Staying in Ketosis – should you or shouldn’t you?
Leading on from on our blog on the cyclical ketogenic diet, it’s left some of our community a little bit confused. “If keto is so great for our healthspan, mind and waistline – why would you want to stop? Are you best staying in ketosis? Is it OK to stop? What happens if you stop and then start again? If you do stop keto, how long should you stop for?”
These are all valid questions we’ve fielded since publishing that article- some of which we’re going to attempt to answer in this blog.
What is Ketosis?
For those that missed the memo, ketosis is about switching your body to run on fat rather than carbohydrates as it’s primary fuel source. This fat can come from the fats you eat, but what gets people most fired up is the potential of using other sources of fat. Like your body fat (cool) and also ketone bodies. Your body produces these naturally when you’re in a fasted state. You can hack this process by heavily restricting carbohydrates, which puts the body into a fat burning state, but you still get to eat Bacon (double cool).
That’s a brief 101. If you want more about ketosis and why it’s probably a very good thing, check this out.
Getting into ketosis
Ketosis is a natural process that we all have in our arsenal. It’s desert island survival mechanism stuff nowadays, but once upon a time our ancestors would have called on it almost everyday. Between hunts, or during the winter season when food was scarce, we needed a mechanism to ensure that we could make it through to the next hunt – not only breathing but with the energy and focus required to get the kill. This probably explains why people in a state of ketosis report excellent levels of focus, concentration and energy levels.
Because time has seen the vast majority of western humans enjoy a surplus of food, our bodies have kind of forgot how to burn fat for fuel. You can re-learn that process, although it take a little time. Once you start doing it, you also need to keep doing it to make sure you’re properly defining those pathways and that they stick.
This process of being able to produce ketone bodies and then effectively use them for energy is called being keto adapted (sometimes referred to as being fat adapted). For clarity, we technical class ‘being in ketosis’ as being having a blood ketone reading of at least 0.5 mmol/l.
We’re always really clear. If you start doing keto, you really should stick with it for a minimum of 2 or 3 months. Some people may become keto adapted earlier than that, but as there’s no way of really knowing: you err on the side of caution. The vast majority of people will be keto adapted after this period.
If keto is going to be for you, you should know by this point. The chances are, if you had weight to lose, you’ll have started to make a dent in losing it. If you’re to feel any benefit to focus, energy levels etc – you should be feeling them by now.
If that’s not the case, it’s easy to see why you wouldn’t want to stay in ketosis. No benefit and no carbage – seems like a pretty sad existence.
Let’s just play Mr Positive for a second. So you’ve lot loads of weight, you’re in a great place mentally. You’re bouncing round at work and at home with the family with that much energy people think you’re on drugs. Life is sweet…
Then why would you want to not be in ketosis?
“I’m going on holiday”
We hear this one all the time. Understandably so. You save all year for that holiday to come around, you’ve been really disciplined following your keto diet plan for a number of months. You’re dreaming of sitting round the cool, drinking those sugar-laden sangrias, eating pizza and ice cream like the end of the world is nigh.
It’s hard to find any issues with this. We would call this a scheduled break. If you want to have a break from your keto plan, then take one.
In full transparency, this is something I’m a fan of. I don’t go wild, but I may drink more than normal. As an advocate of the British seaside, I will be having fish and chips cooked in beef dripping at least once. If the kids’ ice cream is dripping off the cone, I may take a lick. Other than that it’s business as usual, meat/fish and vegetables. I can’t go too ‘deep’ as it begins to impact my actual enjoyment of the holiday. Too much brain fog and you actually miss out on all the fun!
You’re working out and not getting the results.
To get the any results from being a keto athlete, at any kind of competition standard, you need to have been trained in a low carb/keto state for at least 6 months, You need to train your body to operate this way after years and years of performing on carbs. If you’ve made it through this period and you want to experiment around to see if there are any gains for extreme exercise, you may want to consider a cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD). We covered that off in detail in a recent blog if you want any of the detail around that.
You just need a break
This is something that shouldn’t be underestimated. If you’ve been keto and low carb for a while, your cravings are under control You don’t really have that insatiable desire to eat that thing ot the point where you get stomach cramps and irritable. You still know it tastes good. You can see the pizza or doughnut for what it is. If you haven’t had one for a while, you’re still curious though. Satisfying that curiosity once in a blue moon may not be a bad thing. Some ketonians and low carbers report this actually helps them stay focused for longer periods. When they don’t have the pressure of ‘falling off’ it becomes second nature. Similarly, those doing this often find when they have that pizza, or that donut, is that for a few minutes of mouth pleasure it’s not worth the stomach pains, the brain fog and the lack of drive and motivation that sticks around for days after. In other words, it helps to reinforce and remind people why they started doing keto and low carb in the first place and gets them hopping, skipping and jumping back into those sardine salad in no time! LIfe is busy, we have stuff to get done!
Potential pitfalls and things to consider
See-saw Marjery Daw
One thing to be aware of is the fat/carb see-saw. High fat and low carb when done right tends to be very beneficial for cardiovascular health markers (like triglycerides). Low fat and high carb are healthy for cardiac markers. High fat and high carb is a recipe for disaster and why many Governments, like ours in the UK, still think you should watch your sat fats: all the studies are undertaken on people who are following standard western diets and varying saturated fat. This should be understood and considered. If you’re dropping in and out of ketosis by upping and downing carbohydrates, you need to take a look at programming the rest of your foods to follow suit. Otherwise you may be sleepwalking into some potential health issues in the future.
As I explained in my recent CKD article, in the times you’re out of ketosis I think trying to eat real foods as much as possible is always a good thing. Perhaps sticking to something resembling a paleo diet would be awesome too.
Straight off the bat: if you’re using ketosis to manage some sort of health condition and you’re getting results then stick at it. Unless advised by a medical practitioner, you really shouldn’t be messing about with it. You will be aiming for a therapeutic ketosis level which is a good amount in advance of the standard nutritional threshold. In these cases, doing anything other than staying in ketosis may affect the management of your condition. So be aware!
Falling off the wagon and staying off
I think there’s a certain type of person that would be able to come out of ketosis tactically, and some that wouldn’t. For sugar addicts (including those in remission), or those who suffer with emotional eating, taking these kind of mindful decisions to dip in and out of the carb world may not be a practical option. Much like a recovering alcoholic can’t just go for a few pints after work to be social, for these people, a simple taste of those sugar-laden foods could be enough to set them off into a spiral of decline.
Whether you’re a recovering addict or an emotional eater, one learning from my scheduled breaks is to not forget about the ‘scheduled’ part. In other words, set a strict beginning and end. Be very clear with yourself and any accountability partners when you’re scheduled break begins and ends. This will give you the freedom and flexibility to eat and drink as you please, with the peace of mind that it’s just temporary and you’re going to be able to get back into a state of high performance relatively quickly.
Is it safe to just stop being in ketosis?
Yes. It’s as safe as going into ketosis. In all honesty, most foods spike your insulin in some way. Even keto and low carb ones will usually give a little spike. If you have a particularly big keto meal you may find this insulin spike dips your ketones out of your nutritional ketosis levels – albeit briefly. So you may observe practically, even if you’re eating a well formulated keto diet, that you’re dipping in and out of a state of ketosis. Just be aware of that fat/carb see-saw I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago and it’s difficult to foresee any particular problems.
Staying in ketosis – how long for?
This is one I wouldn’t even like to have a stab at. I would categorically say, don’t take a scheduled break unless you’re fully keto adapted. I think you wouldn’t want to turn it over too frequently. Perhaps CKD could be the kind of threshold frequency. Outside of that, who knows what is optimum? Some people may have a guess – I’d rather wait for the studies. There’s so much more we need to learn about keto and this would seem to be one of the key things we need to understand. All in good time I guess!