Understanding Ketosis

Our body has two main sources of fuel: sugar/glucose produced from CARBS or burning fat through ketosis. Our body doesn’t really differentiate between incoming fat or stored body fat, as it can produce ketones from either. Once we learn to switch on our ketosis metabolism, when we restrict incoming calories, losing weight becomes both a breeze and enjoyable.

Before we look at burning ketones, let’s go back to what prevents us from losing our fat. You see, when we eat CARBS our body converts them to sugar, and, as our body regards sugar as both fuel and poison, our pancreas creates insulin that takes the glucose and either helps us burn it if we need the energy immediately or dispatches it to our fat stores.

While insulin is active, even if we are on a long run or cycle ride, it prevents us from using our body fat as fuel. This is where I personally went wrong for so many years. I could never understand why I wasn’t losing weight even when I was running three or four mornings a week. I just didn’t realise it was the pizza the night before, or the early morning orange juice and cereal, that was secretly ganging up on me and sending their by-product insulin to render all my good intentions and painstaking efforts worthless.

So before we can even start burning our body fat and entering a state of ketosis, we must rid our body of as much sugar/CARBS/insulin as possible. Once we’re rid of insulin, our body will turn to our fat stores for energy. Then, when we open the door of our fat store, our body releases energy in the form of ketones. Ketones are effectively an alternative fuel source to sugar/glucose. Not just energy to drive our vital organs, but as fuel for our muscles and brain too. In fact, ketones are the fuel of preference for our brain, heart, liver and muscles, yet many individuals haven’t been able to supply this rich energy source since they were infants consuming their mother’s breast milk!

Once we open the door and enter our fat stores we are said to be in ‘ketosis’. Until we enter ketosis it is impossible to lose body weight. For decades, as I stood on my bathroom scales after my early morning runs, the scales always showed that I had duly lost weight as a result of my hard hour slogging my guts out. But I was misinterpreting the results. Because I always had sugar/insulin in my body, it was preventing me from entering ketosis and therefore all I had really lost was water and not fat.

During that long jog or cycle, we will be putting stress on our joints and limbs while not really gaining any benefit, and do more harm than good. Plus, as we will be burning lots of calories, we are sure to replace them with even more CARBS and other sugars as soon as we finish. Remember, just like nicotine makes a smoker want another cigarette as soon as it starts to exit the body, as insulin gets burnt it makes us crave more sugar and empty calories. I would like to blame the food corporations exclusively for this addiction. While it is true that in many cases, just like they do with cigarettes, manufacturers insert chemicals into food to make us crave them or even worse become addicted, Mother Nature had a hand in it too.

You see, at the end of the summer when she knew the food was about to become scarce, she loaded her bushes and trees with sugar-rich fruit. To ensure that our caveman ancestors ate as much as they possibly could, stocking up their internal fat stores for the barren cold winter, she made it possible for us to consume carbs, store them quickly and then fool our brain to eat even more. She effectively shut down the creation of the ‘I am full hormone’ leptin, so our caveman took on board and stored as many calories as possible.

While today the vast majority of adults in the Western world never enter a state of ketosis, Primal man spent far more time in ketosis than out of it and if you were breastfed from birth you previously did too. In his brilliant book Keto Clarity – a book that if you really want to get a detailed understanding of how to enter ketosis I recommend you purchase – author Jimmy Moore explains that within 12 hours of being delivered into the world we enter a state of ketosis, with ketones from our mother’s milk providing around a quarter of our total energy. What I also found fascinating in Jimmy Moore’s book was that breast milk is rich in MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides – you will be reading a lot about these amazing fats later), which is what coconuts provide by the bucket-load. It is for this very same reason why much-packaged baby milk contains either coconut oil or MCT oil.

It is too early in the book to go off on a tangent (again) and start talking about one of my favourite subjects, but for your health’s sake please do everything possible from this point forward to fall in love with coconuts. They are simply one of nature’s miracle foods and can actually accelerate the speed at which we enter the metabolic state of ketosis. So much so, that in order to bring forward the entry point into ketosis, many people take MCT supplements. I don’t personally recommend them unless you are trying to get there for medical reasons. Instead, just eat lots of coconut produce.

Because our Primal forefathers often went days without catching their food, and during the winter ate very sparsely indeed, they were constantly engaged in an intermittent fast orchestrated by nature. It’s important to remember that when the supply of CARBS and protein is low, our body will run on fat. It doesn’t distinguish from stored fat or free fat. Our stored fat, whether it is from our buttocks, love handles, waistline, results in exactly the same ketones as the free fat waiting to be stored. So our caveman ancestors didn’t have to worry about balancing their food, the fact that their bellies were often empty meant that their ketosis metabolism kicked in automatically once any glucose in the body and liver had been consumed.

If we have a lot of weight to shed and really want to shift it, then one sure way to do so is to avoid as many CARBS as possible (even the good ones for a short while) and enter into a state of ketosis. If we can exercise as well and remain in ketosis for prolonged periods, then our weight should drop off. Warning: Don’t drop the green carbs (broccoli, spinach, etc) for long as we need to eat healthy CARBS such as leafy green vegetables and low-sugar fruits. The only time we should drop them from our diet might be for just a few weeks while we teach our body how to enter ketosis.

So how do we become keto-adaptive?

We need to get our daily CARB intake to below 50g and ideally, these should come from complex CARBS such as leafy greens. Jeff S. Volek, PhD, RD, and Stephen D. Phinney, MD, PhD in their book The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance sum it up brilliantly: “When it comes to cereals, bread, pasta, potatoes, pastry, candy, juices or other carb-dense foods we’ll say it once... just don’t go there. Because all of these are like the nuclear option in suppressing ketones, we’ve started calling them ‘carbage’”. They have created this wonderful word ‘carbage’ by combining CARB and garbage, and I think it should be added to the English dictionary! Now you might wonder why I say low CARB, moderate protein and lots of quality organic fats. Why do we need to be careful of our protein intake? Aren’t proteins the good guys? Yes, proteins are the good guys, and play a crucial role in our well-being. However, our body is really clever. It has the ability to turn protein into sugar. In the absence of CARBS, the body turns any excess protein into sugar and therefore while attempting to enter ketosis we need to be careful not to overdo the protein.

Now that we're are getting into detail, let me explain that the body does occasionally need glucose to function. If it can’t locate it when it’s needed, through a process called gluconeogenesis, it synthesises it from proteins. This is really important to understand if we want to either enter ketosis or lose weight, or more commonly both! While protein is undoubtedly vital to our survival and a critical macronutrient for our body’s self-repair mechanisms, when we consume too much of it, in the absence of CARBS our body will convert any excess into the same by-product of CARBS – sugar.

In Keto Clarity, author Jimmy Moore explains, “The liver normalises and maintains blood glucose levels in the body by creating glucose through gluconeogenesis. During those times when the body is not taking in any food (for instance, when we are sleeping), the liver goes to work on gluconeogenesis, using amino acids (the building blocks of protein), lactic acid and glycerol (a molecule that comes from fat) to create the sugar the body needs”. What’s really interesting to understand, especially for those like myself who love fasting, is that after the liver has used up all of the glucose it can store (stored glucose in the liver is known as glycogen), which is typically around 12 to 18 hours depending on the level of activity we are performing, gluconeogenesis kicks in and starts converting glycogen to fuel from other sources. Of course, what we really want to happen once all of our glycogen is spent is that the body stops searching for it and instead switches its fuel tank and starts metabolising ketones.

Although we don’t count calories, while we are training our body to enter ketosis it’s ideal to aim for around 20% of our calories from green CARBS and protein and 80% from healthy fats. But remember these are just guidelines and every single one of us is different. For example, because I have damaged my metabolism so badly in the past, I only have to look at CARBS to put on weight. Seriously, it seems I am that sensitive to processed CARBS I only have to sniff a pizza and my waistline bulges! And the same happens when I consume too much protein. I seem fine with 30g of protein during or immediately after a workout, but on days when I am not exercising I have to be just as strict about my protein intake as I am about CARBS.

Seeing as we don't count our calories, a simple summary for ketosis is – virtually no carbs, reduced protein and double our organic fat intake. So if we want to enter ketosis, it’s all about maximising the number of healthy fats we consume.

Is Ketosis healthy?
    My wife’s first impression was no, it’s not! A side effect of being in ketosis is that one of the three different kinds of ketones, acetone, is primarily detected in our breath. And boy does it sometimes smell very pungent! The first time I went into the blissful state of ketosis, my wife was so convinced that I had a stomach ulcer she pleaded with me to go to the doctor. However, I was feeling wonderful and healthy and knew that there was nothing wrong. It was only recently that I discovered that my initial bad breath was just the body learning how to burn its new clean fuel. If the same happens to you, then just chew on some fresh mint until it goes away.

    I believe that bad breath for a few days is a small price to pay for something that can slow down the ageing process, reduces the risk of such horrible diseases as cancer (remember cancer needs glucose to fuel its growth) and improves virtually all cognitive functions, so much so that many specialists are recommending ketogenic diets for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s. In addition it:

    • Helps accelerate weight loss

    • Improves the quality of sleep

    • Benefits the skin and can eradicate acne

    • Helps hormones better control appetite

    • Lowers blood pressure

    • Makes it far easier to intermittently fast

    • Provides the body with a superior amount of energy

    • Increases testosterone for a better sex drive

    • Improves moods and fights depression

    • Increases the good cholesterol HDL

    How Do I Know If I Am Metabolising Ketones?
    The first time will be fairly easy as you will probably get a smelly breath! We can also purchase ketone strips, which when we pee on them will measure the level of acetoacetate ketones in our urine. They cost under £10 for 50 strips and they seem to work quite well when we are starting out and therefore provide excellent moral support, but as the body gets more used to being in ketosis tend to work less well over time. If you are happy to prick your finger to obtain a small blood sample, for around £30 you can purchase a ketone tester commonly used by diabetics. While it’s a little less convenient, it’s by far the most accurate as it measures on beta-hydroxybutyrate, which is the main source of ketones in the blood. You can also now purchase breath testers, but as of yet, the reviews seem very mixed.

      If you'd like to find out more about ketosis and the ketogenic diet, then grab a copy of my book, The Primal Cure.
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