Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Embracing Ketosis

Deny the body carbohydrates and it goes into starvation mode. It starts digesting fat already stored. This can be a problem for dairy farmers. If cows don't get enough feed when they start lactating, they can develop "fatty liver" disease from all the fat their body metabolizes. It can be a very serious problem for Type I diabetics as well. The blood becomes dangerously acid, to the point of being life threatening. My diabetic wife, once sick with flu and unable to keep food down, had to be hospitalized and sustained intravenously.

Actual starvation will bring on this condition as well, called ketosis. It's a natural self-preservation mechanism: faced with a lack of food, the body begins to feed on itself, starting with its stores of fat. More than 100 years ago, the medical profession discovered the carbohydrate trigger. Denying carbohydrates to induce ketosis became an extreme form of dieting.

Carbohydrate abstinence remained more or less in the background until a certain medical doctor specializing in alternative healing, Robert C. Atkins, made a fortune advocating a way to lose weight fast and remain slim on a reduced carbohydrate regimen.

We here at The Slow Cook disdain fad diets and generally reject "dieting" in favor of consuming a wide range of healthful foods. We grow plenty of our own and enjoy playing with our food in the kitchen. We're not purists, and we sometimes eat more than we should, but we try to stick with foods you might call "natural" or "real" over those that have been manufactured or processed in a factory. But as I settle into middle age, and after taking the tender remonstrations of my spouse into account, I have decided that a fat belly, high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure require a closer look at my diet. To give myself a better chance at seeing grandchildren, I've decided to give up carbohydrates and go ketotic.

At least temporarily.

For all his trouble, Robert Atkins was tarred for not being able to produce scientific proof supporting the safety and efficacy of his diet. The "Atkins Diet" was ridiculed by people who thought it was all about gorging on bacon and eggs. In fact, that's not what the Atkins Diet is about. It is about ketosis as a first step toward mitigating the effects of too much insulin coursing through the body, storing fat everywhere, as a result of too many carbohydrates in the diet. Many others have written about the carbohydrate effect. Michael R. Eades and Mary Dan Eades, for instance, have authored some of the most compelling works on health and nutrition I have seen, all centered on the dangers of carbohydrate-induced insulin in the body.

I won't bore you with a lecture or a scientific treatise here. I'll save some of that for later. Feel free to read more about it yourself. Meanwhile, I'll leave you with a few bullet points that I hope explain in general terms what my detour into the world of ketosis and carbohydrate abstinence is about:

* This is not just a vanity issue for me, but a matter of facing up to certain glaring indicators of potential heart disease and premature death. Over the coming weeks and months, I hope to get back to my college trim, which means dropping between 30 and 35 pounds and learning to keep it off.

* I am satisfied that ketosis brought about by abstinence from carbohydrates does not pose a danger to my health. I am monitoring my weight and blood pressure daily. My hope is that losing weight will reduce my blood pressure enough that I can discontinue the blood pressure medication I am currently taking. I will be consulting with my physician about this, as well as about certain potassium issues that arise with blood pressure medication and carbohydrate withdrawal.

* For the time being, my diet will consist almost entirely of proteins. I will not be eating breads or pasta or potatoes or cake or fruits or juices at all. My daily carbohydrate intake for at least the next two weeks will be about 20 grams, approximately the amount in one oatmeal raisin cookie.

* It's true that this style of eating incorporates lots of animal fats along with "good" fats such as extra-virgin olive oil. The human body historically has an amazing ability to put these lipids to good use when carbohydrates are out of the picture. I will be losing weight--not gaining it--and my cholesterol levels should go down, not up. That's the wonder of eliminating much of the insulin the pancreas produces when we are consuming too many carbohydrates.

* Over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, humans ate meat and fats whenever they could get their hands on it, along with a wide variety of low-carb berries, nuts and seeds. And they were healthier. It wasn't until grain cultivation came onto the scene 10,000 years ago--practically yesterday in evolutionary terms--that humans developed a hankering for a carbohydrate diet. Now we are surrounded by carbohydrates and we can't get enough them. We are practically addicted to carbohydrates, whether in the form of french fries or potato chips or sodas or fruit drinks or cakes or candies. Nearly everything in the supermarket is loaded with carbohydrates, resulting in an epidemic of modern diseases: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardio-vascular disease. For this we can thank an agriculture and food matrix-- subsidized by our tax dollars--that thrives on a glut of cheap corn and other grains.

* Protein and fats are essential for survival. Our bodies cannot function without them. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are--nutritionally speaking--absolutely unnecessary. We would do fine without carbohydrates. Think of the Eskimos, who survive on seals and whale blubber and fish.

* I'm beginning to think that what this country needs it not so much tweaking around the edges of its agriculture policy as an all out war on insulin levels nationwide. Let's get carbohydrates out of the nation's schools, and stop encouraging kids to follow a food pyramid based on grain products. Let's stop training children to be our future diabetics and cardiac patients.

Today I begin Day 3 of the new regime. Yesterday I had fried eggs and sausage for breakfast, salmon salad and avocado for lunch, a snack of oily sardines and a few almonds. Dinner was soy-glazed chicken breast with mustard greens. So far I feel fine and I'm looking forward to devising more high-protein, low-carbohydrate meals. I promise I will update you with important details as developments warrant.


Deb said...

Ed, I wish you well in your efforts. I was just explaining to one of my kids the other day that eating fat doesn't make you fat, it's too much sugar and starches.

Erica said...

I'm looking forward to following your journey, Ed! I'm sure you will see amazing results.

I really need to kick myself in the butt and follow your lead. I lost an amazing amount of weight years ago cutting out all carbs. Following the same you did, aiming to keep it under X amount of carbs.

You can do it!

el said...

You've just been on fire this week Ed. It's a good thing.

My mom is a (F)Atkins zombie and she's definitely of the school of thought that all carbs are bad, always, but the truth of course is far more complicated than that. A varied, traditional diet in all whole foods is still the one our bodies can most easily process.

But you are quite right in that what we eat does kill us, and the ubiquity of horrible food choices, especially in our nation's schools, is a kind of abuse if you ask me. Carbohydrates, especially the complex forms, are still a necessary part of one's diet. It's overeating them, as you've said, that is the really bad thing.

I hope your stay in ketosis is a short one. We all wish you stick around for a long time too!

Ed Bruske said...

Deb, my wife and I were just talking this morning about how to change the diet of our very picky eating daughter, who loves nothing better than white rice, white bread, white pasta and white mashed potatoes. It's worth explaining to kids that not all fats are bad (we would definitely choose grass-fed beef over corn-fed beef) and that some calories are better for you than others. Our first step will be to switch our daughter to whole grains (brace for the temper tantrum).

Efica, thanks for the encouragement. From your picture, I would never guess that you need to go on any kind of diet. You look to be in the pink of health.

El, your right--the picture is not so simplistic and it's not practical to eliminate all grains from the diet. I hope to be teasing out some of these issues in the blog over the coming weeks and months. I was doing a good deal of reading in preparation for ketosis and experienced a kind of epiphy where carbohydrates are concerned. We are, as a society, carbohydrate abusers, abetted by the agribusiness/corporate food matrix that I mentioned. Our ag system is geared to produce as much carbohydrate product as possible and promote its consumption to the max. We need to reexamine the role of carbohydrates in what we consider a healthy diet (food pyramid) and adjust the food we serve children accordingly. At a minimum we should be serving whole grains and more proteins. Naturally, that would be more expensive, but I think it's time we accept the true costs of raising healthy children. We're already starting to see the costs of raising unhealthy children.

Jeffersonian said...


True, sugars and starches are a problem, but fat still requires our attention. Weight loss, to and for me, is a simple math equation: fewer calories in than I burn and I lose weight. Pound for pound, fat has more calories than just about anything, which is why we store it.

I don't generally endorse carbohydrate reduction, but I wish you the best of luck, Ed. To each his own, and better health for us all.

Jean said...

I have to admit, I'm a bit disappointed to read this but extremely curious - especially since you eat well. Losing weight is simple mathmatics - if you lower the calories in (below maintenance calories) and increase calories out, you can't help but lose weight. I'm *certain* you can do that. The weight will come back on once you quit Atkins since it isn't a sustainable diet. Why not try lowering calories through portion control, and increasing your exercise (but definitely not the calories)? I believe carbs are wrongly vilified - being of Asian descent, I (and my family) eat primarily rice and vegetables and are not overweight. Whole grains are extremely satisfying and healthy. I just wrote a post on weight loss here, and would love feedback:

Anonymous said...

Good luck....

As the girlfriend of a Type I diabetic, I cannot but shudder when I here the word "ketosis", since to me it gives the image of the body eating itself due to insufficient insulin, the release of toxic ketones into the bloodstream, and a general health hazard.

Then again, I have never had weight problems, even without the benefit of a "miraculous metabolism"; just celiac's. However, I also believe the complete swearing off of carbohydrates is unwise for society. Not merely in terms of the loss of many easily accessible desserts, but also because rice, wheat, corn are all dietary staples for a reason: they're a necessary component of a vegetarian diet to create complete proteins. Most beans/legumes are not an efficient protein without them.

Furthermore, isn't a high fat/high protein diet expensive? Not merely in terms of consumer cash, but given that it's primarily an animal based diet, hard in terms of the stress it puts on the planet; trophic levels and all that.


foodhoe said...

Good luck! I hope you will post up any interesting recipes you find along the way. I just started taking hi blood pressure meds last week which has me thinking of ways to change my diet. I find that I feel much better on a high protein diet personally, it feels like a better fuel for my body.

Ed Bruske said...

Deb, you are definitely right. Some fats are a real problem. But not the ones people normally think of. The worst fats--corn, soybean--have made their way into everything, completely undermining our historical balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. But you rarely see a discussion of that. I think where fats are concerned, the calorie question is less important than the type of fat. Our bodies require 30 percent fat in the diet to function properly.

Jean, the good news is, you are not the one on this diet, I am. And I will be the first to grant you that everyone has their individual relationship with food, their own personal metabolism and genetic issues. I certainly could go on the kind of diet you are describing, but I chose to do something else. And I do get quite a bit of exercise, if you count walking everywhere instead of using a car or bicycle. The fact is, there is quite a bit of portion control involved with what I'm doing. It's not just about reducing carbohydrates, but about reducing calories overall. Furthermore, I don't see carbs being villified at all. They are the foundation of the USDA food pyramid. People love carbohydrates. It's protein that's getting the bad rap. The diet of refined rice in Asia is not a good diet. They remove the bran with all the beneficial fiber and nutrients only because it looks better and infers higher status. Read "The One Straw Revolution" and listen to a wise old Japanese farmer lament how rice is handled in Asia.

Herbert, you are right on every count. We will never eliminate carbs from the diet. They are the basis of cheap food and without them a lot of people would starve. And proteins are expensive. They should be less expensive. I'm beginning to think we should be supsidizing aquaculture and chicken farms and pork production to encourage the consumption of more protein and decrease our reliance on carbohydrates. The point is, we've become carbohydrate hogs and it's that relationship with excessive insulin production and a whole complex of diseases that we should be addressing.

FH, I am feeling much better on a protein diet as well. But of course being extremely focused on everything I eat at all times of the day changes everything. We shall soon see whether this reduces blood pressure as advertised.

ekroczek said...

Hi Ed!

This comment isn't related to this post in particular; I just wanted to say "You Rock!" I have a blog where I explore some of the same issues that you do, only not as well. I created a link to Slow Cook on my blog--I hope that's O.K. Keep up the gook work!

Ed Bruske said...

Eric, you are doing great stuff on your blog. I often wonder myself how local, sustinable, healthy agriculture can ever replace the corporate ag juggernaut, or whether it's just a passing phase. Delighted to have you join us and so good to hear from somebody in Pittsburgh. Keep at it.

Jean said...

Different things work for different people, and you are certainly being very mindful in your approach. Best of luck, and I look forward to the results. Re: rice farming, I have heard first hand that white refined rice was only for the wealthy buyers, since it was too much work for one's own consumption. Especially Japanese-style rice. We're on 100% brown, thanks.

Greyhair said...

You seem to be a data based individual, not given to fads and superstition.

Check out the statistics on any ... I repeat .... ANY ... "diet" and you'll find that the lack of success is overwhelming.

The key to weight CONTROL is to eat what you eat, just eat less of it. I know, it's very simple, not too glamorous and not very gadgety. But it's the truth.

FoodRenegade said...

Ed -- So glad to welcome you to the darkside :) You've always been a Real Foodie at heart, and now you're venturing even deeper into that foray by re-aligning your diet with more traditional ones rich in fats (particularly good fats from grass-fed/wild/pastured animals)& proteins.

Anyhow, I think it's interesting to note that people on truly high fat diets (say 60% of caloric intake) actually eat FEWER calories per day! Why? B/c they're full and satiated. Carbs leave us hungry and starving for more within hours.

Ketosis isn't great permanently, but it's a good jump start to our metabolism in the right direction if done like your doing it (and then done sporadically thereafter via intermittent fasting).

Anyhow, I wish you all the best on your journey!!

(AKA FoodRenegade)

Ed Bruske said...

Greyhair, thanks for those sentiments. What you say is certainly true--eat less and you will lose weight. But it does matter what you eat. I don't see myself as being on a diet so much as adjusting my approach to food and drink, especially in the area of carbohydrates.

Kristen, we've always been a member of your team. We indulge in animal fats and in dairy. But we are particular when it comes to choosing meats and fats and dairy that are raised on grass, and avoiding processed vegetable oils in favor of olive oil and canola oil. And yes, I do find that I am more sated on proteins than on carbohydrates. Much less fidgety about where the next carb fix is coming from.

Cyndy said...

There are quite a few things you can do to keep your kids happy on a low carb diet.
I highly recommend George Stella's low carb cookbooks. They are now my personal favorite cookbooks.

You can make pizza crust with grated zucchini, mozzarella and egg too.

Look up 'oopsie rolls' on the web and you will find a very versatile recipe suitable for induction. Your kids will be happy with that recipe and they can get creative with it.

We just got our bloodwork back after keeping our carbs below 40 grams a day for the past 2 months and the results were nothing short of fabulous. I hope you got pre low-carb bloodwork yourself. You'll be very happy 2 months down the road with your followup.
We are very satisfied, and yes, it is easily sustainable.

Ed Bruske said...

Cinday, low-carb for kids? I like it. That sounds like an area ripe for development. I wish I had a perfect baseline measurement before plunging into the low-carb regimen. My numbers were a year old, but I did have blood drawn on Thursday, four days after I starte. I'm scheduled to go back in three months. I will be posting more about this later.

Anonymous said...


Is there a book you are following for this diet (I know there are a TON of them)? Can you please share them name?


Ed Bruske said...

Melissa, Gary Taubes, a science writer, wrote a seminal piece of carbohydrates and cholesterol called "Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fat, Carbs and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health." That would be a good read if you a looking for a non-diet book covering the backgroud on this issue. Michael R. Eades and Mary Dan Eades have authored two very compelling books on the subject. They are also advocates of a low-carb diet. See, "Protein Power: The High-Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Way to Lose Weight, Feel Fit and Boost Your Health--in Just Weeks," and "The Proten Power Lifeplan: A New Comprehensive Blueprint for Optimal Health." And then there's the most famous of all, Robert C. Atkins. See, "Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution, Revised Edition," and "Atkins for Life: The Complete Controlled Carb Program forPermanen Weight Loss and Good Health." Atkins has lots of meal plans that I'm not necessarily following. He also has lots of tables showing how many carbs are in different foods.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ed. I am also a fellow slow foodie, but am at my wits end with my weight. Probably like you, I really have a love affair with food, which does not help my waist line.

I too agree that people have taken Akins to the extreme and think it an excuse to eat sausage patties all day, but my understanding is that this is not what Akins is all about.

I respect your book recommendations for an actual diet plan, as we are on the same page when it comes to slow food, so a "diet" is hard for me to swallow. I'll check out the 2nd Akins book you recommend.

BTW, I'm not starting until next week (famous last words), I'm making BBQ Chicken pizza tonight with your wife's pizza crust;-) Waiting for the dough to rise as I write this.....


Anonymous said...

Ed, Geoff Jowett (Australia) has a really good system, called BodyTrim. Its such an excellent System. I had done Atkins before...but this is a super website. With weekly TV webisodes, Cordon Bleu chefs. I really am enjoying it. Even the 10,000 daily steps I'm doing! I bought his kit about (US $100) with 4 DVDs, a reference guide, tape measure, pedometer, daily diary and a 6 week free membership to his online club. I'm just loving it. You can even have a meal out and a couple of wines on your free day. I'm a happy camper!