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Burning Fat on the Ketogenic Diet

Can eating fat make you thin? Proponents of the ketogenic diet (the keto diet) say, “Yes!” And they’re right.

When you starve the body of carbohydrates — either by fasting for several days or by following a high-fat, extremely low-carb diet — your body’s metabolism shifts from glycolysis (burning sugar/carbs) to ketosis (burning fat).

Stay in ketosis long enough, and your body literally burns away stored fat, assuming, of course, you don’t significantly increase your total caloric consumption.

Ketogenic diet

Rationing Your Macros

To shift from glycolysis to ketosis, you must consume the proper ratio of macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates):

  • About 70% to 75% fat
  • About 20% to 25% of protein
  • Less than 5% carbohydrates

For example, a woman weighing about 200 lbs. needs to eat about 2,000 calories per day to maintain her weight. The amount of fat, protein, and carbs she would need to eat to achieve ketosis would be as follows:

  • About 1,500 calories or 167 grams of fat (a stick of butter contains 92 grams of fat)
  • About 400 calories or 100 grams of protein (a quarter-pound burger contains about 20 grams of protein)
  • About 100 calories or 25 grams of carbs (a banana contains about 27 grams of carbohydrates)

Some of you might be thinking, “Wow, that is a ton of fat!” You might imagine all that fat going to your belly, hips, or thighs and clogging your arteries. But that’s not what happens when you eat fat and starve your body of carbohydrates.

That is what happens when you eat large amounts of carbohydrates. On a high-carb diet, your body releases massive amounts of insulin to enable the body to process those carbs. Excess carbs are converted to fat and stored for future use.

As long as you stay on a high-carb diet, your body burns carbs, and that stored fat never goes away.

On a high-fat, low-carb keto diet, the body is forced to burn fat; it turns fat into usable forms of energy called ketones, hence the name ketogenic diet. In addition, the increased consumption of fat and protein boosts metabolism, makes you feel fuller, and helps to control blood sugar, thus reducing food cravings.

Why Go Low-Carb?

Think of fat as lazy and stubborn. It doesn’t want to be used as fuel. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are eager and readily available. When the body has a choice to burn carbs or fat, it will choose carbs every time.

If you continue to consume carbs while upping your fat intake, your body will burn the carbs and store the fat. You won’t see any improvement.

The key is to starve your body of carbs so it burns up all of its stored carbohydrates (glycogen) and has no choice but to start converting fat into ketones and burning those for energy.

What Can a Ketogenic Diet Do for Me?

Now that we have a firm understanding of what a ketogenic diet is, let’s talk about a few of the benefits you can expect by following this diet:

  • Ketones! Boy, oh boy, I could rave on about these guys for days. In my opinion, the production and utilization of ketones are one of the most profound and important aspects of the diet!

    Not only can they be used for energy, but they have an incredibly positive impact on the brain! Some studies suggest that ketones help alleviate some of the symptoms caused by neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and even help fuel the brain after a stroke or traumatic brain injury (TBI).

  • “Ideal” weight loss. Yes, keto can be great for weight loss! In fact, it is one of the most common reasons people try the keto diet.

    However, the keto diet is better than other diets that simply call for reduced calorie consumption because it improves body composition by reducing fat while preserving lean muscle tissue.

  • Improved energy. By starving the body of carbohydrates, the keto diet stabilizes insulin levels and eliminates the blood sugar highs and lows that lead to energy spikes and crashes throughout the day. Most people who achieve ketosis report feeling more energetic and mentally sharp throughout the day.

  • Reduced inflammation. Restricting high-carb foods from the diet reduces two of the major sources of inflammation, as well—as sugar and processed carbs. In addition, reduced glycolysis activates a protein called CtBP, which suppresses the activity of inflammatory genes.

The benefits of ketogenic dieting are vast and numerous. These are just a few big ones that I feel are the most important and are often experienced upon entering ketosis.

The Do’s and Don’ts of the Keto Diet

Like most diets, the keto diet requires self-discipline and determination, especially for the ‘carnivores’ amongst us. Here are a few tips to help you clear the initial hurdles:

  • Be patient! Attaining ketosis takes time. You can expect this process to take seven to ten days. You may experience low energy levels or even flu-like symptoms (known as the “keto flu”), but you can take steps, such as drinking more water and restoring your electrolytes, to alleviate the discomfort.

  • Stay hydrated. To enter into a state of ketosis, the body must first burn all of its glycogen (carbs stored in muscle tissue). Glycogen holds onto the water—approximately four grams of water for every gram of glycogen—so when you burn glycogen, your body eliminates that water.

    The good news is that you’re likely to see significant weight loss during this stage of the diet. The bad news is that the weight loss is due to water weight, and you’re more susceptible to dehydration. Try to drink more water to stay hydrated.

  • Replenish your electrolytes. Magnesium, potassium, and sodium are the little guys that actually help our cells function and help keep us hydrated. Unless you have a pre-existing heart condition, sodium is not exactly a bad thing.

    It will help your body hang on to and utilize some of the additional water you’re drinking. If you do notice the “keto-flu” starting to come on, just drink some water and eat an electrolyte-packed avocado, and you should feel like a whole new person.

  • Focus on the netTo calculate net carbs, subtract the amount of fiber from the total carbs. For example, 100 grams of avocado has 8.64 grams of total carbs and 6.8 grams of fiber, resulting in only 1.84 net grams of carbs and 15 grams of fat.

    Opt for veggies that grow above ground, such as broccoli and leafy greens. Avoid veggies that grow below ground, such as potatoes and carrots. Avoid most fruits, except for blueberries and raspberries.

  • Snack on nuts, cheeses, and protein bars! Guess what? You can eat cheese, assuming you’re not lactose intolerant! You can also go nuts with nuts. Just be sure to keep your eye on the net carbs. Some nuts are higher in carbs than others.

    Ideally, you want to consume less than four grams of net carbs per meal. The reason I mentioned protein bars is that some of them are actually keto-friendly — they have high fiber content making them low in net carbs.

When you decide to go keto, avoid the following most common pitfalls:

  • Don’t mistake high fat for high protein. This is one that a lot of people get incorrect. A ketogenic diet is high-fat, not high-protein. Don’t feel as though you need to eat a pound of hamburger or chicken or chug down a protein shake with every meal.

    You should be eating plenty of green leafy vegetables and a good amount of fats with them. For example, you may eat a quarter-pound burger slathered with mayo (no bun) along with a cup of broccoli soaked in butter.

  • Don’t treat all fats the same. Good sources of healthy fats include avocados, butter and ghee, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, fatty fish (such as salmon and sardines), nuts and seeds, eggs, grass-fed organic beef, MCT oil, full-fat dairy, and dark chocolate.

    Avoid bad fats, such as trans fats, which are often added to highly processed fatty foods.

  • Don’t cheat. Several days into the diet, you may be tempted to gorge on carbs. Resist the temptation. After you have come so far, push through for a few more days, and it will become much easier. Look up a few keto recipes to mix things up or find alternatives for some of the foods you love.

At the end of the day, keto is very neato and has tons of benefits, but you have to find a diet that not only works for you, but that you are able to adhere to on a day-to-day basis.

You can have the best diet plan in the world, but if you do not follow it then it doesn’t matter how awesome it is. Think of your “diet” as your lifestyle. If you can live a life where you’re able to pass up on the rolls and mashed potatoes but load up on steak, butter, asparagus, and cheese, then the ketogenic diet might be right for you!

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About the Author: Cameron Ackerson, MS, CSCS, is the director of nutrition at BioDesign Wellness Center in Tampa, Florida.