Ketosis and how the body processes protein

A common misunderstanding about the ketogenic diet is with respect to protein. Most people know keto means low carb, but the piece they are often missing is how much protein to consume and why. I think this is a frequently missed step that causes people to fail at achieving ketosis and fail at the weight loss, so it is worth mentioning.

Fat is scary

I get it. The keto diet is scary. We’ve been told all of our lives to eat low fat food. Eat carbohydrates like wheat, corn and potatoes. Keep your red meat consumption to a minimum. Eat baked not fried. The government gave us the food pyramid showing us how to eat to be healthy. It had grains on the bottom, then fruits and vegetables, then meat and dairy, and finally oils and fats at the top. The new version of the food pyramid is a plate, which is so simplistically clever, but still has three quarters of you plate composed of carbohydrates. And Keto goes against all of this indoctrination and it’s hard to decide to eat a bunch of fat. It’s really mentally trying. I was convinced my weight would go up and I was super nervous getting started.

We watched an interesting documentary last weekend by Katie Couric done back in 2014 called “Fed Up” (you can stream it on Amazon, itunes). Watch it if you get the chance. She investigates the ways the FDA has developed their guidelines and the influences that lobbyists from the sugar industry and the corn industry have had on what is recommended to the general public as a healthy diet. Lobbyists have more influence over what the government recommends you eat, not scientists and doctors who study the human body and nutrition. The FDA has even redacted peer-reviewed studies that would improve American’s health but would negatively affect our agricultural industry, just to get that lobbying money and get re-elected. It’s really sad and really disappointing.

Eat Fat, Not Protein

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Back to Keto, as I mentioned, this diet flips all the guidelines on their head. Literally it turns the food pyramid upside-down and that’s a big change, mentally. In nature, (think of the show “Naked and Afraid”), when people are running around as hunter-gathers, they would consume lots of seeds, nuts, leafy greens, eggs, and meat. So, if you were a contestant on Naked and Afraid, and you haven’t eaten in like 10 days and you finally catch a rabbit, you are going to eat all the meat, fat, organs, and bone marrow off that you can rip off. In the wild, you would rarely come across carbohydrates like we do today in a trip to the grocery store. On a good day, you’d come across a berry bush and you’d probably gorge all day long on berries, then pick the bush clean and take the rest of the berries with you to be eaten in short order (no refrigerator to make them last!). You’d eat up all those berries, then go back to your seeds, nuts, and animal diet. AKA, you’d go back into ketosis.

Ketosis is a mechanism for your body to survive periods of low food supply. It switches from the carbohydrate (short-term fuel) system to the fat (stored reserves fuel) system. When you haven’t eaten for weeks and you’re chasing down a big game animal, you need a lot of energy, so this ketogenic system provides you with that energy to run the animal down and kill it. Whereas, if you were on the carbohydrate system, you’d go through a sugar crash and have trouble finding the energy to go after the animal in the first place. It’s a fascinating and ingenious method of survival and accounts for why we are still here today. Without the duel fuel system, we would have quickly gone extinct after the berry bush was picked clean.

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Finally, here’s where the protein piece comes in. Now that you’re enjoying your buffalo or deer or whatever you caught, you’re consuming a lot of protein and fat. That’s all you get from animals (excluding dairy)- protein and fat. When you are a state of ketosis, for every gram of protein you consume, your body will convert 1/2 gram to carbohydrates to give you some quick energy (Newport, M.T, 2019)! Fast forward to modern day keto, your body will still convert half of the protein to carbohydrates. That means if you eat too much protein, you’ll create too many carbohydrates and pop yourself right out of ketosis. Bottom line, limit your protein to 20% of your total intake for the day.

Someone recently said to me, “my girlfriend is doing keto but it just isn’t working for her. She eats her salad with no dressing, eats low fat cheese, no carbs”…It’s not working for her because she is likely eating too many carbohydrates or not enough food. Low fat cheese reduces the fat and increases the amount of lactose = higher carbohydrates! Don’t eat anything in it’s low-fat version while on a ketogenic diet. We keep our proteins low (20% of our diet) and our carbohydrates even lower (5% of our diet or about 20g – again, depends on you and your body and your activity levels) so that our bodies will switch to burning fat reserves. Then we meet our caloric needs and control our rate of weight loss by consuming fat. Fat is the filler that gets you up to the number of calories you need in a day. We don’t actually want to starve ourselves or we will lose muscle and other critical body tissue, so we do need to get enough calories. The way to get those calories is through fats.

  • Keep your protein intake low (20%).
  • Keep your carbohydrates even lower (5%)
  • Fill up on fat
  • Try not to feel guilty about eating fat

Hope this helps clarify some things. Thanks for reading!

References

Newport, M.T.; The Complete Book of Ketones, 2019.

https://www.choosemyplate.gov/brief-history-usda-food-guides

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