What is it About “Keto?”

I get a ton of questions on the ketogenic diet ranging from its merits to the purported dangers. “Going keto” is the latest craze. It’s all over the internet. There are websites dedicated to it. And Facebook forums. It’s a subculture not unlike that of modern-day obstacle course racers and that long-sock-wearing cult of exercise trainees. Although the latter gravitates towards Paleo as opposed to a ketogenic protocol.

So what is it about keto?

Why is it all-the-buzz these days? And why does being in ketosis grant one bragging rights as if it’s some sort of mystical, elusive, nirvana-like state? “I’m in ketosis. Don’t mess with my flow.”

The truth? Being in ketosis is nothing special. It’s a normal physiologic state that anyone, let me repeat that, anyone can take advantage of if he or she chooses to do so. Dr. Atkins did not invent it, nor did the contemporary “pedigree-less” internet gurus who are trying to pawn off branded coconut oil on you. Our bodies have been capable of generating ketones for eons. It’s simply a matter of “showing your body the right signals.” This should sound very familiar to those of you who read my stuff – I say it all the time in the context of other aspects of health.

Distilled down, nutritional ketosis (that differs from ketosis – arbitrarily defined as a serum ketone level of 0.5 mmolar or greater) is an accelerated fat burning state. No, you don’t have to be in ketosis to burn fat. You can burn fat, albeit less aggressively, and still fulfill your weight loss goals. Heck, my patients aren’t in ketosis. I don’t want them there. That’s a separate conversation – another day. Just understand that the ketogenic diet is a very aggressive way of shedding body fat characterized by an extremely low daily carbohydrate intake and high-fat consumption. Essentially, the goal is to transform your body into a fat-burning machine with a turbocharger. In the ketotic state, the liver is churning out molecules with funny names such as acetone, acetoacetate, and beta-hydroxybutyrate, better known as… ketones! Their formation is catalyzed by the depletion of liver glycogen in response to low carbohydrate consumption.

Essentially, the body is generating an alternate energy source to fuel the body, and in particular the brain, when carbohydrate stores are dwindling. And this is not magic! It’s a normal adaptive response of the body that can be taken advantage of if a rapid fat loss is your goal. Being in ketosis does not equate to starvation, although the body believes that to be the case as a result of the low insulin signal. This turns the body’s fat-burning mechanisms on, not only shrinking your waistline but also shielding you from disease. Sound too good to be true? It’s not. Your ability to generate ketones is written into your DNA. As with everything health-related, it’s simply a matter of showing your body the right signals, one of which is not carbohydrates.