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The how and why of a Ketogenic Diet

The how and why of a Ketogenic Diet

This week I intend to drill down a little further into exactly what a ketogenic diet is and why it would be desirable to have one’s body spend a lot of its time using ketones as the main energy source rather than glucose. For the sake of clarity, I think we should first explain how ketosis and glycolysis create these sources of energy for the body. 

Ketosis

The first, and essentially what we are aiming for with a ketogenic diet, is using the body’s supply of fat (adipose tissue) as the main source of energy. The release of fatty acids from adipose tissue via lipolysis allows the liver to synthesize ketones through ketogenesis. Thus ketone bodies are produced which can be circulated and used by the rest of the body as a form of energy. Essentially, whilst you are in ketosis, your body will be burning fat. This is, even more, the case if you are active, but even when inactive, such as when you are asleep, your body will still be burning fat. This is the main reason for the dramatic weight loss that most people experience when they take up keto. 

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Glycolysis

The second, and essentially what we are trying to replace as the body’s primary energy system when we elicit the ketogenic state, is glycolysis. This is the energy system that the body will default to whenever there is glycogen available to it. Only once the glycogen supply is exhausted will ketosis come into the picture. In glycolysis, the body produces glycogen by the transformation of carbohydrates into sugar (glucose). On the standard Western diet, not much transformation is required as we normally take in massive amounts of sugar in the pre-packaged, mass-produced, and adulterated ‘food’ we are supplied with by the manufacturers.  Many of these foods are also high in simple carbohydrates. More or less all this dietary carbohydrate will be converted and used as sugar by the body and the surplus stored as fat.

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One of the major problems with glycolysis is we tend to take in far more carbohydrates than we actually need. If this is the case the excess is then stored as fat around our waists and hips. In this sense, a high carbohydrate diet tends to do the opposite of a high fat, ketogenic diet. While the ketogenic diet is burning fat, a diet high in carbs tends to be storing excess carbohydrate as fat. As can be readily seen looking at the dietary disasters in the US and the UK, a high carbohydrate diet will tend to ensure the majority of people will inevitably become fatter and fatter. Oddly, given the huge amount of evidence indicating the problem, high carbohydrate, low-fat diets have been recommended as ‘healthy’ for some 40 or so years now, with all the inevitably disastrous results.  

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Other Benefits of Ketosis

It’s not just one’s physical well being that can be enhanced by a ketogenic diet, there is also an underlying psychological benefit that is increasingly coming to the attention of those looking for dietary interventions in mental health problems. The nature of being in glycolysis as opposed to being in ketosis tends to be experienced by the individual in quite different ways. Often times, people in glycolysis will report energy spikes, particularly after consuming some high carbohydrate food such as doughnuts or sweet confectionery. Following an initial high comes a compensatory low, often experienced as a lack of energy or worse. Such people often experience quite dramatic mood swings along with these drastic changes in energy levels and can display a large degree of emotional inconsistency. Interestingly, there is a whole new movement beginning in psychiatry linking diet, and particularly the differences in the diet we are discussing today, to various psychological problems such as depression, hyperactivity, and anxiety.

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Ketosis, on the other hand, is often experienced as a somewhat slower, yet steadier form of energy release. The person in ketosis tends to be calmer, less prone to mood swings, and more able to manage the vicissitudes and challenges of everyday life in the 21st century. 

The Energy Difference

On purely a personal and experiential basis, I can report a certain depth of energy, slow-release in nature, that one feels when one is exercising under ketosis. I tend to feel as if I don’t have quite the same explosive power but instead feel far stronger at the end of a long ride or swim as if I could happily just go on and on. Recently, a group of people on a ketogenic diet demonstrated this effect quite nicely by covering 100 miles over five days whilst fasting. These people included the Olympic athlete James Cracknell and type 1 diabetes sufferer, Dr Ian Lake. All in all, eight people participated in the challenge, all completed and none reported any ill effects following their prolonged exertions.

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This debate is very current at the time of writing. For years, the World, particularly the Western World, seemed to be moving away from high-fat diets, particularly those including red meat, towards an emphasis on the supposedly healthy nature of ‘plant-based’ diets as practised by vegetarians and vegans. All manner of fairly spurious justifications and pretty bad science has been used to justify this (Keto Criticisms) but, of late, there has been a strong reaction against the status quo and medical orthodoxy. Such ideas as the ketogenic diet, the Paleo diet, and even Carnivore diets are part of that reaction.

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The jury is still out, the debate ongoing. In my opinion, though, I think the balance of probabilities seems to be increasingly favouring those daring to go against the grain (!) and conventional orthodoxy. We need to be proactive and take control of our lives and our health. Life is finite, waiting for the definitive word on all this may well extend beyond your and my lifetime. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating … (or the turning away from the pudding altogether!).

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