If you been reading my blog then you know I’m not an advocate of diets. (If this is your fist article, then be sure to read through previous posts for more on my thoughts around restrictive eating). In dietetics school I completed an assignment in which I tried a “fad” diet for a period of 2 weeks. I researched, experimented, and then reported back to my professor and peers on the Atkins diet. In case you’re not familiar, the Atkins Diet is a way of eating that severely restricts carbohydrates, including all fruits and many vegetables, in favor for high-fat foods. At the time I recall scoffing at a diet that allows one to eat a 1/2 pound of bacon a day but denies even a single apple. How is that kind of eating supposed to keep the doctor away? (Perhaps it was not; the Atkins diet was developed by cardiologist, Dr Robert Atkins. Everyone needs to make money some how, right?).
My dietetics education and training only further added to my disbelief of the Atkins diet. I mean, the USDA and My Plate people recommend consumption of 5-8 servings of grains daily for sedentary adults, and even more if you exercise. I wouldn’t need an RD credential behind my name to realize that’s gotta be at least a moderate amount of carbohydrates.
So what has prompted my interest in the ketogenic diet as of recent?
Through webinars, podcasts, books, and literature reviews, I’ve been learning more about the influence of metabolism on such concepts as inflammation, gene expression, disease risk, and cognitive performance. And what has significant effect on ones’ metabolism? Dietary and lifestyle habits sure do! Not a new fact, but the way it such is being explored has changed over the years. The realization that a calorie is not just a calorie, has led researchers to study how food affects our hormones, genes, and our risk of developing disease. A ketogenic diet has emerged has a common thread amongst those seeking to achieve optimal cognitive and physical health.
In brief, a ketogenic diet severely restricts intake of carbohydrates, allows moderate protein, and encourages dietary fat. A traditional ketogenic diet, as used in the treatment of epilepsy, keeps both protein and carbohydrates low. In response to a low carb intake, the body produces molecules called ketones which the brain and body can use for energy in place of blood sugar.
When the body is producing ketones it is in a state known as ketosis. In ketosis, the body is relying on fat to produce ketones for energy and therefore may be considered “fat-adapted”.
A few of the benefits associated with adherence to a ketogenic diet-
Improved insulin sensitivity– By eliminating processed grains and sugars from my diet, I can expect my body to both need, and produce less insulin. Insulin is the hormone responsible for lowering blood sugars by moving glucose (sugar) into cells, and thus it’s often referred to as the storage hormone. A high carbohydrate intake which produces a high insulin response can result in insulin resistance because the body adapts to consistently high circulating insulin level. This can lead to issues with blood sugar regulation including symptoms of mood swings, fatigue, weight (fat) gain, and development of diabetes and cancer. Because a ketogenic diet significantly limits carbohydrate intake, it reduces the amount of insulin the body produces. The body’s cells become much more sensitive to the relatively low amount of insulin that is produced.
I currently eat a high carbohydrate diet. I don’t routinely track my intake, however estimate I’m eating approximately 250-300 grams of carbohydrates daily. This is in the form of starchy vegetables (sweet/white potatoes, winter squashes, carrots, beets), fruit, limited grains (1-2 servings/week) and added sugars (grain-free baked goods, honey). My blood sugars are fine (my most recent A1c was 4.8, fasting glucose level of 80), most likely due to an active lifestyle which effectively utilizes the carbohydrates I’m eating, I can definitely relate to the term “sugar burner”. As the name implies, sugar burners rely primarily on sugar/carbohydrate/glucose for energy and are not well adapted to using stored body fat for energy. How do I know I have come to be a sugar burner? I can identify with the following symptoms:
♦ Hungry every 2 hours
♦ Tendency to feel tired, fatigued, irritable when hungry “hangry”
♦ Cravings for sugar and treats
♦ Fat disposition around the abdomen
Improved cardiovascular health– While medical and nutrition authorities have long touted the benefits of a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet for heart health, recent research suggests that a low-carb, higher- fat diet is actually more favorable. A low carbohydrate intake is associated with lower levels of triglycerides and the “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein), which have been shown to increase risk of heart disease if elevated. If there is less LDL cholesterol around, there is less chance of it becoming oxidized, which leads to reductions in arterial plaque build-up and resulting risk of heart attack and stroke. Furthermore, a diet rich in saturated fats (found in animal and coconut products) can help increase levels of the “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) which is responsible for helping the body to excrete cholesterol.
Reduced risk of cancer– Cancer cells thrive off of sugar. And while healthy cells are able to shift to the use of ketones for energy when sugar is absent, cancer cells cannot. This mechanism essentially ‘starves’ the cancer cells, causing them to die off. Ketogenic diets have been instrumental in the treatment of specific cancers, including brain cancers. I’m fortunate to not have personally dealt with cancer, but I do have a family history of the disease. My interest in the ketogenic diet partially stems from my goal of reducing my risk of developing cancer.
Future blog posts will provide updates on my progress in following a ketogenic diet including meal ideas and recipes. Be sure to check back for more!
Bacon photo courtesy of @jeltovski/Morguefile