You may have been hearing quite a lot about the ketogenic diet lately. Popular diets such as The Bulletproof Diet, The Primal Blueprint, Primal Fat Burner, and Mitochondrial Metabolic Therapy have been making headlines. My goal is to give you information and reliable resources so you can make your own informed decision about this type of diet. These are essentially upgraded versions of the well-known, but largely misunderstood, Atkins Diet and what is commonly known as Paleo or Keto. So what is up with the resurgence of these low-carb diets? Didn’t they already have their day in the sun? Let me clear up some confusion about how these diets work.
First of all, in order to achieve nutritional ketosis, in which your body runs on ketones instead of glucose, you need to limit your carbohydrate intake. But that doesn’t mean you have to consume loads of protein or give up vegetables. In fact, too much protein can be detrimental to your efforts, not only because it puts excess strain on the kidneys, but also because extra protein gets converted into sugar (1). So that gigantic steak wrapped in bacon is no better than a donut once the amount of protein adequate for building and repair has been harvested. Contrary to popular belief, vegetables are super important in a properly executed keto diet. If you’re doing it right your plate should be mostly vegetables, especially of the green, cruciferous, and brightly colored variety, and a small (by American standards) amount of protein. That leaves a calorie deficit that needs to be filled if you were to remain satiated and sustain this diet long term. That’s where fat comes in. Spoon some butter on those veggies! Just remember the quality of the fat matters.
Our bodies are built to be fat burning machines. Straight out of the box, our factory settings are perfect for a lean, mean, hunter-gatherer. These are the settings our species has had for more than 150,000 years (8). We are not so well suited for the 3 squares a day plus snacks and cocktails office dweller. We have had agriculture, and therefore a reliable source of convenient calories, for a very recent sliver of our time on Earth. Before that, we were foragers. Any meal we could scrape up could very well be our last for quite some time. We are equipped with biological tools to enable us to go long periods without eating. Those tools are not the granola bars that you keep in your bag in case soccer practice goes long. I’m talking about our innate ability to burn fat. The ability to utilize fat and create ketones also allowed us to grow big, complex brains. This, essentially, is what finally separated us from other primates. (2)(8)
Wouldn’t it be great if our body would use the fat around our middles as fuel? Unfortunately, because we are so used to consuming a steady supply of glucose, many of our bodies have forgotten how to burn fat. Carbohydrates are super easy and quick for us to burn, so our bodies use them first, but they come at a cost. First, they burn dirty. I’m not going to get into explaining the Krebs cycle, but free radicals are produced with every glucose molecule used (1). Second, a hormone cascade is activated in order to use glucose. First and foremost is one you’ve heard of: Insulin. Insulin pushes glucose into cells where it can be used for energy, but also stores extra as fat around your middle. When you consume large amounts of carbohydrates (donuts, pizza, pasta, cake, chips, dinner rolls, sweet and sour sauce) your blood sugar spikes and insulin moves in to take care of it. Insulin converts most of the energy into fat because you’re sitting at your desk, and then the energy is gone. So after a few hours, blood sugar drops and you get hungry, irritable, uncomfortable, weak, tired, depressed, confused, or even faint. This is our brain freaking out that it doesn’t have it’s super convenient fuel to burn and it tells you to eat all the things. The only way to get your body to start burning fat is to take away the sugar and give it a cleaner, more efficient fuel to burn. People, we’re talking about fat.
Let me be clear about fat. When I suggest fat is healthy I am talking about healthy fats. You can read about why certain fats are healthy and why others aren’t in any of the books and podcasts under the Resources and Inspiration section below. In an effort to keep this short and to the point, I’m giving you the Cliff Notes version. Industrialized oils, especially those that are made from grains (Canola, Safflower, Sunflower, Corn, Soy), are unstable. They oxidize (deteriorate, go rancid) very readily (3) and turn into trans fats which we all know are bad (7). To be clear, any oil can oxidize, even the healthy ones, if heated beyond what their molecular structure can handle. When oils are heated beyond what their molecules are capable of withstanding they oxidize. In fact, sunlight can cause many oils to deteriorate, and much of the time they are stored in clear plastic bottles! You don’t want to put oxidized oils in your body because they cause inflammation and inflammation is the root cause of many of the diseases plaguing modern civilization. Olive oil, for example, is a super healthy source of fat, but it should be stored in a dark bottle and never be heated beyond what it would be subjected to when poured over a warm entree. A good rule of thumb is if the oil is liquid at room temperature it shouldn’t be heated (7).
Which do you think is worse for your health? Smoking cigarettes or eating a packet of french fries from your favorite fast food joint? David Asprey asked this question in an interview with Dr. Steven Gundry (5) and again in an interview with Dr. Bill Sears (2) on his Bulletproof Radio podcast. Dr. Gundry declined to answer the question on the grounds that he would never do either but he was obviously leaning towards lighting up a cigarette. Dr. Sears laughed and said, “I think the fried food is probably much worse.” This is because of the hugely detrimental effects of unstable industrialized oils on the body. Not only do restaurants use cheap unstable oils in their fryers, but these oils are reused over and over again, which in itself is disgusting, but that causes even further degradation and even unhealthier results.
What you do want to put into your body is high quality saturated fat (avocado, coconut, grass-fed butter or ghee, even lard or bone marrow from wild or pasture-raised animals). These fats are stable. Which means that they don’t readily oxidize. Many important structures in our bodies, including the walls of our arteries and the myelin sheath that coats our neurons, are made of saturated fats (6). Our brains are >60% fat (6)(8). Why do you think salmon is considered brain food? We are literally fat heads! Solid research supports the fact that consuming healthy amounts of saturated fats reduces symptoms of ADD and ADHD (2)(3) as well as other inflammatory conditions affecting the brain and cardiovascular system (3).
We have been led to believe that fat is the bad guy. Most of us have spent at least half of our lives avoiding fat, especially saturated fat, with the idea that eating fat makes us fat and clogs our arteries. Meanwhile, we have been loading up on fat-free vitamin-enhanced cereal, whole grain bread, fat-free cookies, and pasta. That makes sense, right? Fat is high in calories. Cholesterol and triglycerides (fat in your blood) are markers for cardiovascular disease. So it makes sense on the surface level to avoid eating foods that are high in cholesterol and saturated fat. Right? Unfortunately, people in industrialized nations, who are subject to this Belief System (BS), are fatter and sicker than ever. You can see it just looking around you. People are getting bigger. They are aging at an alarming rate and autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases, and neurologic insufficiencies are becoming more and more prevalent (1). We have even accepted some of these symptoms of poor diet as normal! How many of you deal with brain fog and fatigue, especially in the afternoon? Commercials have even mocked these symptoms appropriately naming the condition “hangry”. Then they offer you the exact food guaranteed to cause the same symptom to reappear, possibly with more vigor, in 3 hours or so. So something doesn’t add up.
Ketones are the potential energy stored in fat (8). Using ketones instead of glucose puts your brain into super-fantastic mode (6). No more afternoon brain fog or mid-day slump. Plus, when burning ketones, you can go long periods of time without being hungry. This is really convenient when stuck in an airport with no decent food choices. Plus, your body doesn’t care if this new source of energy is coming from your diet or from the fat stores around your middle (4). Yay! Remember those hunter-gatherers? They had to adapt to going long periods without eating because there wasn’t a McDonald’s on every corner. They had to eat what they could catch, and sometimes food was hard to catch. Likely they would have to walk long distances to forage enough food to sustain them. They ate a ton of plants, it’s true, but they had to eat according to the season and the region because no one was trucking in out of season produce. For those living in climates with long winters, or during droughts, plants became really hard to come by. So, our ancestors adopted feast and famine cycles and became really good at burning fat. They didn’t get “hangry”, or the ones who did got eliminated from the gene pool pretty quickly. Instead, they were very well suited to fast, and so are we.
It turns out fasting is actually good for us (I was just about to refer you to a footnote, but it turns out that all of the resources below include information as to why fasting is good). When we give our bodies a steady supply of carbohydrates and protein, our cells get the signal that it is prime time to replicate. So they use all of their energy to reproduce quickly. Sometimes, they are so keen to reproduce that they do so with mistakes present and pass these mutations on to the next cells (6). There is a name for damaged cells that replicate quickly – tumor cells or cancer. When we fast, our cells get the signal that times are lean and not right for reproduction. They spend this time instead cleaning up debris and fixing mistakes (1)(6). So when the time is right to reproduce again they are clean and healthy. This cycle also promotes healthy insulin levels and evens out spikes in blood glucose (2)(1).
You don’t have to go days without eating to reap the benefits of fasting. I practice Intermittent Fasting. You do too, even though you probably don’t realize it. Between the last thing you eat at night and the first thing you eat in the morning is considered a fast. That’s why the first meal of the day is called break-fast. I usually stretch it out a bit from 6 or 7 at night until 10 or sometimes even noon the next day depending on how I feel. Listen to your body if you decide to try this and give it what it needs. Just remember that no matter how loudly it shouts for a Twinkie, your body does not, in fact, need a Twinkie! I find that if I drink Bulletproof coffee or a “Hot Buttered Latte” of similar construction (see bonus recipe below) in the morning I feel pretty good. Adding a tablespoon or two of grass-fed collagen protein keeps my blood sugar steady and I find it really improves the texture of my skin. You may find that your body reacts completely differently. Listen to what your body is asking for and don’t judge or feel that you are failing if longer fasts don’t work for you.
Notice I didn’t say anything about whether or not you have to consume animal protein to make a primal diet work for you. The truth is, you can be vegan or vegetarian and adopt a ketogenic diet with rather good results (1). A vegetarian who would be okay with consuming some grass-fed butter or ghee and pastured eggs (maybe even some fish oil) could do pretty well on this plan. In fact, because ketogenic diets don’t require much protein, this may be a perfectly viable diet choice for someone who refrains from eating animal meat as long as they add in healthy fats.
When we talk about diet and nutrition, we have to realize that what works for one person may not work for another person. If you read the newest diet fad book and try to implement it for yourself, whether it’s for weight loss or for health reasons, and fail to reach your goal, don’t beat yourself up. It’s likely not you! It’s the diet. First of all, you need support to effectively implement a smart eating plan, help you troubleshoot problems, and keep you accountable. It isn’t all about what is on your plate, either. It’s about what feeds you physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Not every eating plan is going to work for every person. That’s where a health coach comes in. A health coach is invaluable in weeding through all of the conflicting information out there and helps you identify emotional and spiritual issues which may be affecting how you nourish yourself. My job is not to recommend any particular diet. I am giving you the information and resources to make an informed decision on your own. You are empowered!
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References and Inspiration
(1) Mercola, Joseph (2017) Fat for Fuel: A revolutionary diet to combat cancer, boost brain power, and increase your energy. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc. https://www.amazon.com/Fat-Fuel-Revolutionary-Combat-Increase/dp/1401953778/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1505926224&sr=1-1&keywords=fat+for+fuel+by+dr.+joseph+mercola
(2) Asprey, Dave (March 17, 2017) Bulletproof Radio podcast #397. How to Avoid & Fix the Damaging Effects of Diet-Induced Inflammation – Dr. Bill Sears. Available on iTunes and Google Play.
(3) Gedgudas, Nora T. (2011) Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for total health and a longer life. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press. https://www.amazon.com/Primal-Body-Mind-Beyond-Health/dp/1594774137/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1505925852&sr=8-1&keywords=primal+body+primal+mind
(4) Sisson, Mark. Institute of Integrative Nutrition lecture: The Primal Blueprint with Mark Sisson. Accessed on September 18, 2017. IIN lectures are only available to students. See Mark Sisson’s website and blog for similar information. http://www.marksdailyapple.com
(5) Asprey, Dave (July 14, 2017) Bulletproof Radio podcast #417. How Nutrition Can Reverse Disease and the Impact of Lectins – Dr. Steven Gundry. Available on iTunes and Google Play.
(6) Asprey, Dave (2017) Head Strong: The bulletproof plan to activate untapped brain energy to work smarter and think faster – in just two weeks. Harper Collins. https://www.amazon.com/Head-Strong-Bulletproof-Activate-Faster/dp/0062652419/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1505926762&sr=1-1&keywords=head+strong
(7) Wahls, Terry (2014) The Wahls Protocol: A radical new way to treat all chronic autoimmune conditions using Paleo principles. Avery. https://www.amazon.com/Wahls-Protocol-Autoimmune-Conditions-Principles/dp/1583335544/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1506013576&sr=1-1&keywords=terry+wahls
(8) Gedfaudas, Nora (2017) Primal Fat Burner: Live longer, slow aging, super-power your brain, and save your life with a high-fat, low-carb Paleo diet. New York, Atria. https://www.amazon.com/Primal-Fat-Burner-Super-Power-High-Fat/dp/150111641X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1506342015&sr=8-1&keywords=primal+fat+burner
Hot Buttered Chocolate
- 1 cup unsweetened almond, cashew, coconut, or organic whole milk
- 1 heaping Tbsp Cacao
- 1-2 Tbsp MCT oil or organic coconut oil
- Stevia (not Truvia) or Xylitol to your taste (I use 4 drops of Stevia)
- Optional additions: a dash or two of Cayenne, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, collagen protein.
Heat all ingredients in a saucepan on medium until hot, but not boiling. Transfer to a blender or use an immersion blender to blend until frothy (about 20 seconds). Be cautious when blending hot ingredients! Pour into your favorite mug and enjoy hot.