Are carbohydrates holding us back from our true potential? Exploring the possibilities of a ketogenic diet.
It is hard to avoid carbohydrates in the world we live in today, where since the industrial age 100-200 years ago, factories have been able to produce large quantities of sugar and white flour to feed the masses. Really though, foods high in carbohydrates (such as pasta, bread, rice, and potatoes) have only been available to us since the rise of agriculture, approximately 5-10,000 years ago. Prior to that, humans assumed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle where our diets consisted primarily of animal products and low starch vegetables, basically whatever we could find in nature without growing ourselves.
The hunter-gatherer era of humans are thus believed to have followed a high fat, moderate-high protein, and very low carbohydrate diet also known as a ketogenic diet! The ketogenic diet is named after ketosis, a natural metabolic state the body undergoes when carbohydrates are nearly eliminated from one’s diet; a typical ketogenic diet might be comprised of 70% fat, 25% protein, and 5% carbohydrate for instance. While in ketosis, the body essentially utilizes fatty acids as an alternative source of energy in the absence of glucose. To accomplish this, acetyl CoA, which in the liver is normally oxidized into H2O and CO2 as part of the citric acid cycle, is now converted by the liver into the ketone bodies acetoacetate and 3-hydroxybutyrate. These ketone bodies are now free to flow where needed to be broken down and used as fuel for metabolic processes. It is worthy to note that ketone bodies are a very effective respiratory fuel; whereas 100 g of glucose generates 8.7 kg of ATP, 100 g of 3-hydroxybutyrate can yield 10.5 kg of ATP, and 100 g of acetoacetate 9.4 kg of ATP. Most areas of the body, such as the brain, will use ketones whenever provided to them (in fact the blood-brain barrier transporter of ketone bodies is very effective in this function). However, there are still some processes that are partial to glucose in their energy metabolism. In these cases, glucose is still supplied by hepatic gluconegenesis, wherein which the liver converts non carbohydrate sources (such as fatty acids and amino acids) into glucose.
There are several important implications of undergoing a ketogenic diet. The most popularly known effect is that of fat loss. In fact, ketosis is the underlying principle behind low carbohydrate diets such as the Atkin’s diet. Since the body is in a metabolic state reliant upon fatty acids, when one’s caloric intake is below that of maintenance the body will immediately favor the usage of its own fat stores in providing itself with energy. This is also widely influenced by ketosis’ effect on hormone levels, in particular insulin. Insulin spikes in the body whenever large amounts of carbohydrates, especially sugars, are consumed. High insulin encourages the body to store much of these carbohydrates as fat in order to prevent blood-sugar levels from rising too high. In the initial stages of ketosis, insulin drops significantly; coupled with a calorie deficiency this results in rapid fat loss without loss in muscle tone. As one continues in ketosis, insulin rises to a moderate level to prevent complete fat loss. People following a ketogenic diet for the purposes of weight loss often have weekly or biweeky “carb up” days where large amounts of carbohydrates are consumed to modulate insulin, allowing the body to experience the initial drop in insulin more frequently and thus burn more fat.
Weight loss is the most popular use of a ketogenic diet, however it is not the only one. Perhaps surprising to some, ketogenic diets have been prescribed to patients of intractable epillepsy, with great success! According to The Epilepsy Foundation, it has been shown to help two in every three children who try it. Furthermore, seizures have stopped completely in one third of the cases
As a disclaimer, it is important to realize that the long-term effects of being on a ketogenic diet are not yet understood. Doctors have concern that a ketogenic diet may be harmful to the kidneys and put one at greater risk of kidney stones due to excess urination of ketone bodies. The long term effects of ketosis on the liver, where much of the biochemical actions take place, is also unknown. While many people do experience positive reactions to trying a ketogenic diet, many others reportedly feel worse while on it. This suggests the difficulty in applying one diet to the whole of human beings on this planet; different people are adapted for different needs and this is as evident as observing the many different morphic body types among a group of humans. Thus, to anyone reading this article I suggest you do a good bit of research before attempting a ketogenic diet and speaking to any professionals if you have any concerns.