Considering how many carbs most of us eat on a regular basis, we might as well be hummingbirds. Though instead of running on nectars and sugar water, we power our muscles on simple carbohydrates that quickly convert to glucose (sugars). While it’s perfectly fine to eat this way, a different method of powering your cells called the ketogenic diet has recently gained popularity, and it promises to provide impressive benefits for your health.
If you fill your diet with fats and protein instead of carbohydrates, the system states, you’ll put your body in ketosis, or a prime fat-burning state that affects your health in other positive ways as well. But what is ketosis, and is it smart to put your body into it? Let’s cut through the hype to find out.
What is Ketosis?
Ketosis is the process of priming your body to burn stored fat for energy, rather than glucose. This is a normal metabolic process that takes place when the body doesn’t have access to enough carbohydrates to fuel itself. Many people purposely put themselves into ketosis to lose weight, enhance their mental performance, improve their mood, or reduce their risk of developing chronic diseases.
As the body metabolizes fat, it produces a type of acid called ketones. These are a fuel source that cells use to power their functioning. You are considered to be in ketosis if the concentration of ketones in your blood is at or above 0.5mmol/L. One of the best ways to get in ketosis is by following a ketogenic diet.
The Science Behind the Ketogenic Diet
When you eat a standard diet, you fuel your body with glucose, which enters your system through sugars (like fruit and dairy products) and starches (like grains). The resulting concentration of calories is either burned through exercise or stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen.
Glucose is a convenient form of energy, which is why it’s the body’s preferred fuel. But if your levels run low, it transitions to an alternative energy supply: your body fat. In other words, your liver undergoes a process of breaking fat down into fatty acids and glycerol. These acids are then transformed into ketones, a potent energy source for your cells.
Why rely on multiple sources of energy? Scientists speculate that ketosis is part of an evolutionary adaption that helped our ancestors survive famine periods when fresh fruit and starches were in short supply. In fact, babies are often born in a state of ketosis. However, the easy convenience of carb-rich foods today means that many people rarely, if ever, enter ketosis.
How to Enter Ketosis
Our article on the ketogenic diet goes into far more detail about the process of entering ketosis, but the overall premise is simple. Your primary goal with this eating strategy is to cut down your consumption of processed grains, fruits, starchy vegetables and other carb-rich foods, and to fill up on high-quality proteins and natural oils instead. After a certain point, your blood’s ketone concentration qualifies as ketosis, which leads to optimized fat-burning for as long as you remain within it.
Is ketosis what’s responsible for causing you to lose weight? Some researchers believe that the benefits of following a ketogenic diet don’t come from entering ketosis, but instead from the calorie restriction that comes with the eating strategy. While this is likely a contributing factor to the plan’s success at promoting weight loss, the process of ketosis seems to play a significant role as well. However, it’s possible for diabetics, women who are pregnant, or people with other health conditions to go into ketosis unintentionally, often to ill effect.
How To Know If You’re In Ketosis
If you’re following the ketogenic diet and not sure if it’s working, there are some telltale signs that your body is in ketosis to look for.
- Dry Mouth/More Thirst: Because entering ketosis requires that you eliminate many fruits and vegetables from your diet, it’s easy to become low on water and electrolytes. A dry mouth or metallic taste is typical, so drink as much water as you can, and consider drinking bone broth to boost your levels.
- More Frequent Urination: Acetoacetate, a common ketone body, can act as a diuretic and increase the number of bathroom trips you take each day.
- “Keto Breath”: Many people in ketosis for the first few times find that their breath smells fruity or like nail polish remover. Sweat can smell the same way. This is caused by chemicals that are created as your body burns fat. Thankfully, the condition is temporary and will dissipate once your system becomes used to ketosis.
- Less Hunger: Ketogenic diets tend to be satiating, and the process of ketosis will increase your body’s available fuel supply. This helps you feel full with less food, often reducing your desire to snack between meals.
- The “Keto Flu”: Your body might struggle as it adjusts to its new fuel source, and this can lead to unpleasant symptoms like nausea, sugar cravings, headaches, and a general lack of motivation.
- More Energy: After a few days of ketosis, it’s common to recover from the keto flu with increased energy. Common signs include less brain fog and better moods.
3 Best Home-Based Tests For Diagnosing Ketosis
If you want to clear up any confusion about whether you’re in ketosis, three home-based tests can offer you insight into your ketone concentrations: breath ketone analyzers, urine strips, and blood ketone meters.
As the cheapest, most straightforward way to measure your ketone levels, most beginners rely exclusively on urine strips. If you want to check whether you’re in ketosis, dip the strip into your urine (catching some in a cup also works well) and assess the change in color after fifteen seconds. The colors might vary slightly by brand, but dark purple is typically a sign that you’re in ketosis. Again, the measurement is imprecise, and the test loses accuracy once you’ve been in ketosis for several weeks.
Breath Ketone Analyzers
Breath ketone analyzers are a proven way to get a general idea of your ketone levels from home. While the test won’t provide you with a precise ketone level, it gives you information about your overall level, and it can be used repeatedly (unlike test strips).
For those who want complete accuracy for their ketone counts, blood-ketone meters are the gold standard for giving you instant insight into whether you’re in ketosis. The biggest negative for many people is that the test strips can be expensive, up to $2 per test.
Is Ketosis Healthy?
It takes significant effort to put yourself into ketosis. Is the process worthwhile? The facts show that undergoing ketosis has impressive benefits for your health, including the following.
1. Speeds Up Weight Loss
Weight loss is ketosis’s most famous benefit, and for a good reason. Eating a diet that’s high in fat and protein while low in carbs can quickly trigger weight loss while keeping you satiated. Both a meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled trials and a study from the British Journal of Nutrition show that following the ketogenic diet can lead to faster, longer-lasting weight loss than traditional diets. Best of all, this eating strategy tends to target visceral fat, the kind that lodges itself in your abdominal cavity and can cause health problems.
2. Protects Against Cancer
Going into ketosis changes how your cells fuel themselves, and the process can potentially starve cancer cells. Research shows that the keto diet can “starve” prostate cells, potentially slowing or even reversing the progression of certain cancers.
3. Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
A carb-filled diet reduces your body’s sensitivity to insulin, which causes cells to store body fat for energy. Going keto, in contrast, helps you better regulate your blood sugar levels so that you have less risk of developing insulin resistance (the underlying cause of type 2 diabetes)
4. Less Risk of Heart Disease
High blood pressure is a leading cause of death worldwide, and your cholesterol level is a significant factor. Research shows that putting your body in ketosis lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while elevating HDL (good) levels instead. This leads to less risk of heart disease, and a healthier cardiovascular system overall.
5. Fights Brain Disease
Brain health tends to deteriorate as you age, but the ketogenic diet can treat, even reverse, the neurological problems connected with aging. There is evidence that the diet can reduce the symptoms of epilepsy, and it can also offer neuroprotective benefits for disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Do You Have to Optimize Ketosis for the Health Benefits?
In a word, no. It’s possible to experience many benefits of the process even at low levels of ketosis, so long as you’re above 0. 5mmol/L. However, you’ll experience the most significant difference for your body at higher concentrations.
When is Ketosis Dangerous?
Not all instances of ketosis are necessarily good for you. If you eat a healthy, well-rounded diet, you shouldn’t ever go into ketosis, and if you find yourself in ketosis despite your carbohydrate consumption, it could be a sign that something more serious is wrong. Situations that might trigger bouts of unintentional ketosis include fasting or extended periods of time, extreme amounts of exercise, or pregnancy.
Certain illnesses can also put you in ketosis. For instance, patients with diabetes can go into ketosis if their insulin levels fall too low. A buildup of ketone bodies can trigger ketoacidosis, a hazardous condition that can lead to diabetic comas or even death.
The Effects of Ketoacidosis
If you spend too long in ketosis or go into ketosis for reasons besides restricting your carb intake, it’s possible to enter into ketoacidosis. This condition is caused by excessive concentrations of ketones in the body, and it can develop in as few as 24 hours.
While ketoacidosis can have numerous triggers, it’s often caused by illnesses that affect your hormone levels in ways that counteract normal insulin functioning. Other causes can include drug abuse, emotional or physical trauma, stress, or the aftereffects of surgery. The condition is most common in people with type 1 diabetes, as their bodies aren’t naturally producing insulin. The situation is possible, though less frequent, in type 2 diabetics.
Are you experiencing ketoacidosis? Symptoms of the condition can include abdominal pain, dry skin, excessive thirst, a loss of mental focus, shortness of breath, and even nausea or vomiting.
Enter Intentional Ketosis for Impressive Health Benefits
If you adjust your eating strategy to enter ketosis healthily, the process can have some impressive benefits for your health. So long as you monitor your levels and understand the symptoms that show you might be at risk for ketoacidosis, transitioning your body to burn fat for fuel will improve your health.
Experiment with the ketogenic diet today, and you might be amazed at how good you feel.