There was a time not so long ago when nutrition was simple: carbs good, fats bad. But since this neat summary was from the same people who told us to eat more margarine and fewer eggs, well, let’s just say that advice wasn’t the most accurate.
Welcome to the ketogenic diet. A high fat, low carb diet based on how our ancestors probably ate, it can control epilepsy, help you get a leaner body, and make your thinking clearer and sharper.
Dr. Dominic D’Agostino, Associate Professor of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of South Florida and Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), is here to talk to us about what exactly is going on in your body on a ketogenic diet.
The Evolution of Human Diets
When you think about how our caveman ancestors lived, they didn’t have access to a glut of high glycemic load foods like ripe fruit or honey, and they definitely weren’t snacking on white bread.
They were eating a diet high in fiber and fat, and low in carbs. They were also probably in ketosis for most of the year.
Cognitive Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet
When your body is in ketosis, your brain just works better: you’ll feel more lucid and sharp.
Like so much about the brain, we don’t know exactly why this is. But from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. If you haven’t been successful in getting food, it’s time to make a new plan, and you more likely come up with a successful one if your thinking is clear and sharp.
Getting into Ketosis
There are a few ways of pushing your body into ketosis, including sustained periods of fasting and following a ketogenic diet (as the name so obviously suggests). Dr. D’Agostino also suggests spending some time in the sun and heat. Getting out in the sun lowers glucose and raises ketones, and can push you into ketosis, especially if you’ve been fasting.
How will you know if your body has gone into ketosis? You’ll want to check your level of ketones daily, at about 3 or 4 pm.
You can buy blood tests to accurately measure your ketones level. But if you want to save money, just grab some cheap ketone pee sticks at any pharmacy for about $0.25 per strip. They’re less accurate, but will still confirm whether or not you’re in ketosis.
If your results from the urine strips are at least 15-40mg / dL, you’re almost definitely in ketosis.
Another way to check if you’re in ketosis is to ask someone to smell your breath. Acetone (that stuff in nail polish remover) is a ketone body, and some people in ketosis find that their breath starts to smell like acetone.
Psst… If this happens to you and it’s affecting your dating life, try drinking lots of water, coffee, and green tea, and chewing sugar-free gum.
Going Keto: What to Expect
First, a quick explanation of what a ketogenic diet is. The classic ketogenic diet is comprised of 85-90% fat, much of it dairy fat. Realistically, this is really hard to sustain. So, Dr. D’Agostino tends to follow a “modified” ketogenic diet of 65-70% fat with much of the dairy replaced with fats from things like coconut cream and avocado.
So when we refer to a “ketogenic diet,” we’ll be talking about a modified ketogenic diet.
If you’d like to try a ketogenic diet, the best way is to ease into it. If you’ve been eating a high-carb diet, your brain is probably hooked on glucose, and if you cut out glucose too suddenly, you could have some fairly unpleasant withdrawals, with flu-like symptoms.
Dr. D’Agostino’s recommendations:
- Eat 100 grams of carbs per day, split up into portions of 25 grams. This is low carb enough to start to get the metabolic benefits of a low carb or ketogenic diet.
- Make sure that, along with those carbs, you’re getting 150-200 grams of fiber, so the carbs won’t cause blood sugar level spikes.
- Every two or three days, eat a ketogenic diet and add MCT oil.
Ketosis and Intermittent Fasting
Ketogenic diets and intermittent fasting aren’t the same thing. A ketogenic diet governs what you eat, and intermittent fasting rules when you eat it.
That said, the two are complementary. Intermittent fasting is easier to maintain when your brain and body are keto-adapted. Depending on the length of your fasting period, practicing intermittent fasting can also nudge your body towards ketosis.
Supplementing For Ketosis
Taking the right supplements can help you get into ketosis and make sure your body is functioning at full capacity in that state. Here’s what Dr. D’Agostino recommends:
- Medium chain triglycerides (MCT) oil
- Ketone salts (endogenous ketones)
- Carbohydrates make your body retain sodium. Because you’ll be eating significantly fewer carbs on a ketogenic diet, you’ll need more sodium to make sure your body has the minerals it needs. Dr. D’Agostino eats 4-8 grams of sodium a day. Sea salt is a good option.
- On a ketogenic diet, levels tend to dip. Dr. D’Agostino recommends taking magnesium citric acid powder right before bed for improved sleep.
PS: Got more questions about ketosis, ketogenic diets, or fasting? We’re doing a Twitter chat with Dr. D’Agostino on Wednesday, September 28 at 8pm ET where you can ask all your burning questions. More on our #AxonChat Twitter chat here.
Ketosis and the brain
This Week in Neuroscience: Smarter Brains are Blood-Thirsty Brains
The audience interaction section
Next #AxonChat - Wednesday, September 28 at 8pm Eastern Time with Dominic D’Agostino
Quick background on ketosis (check out Episode 56: Ketosis vs Cancer? for more of a primer)
Dr. Dominic D’Agostino’s entry point to researching ketosis
What can ketosis do for cognition?
Ketone bodies in different ratios
Is living in ketosis ‘normal’?
Optimising metabolism and preserving mitochondrial function through ketogenic dieting
Ketones versus glucose for your brain
“Keto flu”, heightened focus, and other physiological and cognitive responses to ketosis and fasting
The difference between male and female responses to ketosis
How should you aim to be in a proper state of ketosis?
Factors other than food that affect ketone levels
The effect of ice water baths and direct sunlight on glucose levels
States of mind during a fast versus a ketogenic diet
Intermittent fasting versus longer periods of fasting
The importance of sodium and magnesium during ketosis
What is the best time to check blood ketones?
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