The Basics of Nutritional Ketosis

alphabet blocksBefore reading this, I highly recommend you check out my Biochemistry Primer which goes over a lot of important concepts that will make this easier to understand.

 

What is nutritional ketosis?

It is a state in which your body prefers to burn stored body fat for energy instead of carbohydrates.  The way to achieve this is to eat a diet high in fat, moderate in protein, and very low in carbohydrates.

My primary goal is to lower my body fat percentage.  After learning about nutritional ketosis, and seeing how effectively it worked for others, I wanted to see if I could benefit from it as well.

Cut breadWhy is it important to eat a very low amount of carbohydrates?

In a typical diet where carbohydrates are the primary source of energy, your body undergoes multiple peaks and troughs in blood glucose concentration.  After a carbohydrate rich meal is consumed and your blood sugar spikes, insulin is rapidly released to bring it back down into the normal range.  The problem is that insulin can overshoot a bit causing your blood glucose to dip a little too low.  This stimulates your appetite and causes you to eat more carbohydrates, which then leads to more insulin being released, perpetuating the cycle.

You end up eating an excess amount of carbohydrates, which are then converted into extra body fat.  Your body is also exposed to a large amount of insulin as it is trying to keep your blood sugar under control.

Having so much insulin around is detrimental because the presence of insulin actually inhibits your body from burning fat.  This effect can actually persist for days!  For example, if you eat a bagel for breakfast today, exposing yourself to insulin, your body will stop burning its stored fat for the rest of the day.  This will continue on into tomorrow and probably the day after.

If my goal is to get rid of body fat, I need to do two things:

  1. Prevent my body from storing new fat
  2. Get my body to burn the fat that I already have.

As you can see, consuming carbs works against both of these things.

 


SumoWhy is it important to eat a moderate amount of protein and a large amount of fat?

When you eat protein and fat, as they are absorbed into your blood stream, they cause no effect on your blood sugar.  Since there isn’t a spike in blood sugar, your body doesn’t release any insulin.

Protein and fat also cause you to feel full faster and longer so you end up eating less over all.  Maintaining a caloric deficit is important if your goal is to lose fat.  As I wrote in my biochemistry primer:

A key point to remember is that your body is very efficient in storing energy.  It has the ability to convert any excess carbohydrates, proteins, or fats that are consumed into stored body fat.

Any excess calories eaten, whether in the form of carbohydrates, proteins, or fats, can be converted to body fat if they’re not utilized to meet immediate energy demands or used to replenish supplies to maintain your body.

 

How does nutritional ketosis occur?

The process by which your body goes from burning carbohydrates to burning fats is called ketoadaptation.   The key to becoming ketoadapted is to minimize your exposure to insulin by restricting carbohydrate intake.

An important fact to remember is that your body will do whatever it takes to keep its blood glucose concentration within its preferred range of 70-100 mg/dl.  With only a very small amount of carbohydrates coming in, your body needs to work to keep its blood glucose concentration in this range.  It begins by metabolizing its stores of glycogen.

Once all the glycogen is used up, it turns to gluconeogenesis.   Gluconeogenesis is the process in which your body makes glucose from amino acids, lactate, and glycerol.  This glucose is then released into the blood stream to maintain your blood glucose levels between 70-100 mg/dl.

In order to preserve the blood glucose that your body worked so hard to make, your body turns to another source for energy instead: ketones.

In this carbohydrate-depleted state, your body begins to convert its stored body fat into ketones.   Ketones are then released into your blood stream to be used for energy.  Organs such as your brain and skeletal muscle that normally run on glucose, stop using it, and start using ketones to function instead.

Your body is now optimized to burn its stored fat for energy.

 

How long does ketoadaptation take?

The entire process takes 2-4 weeks to complete.

 

How do you know when you are in nutritional ketosis?Precision xtra

When you are in nutritional ketosis, your body is converting your stored fat into ketones that are sent into your blood stream to be used for energy.  The more fats you’re burning, the more blood ketones you will have.

Since I love playing with data, once I discovered that blood ketones can be measured directly and accurately, I immediately bought the test kit.  After a pinprick, a drop of blood is placed on a test strip that is measured by a small machine.

A ketone measurement between 0.5 – 3.0 mmol confirms that you are in nutritional ketosis.

Here is a list of all the tools I’ve been using.

 

When is the best time for me to check my blood ketones?Day 42c

The best time is first thing in the morning while fasting. This will give you the most accurate reading.

Volek and Phinney describe a diurnal variation in ketone production, with the lowest amount in the AM. So if you’re in the zone in the morning, then you should be for the rest of the day, since that will be your lowest reading.

In my experience I’ve become distrustful of testing later in the day because of the potential effect of my meals. Food can still be absorbed 6 hours after you’ve swallowed it.

The reason you test is to know whether your body is producing ketones. You don’t want any ketones coming from something you’ve eaten to screw up your numbers and give you a false impression as to what’s going on.

 

So how many carbs should I eat to achieve this?

It is recommended to eat less than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day (for reference, an apple contains 17 grams and a banana contains 51 grams).

 

How much protein should I eat?Three Eggs

It is also important to only eat a moderate amount of protein, approximately 0.6 to 1.0 grams per pound of lean body mass.

For example, I currently weigh approximately 180 lbs.  I estimate my body fat percentage to be 20%, which means that the amount of body fat I have is:

20% x 180 lbs = 36 lbs.

My lean body mass is therefore:

180 lbs – 36 lbs = 144 lbs.

So the total amount of protein I should eat is in the range of:

0.6(144) to 1.0(144), or 86 – 144 gm.

For reference, a burger patty contains 35 grams of protein, an egg contains 6 grams, and a strip of bacon contains 2 grams.
In order to function properly your body is constantly breaking down and building up proteins.  It is important to consume enough protein to replenish the necessary amino acids your body requires.

However if too much protein is consumed, your body will convert excess amounts into glucose via gluconeogenesis to do what it can to replenish its glycogen stores.  This in turn will stimulate the release of insulin, which blunts the burning of fat.

 

How much fat should I eat?

For nutritional ketosis, it is recommended that 65-80% of total calories should be from fat.

Assuming I eat 50 grams of carbs and 144 grams of protein, my caloric intake will be:

50 grams of carbs x 4 calories/gram of carbs = 200 calories
144 grams of protein x 4 calories/gram of protein = 576 calories

This comes out to a total of 776 calories, which doesn’t even come close to my basal metabolic rate of 1700 calories. This doesn’t include any extra activity I do such as digesting food, brushing my teeth, walking to my car, BJJ, surfing etc.

For me, just to meet my basic metabolic demands I need to eat an additional 924 calories from fat, which comes out to about 54% of my total calories.  I can bump this percentage up to the 65-80% range simply by eating more fat, decreasing my protein intake (144 gm is at the top of the recommended range), or doing a combination of both.

Since I am fairly active, my daily estimated caloric expenditure is actually in the vicinity of 2700 calories, so as long as I’m eating less than 2700 calories, my body will be burning more fat than it’s storing.

Here is a post I wrote about why the amount of calories you eat matter.

 

Thank you for reading this.  I hope you’ve found this to be helpful.

The primary resource I used for this was The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance

 

photo credit: bass_nroll via photopin cc

19 Responses to The Basics of Nutritional Ketosis

  1. […] Basics of Nutritional Ketosis […]

  2. Michael says:

    Excess carbs causes fat storage from eating them, not carbs in and of themselves.

  3. Michael says:

    The reason I say that is because you were talking about people who are to begin with insulin resistant, with this making them prone to overconsuming (esp when eating a lot of carbs). Carbs in insulin sensitive individuals though don’t have this effect (and obesity and IR I’m sure you’re aware is analogous to the chicken and egg thing).
    Maybe you’re writing to an audience of people seeking weight loss, but that doesn’t mean carbs in sensitive, active individuals (and perhaps more sedentary ppl like many eating high carb in Asia) are inherently disease causing.

    I liked reading some of these posts though, so cheers. We probably agree on most stuff…

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      Sorry, I was on the road and couldn’t write a long reply. But yes, since my goal is fat loss, I directed my writing more towards that goal.

      Volek and Phinney do go into the description of carb intolerance and how that varies in people, and how there is like 20% or so of people out there who can eat as many carbs as they want and still be ok.

      But most people, myself included, do exhibit some degree of carb intolerance – as we can see by the epidemic of obesity in the Western world now.

      From what I’ve seen, I think the phenomenon with the insulin overshooting a bit can happen even if you are insulin sensitive (IS) especially in the setting of a massive dose of sugar. Because a bolus of sugar will still cause a spike in sugar, which will cause insulin to be released. The only difference between those that are IS and those that are IR is how well your body responds to the insulin is released which directly effects how much insulin is released.. and in both scenarios a small degree of post prandial hypoglycemia can still occur.

      I hope that makes sense… but if you have any links or resources that show otherwise I’d love to read about it… and I think it’d make for a great post topic!

      Rob Wolff also wrote a few posts regarding how low carb/ketogenic diets actually DIDN’T work for him because it couldn’t meet his performance needs, and how needed more carbs… particularly with his BJJ training because of it’s a predominantly glycolytic activity (at least according to him)…. I’m planning on doing a post on this sometime in the near future too.

      The difference between Asian carbs and Americans are that in typical asian diet… their portions are much smaller… so their glucose load/sugarspike/insulin release is much more controlled… and they aren’t subject to the wild swings that we get in a western diet. Also they tend to walk a lot which also helps to blunt the glucose/insulin response. Where I live.. we pretty much drive everywhere… even to the other side of the parking lot in a strip mall! But asians that are exposed to western diets and western portions are in turn getting fatter too!

  4. Brian says:

    How much weight did you lose doing this?

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      I lost a total of 5 lbs and approximately 2 inches off my body (when factoring abdominal, hip, and thigh circumferences).

  5. Sasha says:

    Can modified corn starch found in a medication for joint pain kick a person out of ketosis?

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      No. The main factor that can push someone out of ketosis is insulin. Things that raise your insulin, such as eating too many carbs, will push you out of ketosis.

      The amount of corn starch and thus carbohydrate within pills in medication is negligible, and should not push you out of ketosis.

  6. Mary Jo Kringas says:

    Hello, thank you greatly for all your information here. I just bought some Ketone strips from the Canadian pharmacy you kindly referenced. Also, thanks for making the Voltek and Phinney material more clear… I am highly insulin resistant, generally eat less than 30 carbs a day, and I am seeking additional weight loss from measuring ketones. I wish I could give up on the concept that there is something that reverses insulin resistance. My morning ketone measure is 1.5 so I will eat additional fats and I am thinking (goodness forbid!) about exercise to see if I can increase my ketone level.

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      The important thing is that you’re starting to experiment with this. You may find in the end that this isn’t the best diet for you… OR you may find that this diet is PERFECT for you. Not everyone responds in the same way.

      One thing to keep in mind though is the fact that it’s taken many years for your body to get to it’s current insulin resistant state, so reversing those changes won’t occur overnight!

      How long have you been in ketosis thus far?

      • Mary Jo Kringas says:

        For the last 7 days, I have wavered from 1.5 to 0.7 on the ketone meter… the meter only arrived 7 days ago. I have started kickboxing aerobics for one hour a day or until I think I am going to fall over (whichever comes first). I read in the Voltek material to avoid alanine after exercise or this would curb ketosis.. alanine is in nearly all proteins so I ate an avocado and some creamed coconut after the aerobics class and my ketone level was only 0.7. Still, I am not totally discouraged. As you say, this whole thing (and maybe even the entirety of life) is an experiment. I will learn what I can and I am glad I am not too cynical to try something new.

  7. […] Nutritional Ketosis Basics […]

  8. Ian says:

    Hi

    I was curious if there are any supplements I can take to help me reach nutritional ketosis?

    Thanks,
    Ian

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