(updated by Jimmy Moore on 12/30/2012)
The past seven months I’ve had an amazing ride: I’ve conducted my n=1 experiment of “nutritional ketosis” (NK). This concept is outlined in several books written by Drs. Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney, two highly-respected low-carb diet researchers, including their latest The Art & Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Concentrating on eating lots of healthy high-fat foods, eliminating key mistakes I had been making in my low carb lifestyle, and differentiating this low carb approach from the Atkins diet, have helped me lose over 60 pounds so far while increasing lean muscle mass and improving my cardiometabolic health. My weight and health are improving by the moment; I’m a whole lot better off than I was. With all of my success with NK, you would think everyone would be celebrating with me. You would be wrong.
Now that I’ve been doing this low carb experiment with Nutritional Ketosis long enough to see measurable, spectacular results, everyone has their own theory about why it is working. I’ve stated that I believe it’s the increase in blood ketone production and the associated benefits, which I’ll discuss in a moment. Here are a few prominent voices sharing their alternative hypotheses on their respective web sites in recent weeks:
- Because of the two tablespoons of fish oil I’m taking daily, self-experimenting blogger and author Seth Roberts says I might be doing his Shangri La Diet in disguise. When I began my nutritional ketosis experiment, I increased my fish oil consumption from 1 tablespoon to 2 tablespoons daily on the advice of a respected physician for heart health.
- Richard Nikoley from the “Free The Animal” blog notes that NK is “just a good diet hack” and not really necessary to shed body fat. New Zealand sports nutritionist Jamie Scott from the “That Paleo Guy” blog concurs adding that “people just aren’t addressing the basics” in every aspect of their lifestyle if they aren’t seeing the results they are wanting. I would counter that NK is doing an excellent job of not just helping me lose the weight and improve key health markers, but also perhaps bringing back in line various parts of my lifestyle that were off kilter.
- Regina Wilshire came out of hibernation on her “Weight Of The Evidence” blog to say that I’m merely in a calorie deficit now, and that the overall reduction in intake of all three macronutrients – fat, protein and carbohydrate – has resulted in the weight loss I’ve experienced. There’s only one problem with this conclusion: my fat calories have been increased significantly while protein and carbs have been reduced. But Regina’s column along with Paleo diet mega-voice Robb Wolf’s recent shift in nutritional thinking bring up a really great opportunity to address a question that I’d like to explore further:
Is it the calories or the ketones that are responsible for my nutritional ketosis success?
This question gets to the heart of why I believe NK is an incredibly effective strategy for fat loss and improving health. This point is just too important to gloss over with a simplistic explanation. And in all honesty, this debate is almost as futile as arguing which came first, the chicken or the egg. But let’s take a stab at it, and dive right into why I contend that eating the proper number of calories becomes instinctive rather than forced when you eat sufficient fat and little enough carb and protein to produce an adequate level of blood ketones.
Let’s begin with the calorie argument. Conventional wisdom says that if you consume less energy in the form of food while expending more energy in the form of exercise, then you will create a calorie deficit sufficient to produce weight loss. In other words, calories in, calories out. From a logical standpoint, this seems like a compelling method for shedding the pounds. But let’s take a closer look at what happens to an overweight person who begins a typical calorie-restricted diet:
- Cuts calories by eating smaller portions
- Preferentially slashes fat because it has 9 calories per gram
- Increases (cardio) exercise to “burn” more calories
- Insulin and leptin resistance issue not addressed
- Increased exercise causes hunger
- Musters up the willpower to not eat despite hunger
- Anger, irritability and outbursts become the norm
- Metabolism slows, causing sluggishness and fatigue
- Forces exercise to produce calorie deficit
- Resists natural urge to eat, sleep enough
- Despite cutting calories perfectly, scale stops moving
- Frustrated by weight loss stall, gives up
- Concludes s/he’s genetically programmed to be fat
Sound familiar? Yep, if you’ve been pursuing what most dietitians, doctors and weight loss experts consider the “prudent” way to lose weight, then no doubt this scenario has played itself out more times than you care to admit. Why do we do that to ourselves? One reason is that nobody has ever come up with a viable challenge to the calorie theory in the mainstream of public thought.
Nutritional Ketosis vs. Calories In / Calories Out
So let’s take a serious look at the nutritional ketosis argument. Since we now know that calories aren’t the entire weight loss picture, and that not all calories are created equal, perhaps there’s more to this story than we’ve been told.
There is. Health and fitness researcher Jonathan Bailor, author of The Smarter Science Of Slim, harps against the calorie hypothesis, stating that it really comes down to four major points: hunger control, hormonal impact, nutritional value and macronutrient variability. These factors combine to explain why eating in a way that’s right for your body and lifestyle, rather than aiming for a randomly-chosen set number of calories, is a much more effective way to see the results you want in your weight and health, while avoiding the suffering that comes from simple calorie-counting.
Let’s take a look at what has happened to me over these past seven months since I started consuming a high-fat, moderate protein, low carb nutritional approach producing an adequate level of blood ketones:
- Deliberately eating more dietary fat
- Moderating absolute amounts of protein consumed
- Limiting carbohydrates to my personal tolerance level
- Consuming the highest quality foods possible
- Blood sugar drops 20-25 points naturally
- Hunger disappears, mood improves, mental clarity increases
- Because of satiety, spontaneous intermittent fasting
- No cravings at all and pattern of 1-2 meals daily
- Completely satisfied and never thinking about food
- Regular restful sleep of 7-9 hours a night
- Pimples/acne have virtually disappeared
- Skin tags are healing and shriveling up
- Lipid health markers have improved dramatically
- Key inflammation marker C-Reactive Protein decreased
- Lifting weights after 18-24 hour fast with no issues
- Exercising more often from fast recovery time
- Most importantly, CALORIES CONTROLLED SPONTANEOUSLY
So has all of this improvement in my weight, health and fitness happened simply as a result of cutting my calories? Perhaps there has been some benefit from the calorie reduction.
But the more likely explanation is the ketones produced by a well-formulated high-fat, moderate protein, low carb diet are at a sufficiently high level that calories are automatically kept in check without really worrying about them because both my insulin and leptin levels have normalized.
Likely I was resistant to both, but they are now right where they need to be. As long as I continue to pay attention to my personal satiety signals and allow my body to tell me when I need to consume more blood sugar-controlling food, blood ketones will remain high enough for fat-burning to happen. And that, I believe, is the secret behind why my low carb, nutritional ketosis success has happened.
What say YOU? Do you still believe it’s the calories? What’s your experience with Nutritional Ketosis in your low carb dieting? Let us know in the comments below.