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Low Carb vs Keto - What's The Difference?

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Low carbohydrate and ketogenic diets are often confused, perhaps in part because a ketogenic diet is, by default, also a low carbohydrate diet. That said, there are several important distinctions that set ketogenic diets apart from more generic low carbohydrate diets. Let's look a little more closely at each of those distinctions, so you can better understand why someone might wish to pursue a ketogenic diet.

So, what's a low-carb diet?

Okay, so here's where the greatest confusion generally comes in. A low-carbohydrate diet focuses on limiting carbohydrate intake. A ketogenic diet does the same. So how are they different?

The difference is like that between a doctor and a surgeon. The surgeon is still a doctor but may be far more specialized. Keto diets, similarly, are specialized low-carb diets. So let's look at the generic—the low-carb diet—first.

First, it's important to note that “low” in this case is pretty subjective. There's no clear consensus on how many carbs one can eat before a diet is no longer low-carbohydrate, for instance.

In general, though, the idea here is to be more selective than the standard western diet. Often this means fruits, vegetables, and beans are still acceptable parts of the diet; while grains, baked goods, and processed sugars are either completely eliminated or drastically reduced.

As a result of shifting from carbohydrate-dense foods in your diet, to more low-density foods, the daily carbohydrate quantity you intake is significantly cut.

The subjectivity of the diet, however, can be problematic. For instance, if you were consuming 300 grams of carbohydrates daily, and cut it to 200 grams per day, this is a lower-carbohydrate diet. If you don't replace the lost calories, you may still lose weight, and technically, you could consider this a low carb diet, as you lowered your carbohydrate intake. Conversely, though, if you replace those lost calories with extra proteins or fats, you may have very different outcomes.

As a result, this subjectivity makes it hard to determine whether or not low-carbohydrate diets are effective, as they're not very well defined, and as such, cannot be very well judged.

Then what's the ketogenic diet?

The two biggest differences between low(ish)-carb diets and ketogenic diets are these:

  • Low-carbohydrate diets are imprecise; everything in a proper ketogenic diet is measured.
  • Low-carbohydrate diets are predicated by cutting back on a single macronutrient (carbohydrates), whereas ketogenic diets require very precise balances of all three.

In short, a successful ketogenic diet is high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carbohydrate. When done correctly, it allows your body to shift from burning carbohydrates (or glucose) to burning fat in the form of ketones and fatty acids.

In fact, in order for a diet to truly be ketogenic, it has to pursue nutritional ketosis; if it isn't done properly, however, it can go very badly, and leave you feeling terrible—without any of the benefits ketogenesis can provide.

So, how should ketogenesis work?

When ketogenic diets are balanced correctly and appropriately, that carbohydrate restriction should result in increased ketone production. Ketones, which are a byproduct of fat distillation and produced in the liver, can actually be measured (via blood or urine), so if you are a ketogenic diet, you can test progress.

A few guidelines: Traditional western (high-carbohydrate) diets generally result in blood ketone levels between 0.1-0.2 millimoles (mmol), and even moderate-carbohydrate diet (which some may confuse for low-carbohydrate diets, as discussed above) will generally fall in this same range. A truly effective ketogenic diet, however, will result in much higher blood ketone levels, generally above 0.5millimoles but safely as high as 5.0 millimoles. This higher ketone level is a sign that your body has reached a state of “nutritional ketosis,” and shows that the ketogenic diet is working.

But what does this look like as a diet?

For an effective ketogenic diet, consider the following guidelines a starting point for each of the three most major macronutrients.

Carbohydrates

Standard western diets are frequently between 40-70 percent carbohydrates, by calories. Most research studies equate low-carbohydrate diets as gaining less than 30 percent of their calories from carbohydrates (generally in a range of 50-100 grams per day).

Ketogenic diets, however, often suggest as few as 5-10 percent of your total caloric intake comes from carbohydrates, which is generally in the 25-30 gram range. Many ketogenic plans offer a little more leeway, but almost all suggest a maximum intake of 50 grams on any given day, as keeping carbohydrate intake below that threshold seems necessary for triggering nutritional ketosis, in which your body begins relying on fat for fuel.

Proteins

This is where ketogenic diets show the greatest range, depending on the goals of the ketogenic diet. If weight loss is the aim, for instance, the plan may suggest moderate to high protein intake, in order to maintain muscle, strength, and satiation, so you aren't left feeling hungry.

Consider the following basic divisions: High-protein diets may recommend 0.7-1 grams per pound of body weight (2 grams per kilogram) or more; moderate-protein diets generally recommend between 0.6-0.7 grams per pound of body weight (1.3-1.5 grams per kilogram); low-protein diets may recommend less than 0.35 grams per pound (0.9 gram per kilogram) of body weight.

One note of caution: As Dr Jacob Wilson, director of the Applied Science and Performance Institute, notes, high-protein diets can make achieving nutritional ketosis impossible. (As a result, he recommends no more than 1.5 grams per kilogram as an upper limit.)

The science behind this is based on a process called gluconeogenesis, by which the body, in a carbohydrate-limited state, breaks down proteins to create glucose, thereby bypassing the aims of ketogenesis, which requires the body not have access to glucose, so that it instead will create ketones for fuel.

Fats

 When it comes to low-carbohydrate diets, you still need a moderate amount of fat, because otherwise, the only way to get calories is through an overabundance of protein. In a low-carbohydrate diet, though, you're still mostly burning the carbohydrates you're still consuming, so this is less important.

In a ketogenic diet, however, fat is what you're burning. As a result, you want 70 percent or more of your daily calories to come from fat, as fat is your new fuel source.

 

For many people, this is the hardest change to accept when looking at a ketogenic diet. After all, isn't it fat which contributes to obesity? The truth is, the research on high-fat diets are inconclusive at worst, whereas as plenty of evidence suggests that the real culprit for so many health issues is the combination of high-carbohydrate and high-fat diets, or what we might consider a standard western diet.

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How To Improve Your Insulin Sensitivity

I’m sure by now you’ve probably heard the term ‘insulin resistance’, or maybe even ‘insulin sensitivity’. If not, no problems, let me run over it for the folks who don’t know. Insulin resistance is associated with elevated levels of insulin circulating throughout your body, followed by an intolerance for glucose, if left ignored this can eventually lead to obesity, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension. So essentially it’s your body losing the ability to effectively control, use, and store glucose.

Here are some of the symptoms of insulin resistance:
- PCOS;
- Inability to lose weight;
- High blood pressure;
- Fluid retention (looking ‘puffy’ due to insulin signalling to your kidneys to hang on to sodium and water. This can be seen with swollen ankles, fingers, or abdomen, and even a ‘puffy’ area under your jawline);
- Elevated blood sugar levels;
- Fat storage in the abdominal area;
- Acne;
- (In women) male-pattern baldness; and/or
- Cravings for sugar/high-carb foods, and a constant feeling of hunger.
Remember this is not a diagnosis, and you should never self-diagnose. If these symptoms seem familiar, please request to have tests done by your healthcare professional.

Insulin is not the bad guy though! Insulin is what tells your body to absorb sugars and use them for energy, and balances your blood glucose levels. High levels of glucose in your blood will be sent to your liver for storage. So when the body has insulin resistance, your cells are responding in an abnormal way. Glucose is inhibited from entering the cells with ease, and it begins to build up in the blood.

From having insulin resistance myself I’ve done a lot of research on methods you can use to improve your body’s insulin sensitivity. I’ll list them below, and I’ve also included all my references at the bottom of this article if you’d like to read the full journal studies.

 

INOSITOL

Inositol is a supplement which is frequently used for treating metabolic syndromes, gestational diabetes, and PCOS. D-chiro-inositol (ie. Inositol) and myo-inositol are able to mimic the effects of insulin, and help your body better absorb the glucose for use, rather than sending it straight to storage. Studies have shown that after three months of myo-inositol treatment HbA1c (Glycated hemoglobin, which is a form of hemoglobin that is measured primarily to identify the three-month average plasma glucose concentration) levels and fasting blood glucose levels had significantly decreased compared to their initial readings (Pintaudi, 2016). Both myo-inositol and d-chiro-inositol showed the ability to mimic insulin in animals and humans.

 

CINNAMON

My naturopath has instructed me to take 1 teaspoon of cinnamon per day, as 1 teaspoon of cinnamon has a very similar effect to one dosage of Metformin. Metformin is a commonly prescribed drug used for treatment of type 2 diabetes. Cinnamon has been show to reduce insulin resistance, lower blood glucose levels, lower lipid levels, decrease inflammation, increase antioxidant activity, decrease body weight, and increase the utilisation of proteins throughout the body in both human and animal studies (Qin, 2010). Cinnamon extracts increased insulin activity more than 20-fold, making the body’s insulin efficient again.

 

BLUEBERRIES

Randomised, double-blinded and placebo-controlled studies on obese and insulin-resistant subjects have shown that incorporating 22.5g of blueberry bioactives into the daily diet insulin sensitivity was increased, with no inflammation, and no changes to the overall daily energy consumption by the participants (Stull, 2010). Blueberries have demonstrated the ability to increase the uptake of glucose into the bloodstream. This is largely believed to be due to their antioxidant properties.

 

CHROMIUM

As early as the 1850s studies have shown that chromium is essential to the human body for the effective metabolism of glucose. Many diets do not contain the adequate amount of chromium, and when your body has lowered levels of Chromium, it requires even higher levels of insulin to effectively use glucose (Anderson, 2003). There are many factors involved in insulin sensitivity, and chromium is just one of those, unfortunately there is still no test available to truly determine if you have chromium deficiency. Chromium should not be self-medicated. If your healthcare professional is treating you for insulin resistance try to make sure at least one of your supplements has chromium in it.

 

SLEEP

An inappropriate amount of sleep is associated with the incorrect use and storage of glucose in the body (Buxton, 2010). Sleep restriction to a maximum of 5 hours per night for only 1 week was shown to significantly reduce the ability of insulin to function correctly.

 

HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)

HIIT exercise has shown the ability to lower blood glucose levels, increase fitness levels, increase the body’s basal metabolic rate (rate at which is burns energy), and increase insulin sensitivity (Marcinko, 2015). In clinical trials HIIT has improved insulin sensitivity, regardless of the body weight of participant. You can download My HIIT Guide training program from here.

 

MAINTAINED WEIGHT LOSS

If you’ve lost weight, this is even more incentive to keep it off, rather than returning back to your old habits. Overweight or obese women who maintained at least a 15% reduction in their body weight over 12-18 months have shown to have improved insulin sensitivity, rather than those who gained their lost weight back (Clamp, 2017). The opposite also reflected, with those who gained the weight back showing signs of decreased insulin sensitivity.

 

REDUCING EXCESS FRUCTOSE CONSUMPTION (Ditch the added sugars)

Standard diets now have shown a 26% increase in consumption of sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup compared to the standard diet in 1970 (Elliott, 2002). This is a result of the increase in added sugars to many foods, and there is major concern regarding the impact of health of diets that contain a large amount of free sugars (fructose particularly). Recent human studies (within the past 5 years) show a clear and direct link between changes in metabolic activity and high fructose intake. Fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion, and also does not increase the production of leptin, which play a major role in the regulation of energy expenditure and metabolism of sugars, as mentioned previously (Grant, 1980). The lack of insulin and leptin stimulation can then lead to weight gain, causing more issues for the subject.


References

Anderson RA 2003, ‘Chromium and insulin resistance’, Nutrition Research Reviews, vol. 16, pp. 267-275.

Buxton OM et al 2010, ‘Sleep restriction for 1 week reduces insulin sensitivity in healthy men’, Diabetes, vol. 59, no. 9, pp. 2126-2133.

Clamp LD et al 2017, ‘Maintained weight loss for 1 year increases insulin sensitivity in women’, Nutr Diabetes.

Elliott SS et al 2002, ‘Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome’, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 76, no. 5, pp. 911-922.

Grant AM, Christie MR & Ashcroft SJ 1980, ‘Insulin release from human pancreatic islets in vitro’, Diabetologia, vol. 19, pp. 114-117.

Kleefstra N, Bilo HJ, Bakker SJ & Houweling ST 2004, ‘Chromium and insulin resistance’, Nederlands Tijdschrift Voor Geneeskunde, vol. 148, no. 5, pp. 217-220.

Marcinko K et al 2015, ‘High intensity interval training improves liver and adipose tissue insulin sensitivity’, Molecular Metabolism, vol. 4, no. 12, pp. 903-915.

Pintaudi B, Di Vieste G & Bonomo M 2016, ‘The effectiveness of myo-inositol and d-chiro-inositol treatment in type 2 diabetes’.

Qin B, Panickar KS & Anderson R 2010, ‘Cinnamon: Potential role in the prevention of insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes’, J Diabetes Sci Technology, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 685-693.

Stull AJ et al 2010, ‘Bioactives in blueberries improve insulin sensitivity in obese, insulin-resistant mem and women’, The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 140, no. 10, pp. 1764-1768.

Wilcox G 2005, ‘Insulin and insulin resistance’, Clinical Biochem Rev., vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 19-39.

Woods SC, Chavez M & Park CR, et al 1996, ‘The evaluation of insulin as a metabolic signal influencing behavior via the brain’, Neurosci Biobehav, vol. 20, pp. 139-144.