The need in humans to lose weight from time to time is an age-old problem. A good many of my patients have varying degrees of overweight – 20, 30, some 40 or more lbs overweight. Some of them tell me they try to follow a low fat diet but just can’t seem to lose any weight. That doesn’t surprise me. Severely decreasing fat is not a good way to lose weight – in fact it can do harm.
Aside from hindering you from losing weight, too little fat intake can result in a number of bodily changes, such as:
- Interferes with your body’s ability to make hormones and metabolize certain fat soluble vitamins like A, E, D3
- Leads to depression as your brain is more than 60% fat and needs essential fatty acids to function
- Lack of beneficial fatty acids makes your skin, joints, eyes and nasal passages dry out
- Too low Omega-3 fat intake causes your HDL (good) cholesterol to decrease and heart disease can result
- Too low fat often means too high carbohydrate intake which can create a high acid pH in the blood that aids and abets the growth of cancer growing and formation of diabetes
With all these negatives of low-fat dieting, you may not be surprised when I tell you that actually eating more fat (the good kind – no trans fats), can actually make you healthier. Coupled with adequate protein and low carbohydrates, a higher fat diet can turn on your fat/weight loss switch like nothing else. This type of diet is called aketogenic diet and that’s what I’d like to tell you about here.
What Exactly is A Ketogenic Diet?
To explain a ketogenic diet, first I need to tell you about ketones – the important fuel by-product of this type of dieting. Ketones are chemicals that are given off in your blood and urine when your body burns fat, instead of sugar, or glucose, for energy. They start to get produced after about 72 hours of very low-to-no carbohydrate intake when your body switches over to burning fat instead of glucose.
After that period of time, your body actually starts to draw on its stored fat to produce energy. It’s a sort of fail-safe function our bodies have had since our cave, hunter-gatherer lives thousands of years ago. It allows us, in times of famine, to draw on stored fat to burn for fuel, as well as to turn protein and fat into fuel for energy.
In fact, the human body does not need many carbohydrates, the way it needs fat and protein, to flourish. Many Native cultures today, like the Masai tribes in Africa, exist on this same type of ancient “caveman” diet, eating very little carbohydrates, with much higher meat and fat content, and are quite healthy. Normally, your body would use any readily available carbohydrate from your food for energy. What it doesn’t use for energy, it stores as fat on your belly, hips, thighs, etc. This is why a too high carbohydrate diet leads to gaining weight instead of losing it.
Switching over to fat and ketones for fuel has been shown in research to benefit the body in more ways than accelerating stubborn weight loss – especially the brain. Actually, a ketogenic diet has been used for years in treating hard to manage epilepsy.
In other research, ketogenic diets have also been used in treating fast-growing cancerous brain, and other body tumors – halting their growth and extending life expectancy. The reason for using a ketogenic diet in treating cancer is that cancer thrives on glucose. Decreasing cancer’s primary fuel source helps stop the cancer from growing as quickly, and weakens it so it becomes more susceptible to treatment.
A Ketogenic-Type Diet For Weight Loss
Likely, you’ve heard of the Atkins diet, a popular very low carbohydrate (to start) diet which helps put the body into ketosis – burning ketones – instead of carbohydrates. It is a very successful diet that has allowed many people to lose a lot of stubborn fat/weight that they couldn’t before.
However, I recommend a modified variation of the ketogenic/Atkins-type diet that includes better fat substitutions, which still allows significant weight loss yet keeps your heart and immune system healthy. I also propose modifying the carbohydrate level to produce a less intense level of ketosis than some ketogenic diets do. This helps avoid serotonin (a feel-good brain chemical) depletion and irritability that can accompany very low carb, ketogenic diets. I also advise cycling this keto-type diet with an “off” period of maintenance.
Depending on how much weight you need to lose, you could stay on this way of eating for about 60-90 days and then go off it and work on maintaining your weight loss by increasing carbohydrate intake a little at a time. Then, after about 30 days of maintenance, return to the keto-based diet to lose any additional weight then cycle off again and maintain. Other than weight loss and feeling better, this way of eating retrains your taste for refined sugar, and reintroduces your body to natural sugars in fruits and vegetables that our bodies naturally need.
In conclusion, I feel that modified ketogenic-type diets are actually a more natural way of eating similar to that of our ancient ancestors who ate very little sugar and refined carbohydrates. They fed mostly on animal meat and fat with only occasional fruit and root vegetables when they could be found. Research has shown that people actually do very well on lower-carb, ketogenic ways of eating, especially when modified for longer-term use. This way of eating not only aids in weight loss but helps correct insulin usage and metabolic syndrome that leads to diabetes.
If you need to lose weight and would like to try a ketogenic-type diet please see the accompanying side bar article for further specifics.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.