Have you ever heard of a ketogenic diet? A ketogenic diet means your body is using ketones for energy production rather than sugar. Ketones are an alternative fuel source for the body, and are produced when eating a high fat and low carbohydrate diet. This type of diet is called "ketogenic" because your body is in a state of "ketosis" meaning fueled by ketones rather than sugar (aka glucose).
9 Reasons why you want your body to be fueled by ketones instead of sugar:
1. You literally burn your own fat for energy
Your body can run on either glucose or ketones. Which would you choose? Well, when you look at what this actually means: Glucose is produced from the breakdown of glycogen (strings of glucose), this means you are burning glycogen to produce fuel for your body. Ketones on the other hand are produced from the breakdown of fat (fatty acids), this means you are literally burning your own fat stores to produce energy. You can make ketones from eating very low carb (sub 50 net carbs), fasting, or consuming a product that can induce or supply ketones (such as MCT oil).
2. No more “Hangry”
You know that feeling when are so starving that every little thing is irritating, and you need to eat right. NOW? Terrible feeling right? Blame the carbs! After a blood sugar spike from eating carbs, this will trigger insulin whose job is to get that sugar out of your blood as fast as it can (because sugar in your blood is toxic and inflammatory), resulting in an even lower blood sugar than you started with. Low blood sugar (aka hypoglycemia) is that terrible anxiousness you are feeling. No bueno! And how do you make that feeling go away the fastest? Eating sugar. And the vicious cycle continues.
Fat is the only macronutrient that won't raise blood sugar, and therefore won't spike insulin. Yes, that means protein can also raise blood sugar when eaten in excess. That is why a ketogenic diet favors a higher fat and moderate protein intake.
3. Ketones favor less mental stress
The presence of ketones increases the production of the primary calm inducing neurotransmitter, GABA, while at the same time decreasing the primary stress inducing neurotransmitter, Glutamate. Ketones do this by assisting in the conversion of glutamate to GABA in the brain, thereby favoring a more calming state. Increasing the activity of GABA is essentially what most anti-anxiety medications aim to do as well - pretty cool you can get the same effects by just changing your diet!
4. Ketones favor a more focused state
For the same reason ketones favor calmed brain activity, they also favor a more alert and focused state. As stated above, more GABA compared to glutamate in the brain favors a less stressed state, meaning there is less “noise” in the brain, allowing for greater focus and mental clarity. This is why medium chain triglycerides (MCT) are marketed as a product that can increase focus and cognition - because they give the body ketones that can be used for fuel without having to be in actual ketosis from eating low carb.
5. Ketones are a more efficient source of energy
Ketones and glucose are both used as fuel by mitochondria to produce energy (aka ATP) - mitochondria are the part of a cell that takes fuel (either glucose or ketones) and manufactures energy from it. When comparing the output of energy produced from the use of ketones vs. glucose, more energy is produced when using ketones, thereby making it a more efficient fuel source. The presence of ketones also up-regulates the amount of mitochondria in cells, so more mitochondria means more energy produced. This is another reason for the improved focus and mental clarity seen with a ketogenic diet.
6. Ketones act as antioxidants
Research has found that ketones act as antioxidants because they protect against oxidative damage from free radicals. When ketones are used to produce energy (by mitochondria) this process does not cause the release of free radicals, as does glucose when it is used to produce energy. Free radicals aka oxidative damage cause damage to cells and aid in the development of chronic disease, cancer, cognitive decline and other brain diseases, and aging.
7. Ketones may prevent cancer growth
Compared to normal cells, cancer cells metabolize a much greater amount of glucose meaning they need more glucose to thrive. Cancer cells may preferentially use sugar to fuel their growth and proliferation, and research has shown that they may not be able to use ketones as fuel. Research has also shown greater response to chemotherapy when in a fasting state inducing ketosis. There is more research needed in this area, but ketones as a preventative measure for cancer is looking very promising!
8. Greater absorption of nutrients
Major vitamin, antioxidants, and other nutrients need to be taken with fat to be able to be absorbed. This includes Vitamin D, Vitamin E, lycopene and beta-carotene such as in tomatoes, and the B vitamins. Making sure you are taking in plenty of fats will ensure you are getting the most out of your food and supplements.
9. Ketones are neuro-protective
Fueling the brain with ketones has shown to help with brain disorders such as seizures, brain cancer, Parkinson's Disease, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and Alzheimer's Disease. There is a widely cited case of a physician who put her husband on a ketogenic diet as treatment of Alzheimer's disease and he improved within a couple of months. More research is needed on the direct effect of ketones for the prevention of diseases that affect the brain, but so far its looking very optimistic!
Side note: Ketones can supply up to 70% of the energy needed by the brain. It is true that your brain requires some glucose to function, but glucose can come from protein, it does not have to come from carbohydrates. It is a misconception that carbohydrates are necessary in your diet - they are not. Protein and fat are the two macronutrients your body definitely needs to manufacture all of the necessary components of the body.
Note: all works cited can be found in the hyperlinks
Board Certified Nurse Practitioner in California. Blogging about health, fitness and mindfulness.