be convinced that ketones are the order of the day, several conditions must be met:
- Blood glucose should drop below 50 mg / dl
- Low blood glucose level should result in low insulin and elevated glucagon
- Liver glycogen must be low or ’empty’
- An abundant supply of gluconeogenic substrates should NOT be available
At this point it is important to mention that it is not really about being “in” or “out” of ketosis; we don’t totally work with ketones or not. It is a gradual and careful transition so that the brain feeds constantly and evenly … ideally. Ketones MUST be produced in small amounts from blood glucose levels of approximately 60 mg / dL. We consider ourselves in ketosis when there are higher concentrations of ketones than glucose in the blood.
The reality is that most people, especially weight trainers, have had a regular glucose intake for a good couple of decades, at least. The liver is perfectly capable of producing ketones, but highly efficient gluconeogenic pathways can keep normal blood glucose low above the ketogenic threshold.
Combine this with the fact that many people are at least partially insulin resistant and have elevated fasting insulin levels (the upper limit of the normal range in any case). The small amount of glucose in the blood from gluconeogenesis induces sufficient insulin release to reduce glucagon production and ketone production.
Sudden glucose deprivation will initially result in lethargy, hunger, weakness, etc. in most people, until ketosis is achieved. And ketosis won’t be reached until the liver is forced to stop gluconeogenesis and starts producing ketones. As long as the protein in the diet is sufficient, the liver will continue to produce glucose and not ketones. That’s why high-protein, no-carb diets are NOT ketogenic.
What’s so great about ketosis anyway?
When the body switches to running primarily on ketones, a number of very interesting things happen:
- Lipolysis (breakdown of body fat) increases substantially
- Muscle catabolism (loss of muscle mass) is substantially reduced.
- Energy levels are kept in a high and stable state.
- Subcutaneous fluid is removed (also known as ‘water retention’)
Basically, when we are in ketosis, our body uses fat (ketones) to fuel everything. As such, we are not breaking down muscles to provide glucose. In other words, you save muscle because you have nothing to offer; fat is all the body needs (well, largely). For the dieter, this means substantially less muscle loss than can be achieved with any other diet. Make sense?
As a bonus, ketones produce only 7 calories per gram. This is higher than the equal mass of glucose but substantially less (22%, in fact) than the 9-calorie gram of fat where it came from. We like metabolic inefficiencies like this one. They mean that we can eat more, but the body does not get the calories.
Even cooler is that ketones cannot be converted back into fatty acids; the body excretes any excess in the urine. Speaking of which, there will be quite a bit of urine; a drop in muscle glycogen, a low insulin level, and a low aldosterone level are equivalent to a massive excretion of intracellular and extracellular fluid. For us that means strong, defined muscles and fast, visible results.
When it comes to energy, our brains REALLY like ketones, which is why we tend to feel great in ketosis – lucid, alert, and positive. And because there is never a shortage of fat to supply ketones, energy is high all the time. You usually even sleep less and wake up feeling refreshed when in ketosis.
Do it right
From what was said above, you will find that to get into ketosis:
- Carbohydrate intake should be zero; Zero!
- Protein intake should be low: 25% of calories maximum.
- Fat should account for more than 75% of calories.
With low insulin levels (due to zero carbohydrates) and calories at or below maintenance, dietary fat cannot be deposited in adipose tissues. Low protein means that gluconeogenesis will quickly prove inadequate to maintain blood glucose and whether the body likes it or not, there is still all the damn fat left to burn.
And it burns it. The high fat content in the diet is oxidized for cellular energy in the normal way, but ends up generating amounts of Acetyl-CoA that exceed the capacity of the TCA cycle. The significant result is ketogenesis: synthesis of ketones from excess Acetyl-CoA. In simpler terms: high fat intake “forces” ketosis on the body. This is how it is ‘done right’.
Now you just have to discard what you thought was true about fats. First of all, fat does not “make you fat.” Most of the information on the evils of saturated fat, in particular, is so disproportionate or just plain wrong anyway; on a ketogenic diet it is doubly inapplicable. Saturated fats blow up ketosis. And do not worry; your heart will be better than fine and your insulin sensitivity will NOT drop (no insulin in the first place)!
Once in ketosis, it is not necessary, technically speaking, to maintain an absolute zero carbohydrate or low protein content. But it is still better if you want to get the biggest rewards. Also, assuming you’re training hard, you’ll still want to go on a cyclical ketogenic diet where you can eat all your carbs, fruits, and whatever else, every 1-2 weeks, anyway (more on this in another article).
Do not get wrong; ‘Done right’ doesn’t make the keto diet easy or fun for the culinary acrobats among you. They are probably the most restrictive diets you can use and not an option if you don’t love animal products. Get your nutrition almanac and go on a 20: 0: 80 protein: carbohydrate: fat diet. If it’s boring. As an example, your writers daily ketogenic diet is 3100 calories at 25: 0.5: 74.5 from just:
10 xxl whole eggs
160ml Pure Cream (40% fat)
400g fine (15% fat)
60 ml of linseed oil
30g whey protein isolate
There are a number of supplements that help make ketogenic diets more effective. However, many popular supplements would go to waste. Here’s an overview of the main ones:
- Chromium and ALA, while not insulin ‘mimics’ as many claim, increase insulin sensitivity, resulting in lower insulin levels, higher glucagon, and a more rapid descent into deeper ketosis.
- creatine is a bit of a waste: at most, the muscles can absorb 30% that, without glycogen, they cannot be “volumized” significantly.
- HMB (if it works) would / should be an excellent supplement to minimize the catabolic period before ketosis is achieved
- Tribulus is excellent and highly recommended as it increases testosterone production on a ketogenic diet.
- Carnitine in L or Acetyl-L form is an almost essential supplement for ketogenic diets. L-carnitine is necessary for the formation of ketones in the liver.
- Glutamine, the free-form and branched-chain essential amino acids are worth your pre and post workout. Just don’t go overboard with glutamine as it supports gluconeogenesis.
- ECA Stack Fat Burners are very useful and important, although don’t worry about including HCA
- Flaxseed oil is great, but don’t think you need 50% of your calories from essential fatty acids. 1-10% of calories is more than enough.
- Whey protein is optional, you don’t want too much protein, remember
- A soluble fiber supplement that is not carbohydrate-based is good. But nuts are easier.
Ketogenic diets offer a number of unique benefits that cannot be ignored if you are looking for the ultimate, low-body fat figure or physique. However, they are not the easiest diets to use and any compromised “middle ground” you prefer will be the worst of all worlds. Your choice is to get them right or not at all.