100 Days of Keto
Updated: May 5, 2019
Fat in the diet has been a controversial subject in the realm of healthy living for many years. Different research studies indicate contrary observations, so it can sometimes be difficult to know what information is accurate. There has been a considerable amount of new research that suggests that eating a ketogenic diet may help reduce the instances of diabetes, cancer, and other metabolic disorders. Additionally, many nutritional scientists have looked at the benefits of eating a whole food diet that is similar to what our ancestors ate with the notion that if we evolved eating this way, it is likely that our bodies still prefer it today. Combining these two ideas, I embarked on a 100-day trial of a ketogenic diet, tracking my progress along the way to see how my own body would respond.
Before I get to the results of my personal experiment, I’d like to provide more information on the definition of a ketogenic diet, and why it is believed to be beneficial for humans. A ketogenic diet allows the body to use fat as its primary source of fuel without relying on sugar and carbohydrates. This is accomplished by limiting carbohydrate intake to fewer than 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day, eating a moderate amount of protein (too much protein can interfere with ketosis), and eating a high amount fat. Macronutrient ratios for a standard ketogenic diet are approximately 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbohydrate. To achieve nutritional ketosis, blood ketone levels must reach a range of 0.5 to 3 millimoles per liter (mmol/L).
When referring to being in ketosis and the measured level of blood ketones, one important distinction to make is the difference between the healthy state of nutritional ketosis and a dangerous condition called ketoacidosis. Even well-intentioned doctors can confuse the two if they have not studied the difference. Ketones in the blood result from the way our bodies process fat and some amino acids. Metabolising these substances results in three different ketone bodies: acetone, acetoacetate, and beta-hydroxybutyrate. Our brain can only function with glucose and ketones, so if glucose is eliminated from the diet, the ketones produced from fat metabolism are what provide fuel for the brain. Relying on ketones in the blood that are there as a result of nutritional ketosis is completely healthy. The confusion that this may be an unhealthy state comes from the condition of ketoacidosis, which is a dangerous condition for which some diabetics are at risk. Ketoacidosis results from a failure to receive enough insulin, which causes a state of starvation in the body. This state of starvation triggers the body to begin burning fat for fuel, which creates elevated levels of blood ketones. When insulin is not present, the glucose in the bloodstream cannot get into the cells, which creates elevated levels of blood glucose. It is the combination of high glucose and high ketones that is the danger. The reason why nutritional ketosis is safe is because the total carbohydrate intake on a ketogenic diet is low, therefore the resulting glucose level in the blood is also low, which eliminates any threat of ketoacidosis.
There are many proclaimed health benefits to a ketogenic diet. According to the National College of Natural Medicine, some of the health benefits include weight loss; fat loss while retaining lean muscle mass; reduced hunger cravings; enhanced exercise recovery; increased focus, concentration, and energy throughout day; raising HDL (good cholesterol) and increasing LDL (bad cholesterol) particle size, both associated with decreasing risk of heart disease; decreased free-radical production; neuroprotection; and medical uses which include treating drug-resistant epilepsy, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and sleep disorders. Some of the main benefits I was attempting to achieve with my trial of a ketogenic diet was the enhanced cognitive function (to benefit my academic endeavors), weight loss, and fat loss.
There are many different foods that can be eaten to achieve the macronutrient ratios needed to induce ketosis. For the purposes of a stark comparison, I’m going to define two different types of ketogenic diets: “dirty” keto and “clean” keto. Dirty keto disregards the quality of the foods being eaten, and focuses solely on the macronutrient content of the food. This could include consuming produce treated with pesticides, meat from intensive animal farming (factory farming), and laboratory created foods with artificial sweeteners and other chemicals used to mimic the foods that a ketogenic diet avoids. Clean keto refers to consuming high quality foods, including organically grown vegetables, grass-fed or wild meat products, and in general whole foods that have not been altered from their original, natural states. Because I am concerned with the quality of the food I eat, I chose to eat clean keto for the duration of my personal experiment.
One thing I discovered about eating a ketogenic diet, is that it became much more than a diet. It became a protocol for living: a lifestyle. I began looking at nutrition from a nutrient density perspective. Since I was limiting carbohydrates, but I still wanted to make sure I was getting enough phytonutrients, I opted to eat vegetables with the highest nutrient density to carbohydrate ratio. I also made sure that I was getting adequate amounts of sleep. This was one of the harder lifestyle practices because I am in school full time and a single mother of two boys, so getting enough sleep was often challenging due to my many obligations. There are so many reasons why sleep is an essential component of health. Adequate sleep supports healthy brain function and emotional well-being. Getting enough sleep has been proven to enhance learning, and increase ability to focus, make better decisions, and be more creative. Sleep is also important for physical health. When you do get enough sleep, your body gets a boost of human growth hormone which stimulates bone and muscle growth, helps repair cells and tissues, and is a strong regulator of immune function and other physiological processes.
My transition to eating a ketogenic diet came fairly easy since I had been eating low carb (compared to the Standard American Diet) off and on for a few years. However I knew that keeping my carbohydrate intake as low as it would need to be to achieve nutritional ketosis would likely be a challenge at times. To ensure that I was actually in ketosis, I tested my blood ketones and blood glucose daily for three months. This helped me to keep track of my progress. I also weighed myself daily using a scale that measured weight, BMI, body fat percentage, and lean muscle mass percentage.
The results that I experienced during my three months eating a ketogenic diet met my goals and expectations. My fasting glucose ranged between 68 mg/dL at the lowest to about 100 mg/dL at the highest. It took me four days to get into ketosis, and according to my daily readings, I was in ketosis from that point on for the entirety of the experiment, except for one day when I went to a friend’s birthday party and I had a glass of wine (alcohol is not part of a successful ketogenic diet). My blood ketones ranged between 0.5 mmol/L at the lowest to 6.1 mmol/L at the very highest. This high reading was unusual, and was recorded after running a 5K race with my kids. The combination of exercise and the low carbohydrate diet bumped up my ketone production and lowered my blood glucose for a few hours. My average blood ketone reading was about 1.5-2.0 mmol/L. My blood glucose readings seemed to have a correlation with my blood ketone level: the higher the ketones, the lower the blood glucose.
I experienced greater mental clarity, I felt more satiated after meals, my quality of sleep improved, I felt that I had more energy, I lost weight, and I lost fat. As a test to see if running on a large amount of ketones would help with mental clarity, I got myself deep into ketosis before a physics exam. Before the exam when I was studying, as well as during the exam, I experienced very clear, sharp thinking. I felt as though working through the problems took less time than usual. I was able to read the question, and quickly assess which information I needed to solve the problem. About halfway through the exam, I became aware of just how clearly I was thinking. It honestly felt like I had taken some super drug that helped me think better. But it was just the results of a ketone-fueled brain.
Another benefit I experienced was weight and fat loss. After three months on a ketogenic diet, I lost 22 pounds. My BMI went from 28.4 to 24.6. This was the first time my BMI was below 25 since having children 14 years ago. My body fat percentage dropped from 41.6% to 34.7%. I also thought that I looked healthier, and my clothing fit better. I went to see my doctor to get my annual blood work done. I didn’t see much change in my cholesterol, but I saw some improvements in my inflammation and blood sugar markers. My inflammation markers were in the optimal range as were my numbers related to how well my body was managing glucose.
Overall I deemed this experiment a success. My doctor gave me the green light to continue with this diet to see if my numbers kept improving. She recommended that I see her again after another three months to recheck the bloodwork. I plan on embarking on another three month trial eating primarily a ketogenic diet, but this time I’d like to focus more on exercise and physical activity. That was the one thing that was lacking during my original three-month trial. I’d also like to experiment with allowing myself to eat even more high-fiber vegetables, and to push the limits of how many of them I can eat while still remaining in ketosis. Everyone’s bodies are different, and we all need to find what works best for us. At this moment in time, my body seems to really thrive on a ketogenic diet.
Resources and Further Reading:
1. Attia, Peter. Is ketosis dangerous? December 2, 2011. https://peterattiamd.com/is-ketosis-dangerous/
2. Gilbert, Steven P.; Weaver, Cameron C. Sleep Quality and Academic Performance in University Students: A Wake-Up Call for College Psychologists. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy. 2010. v24 n4 p295-306.
3. Should you try the keto diet? Harvard University. Harvard Health Publishing. October 2018. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/should-you-try-the-keto-diet
4. The Ketogenic Diet: Pros and Cons According to NUNM. National University of Natural Medicine. Feb. 26, 2019. https://nunm.edu/2019/02/ketogenic-diet/