Ketogenic Diet: Burn Fat for Fuel

Story at-a-glance:

  • Low-fat, high-carb diets prevent healthy mitochondrial function, thereby contributing to chronic diseases such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and more
  • Studies suggest low-carb, high-fat diets — and eating less frequently — may be the answer to the obesity epidemic. The benefits of this type of diet is the primary focus of my book “Fat for Fuel,” and my complementary online course
  • When your body is able to burn fat for fuel, your liver creates water-soluble fats called ketones that burn far more efficiently than carbs, thus creating far less damaging reactive oxygen species and secondary free radicals
  • Multiday water fasting activates autophagy, allowing your body to clean itself out, and triggers the regeneration of stem cells. Having as little as 200 or 300 calories a day is enough to abort the autophagy process
  • Fasting has been shown to trigger the regeneration of the pancreas in both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics — a testament to the regenerative power unleashed in your body when fasting

By Dr. Mercola

The notion that your body needs to regularly consume glucose for energy has become a deeply ingrained myth. As a result of this misguided advice, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer prevalence have all spiked, burgeoning into national if not global epidemics. The truth is, most long-term low-fat, high-carb diets prevent healthy mitochondrial function, thereby making a greater contribution to disease than most people are willing to even consider.

Dietary fats are actually the preferred fuel of human metabolism. In 2016, the British National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration issued a joint report on obesity based on the analysis of 43 studies, warning the policy to encourage people to eat a low-fat diet is having a “disastrous impact on health.”1,2,3 According to the authors, the current guidelines have been manipulated and corrupted for commercial gain by the food and beverage industries, and are based on flawed science.

Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet and Reducing Meal Frequency Can Solve Many Common Ailments

In conclusion, the report suggests a low-carb, high-fat diet — and eating less by cutting out between-meal snacks — may be the answer to the obesity epidemic. The benefits of this type of diet is the primary focus of my most recent book, “Fat for Fuel,” and my complementary online course, which guides you through seven engaging lessons to teach you how your body works at the molecular level, and how different foods affect your body.

Traditional weight loss advice suggests all you need to do is count calories, eat less and exercise more. Somewhat better recommendations specifically recommend cutting down on sugar. However, while many will initially lose weight doing this, it usually doesn’t take long to gain the weight back. Before you know it, you’re caught in a loop of yo-yo dieting. There’s a better way. A great many of the disease epidemics facing us today could be turned around by educating people about the benefits of:

  • A diet high in healthy fats, moderate in protein and low in net carbohydrates (total carbs minus fiber)
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Longer water fasting

It’s important to realize that calories are not created equal, and this is why counting calories doesn’t work for weight loss and health in the long run. The metabolic effects of calories differ depending on their source — a calorie from a Twinkie is not equivalent to a calorie from an avocado or a nut. That said, excessive snacking is a significant contributing factor to obesity, so, to lose weight and keep it off, you may need to reduce your meal frequency.

The Case for Fasting

I recommend limiting it to two meals per day, either breakfast/lunch or lunch/dinner, within a six- to eight-hour window each day. This meal timing is a form of intermittent fasting, as by eating all your meals within a certain span of time each day, you end up fasting daily as well. Longer water fasts also offer powerful health benefits, although you need to work your way into them.

One strategy I’ve found to be extremely helpful is to gradually increase the time of your daily intermittent fasting until you’re fasting 20 hours a day. After about a month of this, doing a four- or five-day long water fast will not be nearly as difficult, as you’re already used to not eating for extended periods.

I was skeptical about water fasting for a long time, but after learning more about the metabolic benefits of it, the relative safety and testing it out for myself, I’ve become convinced it’s a powerful tool that is vastly underutilized. The clarity of thinking alone, which occurs around Day Three or Four, makes it worth it.

That’s not the only benefit though. Importantly, water fasting activates autophagy, allowing your body to clean itself out, and triggers the regeneration of stem cells. Remarkably, whereas low-calorie dieting will cause morbidly obese people to develop skin folds that must be surgically removed after significant weight loss, this typically does not occur when you lose the weight by water fasting. Your body actually metabolizes the excess skin as you go along, because it’s in such efficient regeneration mode.

Even having as little as 200 or 300 calories a day is enough to abort the autophagy process, though, which is why I started doing complete water fasts. I now do a five-day water fast on a monthly basis, and since I was used to doing 20-hour daily intermittent fasting, I experienced no significant hunger at all. It was really pretty effortless right from the start.

If you’re severely overweight or have Type 2 diabetes, water fasting may be the answer you’ve been looking for. Recent research4confirms that fasting can effectively reverse Type 2 diabetes in a relatively short amount of time. In this trial, Type 2 diabetics were placed on a severely restricted calorie diet where they ate just 600 calories a day for eight weeks.

By the end of their fast, all were disease-free and three months later, having returned to their regular diet, seven of the 11 participants were still disease-free. Fasting has also been shown to trigger the regeneration of the pancreas in both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics5 — a testament to the regenerative power unleashed in your body when fasting.

Burning Fat for Fuel Improves Mitochondrial Function

Eating a diet low in net carbs and high in healthy fats and/or fasting will allow your body to burn fat rather than glucose as its primary fuel. This has the sought-after side effect of improving mitochondrial function, which is foundational for disease prevention and optimal health. The mitochondria within your cells are largely responsible for generating the energy (adenosine triphosphate or ATP) your body needs to stay alive and thrive.

They’re also responsible for apoptosis (programmed cell death) and act as signaling molecules that help regulate genetic expression. When your mitochondria are damaged or dysfunctional, not only will your energy reserves decrease, resulting in fatigue and brain fog, but you also become vulnerable to degenerative diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and neurodegenerative decay.

Why Cycling in and out of Nutritional Ketosis Is Recommended

The devil’s in the details, though, and an important yet rarely discussed facet of nutritional ketosis — which is when your body burns fat as its primary fuel instead of sugar — is feast-and-famine cycling. The reason for this has to do with the fact that long-term uninterrupted nutritional ketosis can trigger a rise in blood sugar by driving your insulin level too low.

This paradoxical situation can arise because the primary function of insulin is not to drive sugar into the cell, but to suppress the production of glucose by your liver (hepatic gluconeogenesis). If your blood sugar is high due to chronically and excessively low insulin, eating a piece of fruit or other sugar-containing food will actually lower your blood sugar rather than raise it. Your microbiome may also be compromised in the long term, as chronic low-carb diets will not optimally feed your gut flora.

All of this can be avoided by cycling in and out of nutritional ketosis, basically going through a one-day-per-week fast and one or two days a week of feasting, where you eat double or quadruple the amount of net carbs. Your body is designed to have the metabolic flexibility to use both glucose and fat for fuel. The problem is, when you eat a high-carb diet for a long period of time, your body ends up losing its ability to burn fat. The good news is, you can regain it by inverting the carb and fat ratios of your diet.

Fat Is Your Body’s Preferred Fuel

When your body is able to burn fat for fuel, your liver creates water-soluble fats called ketones that burn far more efficiently than carbs, thus creating far less damaging reactive oxygen species and secondary free radicals. This is why being an efficient fat burner is so important for optimal health. Ketones also improve glucose metabolism and lower inflammation.6

Recent research7 suggests a ketogenic (high-fat, low-carb) diet may even be key for reducing brain inflammation following stroke and other brain trauma. Chronic inflammation is a hallmark of most chronic disease, including pain-related conditions such as arthritis. As noted in one study,8 ketogenic diets appear to be helpful for inflammation-associated pain by:

  • Generating fewer inflammatory reactive oxygen species
  • Lowering the excitability of neurons involved in pain signaling
  • Boosting signaling of the neuromodulator adenosine, which has pain-relieving effects

How to Implement a Ketogenic Diet

To implement a ketogenic diet, the first step is to eliminate packaged, processed foods. The emphasis is on real whole foods, plenty of healthy fats and, initially, as few net (nonfiber) carbs as possible. This typically involves dramatically reducing or temporarily eliminating all grains and any food high in sugar, particularly fructose, but also galactose (found in milk) and other sugars — both added and naturally-occurring.

As a general rule, you’ll want to reduce your net carbs to 20 to 50 grams a day or less, and restrict protein to 1 gram per kilogram of lean body mass. To make sure you’re actually meeting your nutritional requirements and maintaining the ideal nutrient ratios, use an online nutrient tracker such as www.cronometer.com/mercola, which is one of the most accurate nutrient trackers available.

It’s also preset for nutritional ketosis, so based on the base parameters you enter, it will automatically calculate the ideal ratios of net carbs, protein and healthy fats required to put you into nutritional ketosis. This is what will allow your body to start burning fat as its primary fuel rather than sugar, which in turn will help optimize your mitochondrial function and overall health and fitness.

Beneficial Fats to Eat More Of

Another key to success is to eat high-quality healthy fats, NOT the fats most commonly found in the American diet (the processed fats and vegetable oils used in processed foods and fried restaurant meals). Just about any fat found naturally in food — whether animal- or plant-based — is in fact healthy for you. For example, saturated fat found in animal products and coconut oil:

  • Increases your large fluffy LDL particles, which are not associated with an increased risk of heart disease
  • Increases your HDL levels, which is associated with lower heart disease risk. This also compensates for any increase in LDL
  • Does not cause heart disease, as made clear in a large number of studies9,10,11,12,13,14
  • Serves as a “clean-burning fuel” for your brain and mitochondria, producing far less damaging free radicals than sugars and nonfiber carbs

Examples of healthy fats to eat more of include:

Olives and olive oil (look for third party certification, as 80 percent of olive oils are adulterated with vegetable oils.

Avoid cooking with olive oil; use it cold)

Coconut oil (excellent for cooking as it can withstand higher temperatures without oxidizing) Animal-based omega-3 fat from fatty fish low in mercury like wild-caught Alaskan salmon, sardines, anchovies and/or krill oil
Butter made from raw grass fed organic milk Raw nuts such as macadamia and pecans Seeds like black sesame, cumin, pumpkin and hemp seeds
Avocados Grass fed meats MCT oil
Ghee (clarified butter); lard and tallow (excellent for cooking) Raw cacao butter Organic, pastured eggs

Harmful Fats to Avoid

The harmful fats you need to steer clear of are all man-made. This includes trans fats, which are pro-oxidant, and all highly refined polyunsaturated vegetable oils,15 which are high in damaged omega-6 and produce toxic oxidation products like cyclic aldehydes when heated. Vegetable oils promote oxidized cholesterol, which becomes destructive when entering your LDL particles.

Also, when consumed in large amounts, omega-6 polyunsaturated fats — and especially industrially processed ones — cannot be effectively burned for fuel. Instead, they’re incorporated into cellular and mitochondrial membranes where they become susceptible to oxidative damage, which ultimately damages your metabolism. These harmful fats have been shown to:16

  • Contribute to heart disease
  • Promote gut inflammation
  • Disrupt arterial blood flow through your brain
  • Deplete your brain of antioxidants
  • Attack the cellular architecture of your nerves and impair brain development through mutagenic effects on DNA and altered epigenetic expression

Boost Your Health With Self-Paced Online Course

Current health statistics tell a discouraging story of repeated failure: Two-thirds of the American population is overweight or obese,17 1 in 5 deaths are obesity-related,18 half have prediabetes, diabetes or other chronic illness,19 and 1 in 3 women and half of all men will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime. There’s an answer to all of these health trends, and it all starts with your diet.

If you or a loved one has been struggling with low energy, excess weight or a chronic or degenerative disease like Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s or cancer — or if you simply want to optimize your health and longevity — consider enrolling in my online course on mitochondrial metabolic therapy (MMT).

MMT is a whole new way of looking at nutrition, merging decades of my own research with the latest science on mitochondrial health, all of which have been peer-reviewed by more than two dozen experts, including physicians, researchers and scientists.

The MMT diet is a cyclical ketogenic diet, high in healthy fats and fiber, low in net carbs with a moderate amount of protein. Worksheets, additional reading, meal planning resources and recipes are all included. You’ll also learn a number of other nondiet related ways to boost your mitochondrial health, such as sensible sun exposure, exercise and grounding.

In short, this program will teach you everything you need to know to safely and effectively improve your mitochondrial function, thereby regaining your health and boosting your longevity.

If you’ve thought about making changes but lacked the confidence to take the plunge, or have made half-hearted attempts that quickly petered out, this course can set you on the right track, guiding you through the changes to your diet and lifestyle one step at a time, from any computer, tablet or smartphone. And, while a new lesson is released each week, you can go through the lessons at your own pace.

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