The Ketogenic diet is currently very popular, and rightly so, it has lots of potential benefits which include weight loss, increased autophagy (cellular repair), as well as improved cognitive function, sleep, lipid profiles and insulin sensitivity. However, there is one tricky aspect of this diet, and that is the difficulty of getting into ketosis in the first place. If you don’t take the time to understand how to do this properly, you are setting yourself up to fail!
What is Ketosis?
Being ‘in ketosis’ means that your liver is producing enough ketones to adequately fuel your brain and body… but when you don’t truly get into ketosis, your body won’t produce enough ketones. At this point, your body essentially has emptied out its glucose stores, but it hasn’t gotten to the point where it can efficiently use fat for fuel. The result? There isn’t enough energy available in comparison to what you need to function normally, which initiates a starvation response. Glucagon, adrenaline, and cortisol levels increases, and your body will start to break down muscle for energy due to its ‘perceived’ metabolic stress (1, 2).
As you might imagine, this can make you feel lousy, as your body desperately tries to make you slow down and conserve energy due to its perceived energy shortage. Evolutionally, this was a completely logical response by the body when food was truly scarce! Generally feeling awful during this time isn’t all in your head – in fact, studies have concluded that a wide variety of symptoms including loss of libido, menstrual irregularities, cold sensitivity, loss of strength and stamina, slower wound healing, and psychological conditions such as depression, emotional deadening, and irritability are common physiological responses to starvation or calorie restriction (3).
We all want the fastest way to get into ketosis, but when you cut corners, you risk this starvation response, feeling terrible, and ultimately failing. We see people struggle a lot with this, and the frustrating part is that it’s not because they can’t do it or that they lack the willpower – rather, it’s because they weren’t given the right information in the first place.
Not to worry! In this guide, I’ll provide the best-kept secrets for getting into ketosis (or keto-adapted, as it’s often called). This plan needs to be followed strictly during the time that you are aiming to become keto-adapted, which typically takes about 3 weeks.
There are 3 main components when it comes to getting into Ketosis
- The first is ensuring that you are eating the right foods to get you into ketosis (while avoiding the ones that can pull you out of ketosis!).
- The second part is about testing your ketone levels, so you know where you stand when it comes to ketone production.
- The third is knowing which supplements can mimic ketones to give you energy whilst your body is becoming keto-adapted. These supplements can keep your brain happy so it doesn’t think there is a lack of food and won’t initiate a starvation response!
1. Getting the food right!
A good starting point is to get 75% – 80% of calories from fat, 5% of calories from carbs, and 15% – 20% of calories from protein. 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories and 1 gram of protein or carbohydrate has 4 calories, so someone eating 2500 calories a day would require 208 – 222 grams of fat, 94 – 125 grams of protein, and around 30 grams of carbs daily (remember 100 grams = 3.5oz).
These macros should allow for enough carbs to have around 300 – 400 grams (10.5oz – 14oz) of vegetables and 1 serving of fruit per day. It’s also important to remember that some of the protein you eat will turn into glucose in the body due to a process called gluconeogenesis that occurs in the liver. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
You always need some glucose, because your red blood cells and brain require glucose to function properly. Even in full ketosis, your brain still needs about 33% of its energy to come from glucose (4).
What if you have too much glucose?
If you have too much-circulating glucose (either through the food you eat or from gluconeogenesis), it can halt ketone production (5). This is exactly why a ketogenic diet allows for moderate protein intake rather than simply a high-protein, high-fat diet. Actual protein needs will vary, but about 100 grams of protein per day should be adequate for most people. Of course, if you are having trouble producing adequate ketones, you may want to consider lowering your protein intake.
What happens if you eat too many carbs?
If your carbohydrate intake is too high, ketone production will end, and you will find yourself out of ketosis. If you are not in ketosis, you will need about 120 grams of carbohydrates to keep your brain and body fueled properly. Try not to get stuck in the 30 – 120 gram zone, as you’ll be cutting yourself short on both ketones and carbs, which can kick you right into starvation mode.
One final note before moving on to ketone testing: If you are beginning a ketogenic diet for weight loss, don’t reduce your calorie intake during the ketogenic adaption period. Your body needs to be properly fueled with fatty acids and ketones during this time so your brain has an adequate fuel supply. During this transition period from carbs to fats, cutting yourself short on fuel is not worth the risk.
Once you are fat-adapted, you can then reduce calories without your brain panicking and initiating a starvation response, since it will have plenty of ketones to keep it happy! Weight loss will be far easier and put much less stress on your body if you fully keto-adapt first. Don’t know how many calories you eat? Try keeping a food diary for a week and an online tool to calculate the calories (such as fatsecret.com).
2. Testing blood ketone levels
If you really want to know if what you’re doing is working, testing your blood ketone levels will give you the answer! I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is to make sure you are in ketosis and not simply in starvation mode.
Here’s why starvation mode is something to avoid at all costs. Before you are keto-adapted, your body can break down about 75 grams of muscle per day for energy. For every 1 gram of muscle you lose, it takes about 4 grams of water weight along with it (4). So those 75 grams of muscle lost can result in 375 grams (13oz) of total weight loss daily. So yes, you might be losing lots of weight very quickly, but if you’re not in ketosis, you’re not losing fat! Aside from water weight and breaking down muscle, protein-containing tissues (such as your joints, bones, and skin) can also start to break down. That is certainly not good for anyone!
To measure your ketone levels, it’s best to use an electronic ketone meter (available online or from pharmacies) to get a digital readout of your blood ketone level in mmol’s. A few popular brands of ketone meters are One Call and Freestyle. I don’t recommend breath meters or urine strips, because they do not necessarily reflect blood ketone levels. For example, the more efficient your body becomes at using ketones the less will be excreted in the urine. So you can actually be producing and using more ketones, but they may not show up in the urine.
I recommend measuring ketone levels just before dinner, and at least 3 hours after the last time you ate. When you measure, aim for a blood ketone level of 0.5mmol – 3 mmol. This range is referred to as ‘nutritional ketosis’ (6). Nutritional ketosis is at a significantly lower level than ketoacidosis (a complication of untreated diabetes), which generally refers to ketone levels over 10mmol (7). The names may sound similar, but nutritional ketosis won’t land you in the emergency room! While we’re on the topic of diabetes, ketogenic-paleolithic diets have shown promise for management of Type 1 diabetes for some people (8)!
If your ketone levels aren’t falling within the 0.5mmol – 3mmol range, it’s a good idea to adjust the proportions of fats, carbs, and protein in your diet. This simply means reducing carbs or protein, while increasing fats! In order to determine which of the two is keeping you out of ketosis, I suggest reducing carbs and protein separately. For example, you might reduce your carb limit from 30 grams a day to 25 grams. Then, if that does not have the desired effect, you can reduce protein intake. Of course, any adjustments you make to your protein or carb goals should be balanced out by making an equal increase in fat calories (but remember that fats are 9 calories per gram, while carbs and proteins are 4 calories per gram!).
One downside of blood ketone monitors is that the test strips tend to be quite expensive. However, you only really need to test ketone levels during the keto adaption period. After you become keto-adapted, you don’t need to measure anymore. If you want to switch between days of keto eating and “normal” eating, you may want to check your ketone levels occasionally. However, when you return to keto, you liver should switch back into gear and start producing ketones again.
3. Supplements to help you keto-adapt!
The first few weeks of keto adaption can be tough, even when you are closely monitoring your fats, carbs, and protein. In general, the fitter you are before you start keto, the easier it is for your body to adapt. Ketones are naturally produced during exercise recovery, so people who exercise consistently may even be able to produce ketones more efficiently. Of course, this is somewhat ironic, as people looking to benefit from the ketogenic diet are often heavy or sedentary.
Luckily – no matter your fitness level – you can use a few key supplements to either directly provide ketones or kickstart your liver into producing more ketones. This means a smoother journey into keto adaption!
The main metabolically-active ketone is beta-hydroxybutyrate, which fortunately is available as a supplement! The downside, however, is that BHB supplements are expensive. BHB supplements are also banned in Europe at this time due to a law that supplements are only allowed to be sold if they have a history of use prior to 1997 (and ketone supplements do not).
However, the EU does allow new supplements to apply for a novel food status, but no one has initiated this process for ketone supplements yet due to the time and expense involved. It’s a case of watch this space for Europeans, although some people choose to buy online from companies based outside the EU and then have them shipped in.
It’s best to split up the dose of the BHB ketones during the day, taking half with breakfast and half at dinner time.
C8 oil is a medium-chain triglyceride – MCT for short. Coconut oil, for example, is rich in MCTs and is one of the main reasons why coconut is believed to be so nutritious. MCTs are fatty acids consisting of a chain of 7 to 12 carbon atoms attached to a glycerol backbone.
When you ingest MCTs, they travel to the liver, where they can be converted to ketones. The 4 main MCTs are:
- Caproic acid (a 6-carbon chain, known as C6)
- Caprylic acid (an 8-carbon chain, known as C8)
- Capric acid (a 10-carbon chain, known as C10)
- Lauric acid (a 12-carbon chain, is known as C12)
All 4 of these MCTs are found in coconut oil, but one MCT is better than the others at ketone production – C8 (9,10)! This is precisely why some manufacturers have purified coconut oil to remove other MCTs in order to produce C8-only keto supplements.
C8 should initially be taken 5mL (1 teaspoon) with breakfast and dinner for the first 4 days, then this can be increased to 10mL with breakfast and dinner from then on. C8 is anti-microbial, so it can cause some symptoms during the first few days such as gas and bloating. This is why it’s always best to start with a lower dose and work up! Thankfully, C8 oil is easy to find in Europe (as well as the rest of the world).
The Amino Acids Leucine and Lysine
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Earlier, I mentioned that protein can be used to make glucose in the body via gluconeogenesis. However, there are 2 amino acids (leucine and lysine) that can’t do this – in fact, they can only be used to produce ketones (4). Some BHB ketone supplements actually contain some added leucine and lysine, so check on the supplement facts panel to see if yours does.
Leucine is also what’s known as a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA), so if you already take a BCAA supplement, you do not need to take additional leucine. Leucine and lysine can both be purchased as separate supplements at a relatively low cost. Normal dosages are between 2000mg and 5000mg for leucine and 1000mg for lysine.
If you decide to take any of these supplements, I advise you to take them for a full 3 weeks. At that point, they can be reduced – but of course, you should still measure your ketone levels as you adjust your supplements to understand the effects. Whilst these supplements are very useful for getting keto-adapted, people already in ketosis will sometimes use them to get deeper into ketosis and enjoy enhanced cognitive and other potential benefits. In the end, it’s really down to you to decide for yourself whether that’s something you want to do.
In this article, we’ve explored the main reasons why people struggle with ketogenic diets (and most importantly, how to avoid them!). If you’ve struggled before or are apprehensive about trying the diet, I really encourage you to follow the advice I’ve given to improve your chances of success. You can do it, you’ve just got to make sure your brain is being fuelled properly whilst your liver gets up to speed with ketone production!
Recapping my key points in an easy to follow checklist:
- Start off eating 75% – 80% of calories from fat, 5% of calories from carbs, and the rest (about 15% – 20% of calories) from protein.
- Measure your ketone levels.
- Take supplements if you are not in nutritional ketosis (0.5 – 3 mmol).
- If you are still not in nutritional ketosis, try increasing fat and reduce carbs and/or protein individually.
- When you are in nutritional ketosis, stick with what you’ve been doing for 3 weeks.
- After 3 weeks, you can reduce the supplements if you want, but make sure to measure the effect this has on your ketones levels.
- When you stay comfortably within the nutritional ketosis range over a 3-week period, you can experiment with having keto and non-keto days if you would like.
Related article: 6 Things To Do If You Can’t Get Into Ketosis
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