At The Nutrition Academy we base the nutrition course on two overarching principles; the first is taking an historical and anthropological perspective of nutrition, and the second is the philosophy of vitalism (as opposed to mechanism). I’d like to address the ketogenic diet with these principles in mind.
During my university days (early 1980’s) the ketogenic diet was briefly mentioned as it relates to the prevention of seizures with people who have epilepsy. I don’t remember learning anything about the role of ketones, apart from ketoacidosis occurring in type 1 diabetes – ketone bodies are controlled by insulin, so when insulin is absent, the ketones increase. Too much of any thing can cause an issue, just the right amount can be life saving.
I had a chance to talk to a neurologist at an epilepsy conference. I asked him what he thought of the ketogenic diet in helping people with the condition. He said it worked, especially for refractory epilepsy (where drugs do not bring the seizures under control, affecting around 30% of people with epilepsy). However, he then declared that it was a restrictive diet and that drugs for those who could take them was a better option.
Whenever you look up the history of the ketogenic diet it always takes you back to when MG Peterman’s work in the 1920’s established the techniques for induction and maintenance of the diet for seizure patients. But this way of eating has been around for a lot longer that that.
Some tribes that still live their cultural lives follow a very ketogenic lifestyle. It is, in fact, not something new, but something rather old.
Three Energy Metabolites: Glucose, Lactate and Ketones
The body needs energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). The production of that energy can be sourced by three energy metabolites; glucose, ketones and lactate. Not much is mentioned about lactate as an energy source and I won’t go into it in depth here, but it’s interesting to note that lactate production from intensive exercise provides more energy for muscle contraction. It can also fuel the brain and heart and be converted to glucose in the liver.
Most people know that glucose makes energy for the body to fuel major organs and muscles.
Ketones are produced by the liver from fatty acids (stored or eaten) when glucose is in short supply.
These alternative energy systems are vital for the survival of the evolutionary human. Dr Richard Veech (1) a prominent researcher who worked with Dr Kreb on the kreb cycle, and an authority on ketones, said in an interview recently that humans are the only ones that produce ketones for an alternative energy source in order to keep the brain functioning and increasing heart energy by 28%.
When Ketosis was Required by Our Ancestors
The true history of the ketosis way of eating dates back possibly millions of years. It was a survival mechanism for humans when food was not available or in scarcity because they inhabited extreme geographical conditions such as deserts, snow bound country at high altitudes or arctic regions.
Seasons were predictable for the most part for early man. Summers bought forth sweet fruits and fat animals and food was plentiful. Eating a diet of plenty ensured weight gain through the summer months. Sugar was plentiful so it would be used as a main energy source. Laying down fat was an efficient way to store energy, in comparison to glucose which lasts humans approximately 24 hours. If all we could use for energy was sugar we would have perished many thousands of years ago.
When the winter came for early humans, food became scarce, the animals would be lean due to lack of feed and the beautiful sweet fruits of summer would have disappeared, leaving little or no plant life to eat. Therefore the amount of food eaten would be less and there would not be a lot of sugar around. It was at this time that the stored fat from the summer months of eating would be used in order to survive. The fatty acids stored in the fat stores would have been converted to ketones in the liver for an alternative energy source for the brain, heart and muscles.
How Long Can we Survive on Fat Stores Alone?
The longest recorded fast was recorded and published in 1973. The fast lasted 382 days. The weight of the patient on day 1 was 207kg. On the last day of the fast he weighed in at 82kg. He drank water, with measured supplementation and yeast. Over the entire time he averaged losing 327g of fat a day, delivering him the energy he needed in order to survive. His energy would have been in the form of fatty acids delivered by the fat stores (that he had laid down for years before) to the liver and made into ketones. (2)
The closer to the equator humans lived, the less variability in the seasons: fish, yams, sweet fruits and coconuts would have been plentiful most of the year, but if there was a cyclone, tsunami or other disaster then food would be scarce and the people of the region would depend on their fat stores to survive.
Tribes that still exist today (like the Kyrgyz of Pamir, Himba of Namibia and Inuits) who live in extreme places such as deserts, high altitude or far away from the equator like Greenland, depend on animals and animal products more than plant life for their nourishment. These people for the most part stay in ketosis for long periods of time, sometimes years. But when carbohydrates are available it is the sweetest of treats and I’m sure eaten to excess. While the sun shines make hay, or when the food is plentiful store fat.
How to Get Into Ketosis – Summary
Fasting and low calorie diets force the use of stored fats to be converted to ketones for energy. A low carbohydrate high fat diet uses the consumed fatty acids to be converted to ketones.
Oh how I love the human body! It knows what to do, how to be healthy and how to survive on a myriad of foods. It can survive and thrive in many situations, with varied climates, food sources and scarcity. The problem is that we have made it so complicated – especially regarding what has happened to our food supply.
The body cannot survive when we feed it foods that it cannot recognise and this is where disease in the body begins. Modern processed foods are a disaster; agricultural chemicals, additives, preservatives, fillers, binders and food acids in our modern food create havoc in the body. Yes, the body will use the macronutrients to do what it does best, lay down fat if sugar is plentiful or use fat stores when food is not plentiful, but the quality of the stores and the quality of the body begins to suffer. And, after some time, disease eventuates and it may display as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and the hundreds of other diseases that seem to have gone from rare to epidemic.
Now that we understand the history of a ketogenic way of eating, let’s look at how to do the eating program correctly; how our ancestors did it – cyclically and in a vitalistic process.
I’ve discussed ketone supplements previously. I don’t agree with them, except as Dr Veech explains in disease states (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s) and in ester form only.
Changing Habits Fat Loss Protocol is based on getting into the state of the winter of early man. In other words, eating less food and no fat. This then tells the body to use fat stores in order to survive. The Fat Loss Protocol is not a complete fast; rather, you eat minimal foods, forcing the body to start using the fat stores (you stored previously by what you ate) to make ketones to create energy so that you don’t get hungry. During the protocol you have plenty of energy and you use up stored fat at around 200g to 300g per day (see longest fast fact, above). So, over a 21 day period, you can expect to lose around 6kg. Some people lose more because they not only lose the fat stores, but also inflammation (water weight) at a rapid rate – sometimes 4kg in the first week. Your body will naturally go into ketosis.
In summary, ketosis can be achieved in many ways, but I like to do it cyclically, mimicking our ancestors and using real foods (not ketone supplements). I personally do the Fat Loss Protocol every two years in order to mimic the needs of my evolutionary body.