A couple of years ago it was the Paleo Diet that was the biggest nutrition trend. But while Paleo is still popular, a new variation is taking up more and more column inches and space on bookstore shelves: the ketogenic diet. It’s easy to over-simplify the keto approach and reduce it to just another high fat, low carb approach to eating. But as it turns out, there’s some sound physiology behind it and all those keto recipe books don’t just exist to make some authors a quick buck. We caught up with Dr. Frank Merritt, a co-founder of VitalityPro who also collaborates with Power Speed Endurance’s Brian Mackenzie, to find out more.
How does ketogenesis work?
We used to think that the heart was the engine of the human body, and that’s why so much training is focused on developing its capacity. But as we looked into the research, we found that while the heart is of course still important, in performance training it’s actually the myocytes [cells found in muscle tissue] that are the body’s main engine. Like a car engine, these cells require two things – oxygen and fuel. At VitalityPro, we help athletes develop their lungs to improve their oxygen supply and their liver to improve their fuel supply. The fuel comes from the liver, which is designed for both gluconeogenesis [producing glucose] and ketogenesis. When we’re fueling ketogenically, the liver is breaking down certain amino acids and fatty acids into ketones, which can provide long-lasting energy.
Why do many people have limited ketogensis?
Our culture encourages us to eat meals at set times and then snack continually throughout the day. When we succumb to this habitual hunger all the time, we’re biasing gluconeogenesis, particularly when we consume a lot of carbohydrates and simple sugars. Among athletes, we see people reaching for an energy drink or gel every 30 minutes. This gives them a high, but as soon as the crash kicks in they need another hit. As a result of this constant topping up, they’re just feeding the gluconeogenesis mechanism. If they’re suddenly cut off from this very limited supply of sugar they bonk. This is because their body has become inefficient at fueling through ketogenesis. Constantly taking in simple sugars doesn’t just affect the liver, but the entire system, including the pancreas, which governs the liver through glucagon and insulin also becomes inefficient through modern eating habits. This pattern cascades throughout the body’s many organs and systems causing havoc.
How can we improve our ability to fuel through ketogenesis?
The antidote to habituated hunger is fasting. The Bible and just about every other sacred text encourages people to fast regularly as it’s a beneficial practice. The word “breakfast” means to literally break your fast. But because it requires discipline and feels uncomfortable at first, most of us don’t want to do it. We tend to overlook that everything in life, including our minds and bodies, is trainable. This includes liver function. So if we end our dependence on sugars, fast more often and only eat when we’re truly hungry instead of heading to the refrigerator every time we feel a twinge of hunger, we can recondition the ability to provide energy with ketones.
What are the performance benefits of ketogenesis?
We have elite Division I football players who come to our VitalityPro camps. These guys are incredibly fast, strong and powerful. But after a few minutes of high output, our training staff and I can outperform them. How is this possible? It’s certainly not sheer athleticism or genetics because they have us beat on both of those. It’s because we’ve trained our liver, adrenal system, and lungs, which most coaches don’t even think about. If you take two athletes who are exactly the same in every category and one of them has a liver that’s equally trained at producing glucose and ketones for energy, they’re going to outperform the other person each and every time.
So do you advocate a high fat, high protein diet?
I have a friend who refers to our country as “The Excited States of America.” When it comes to health and performance, he has a point. One week we’re telling people to eat a lot of carbs, the next it’s a lot of fat and the next it’s a lot of protein. We get caught up in these fads, but everyone’s physiology is different. I suggest self-experimenting and finding your ideal balance between high-quality fat, protein, and carbs. But one thing’s for sure – relying on a lot of simple sugars to give you energy is not a long-term path to success.