From fat to fab
Before keto, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t severely overweight. Sure, I was exercising a fair bit, and behind all the fat, there was some muscle hiding. That being said, no matter the different fitness and nutrition regimens, the fat around my waist was nothing less than a ball and chain. (Cue the inspirational music.) But then, I found keto. Actually, it was a decade of searching for the best way to lose weight, and in the end, low-carb diets prevailed. I once again regained my confidence in nutrition and its power to transform both the body and the mind. And that’s when I finally started to enjoy my life.
Why keto? Isn’t that unhealthy?
I’m glad you asked. First of all, a ketogenic diet is a type of nutrition, which questions the necessity of carbohydrates as the main fuel source. In doing so, it asks you to reduce this macronutrient to a very small degree, about 5 percent of your total calories (1). Crazy, right? When your body is deprived of carbs, it has no choice but to go into the state of ketosis. In ketosis, you’re utilizing a fat-based metabolism by producing ketone bodies in your liver (2). They are created by converting dietary as well as stored fat and are much more efficient, aka “cheaper” (literally and figuratively), than glucose. But wait, isn’t this process unnatural or dangerous?
If we take a look at the majority of products in a random shop, then yeah, a ketogenic diet seems abnormal. If we go back 50 years, it would still feel weird. I mean bread makes up like 20 percent of the store aisles.
Finally, if we go back any further, the more carbs you ate, the better social status you represented (3). We don’t need to go back to hunter-gatherer times to see that healthy people did not gorge on complex carbohydrates.
In fact, during the Middle Ages, the peasants with their fish and vegetables ate much healthier than the rich man who had access to highly processed pastry. Funny how times have changed… There’s actually a verse in the bible (no, there isn’t) that says, “He who mixes saturated fats and carbs shall have his cardiovascular health wrecked, but he who avoids carbs altogether shall live a happy long life.”
So no, the keto diet is not unhealthy, nor is it unnatural. The fact that we, as infants, were reaping the benefits of ketosis shows us that this is not just a “diet trend”(4).
When everything else fails…
It’s true that most keto proponents, including myself, have lost hope in 99 percent of the traditional dietary advice. We probably came to keto as our last option since we had nowhere else to go. The thing is, being intolerant to glucose, having insulin resistance, a hunger that cannot be contained is not exclusive to diabetics. 88 percent of Americans are metabolically unhealthy (5), how is that normal? The current system is clearly designed to seduce and fatten us with its hyper-processed, sugar-rich crap. But does that mean that everyone should rebel and go on a ketogenic diet? Not quite.
Even though everyone could benefit from having a more flexible metabolism and being in the state of ketosis once in a while, keto isn’t for everybody. Besides medical conditions that would conflict with high amounts of fat in the diet, psychologically, you might go from one extreme to the other. If you’re prone to eating disorders, already can barely reach calorie maintenance, then this lifestyle may not be for you. With that in mind, most keto benefits are not exclusive to the diet.
Keto diet prevails
Before I explain how you can benefit from “keto” without making this drastic change in your life, let’s explore some of the advantages of meaningfully reducing carbs. By being on a high-fat, moderate-protein, and very low-carbohydrate diet, you are saying goodbye to the handcuffs of hunger that high-carb diets provide (6). Welcome to the most satiating way of eating that may be slightly more tricky but just as delicious. The lack of hunger manifests in many more ways than simply weight loss. I suppose losing fat is nice, but the cognitive boost and the steady levels of energy that the absence of constant insulin spikes gives you are second to none.
In addition to eating less without suffering, you’re also often taking in much more nutritious foods. Carbohydrates aren’t essential, but practically all of the micronutrients are. I could name minerals and vitamins that you get from eating healthy meat and fish, but that would frankly include all of them. You would be losing quite a bit of sodium by getting rid of all the processed crap (7), but that is the easiest and cheapest type of supplementation.
The main reason why I got hooked into a very low-carb nutritional approach is that it promised mental clarity like no other way of eating. While being mostly anecdotal, I’ve heard countless stories of people fixing their anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other devastating psychological issues with keto. Whilst I couldn’t have claimed that I had difficulties that were as severe as that, my subjective levels of stress seemed atypical, to say the least. But how could a specific change in a macronutrient composition have such a significant effect on the human psyche? Answer — by eliminating inflammation in the entire body but, above all, in the brain.
It’d make sense for an anti-inflammatory diet to have a positive impact on stress-related problems since most of them start in the brain. Ketones, especially BHB (beta-hydroxybutyrate), are proven to be associated with better mitochondrial function and a decrease in oxidative stress (8, 9).
Because ketones are much more powerful and require a lot less oxygen than glucose, it becomes clearer why someone would proclaim enhanced brain function. Our brain cells are adequately equipped to run on ketones, and some research would suggest that they prefer it that way (10).
One thing is clear: many people, including myself, have discovered notable psychological improvements like stress reduction exclusively on keto.
On the other hand, the ability of our mindsets to affect the way we feel is profound, and hence, we can’t know for sure whether the placebo effect isn’t responsible for most of these fascinating observations.
But wait, didn’t you say that I can have the benefits without a complete 180 in my way of life? Sort of.
How to eat your cake and have it too
Keto is awesome, but as we discussed before, it’s not for everybody. It’s certainly for everyone to try, but not necessarily to stick to till the end of days. Looking on the bright side, there’s another wellness protocol that has the same benefits and more. The upsides, such as insulin sensitivity, hunger reduction, an increase in energy, can be achieved through another pathway. Fasting.
I know that it may seem that I’m moving from one “diet trend” to another, but intermittent fasting is much more than that. Long windows of not eating have always been an intrinsic part of being a human. And yes, more often than not it was not by choice but simply due to the lack of food. Nevertheless, fasting has had a place in almost every religion (11). Without modern-day psychedelics, not eating was one of the few ways that someone could’ve achieved a spiritual experience that could’ve left them to believe that they were closer to god, for instance. Despite this woo-woo use of fasting, the protocol is way more than just a mild psychoactive drug.
By fasting intermittently (around 16 hours a day), you’re not only getting most of the benefits of keto, including being in the state of ketosis but greatly improving your longevity as well. Out of all the different wellness regimens that exist today, fasting seems to evoke the most radical response in regards to lifespan in all species. Its effectiveness in rodents, for example, seems phenomenal — making them live 11 percent longer without reducing calories or changing their diet composition (12).
Although the outcomes in humans may not look as acute, it’s not clear whether the right protocol hasn’t been found or we need to focus on something like a fasting-mimicking diet proposed by Dr. Walter Longo (13). Nonetheless, fasting is one of the most promising recent discoveries that take into consideration our healthspan as well as lifespan and does not shy away from what it means to be human.
What is more, IF also protects you from having a frail body by promoting the process of cellular repair, known as autophagy (14). This way, you are to some extent canceling out the destructive nature of most comfort foods, which aren’t meant to make us stronger, but rather the opposite. By utilizing fasting intermittently for a couple of years now, I’m able to achieve levels of mental clarity and physical tranquility as if I hadn’t had those “cheat days”. I’m able to reap the benefits of the traditional way of socializing, have my carbs, and minimize some of their inflammatory, damaging characteristics. In other words, I’m able to have my cake and eat it too.
Don’t buy takeout, make food at home. Don’t be afraid of carbless meals and experiment with fasting intermittently. The bible, as well as Anthony Bourdain, was right. Our bodies are both temples and amusement parks. Let’s make them last as long as the Pyramids and obtain joy from them as if they were a video game. Have fun people!