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Making Ketogenic Diets Work
Ketogenic diets (or more specifically, cyclic ketogenic diets) are the most effective diets for achieving fast, ultra-low body fat with maximum muscle preservation! Now, as with all such blanket statements, there are indirect exceptions. But done right – which they rarely are – the fat loss achievable with a ketogenic diet is nothing short of astounding! And despite what people may tell you, you’ll also enjoy incredibly high energy and an overall sense of well-being.
Despite these promises, more bodybuilders/shapers have negative experiences than see positive results. The main criticisms are:
- Chronic lethargy
- Unbearable hunger
- Massive drop in gym performance
- Severe muscle wasting
All of these criticisms stem from ignoring the above caveat: Ketogenic diets must be done correctly! It should be noted that this is a completely unique metabolic modality that does not adhere to any of the previously accepted “rules” of the diet. And it’s not halfway there; 50 grams of carbs a day plus a high protein intake is NOT ketogenic!
So how are ketogenic diets “done right”? Let’s take a quick look at how they work.
An overview of ketosis
Simply put, our body, organs, muscles and brain can use either glucose or ketones for fuel. The function of the liver and pancreas (primarily) is to regulate fuel supply, and they show a strong bias towards sticking with glucose. Glucose is the “preferred” fuel because it is obtained in abundance from the diet and is readily available from liver and muscle stores. Ketones must be intentionally synthesized by the liver; but the liver can also readily synthesize glucose (a process known as “gluconeogenesis,” which uses amino acids (proteins) or other metabolic mediators).
We do not take beta hydroxybutyrate, acetone or acetoacetate (ketones) from the diet. The liver synthesizes them only under duress; as a last resort in conditions of severe glucose deprivation such as starvation. In order for the liver to convince itself that ketones are the order of the day, several conditions must be met:
- Blood glucose must drop below 50 mg/dL
- Low blood glucose must result in low insulin and elevated glucagon
- Liver glycogen must be low or “empty”
- Sufficient gluconeogenic substrates MUST NOT be available
It’s important to mention at this point that it’s not really about being “in” or “out” of ketosis; we either don’t run completely on ketones or we don’t. It is a gradual and careful transition so that the brain is constantly and evenly supplied with energy… ideally. Ketones SHOULD be produced in small amounts from a blood glucose level of about 60 mg/dL. Ketosis is considered when there are higher concentrations of ketones than glucose in the blood.
The reality is that most people—especially strength trainers—have had regular glucose intake for a good few decades, at least. The liver is perfectly capable of producing ketones, but highly efficient gluconeogenic pathways are able to maintain low normal blood glucose levels above the ketogenic threshold.
Couple this with the fact that many people are at least partially insulin resistant and have elevated fasting insulin (the upper end of the normal range, anyway). A small amount of blood glucose from gluconeogenesis induces sufficient insulin release to blunt glucagon output and ketone production.
Sudden glucose deprivation will initially result in lethargy, hunger, weakness, etc. in most people – until ketosis is achieved. And ketosis will not be achieved until the liver is forced to stop gluconeogenesis and start producing ketones. As long as there is enough protein in the diet, the liver will continue to produce glucose and not ketones. This is why no carb, high protein diets are NOT ketogenic.
What’s so great about ketosis?
When the body switches to running primarily on ketones, a number of very cool things happen:
- Lipolysis (the breakdown of body fat) is significantly increased
- Muscle catabolism (loss of muscle mass) is substantially reduced
- The energy level is maintained in a high and stable state
- Subcutaneous fluid (also known as “water retention”) is excluded
Basically, when we are in ketosis, our body uses fat (ketones) as fuel for everything. Therefore, we do not break down muscle to provide glucose. This means that the muscles are spared because they have nothing to offer; fat is all the body needs (well, pretty much). For dieters, this means significantly less muscle loss than is achievable with any other diet. Make sense?
As a bonus, ketones provide only 7 calories per gram. This is higher than the same weight of glucose, but considerably less (22% in fact) than the 9-calorie gram of fat from which it comes. We like such metabolic inefficiencies. It means we can eat more but the body is not getting calories.
Even cooler is that ketones cannot be converted back into fatty acids; the body excretes any excess with urine! Speaking of which, there will be quite a bit of urine; a decrease in muscle glycogen, low insulin, and low aldosterone equals massive intracellular and extracellular fluid secretion. For us, this means hard, defined muscles and fast, visible results.
When it comes to energy, our brain actually REALLY likes ketones, so we feel fantastic in ketosis – clear-headed, alert, and positive. And since there is never a shortage of fats to supply ketones, energy is constantly high. You usually even sleep less and wake up feeling refreshed when you’re in ketosis.
Doing it right
From what has been said above, you will realize that to get into ketosis:
- Carbohydrate intake should be zero; Zero!
- Protein intake should be low – no more than 25% of calories
- Fat must make up more than 75% of calories
With low insulin (due to zero carbs) and calories at or below maintenance, dietary fat cannot be stored in adipose tissue. Low protein means that gluconeogenesis quickly becomes insufficient to maintain blood glucose, and whether the body likes it or not, there’s still all that damn fat to burn.
And it can be burned. High dietary fat is oxidized for cellular energy in the normal way, but generates an amount of acetyl-CoA that exceeds the capacity of the TCA cycle. An important result is ketogenesis – the synthesis of ketones from excess Acetyl-CoA. In layman’s terms: high fat intake ”forces” ketosis in the body. This is how it is “done right”.
Now just throw away what you thought was the truth about fats. First, fat doesn’t “make you fat.” In particular, most of the information about the evils of saturated fat is so disproportionate or completely wrong; it is doubly useless on a ketogenic diet. Saturated fat causes ketosis to fly. And don’t worry; your heart will be better than fine and your insulin sensitivity will NOT be reduced (there is no insulin in the first place)!
Once you get into ketosis, it’s not technically necessary to maintain absolute zero carbs or low protein. But it’s still better if you want to reap the biggest rewards. Also, assuming you’re training hard, you’ll still want to follow a cyclical ketogenic diet where you eat all carbs, fruit, and whatever else every 1-2 weeks (more on that in another article).
Make no mistake; “Done right” doesn’t make the ketogenic diet easy or fun for the culinary acrobats among you. These are probably the most restrictive diets you can use and are not an option if you don’t like animal products. Take your nutritional almanac and build a 20:0:80 protein:carbohydrate:fat diet. Yeah, it’s boring. For example, your authors daily ketogenic diet is 3100 calories at 25:0.5:74.5 from only:
10 xxl whole eggs
160 ml of pure cream (40% fat)
400 g minced meat (15% fat)
60 ml of linseed oil
30 g of whey protein isolate
There are a number of supplements that help make ketogenic diets more effective. However, many popular accessories would go to waste. Here is an overview of the main ones:
- Chromium and ALA, while not insulin “mimics” as many claim, increase insulin sensitivity, leading to lower insulin levels, higher glucagon, and a faster descent into deeper ketosis.
- creatine is a bit of a waste – at most 30% can be taken up by muscles that cannot be meaningfully “grown” without glycogen.
- HMB (if it works) would/should be an excellent supplement to minimize the catabolic period before reaching ketosis
- Tribulus is excellent and highly recommended as it increases the increased output of testosterone on a ketogenic diet
- Carnitine in the form of L or Acetyl-L is an almost necessary addition to the ketogenic diet. L-carnitine is necessary for the formation of ketones in the liver.
- Glutamine, essential amino acids in free form and branched chain amino acids pay off before and after training. Just don’t overdo it with glutamine, as it promotes gluconeogenesis
- ECA fat burners are very useful and important, although don’t worry about the inclusion of HCA
- Flaxseed oil is great, but don’t think you need 50% of your calories from essential fatty acids. 1-10% of calories is more than enough.
- Whey protein is optional – you don’t want to remember too much protein
- A soluble fiber supplement that is not carbohydrate-based is good. But walnuts are easier.
Ketogenic diets offer a number of unique benefits that cannot be ignored if you are chasing a perfect figure or a figure with low body fat. However, they’re not the most user-friendly of diets, and any “middle ground” compromise you’d prefer would just be the worst of all worlds. Your choice is to do them right or not at all.
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