The ketogenic diet is currently one of the most popular nutrition strategies in America. With its low-carbohydrate emphasis, and its ability to boost how the body can use fat as an energy source, many people have turned to keto when other diets failed them.
Getting into ketosis is a process that can take weeks of dieting or days of fasting. It requires dedication and strict adherence to the keto lifestyle. However, there are a few techniques that can get you into a state of ketosis faster. Let’s first explore the biological mechanisms of ketosis before diving into how to arrive there faster.
One piece of vocabulary to highlight: ketosis simply means the body has elevated ketone levels, generally agreed upon as over 0.5mM. This can happen through two processes.
The first is through diet or fasting, in which the body produces its own ketones and is in a “ketogenic” state (called endogenous ketosis). The second is when the body receives ketones from an external source (called exogenous ketosis). Though the body is in a state of ketosis through exogenous means, it isn’t ketogenic because it’s not producing its own ketones.
Keto Diet Background and Science
For years, people followed trends that said diets with a high fat intake were bad–they said fat caused cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and diabetes. Over the years, research began to suggest that this wasn’t the case.
Now, with the resurgence of low-carb, high-fat diets (first Atkins, now keto) doctors and scientists are beginning to understand that fat may have been unfairly cast as the villain in the obesity epidemic. In fact, recent studies have shown low-carb diets may even have unique benefits over their low-fat counterparts. Today we have discovered that the key to fat loss, and better long term health, may simply be eating fat itself.1
Our bodies are biologically programmed to run on a mix of carbohydrates and fat depending on what’s available. Dietary carbohydrate gets taken up and used as energy via blood glucose (blood sugar), or it is stored in the liver as a molecule called glycogen. Glycogen is slowly released between meals to keep blood glucose energy levels stable.
The body prefers to burn glucose when it’s present. When you eat sugar, you trigger insulin release, which signals the body to burn and store sugar and stop using fat.
Eliminating or drastically reducing dietary carbohydrates forces the body to rely more heavily on alternative energy sources—like fat. Fat isn’t a great source of energy for the brain, because it can’t easily go from the blood into the brain itself. The brain is, therefore, a big sugar-lover, and so we need a way to make fat into brain fuel. This is where ketones come in.
When you’re in a ketogenic state, the body (specifically, the liver) converts fats into ketones for energy. When ketone levels in the blood increase over a specific level of 0.5mM, this means that you are in a state of ketosis—ketones are contributing in a meaningful way to the energy needs of the brain and body.
Most people think a ketogenic diet involves consuming absolutely no carbohydrates. That’s not entirely true though; while carb consumption is cut dramatically, each individual has a different carb threshold they can reach and still be in ketosis.
Generally, strive to consume no more than 50g of net carbs per day. If you’re extremely active, increasing the number of carbohydrates per day is allowable; some athletes have anecdotally reported eating 100g – 150g of carbs while still maintaining ketosis.
By taking a few simple steps in your general diet, your body’s natural fuel source can eventually switch from glucose-reliant to higher use of ketones and fatty acids.
Benefits of Ketosis
Besides potential weight loss effects, there are several other evidence-backed health benefits that may be experienced during a ketogenic diet, and others that are areas of active research.
- A keto diet may help control the symptoms of type I and II diabetes by limiting carbohydrate intake and controlling blood glucose levels
- In some cases, a high-fat diet helps improve satiation and control hunger, leading to less overeating
- Following a keto diet may complement medical treatment for some diseases including epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and even Alzheimer’s
- Research suggests that keto might help with processes such as inflammation and aging
By gaining a better understanding of how keto works, you can better expedite the process of getting into a constant state of ketosis. But there’s a barrier in the switch from normal metabolism to fat/ketone metabolism that can derail many keto dieters.
Avoiding the Keto Flu
Whenever you decide to try a new type of diet, there’s always the possibility of growing pains.
You will likely have a transition period until the body is adapted to the changes that occur. Many people who decide to switch to a ketogenic diet experience a common set of symptoms better known as keto flu.
The symptoms of the keto flu arise due to the effects of carbohydrate withdrawal. Some of these side effects may include:
- Mood swings
These side effects sound similar to withdrawal symptoms from certain types of drugs— but may be due to the effects of sugar withdrawal. In fact, studies have shown that sugar consumption may have a similarly addictive effect as substances such as cocaine.
If you’re unlucky and get the flu badly, these symptoms may make you think about giving up on the keto diet altogether. But if you’re smart about carb and fat consumption, ensure you get enough electrolytes, and are strong enough to move past this brief period of discomfort, the body will begin processing fat as its main fuel source and begin making ketones for energy. Although individuals vary in how long they experience the keto flu, there are certain ways to mitigate its effects in the short term.
First, listen to your body. In some cases, doing short bursts of exercise can help you deplete glycogen faster and thus speed up ketosis. But if you feel low in energy—that’s fine. While transitioning to the keto diet, the body is going through a period in which it’s learning how to function on a new fuel source.
Next, make sure you are getting adequate rest.
Ensure proper hydration is maintained, including proper electrolyte balance. It’s crucial to maintain fluid balance by supplementing with electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Electrolyte needs may vary from person to person, so it’s important to do some experimentation with the number of electrolytes to get it right for the needs of your body. Thoughtful hydration and electrolyte intake will go a long way in helping to prevent keto flu.
Last, make sure you’re eating enough calories. As the keto diet leaves you feeling full for longer, it’s possible in some cases to under eat, forcing your body to go into full-fledged starvation mode while switching to keto. Instead of starving yourself, be sure to compensate for the lack of carbohydrates by eating adequate amounts of fat. The cravings for sugar and other carbohydrates will eventually subside if you simply give yourself enough time.