Usually, when you come across an idea that is so shunned by mainstream medicine and conventional nutritionists, you know you’re onto something. (Remember how they demonized fat and convinced us all carbs were good for us? Where did that get us?)
Indeed, ketosis is an idea that mainstream doctors love to hate…If they talk about it at all, it’s typically with an air of dismissal or even derision. But the fact is, ketosis could be the secret to not only long-lasting weight loss, but also to reduced risk of countless diseases.
So today, let’s take an in-depth look at this “controversial” topic.
The “controversy” based on confusion
In its simplest terms, ketosis is the metabolic state in which the body starts breaking down fat, rather than sugar, for energy. When you’re burning fat and using the byproducts of that process — molecules called ketones — as fuel, you’re in a state of ketosis.
Ketosis first made it into the public consciousness with the advent of the Atkins diet. Atkins promoted ketosis as a way to burn fat and lose weight without feeling hungry.
But while Atkins made it popular, ketosis dates back way farther than that. In fact, back in the 1800s, a British man named William Banting advocated low-carb dieting — with the goal of achieving ketosis — for overweight people of the time.
In terms of modern dieting, though, the Atkins diet put ketosis on the map. And given the amount of controversy it stirred, you’d think it was highly dangerous and extremely radical. But it’s really not.
The problem is many conventional dieticians confused ketosis with a life-threatening metabolic condition called diabetic ketoacidosis.
Diabetic ketoacidosis occurs when a diabetic person with insulin deficiency has wild blood sugar swings. Ketones start building up in the bloodstream, and it’s an emergency situation. It can also occur in alcoholics and people suffering starvation.
Clearly, diabetic ketoacidosis should be avoided at all costs. But it’s entirely unrelated to ketosis, so don’t pay attention to “experts” who confuse the two.
As more people in the nutrition and fitness worlds learn that ketosis isn’t a dirty word after all, we’re seeing a resurgence in the popularity of ketogenic diets. Even elite athletes, who traditionally have believed in “carb-loading” like it’s the gospel, are seeing the benefits of swapping out carbs for the nutrient-dense, low-carb, high-fat, moderate-protein foods ketogenic diets favor.
Benefits of ketogenic diets
As you may know, when I first started practicing nutritional medicine, I was working with Dr. Atkins, who, as I mentioned above, was the father of the modern low-carb movement.
We used ketogenic diets for just about every condition and had tremendous success with them.
When I went off on my own, though, I rethought the idea of ketosis. At the time, low-carb dieting was so revolutionary and so against the grain, so to speak, that people had a hard time achieving and maintaining ketosis. So when I developed the Hamptons Diet, I tried to find a way to help people lose weight without ketosis. The diet was and still is effective, but honestly it probably would have been better if I had kept ketosis in there as a goal.
I’ve incorporated ketosis back into the plan I created with the A-List Diet. This diet unleashes the fat-burning powers of amino acids (that’s where the “A” in “A-List” comes from) to supercharge weight loss. And it also comes full circle to embrace the potential of ketosis. The great thing about this new approach is that ketosis isn’t even a stated goal — it’s just a byproduct of following the diet. If you focus on the tips in the book, as well as the tailored protocol for getting just the right amounts of the exact amino acids your body needs, you will be in a constant ketogenic state.
And that’s when you’ll start to see the pounds melt away. Which on its own has countless health benefits, as I discuss in the article, “Healthy Obesity Is Not a Thing” in this issue. But just as a quick recap, maintaining a healthy weight is essential for protecting yourself against countless diseases. And ketosis itself has health benefits that we’re only just starting to understand.
Here are just a few illnesses that can be helped by maintaining a healthy weight through ketosis.
Diabetes. Obesity and out-of-control blood sugar are both recipes for diabetes. A ketogenic diet is the answer to both. If followed correctly, a ketogenic diet can prevent or reverse type 2 diabetes. I’ve seen it over and over again during my career. And the ketogenic diet removes all sugars and starches — which diabetics shouldn’t be eating anyway.
Cancer. What excites me the most about the resurgence in popularity of ketogenic diets is that they have enormous potential to protect against cancer. Let’s not forget that at least 11 types of cancer — including esophageal, pancreatic, colon, kidney, and thyroid — are associated with obesity and diabetes. Plus, cancer cells feed on sugar. They rely on glycogen to convert carbohydrates and sugar to feed them. In fact, that’s how PET scans — one of the best cancer tests available — find cancer cells. Before the scan, the radiologist injects radioactive glucose into the body. Then the scanner searches for the areas that glucose is concentrating. Why?
Because that’s a sign that cancerous cells are in that area, since they have more of a sweet tooth than healthy cells.
Eliminating sugar may decrease your chances of getting cancer. And if you do have cancer, starving those cells of their preferred energy source arms your body’s own immune responses to fight the disease.
There is even published research showing that ketogenic diets can double the lifespan of mice with metastatic cancers. This is why anti-aging experts are big proponents of ketosis. It’s also why some more forward-thinking nutritionists are looking at ketogenic diets as a promising new frontier in nutrition for cancer patients.
Seizures and other neurological conditions. This is one area that is not up for debate — even the naysayers accept that ketosis is effective for certain types of epilepsy and other neurological diseases. In fact, the ketogenic diet was first used to stop seizures in epileptics in the 1920s. It was only with the advent of anti-seizure medications that people stopped using ketosis for epilepsy. But in the past two decades, it has come back into favor, likely because of the harsh side effects the medications cause. Ketogenic diets are now the first-line treatment for some forms of epilepsy, and they’re the treatment of choice for epilepsy that doesn’t respond to medication.
In fact, because it’s been so useful in treating epilepsy, researchers have been trying to determine whether the ketogenic diet can help in other neurological conditions. So far there’s good evidence that it can help in Alzheimer’s disease, in part by reducing beta amyloid deposits.
Weaker evidence suggests it might be helpful for several other neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s, autism, depression, and even headaches.
How to achieve ketosis
Our bodies store far more fat than carbohydrates, but we burn carbohydrates before tapping into fat stores. At any given time, we have about 40,000 calories available to us in fat, compared to just 2,000 carb calories. As long as those 2,000 carb calories are available (which they always are, if you’re eating carbs at every meal), you’ll keep burning carbs instead of fat. But if you can make those 2,000 carb calories unavailable, your body will start burning fat instead. And that’s when you’re in a state of ketosis.
To tap into those fat stores, you need to stop feeding your body carbohydrates to burn. That means no starchy vegetables, no pasta, no sugar, no fruit, no juice, and no beer or wine. Instead your diet will consist of protein, fat, and non-starchy vegetables (for some specific examples, see the chart at the end of this article).
It makes sense that a ketogenic diet has benefits beyond weight loss, because it basically removes all the foods that cause chronic illness and weight gain. It replaces them with foods that are packed with nutrition and will keep you lean, energetic, and satisfied.
Sadly, the average American today burns nothing but sugar. They start their day eating carbs for breakfast, so their blood sugar spikes quickly then crashes before lunch. Just in time for another carb fix to get the blood sugar back up again. Then about three hours later comes the mid-afternoon energy crash — and the munchies. Again, this often leads to more carbs (as a “snack”) to get through until it’s time for a carb-laden dinner. And then, of course, there’s dessert.
The process happens over and over again, meaning we’re constantly replenishing the carbohydrate bank and preventing our bodies from ever having to burn fat. And as a bonus, we’re perpetually hungry.
When you achieve ketosis, you eliminate that vicious cycle. But it can be a rough road getting there. Many people report feeling groggy, exhausted, and just basically “off” for the first few weeks.
But this is completely normal. If you push through the first few uncomfortable weeks, it gets much easier…and you start reaping the rewards — weight loss, disease prevention, increased energy. In fact, people who are in a constant state of ketosis (myself included) insist that they feel more clear-headed, energetic, strong, and fit than they ever have.
The shortcut to ketosis
There’s another way to achieve ketosis that’s also getting a lot of attention these days. Some people find it appealing because it has quick results. It’s not new, but it’s gaining popularity in a way it hasn’t before.
I’m talking about fasting — or more specifically, intermittent fasting. By depriving the body of all calories for an extended period of time, say 12 to 16 hours, you burn through all the carbohydrates you have on hand. And when that happens, your body turns to its fat stores for energy, putting you in a ketogenic state.
Does that sound miserable? Maybe at first, but once you get into the routine, it’s really not nearly as severe as it sounds. In fact, this is how I eat as a rule. I have eaten only one meal a day for most of the past decade, and I feel great.
And if you think about it, it’s how we were genetically programmed to eat. We didn’t evolve with refrigerators. We had to hunt for our food, so there would be many hours of the day when we would not have access to food.
Fasting is not for everyone. But there’s growing evidence that ketosis is something we all should strive for.
Back in the spotlight
Of course, now that ketosis is enjoying a resurgence in nutrition and fitness circles, it’s stirring up just as much controversy as ever. But those of us who recognize its well-documented benefits are talking about it out in the open, even if we risk being ridiculed for it.
It’s worth it if we can help in the fight against the myriad chronic diseases that are crippling this nation. If a drug-free approach to health can significantly reduce the risk of countless diseases —diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, just to name a few — I’ll take whatever insults they have to throw at me.
Ketosis is a natural mechanism in our bodies. Don’t be afraid to try it. Once you get through the initial adjustment period, your mental clarity will improve, you’ll be free of blood sugar spikes and crashes, and you won’t feel deprived at all.
Now, please note that a ketogenic diet is not for everyone. Type 1 diabetics and pregnant or nursing women should not follow this diet. But for most others, it couldn’t be healthier.
One thing to be aware of, though. With this newfound resurgence in ketogenic diets, there are products on the market now that promise to flood your body with ketones, and put it into an artificial ketosis. While I can’t speak to their efficacy, I’ve seen no science to suggest that artificial states of ketosis are as effective as naturally induced ketosis. And as the old saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true…
I, for one, am glad we’re talking about ketosis again. I hope it’s a trend that’s here for good this time. And with the A-List Diet, getting into a ketogenic state — and maintaining it — is easier and more delicious than ever.
3 simple steps to ketosis
Cut sugar—in ALL its forms! Desserts, starchy vegetables (like potatoes, peas, corn, etc.), pasta, fruit, juice, and beer/wine: it ALL has to go.
Stick with it! Yes, the first few days will probably be rough, especially if you’re used to eating a lot of carbs. But by the end of the first week, you’ll start to notice a big difference in how you feel. And by the end of the second week, your energy levels, mental clarity, and weight loss will all be kicked into high gear.
Enjoy! Just because carbs are off-limits doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your food. In fact, ketogenic diets are delicious—and downright decadent. You’ll get to indulge in all sorts of things you’ve probably been denying yourself for years (butter, brie, nuts, heavy cream).
- Game meat
- Grass-fed and finished beef
- Nut butter (made with unsweetened nuts, particularly macadamia nuts, almonds, and other fattier nuts)
- Organ meats
- Seafood (shrimp, scallops, shellfish, lobster, crab, etc.)
- Wild-caught fish
- Cheese (aged cheddar, swiss, feta, parmesan, mozzarella, brie, blue, monterey jack, etc.)
- Heavy whipping cream
- Macadamia nut oil
- Nuts (macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds)
- Sour cream
- Green beans
- Green bell pepper
- Leafy greens (spinach, kale, kohlrabi, etc.)
Oliveira CL, Mattingly S, Schirrmacher R, Sawyer MB, Fine EJ, Prado CM. A nutritional perspective of ketogenic diet in cancer: a narrative review. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017 Mar 30. pii: S2212-2672(17)30115-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2017.02.003. [Epub ahead of print]
Barañano KW, Hartman AL. The ketogenic diet: uses in epilepsy and other neurologic illnesses. Curr Treat Options Neurol. 2008 Nov; 10(6):410-419. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2898565/