The Keto, or ketogenic diet, is the world’s newest and purportedly most effective performance eating plan. Promising to prevent cancer, completely eliminate diabetes, and cause rapid fat loss, the keto diet is quickly becoming the most popular diet in the world, and has been picked up by social media stars such as Kim Kardashian and Megan Fox.
Just what is the Keto diet, and where does it come from? In this article, we’ll examine the source of the ketogenic diet plan and find out how it works to strip away some of the hype and answer some of the most pertinent questions about this revolutionary new diet.
The Origins of the Keto Diet
The origins of the Keto diet are attributed to Timothy Noakes, MD. Noakes is an emeritus professor with the University of Cape Town, South Africa, working in the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine.
Noakes isn’t a commonly known health expert outside of his native country, and is almost completely unknown in the United States. In South Africa, however, Noakes holds near-celebrity status, and is regarded as one of the foremost exercise physiologists and nutritionexperts on the planet.
It’s difficult to find a restaurant or cafe in Cape Town that doesn’t offer a food option influenced or inspired by Noakes’ unique nutritional advice. Preaching an almost complete removal of carbohydrates from the diet, the Noakes dietary technique is reflected in both the breakfast choices of Southern Africans- cheeseburgers without buns, or bread-free avocado sandwiches- and the health practices of some of South Africa’s most successful athletes.
Noakes and his highly effective diet program have found their way into the training regime of Gary Player, the world renowned golf master, as well as Ironman World Champion Paula Newby-Fraser, who has won the title of champion eight times following the Noakes system.
Even the first lady of South Africa has attributed a 66-pound weight loss success to the efficacy of the ketogenic diet. The cultural impact of Noakes’ dietary system is widespread and directly attributed to the university professor in South Africa, but the Noakes name is rarely connected to the Keto diet in the US.
The core tenet of the Noakes keto diet is that many, even most, of the basic principles that elite athletic nutrition are based on are completely wrong. Sports nutrition has held the idea that carbohydrates function as high-performance fuel for the body close to its chest for a very long time, advising athletes that the path to success is powered by carb fuel.
Noakes advises that this core principle does, in fact, far more harm than good. According to Noakes it’s possible to do away with carbohydrates entirely and train the body to harvest energy from fat instead.
The process of metabolizing fat into energy occurs through a process called ketosis, hence the name of the diet. The body, according to Noakes, is able to convert both dietary fats and the fats stored in body fat deposits into energy-rich ketones that can be used as a primary energy source.
This principle can be applied to both athletes seeking to get the absolute maximum performance out of their bodies, or everyday fitness enthusiasts seeking to burn away unwanted body fat and keep it off.
Noakes argues that fats, which have been a dietary bogeyman since the late 1950’s, are, in fact, extremely healthy when consumed from the right sources. The ketogenic diet preaches the consumption of a high-fat diet that almost completely eliminates refined carbs and sugar.
The health benefits of high-fat diets are beginning to once again capture the attention of health enthusiasts worldwide in light of recent evidence that demonstrates industry meddling in some of the earliest clinical investigations into the effect of fat on the body.
According to information released in late 2016, most of the inferences that have been made regarding the negative health impact of fats are attributed to a scientific study published by Harvard professors in the early 1960’s that pointed to fat, instead of sugar, as the primary cause of weight gain and cardiovascular disease.
In reality, the opposite is true- the study was published under the influence of corrupt sugar industry lobbyists, who paid the Harvard researchers upwards of $50,000 USD to create a biased study.
This obfuscation was arguably carried out to prop up the profit margins of the sugar industry and draw medical attention away from the negative impact caused by sugar, but has resulted in widespread cardiovascular disease and an unreasonable fear of dietary fats that, according to Noakes, can be used as healthy energy sources that deliver none of the negative health effects that processed carbohydrates do.
Noakes proclaims that cutting sugar and carbs from the diet and upping the intake of healthy fats will kickstart a fat burning process that causes dramatic weight loss while inhibiting appetite. The health benefits of the ketogenic diet aren’t limited to fat loss, however. According to a wide range of clinical investigations and health studies, the keto diet is able to offer a wide range of other compelling health advantages.
The Health Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet
The Keto, or Noakes diet has been adopted by hundreds of celebrities in recent years to cure a wide range of diseases and health dysfunctions. Popular basketballer Lebron James pushed the ketogenic diet into the forefront of the American health zeitgeist several years ago when he lost an incredible 25 pounds and dramatically enhanced his overall endurance by cutting sugar and carbohydrates from his diet completely.
The low-carb keto diet has also been demonstrated to cause a reversal of a wide number of health disorders and diseases. Best selling author Tim Ferriss of the “4-hour” self help book series fame has recently stated that following a ketogenic diet has completely cured his Lyme disease.
According to Ferriss, combining the ketogenic diet with an intermittent fasting program has resulted in enhanced ketogenesis and even an anti-cancer mechanism that has a prophylactic protective effect, inducing apoptosis in precancerous cells.
The ketogenic diet has even powered endurance athletes across oceans. Sami Inkinen, founder of Virta Health, Trulia, and triathlon world champion recently attributed his success in rowing from California to Hawaii to the ketogenic diet. According to Inkinen, the voyage was performed in record time to raise awareness of the negative health impact of sugar.
The ketogenic diet, according to Noakes and other supporters of the revolutionary diet plan, is able to reboot and reprogram the metabolism and digestive system, completely restructuring the way in which the body converts food into energy for the better.
Cutting Out Carbohydrates
Following the ketogenic diet isn’t easy, though. Unlike other weight loss diets that only require the overall limitation of caloric intake, the keto diet requires serious discipline and dedication.
The ketogenic diet can be generalized as a “low carb, high fat”, or LCHF diet, and has yet to hit the mainstream diet fad circuit. The Ketogenic diet requires dropping your overall carbohydrate intake to less than fifty grams of carbohydrate foods every day, which works out to about half that in net carb intake.
While this may sound like a reasonable amount of carbohydrates, it works out to less than one cup of brown rice. Carbohydrate foods include dairy, fruit, grains, bread, and starchy vegetables such as potato and corn, so minimizing your dietary intake of these foods down to less than 50 grams daily can be difficult. The USDA have recently changed their dietary guidelines, providing new advice that echoes the sentiments of Noakes’ diet plan.
In the new guidelines, the USDA recommend avoiding excessive consumption of processed carbohydrate products such as cookies, crackers, pasta, bread, and rice, as they all spike blood sugar almost as quickly as raw sugar. While processed carbohydrates contain almost no sugar themselves, they are quickly converted by the body into blood sugar.
Cutting these foods out of your diet can be difficult due to the sheer prevalence of sugar and rich carbohydrates in the food that is commonly available- next time you’re doing your grocery shopping, take a look at the nutritional information of the products you’re buying- you’ll be shocked at the wide range of food items that contain unnecessary added sugar or high carbohydrate content while, at the same time, advertising themselves as “0% fat” or “low in fat”.
The Importance of Fats
The Noakes diet instructs followers that, contrary to popular opinion, some fats can be good for the body. The body has evolved to process and gain energy from a number of fats that can be considered “healthy fats”, such as butter, milk fats, animal fats, coconut oil and olive oil. Modern, processed fats are definitely unhealthy for the body, with substances such as corn oil, vegetable oil, and soybean oil some of the worst substances that can be added to the diet.
In his autobiography Challenging Beliefs, which was released in 2012, Noakes provided a comprehensive summary of his beliefs around the consumption of healthy fats and how they can be used to bolster the health of the body. At 67 years of age, Noakes is an active online persona that frequently makes a wide variety of resources available to the internet at large on the dangers of carbohydrate and sugar consumption.
The Noakes Story
The architect of the ketogenic diet, Timothy Noakes, has observed firsthand the debilitating effect that excessive carbohydrate and sugar consumption can have on the human body. Noakes’ own father developed type 2 diabetes in his youth, a medical condition in which the body becomes resistant to insulin, the hormone the body releases to regulate blood sugar levels. Type 2 diabetes is caused by excessive sugar consumption, and, as the body becomes unable to regular blood sugar levels, can result in a wide variety of negative health effects.
Type 2 diabetes has been linked to genetic and hereditary factors, but is easily preventable through lifestyle choices. The symptoms of type 2 diabetes are varied and debilitating- individuals diagnosed with type 2 diabetes can expect to age 30% faster than otherwise healthy individuals, experience a higher rate of heart disease, and potentially even lose limbs due to toxic blood sugar levels. The condition causes the blood sugar levels of the body to spike to dangerous levels, damaging the nervous system and internal organs.
Some of the negative health effects of type 2 diabetes include premature skin aging, heart disease, blindness, cardiovascular disease, and even kidney failure. The high sugar content of the blood in the bodies of individuals that suffer from type 2 diabetes can cause the kidneys to shut down, requiring constant filtering of the blood through a dialysis machine. Eventually, blood sugar toxicity induced by type 2 diabetes will result in heart attacks, amputations, and even impaired brain function.
Noakes experienced the early death of his father due to the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. As a result, he turned to healthy lifestyle practices that included low fat consumption, regular exercise, and avoiding unhealthy habits such as smoking.
Despite the fact that Noakes followed these healthy habits and even competed in over 70 marathons, he himself was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2010. Unbeknownst to Noakes, his low-fat, high carbohydrate athletic performance diet was, in reality, compounding his genetic predisposition to developing diabetes.
Soon after his diagnosis, Noakes began investigating alternate dietary practices that could potentially assist him in the management of his condition. According to Noakes, he received an email regarding The New Atkins for a New You diet book, and recognized many of the authors that contributed to the diet. The New Atkins diet program was developed by a team of nutritional experts consisting of Eric Westman, M.D, Jeff Volek, Ph.D., R.D., and Stephen Phinney, M.D., Ph., who argued in favor of the low carbohydrate, high fat diet espoused by the late Dr. Atkins in the 1980’s.
The book, which immediately captured the attention of Noakes, provided modern medical insight that supported the advice given by Atkins in his original diet, including the controversial promotion of high fat foods such as bacon, eggs, and cheese to promote weight loss. The book contained up-to-date references to more than 50 modern clinical investigations and offered a comprehensive dietary action plan for minimizing body fat and achieving physical fitness.
According to Noakes, he gained more insight from the New Atkins for a New You dietary program than he did from his previous four decades as a qualified medical doctor. When he began the New Atkins program, Noakes weighed in at over 222 pounds. Now, after following his own dietary advice for several years, Noakes weighs a lean 178 pounds and has returned to the same weight and running times of his teenage years, attesting to the powerful healing effects of the Noakes diet.
Noakes also claims that his diet delivers a wide range of secondary health benefits. The prolific health author attributes the ketogenic diet to the cessation of his chronic migraines, and states that it is a complete and foolproof way of managing his blood sugar, appetite, and insulin levels. By teaching his body to burn fat as fuel, Noakes has completely reversed the course of his diabetes diagnosis.
The diet was extremely controversial in South Africa, in which diabetes is endemic and affects, in particular, the Black and ethnic Indian population of the country as they are especially prone to the disease.
By the time Noakes released his fourth book, The Real Meal Revolution, the Noakes ketogenic diet, however, had become the number one most popular eating plan in South Africa and was rapidly gaining traction in the United States.
The Science Behind the Ketogenic Diet
There are many fad diets that mimic the composition of the ketogenic diet, such as the recent popular “Paleo” diet, which is essentially a creatively rebranded clone of Noakes’ original dietary plan. Other high fat diets include the Zone diet and the South Beach diet, but they all aim to achieve the same effect- ketosis. While these other diets may espouse similar ideals to the ketogenic diet, however, none of them have had the same cultural impact as the keto diet.
The ketogenic diet is named thus due to the focus it places on the synthesis of ketones, small energy packets that are created from stored fat and used to power the body in place of carbohydrates. Ketones are small molecules that play an essential role from an evolutionary standpoint, and have emerged through natural selection to power the body through prolonged periods in which the body does not have access to carbohydrate resources.
The body- any body, even that of a trained, high-performance athlete- is able to store upwards of 40,000 calories in fat deposits. Compared to the mere 2000 calories that can be stored as carbohydrate sugar, fat is an extremely energy-dense storage method.
When the body uses up its storage of carbohydrate sugar energy, it begins to harvest fat to power itself. You may have experienced this sensation yourself during heavy physical exercise- professional athletes refer to it as the “bonk”, or “hitting the wall”.
When you hit the wall during peak physical exercise, your body reaches a point where it has burned through all of the available carbohydrate energy, and must begin to burn fat storage for energy.
To continue on exercising, your body needs to either consume more carbohydrate rich food, or begin to create ketones from stored fat energy. The Noakes diet aims to keep dieters in the state of metabolism that occurs “beyond the wall” at all times, inducing a state of constant fat burning.
Individuals that induce constant ketosis in their bodies report a wide range of health benefits. Ketogenic dieters attribute the diet to increased energy, longer endurance, clearer and more focused cognitive function, and better overall performance. Switching from foods like carbohydrates and sugar-dense products that cause chronic illness to foods that promote constant fat burning and higher energy states is certainly desirable, but attaining a state of permanent ketosis can be difficult.
The Process of Attaining Ketosis
According to most nutritionists, the everyday American citizen is completely addicted to carbohydrates. Instead of utilizing fat deposits for energy on a regular basis, most Americans use fat only as long-term storage, and rely upon a constant stream of carbohydrate energy to power their bodies.
Labeled as “Sugar Burners”, most of us eat carbohydrate foods for breakfast, such as grains, cereals, or breads. These foods cause an immediate blood sugar spike that crashes before lunch time, at which point we ingest more carbohydrates, continuing the cycle.
The carbohydrate dependency cycle doesn’t only involve a metabolic addiction, but also forms a long-lasting neurological dependency that can make carbohydrate cravings almost as severe as the withdrawal symptoms experienced by opiate addicts. Cutting out carbohydrates completely in order to induce ketosis in the body is not an easily attainable or simple task, especially when your body is used to burning sugar for energy.
In order to follow a ketogenic diet, it’s necessary to remove starchy vegetables, sugar-rich drinks, sweets, bread, grains, many legumes, fruits, pasta, and all other carbohydrate sources. The ketogenic diet essentially consists of only meats, non-starchy vegetables, and healthy fats.
While the fruits of the ketogenic diet are attractive, the process of inducing ketosis can induce what is commonly known as the “low-carb flu”. As the body adjusts to burning fat for energy, it’s normal to experience low physical performance, poor immune system function, high hunger levels, carbohydrate and sugar cravings, and general malaise, as the body attempts to reboot the manner in which it creates energy.
It is possible, however, to take a shortcut to ketosis. A practice called intermittent fasting has gained a large amount of traction in the last year as a process of manually inducing ketosis without having to suffer through the low-carb flu. Intermittent fasting is essentially a period in which a dieter does not eat, which creates an energy crisis that the body responds to by creating ketones from body fat.
Intermittent fasting can be performed in many different ways, but the most popular method involves a total restriction of food intake for 12 to 16 hours. This method is most commonly achieved by eating dinner and skipping breakfast the next day, waiting until lunch to eat again. Skipping both breakfast and lunch is another popular method of promoting ketogenesis that, according to many ketogenic diet followers, promotes mental clarity and better cognitive function.
The Therapeutic Benefits of Ketogenesis in Treating Epilepsy
The ketogenic diet also has a number of applications outside promoting fat loss and mental function- it has recently been demonstrated to be able to protect the body from neurodegeneration and cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer's, and even prevent the development of cancer. Cutting carbs from the diet has also been shown to help prevent the onset of seizures in epileptic children.
Several years ago, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco was performing an investigation into the cause of sudden onset seizures that were plaguing Navy SEAL divers during extra long dives. During the dives, the SEAL teams were using devices called rebreathers that, for unknown reasons, were inducing life-threatening seizures during training exercises. The professor, Dr. Dominic D’Agostino, discovered that following ketogenic dietary practices is able to prevent the onset of these seizures.
As a result, the ketogenic diet has become a neurologist-certified treatment method for preventing epileptic seizures. The exact mechanism through which the keto diet prevents seizures is complex and poorly understood, but is attributed to a metabolic imbalance. Seizures have been observed to be linked to the inability of certain brain cells to process glucose, and the resulting glucose starvation. It’s functionally impossible to study live brain cells, but in vitro experiments have delivered promising results that may provide an insight into why the ketogenic diet helps to prevent seizures.
Ketones, the energy molecules that are created by the body as a power source during ketogenesis, are able to perform a few more functions than simple muscle fuel. They also possess the ability to function as gene transcription facilitators and carry signals between neurons in the brain.
Higher levels of ketones in the brain appears to be able to protect neurons that are susceptible to stress induced by glucose, making them more resistant to the nerve transmissions that have been observed to cause seizures. Ketones have also been demonstrated to elevate the levels of GABA in the brain, a neurotransmitter that can inhibit signalling between neurons.
D’Agostino proved the effectiveness of the ketogenic diet in preventing seizures by prescribing it to the seal teams that were experiencing seizures due to their rebreather equipment. After following the diet for a short amount of time the seizures stopped.
The Keto Diet & Cancer
Inducing ketogenesis may also offer health benefits outside of the brain. Many doctors are beginning to observe links between metabolism and dietary intake and many forms of cancer, such as colorectal, kidney, esophageal, thyroid, and pancreatic cancer. These forms of cancer are commonly present in individuals that suffer from diabetes, obesity or extremely high BMI’s, and are now being linked to high sugar intake.
Cancer cells, like many other cells, rely upon glycogen to multiply and survive. As a result, they thrive in high-sugar environments, such as the bodies of individuals that suffer from type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes causes extremely high blood sugar levels, which creates the perfect conditions in which cancer can develop. PET scans, the diagnostic method used to identify many different forms of cancer, actually work by locating regions of the body in which glucose concentration is highest.
The link between sugar and cancer leads many medical professionals to believe that when the body enters a state of ketogenesis, cancer cells become starved and are susceptible to attack by the immune system of the body. According to D’Agostino, who became focused on the ketogenic diet after observing the positive results of ketosis in his Navy SEAL investigation, many cancers could potentially be managed through the application of a ketogenic diet, either in the form of a ketone-rich supplement or dietary practice.
A hypothetical ketone supplement would make it possible for the human body to enter a state of ketosis far easier than manually hitting the metabolic “reset button” through carb restriction or intermittent fasting. D’Agostino has recently created a new supplement called KetoCana, which is designed to provide the body with a massive hit of ketones during the early stages of carb restriction to eliminate the “low-carb flu”.
The US military has also become interested in the powerful effect of the ketogenic diet on the metabolism. Researchers at the Department of Defense, DARPA, and NASA are all conducting extensive investigations into the applications of ketosis. Key NASA scientists have even expressed an interest in taking the ketogenic diet to Mars on a hypothetical manned Mars mission, as it has shown promise in both reducing the effect of cosmic radiation on the body, and is able to lower overall stress levels. An added bonus from the perspective of NASA is that the energy density of the foods used in the ketogenic diet is higher, making it more weight cost-effective for spaceflight.
While the future of the ketogenic may seem bright, it’s still capable of delivering real-world results right now. A great example of the positive effects of the ketogenic diet on the human body can be found in South Africa athlete Bruce Fordyce. Fordyce won South Africa’s largest ultramarathon, the 56-mile Comrades event, nine times while following the ketogenic diet. Following Noakes advice, Fordyce was able to dramatically increase is marathon performance and attributes a great deal of his success to the ketogenic diet.
Whether you’re a professional athlete, a weekend fitness enthusiast, or simply seeking to lose some unwanted body fat, it’s clear that the ketogenic diet delivers a wide range of health benefits and is capable of shifting a serious amount of weight. Even simply cutting sugars from your diet can go a long way in improving your overall health.
- http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2548255 ↑