Ketogenic Diets & Weight Loss: Why We’ve Got It Wrong About Fat
Both in my work as a naturopath, and in my own personal life, I’m increasingly aware of the discussion about weight loss. As a youngster, this was never an issue for me, or most of my peers, but with the changing environmental landscape, it seems we all have issues with food and what we should eat in order to be healthy.
Many people who come to see me have tried (and failed) to drop a few pounds by experimenting with herbal supplements. Other folk have tried all the diets under the sun without any lasting success.
Over the years I’ve personally experimented with countless weight loss programs in the hope of finding a real solution for myself and the people who come to me for help. It wasn’t until I discovered the ketogenic diet that I finally came to the conclusion that there was an easier (and more to the point enjoyable) approach to healthy eating, that could literally melt away fat, and dramatically improve health, without slavish calorie counting or spending a ton of money on expensive products.
The ketogenic movement is not without it’s critics. This is because it endorses eating high fat foods to reduce appetite and remove the so called “addictive” foods such as refined carbohydrates. Basically, it flies right in the face of the current government guidelines around healthy eating. Having said this, the increasing amount of sound, scientific data around the topic of ketogenic diets suggests that it may in fact be the guidelines themselves that are wrong. A new generation of nutritional researchers, GPs and even some high profile heart surgeons are challenging the long held belief that low fat foods are good for us. They argue that it’s this belief which is the real cause of the current obesity epidemic.
It’s obvious we’re getting fatter and sicker. Why is this happening if the current guidelines around healthy eating are right? Surely everyone who’s tried to cut down on calories and exercise more should lose weight if the current model is correct?
The ketogenic movement takes a new approach to weight loss by placing importance on the effects of calories rather than the amount of calories consumed, and focuses on the type of food that humans are designed to eat.
Banting and the Ketogenic Diet
In 2015 the Banting diet (a type of ketogenic diet) was made popular by the ground breaking work of Professor Tim Noakes and his colleague Jonno Proudfoot when the now infamous “Real Meal Revolution” was published to high acclaim in South Africa.
What is Banting?
In 1862 an obese London undertaker called William Banting visited his doctor William Harvey. He was utterly desperate to lose weight. Little did he know how important this meeting would be.
Doctor Harvey had recently attended a series of lectures by French physiologist Claude Bernard. Doctor Bernard had discovered that the liver produces glucose (blood sugar) and was keen to spread the word about his discovery amongst the medical community. Doctor Harvey was so inspired by these discussions that he began to formulate an idea; what if he created an eating plan which limited the foods which caused a rise in glucose? Might this be a way to help his overweight, diabetic patient?
His theory proved to be correct. The story of William Banting’s remarkable weight loss was soon published, and in no time at all people all around the world began to follow Doctor Harvey’s advice. Banting became the standard treatment for weight loss in all of the major European and North American medical schools until the end of World War II when (for political reasons we won’t go into here) it was replaced by the current low fat, high carb model.
It wasn’t until Doctor Robert Atkins published his “Diet Revolution” in 1972, that a resurgence in the idea that carbohydrates – not fat, were the cause of obesity. Once again scientists began to open their minds to this way of thinking.
Since Doctor Atkins there have been numerous high profile studies into the effect of the low carb, high fat diet; a diet that is remarkably similar to the diet our ancestors ate.
Why Banting (and Ketogenic Diets) Work:
Would you consider making your cat turn vegan? Is it acceptable to force a polar bear in captivity to eat pasties?
If you think about it, the reason why these questions sound so horrifying is because we instinctively know that this type of diet would be completely unsuitable for those particular animals. If polar bears and cats ate anything other than the foods they had naturally evolved to consume, they’d very soon become sick and die. Why should human beings be any different? Banting is based on the premise that if we eat the foods we were designed to eat (basically a high fat, low carbohydrate diet,) then good health will naturally follow.
We’re not eating what we’re supposed to eat and that’s why we’re getting fat
Early humans were hunter gatherers. Their diet consisted mainly of proteins and fats, which they derived from the animals, wild fruits, nuts, berries and plants they encountered in the natural environment. People existed on this diet for many hundreds of years; there are tribes and traditional peoples that still thrive this way today.
However, since the arrival of agriculture, humans have moved away from this natural diet of protein and fats in favour of grain based foods. It’s this shift which many scientists believe is responsible for the rapid increase in the chronic, inflammatory diseases we’re experiencing in epidemic proportions in the industrialised world today. Check out what researcher Pedro Carrera Bastos has to say about the matter in this fascinating lecture:
Followers of the Banting philosophy propose that the best foods for humans are the ones our ancestors ate; a fact which has since been confirmed time and again.
The Ancestral Diet: Fat Good, Carbs Bad
You may be surprised to learn that of the three macronutrients available to humans (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates) only two are essential to survival.
Protein provides the building blocks for new cells. It’s important for growth, tissue repair and many other bodily functions. Fat helps us absorb fat soluble vitamins and plays an essential role in maintaining the structure of our cell walls. Without the right amount of fat in your diet you’d be unable to synthesize Vitamin D or manufacture many of the important hormones essential to life. Carbohydrates on the other hand, have only a small role to play in human health. When we understand this fact, it’s clear that the most natural way to eat is to consume foods that are low in carbohydrates and high in fats. These are the foods our ancestors instinctively ate, and which consequent studies have shown to be highly beneficial.
Unfortunately this wisdom isn’t reflected in the current guidelines which place more importance on the consumption of products like wheat, rice and other grains. Scientists are beginning to open their eyes to the fact that in may indeed be this flawed, unbalanced model which is the largest contributor to the ever growing problem of obesity and diabetes.
Why is a low carb diet beneficial for health?
- Eating carbohydrates causes your body to produce glucose (blood sugar.) As glucose is the easiest molecule for your body to convert and use as energy, it will burn carbohydrates for fuel before reaching into your fat stores. Any carbohydrates that are eaten and not burnt immediately get stored in the liver as fat (fatty liver is now being seen in children as young as 12) or in fat cells for use later on. That “later on” often never comes, and people end up getting heavier and heavier despite valiant efforts to control their weight. The simple fact is that removing carbs from your diet forces the body to burn fat instead of glucose, which in turn, leads to natural weight loss.
- Eating a high carb diet also forces the body to produce insulin. This is because insulin is needed to balance blood sugar. One of the causes of Type II Diabetes is consuming a diet high in sugar. Diabetes rears its ugly head when the pancreas (which produces insulin) becomes worn out to the point where it’s no longer able to produce the right amount of insulin to keep blood sugar in check. With this in mind it’s easy to see why a low carb diet has been shown to be highly beneficial for diabetics and people with metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance.
- Instead of satisfying huger, carbohydrates stimulate the appetite which makes people who consume a lot of carbs feel constantly hungry. Because of the addictive nature of sugar and carbohydrates (try cutting out bread and see what I mean) a vicious cycle ensues whereby people wind up craving the very foods that are causing the problem in the first place. Essentially, cutting out carbs stops you feeling hungry, and over time leads to a reduction of calorie intake and puts an end to those dreaded cravings.
Isn’t fat bad for you?
If you’re cutting out sugar from your diet you’ll need a fuel source. The body’s preferred fuel source is fat. Experts now agree that a diet high in fat is actually beneficial for heart health; some even claiming that the low fat myth is the “greatest medical error of our time.”
How did we get so misguided?
In the 1920’s US magazines encouraged women to cut down on fat as the diet gurus of the time knew that each gram of fat contained 9 calories, while each gram of carbohydrate and protein weighs in at only 4. Against this backdrop, physicians began to recommend low fat diets to promote weight loss, ignoring the fact that people were also consuming copious amounts of sweetened beverages and other sugary foods. Fat was made the scapegoat while sugar got off Scott free.
To compound the problem, along comes a scientist named Ancel Keys. Mr. Keys is widely held to account for perpetuating the “fat is bad” mantra. His “Seven Countries Study” was heavily criticised by his contemporaries when it was discovered he had in fact skewed his results in support of his theories. Regardless of the facts, he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, and the fat myth was born.
Mr. Keys however was not without his adversaries. At the time, a young nutritionist named John Yudkin opposed his theories, stating that it was in fact sugar and not fat which was the driver for heart disease. His many experiments validated this by showing that sugar did indeed raise insulin and the blood triglycerides responsible for diabetes and heart disease. Unfortunately, by that time the damage was already done, and his theories fell on deaf ears.
Thankfully, the relationship between cholesterol, dietary fat and cardiovascular disease is much better understood now than it was 50 years ago. However, as of yet, the media doesn’t seem to have caught up and the message is only just trickling through to the general public. People will never change their behaviour until they change their beliefs – so while the “low fat is best” message continues to prevail, it’s inevitable there’s still a long way to go before we see a drop in the number of people continuing to suffer with obesity and preventable, chronic disease.
Ketogenic diets (and the Banting protocol) are highly beneficial for anyone looking to lose weight, prevent heart disease, control diabetes or heal any other metabolic / insulin related health condition. We can longer ignore the evidence presented to us about high fat, low carb eating plans when it comes to our health.
For further information about Banting, The Ketogenic Diet, High Fat Low Carb Diets and ancestral (paleo) diets – the following resources are extremely useful.
“The 10,000 Year Explosion” – Gregory Cochran & Henry Harpending
“Your Personal Paleo Diet” – Chris Kresser
“Nutritional Grail” – Christopher James Clark
“Eat Fat Get Thin” Dr. Mark Hyman