Striking A Balance Between Fats
All fats aren’t created equal. They may share the same caloric values at 9 Kcal/gram, but their functional roles can differ quite significantly.
For starters their structural conformations differ, which affect the way they behave in your body. Saturated fats for example are quite rigid structures, and form part of the membranes of your cells.
So do polyunsaturated fats, but they tend to be more fluid. Striking a balance between these fats in your diet is important for cell signalling and communication, which can ultimately affect metabolic function at a larger level – say, like in Type II Diabetes.
Here are common plant food sources of Polyunsaturated, Monounsaturated and Saturated Fats:
Its important to note that eating a lot of these foods (as well as a lot of meat, eggs and dairy) also provide a generous dose of Omega-6 (ω6) Fatty Acids. Whilst these are essential, in excess they can be pro-inflammatory.
They also share the same set of enzymes needed to convert Omega 3 (ω3) Fatty Acids into their anti-inflammatory derivatives. Heavy consumption of ω6 can reduce the conversion of ω3’s. They act like a see saw, and require balance.
So if your goal with a ketogenic diet is to tackle inflammation, be mindful of ω6 consumption.
Secondly, fats differ in their number of carbon atoms, which ultimately determines the length of their chains. You’ve probably heard of MCT’s I’m sure, and that they are a great source of fuel. Thats because of their 6-10 carbon chain lengths.
They require no assistance in crossing from the intestine into circulation and diffuse rapidly across its membrane. They are also processed through the liver, which is basically a shortcut compared to how long and short chain triglycerides enter the bloodstream (via the lymphatic system).
When it comes to oxidation (burning) they are the first ones to the mitochondria, and need no help crossing into the mitochondrial matrix, where other fats would need help from Carnitine which shuttles them across the membrane.
MCT’s are therefore a quick and ready supply of fuel, which are preferentially oxidised over being stored. Thats good news if you want to mobilise fat from your tissues for weight loss, and fast acting energy to help combat lethargy.
A recent meta-analysis of 13 randomised controlled trials investigated the replacement of Long Chain Triglycerides with Medium Chain Triglycerides. It concluded that MCT’s had a small yet clinically significant effect on weight loss. In addition, Waist and hip circumferences, total body fat, subcutaneous fat, and visceral fat were also significantly reduced.
Its worth noting that each of the studies differed in length, design and used varied proportions of MCT % as energy. In addition, subjects across the trials had different diets as well as their lifestyles, medications etc. Its tough to establish certainty here, but modest reductions in weight (-0.51 KG) could be beneficial for someone who has T2D or obesity.
Therefore, balancing dietary fats with chain length in mind may assist you in getting the most mileage from your Keto crusade.
There’s no optimal ratio, just the amount you feel best with, which is completely subjective. This is where you can start to play around and find what works for you.
Here are some food sources of SCFA, LCFA and MCFA:
Oil Selection & Moderation
Oils are a very accessible and convenient form of fat. But that also means that they can be subject to overuse.
Coconut oil has taken the spotlight in the ketogenic world, because its a great source of MCT’s. Although it has some great functional properties, and is used therapeutically for a vast amount of conditions (including leaky gut, and Type II Diabetes); in excess it can in fact induce inflammation within the gastrointestinal tract. This was found in a study using pigs to investigate the effects of a bacterial endotoxin (which is inflammatory) and how it uses fats to piggyback through the intestine.
Lauric acid is thought to be the chain endotoxin rides, so MCT oil may be a better choice if you have gut issues as opposed to coconut oil.
Thats not good news for treating either of the two conditions or any other for that matter, as thats exactly what we want to reduce – inflammation.
Emerging scientific enquiry suggests that due to its refined nature – yes coconut oil is refined to an extent as it has to be extracted from the coconut (which is also a very fibrous food). The fibre is an important regulator of absorption in gut for the fat (and many other nutrients).
So, when using coconut oil use it alongside fibrous foods or as whole coconut. A sweet spot would be no more than 2 TBSP a day.
Not many studies exist on long term, high consumption of coconut oil. But they do exist in populations who consume a lot of whole coconuts.
Oils can be your best friend or your worst nightmare, depending on how they are sourced, extracted, stored and used.
Working with organic products really does have many more pro’s than con’s. The price tag may be a con for some of you, but if you are aware of the way quality impacts your health then I doubt its a big one.
Organic is important in cases where the food source may be subject to contamination. Take hemp for example. Hemp is a fantastic source to use for an oil, but the plant itself has a high affinity for environmental toxicity.
It a powerful environmental detoxifier, and was even used to soak up excess radiation around Chenobyl. For this reason, hemp grown with pesticides or near heavily polluted areas may not be the best source.
This is simply my opinion based on the solubility of chemicals in lipids, therefore I choose to source hemp oil organically. That may not be your choice.
Also Palm oil because of the means by which it is generally acquired and its impact on the environment.
Extraction, Processing, Storage & Use
Vegetable oils can be natures greatest gift, but they must be handled with care – they are particularly volatile.
Oils containing a large amount of polyunsaturated fats are far more unstable when exposed to things that may oxidise them – Heat, Light and Oxygen (being left out).
These fats tend to have many more double bonds than saturated and monounsaturated fats, which makes them less stable. This makes them far more susceptible to free radical damage (oxidation), an can cause a chain reaction of free radical damage when you consume them.
The process of ageing actually occurs by oxidation, and excessive oxidation directly contributes to cellular ageing. Oils that are spoiled from the get go accelerate this process and drive the pathology of disease.
- Vegetable oils that come in clear plastic bottles are highly likely to be rancid due to photo-oxidation.
- Extraction methods which use heat are highly likely to cause thermal oxidation.
- Exposed oils are highly limey to be subject to auto oxidation.
Therefore, buying oils that are cold pressed is a worthwhile investment. This is especially true for oils like flaxseed, hemp and canola. Source these from reputable brands, don’t skimp out on the price-tag and make sure they are stored in opaque glassware.
Cheap vegetable oils are also partially hydrogenated to prevent them going off quickly, which changes their chemical composition into a trans fatty acid – as opposed to a cis conformational structure. This has adverse effects on cellular health and therefore your health as an organism.
The same goes for monounsaturated oils like olive and Avocado.
Its a similar story when it comes to cooking with oils. Coconut and butter are very stable at higher temperatures and are great options for things like stir fries.
If you’re going to sauté something on a medium heat, oils that are mostly monounsaturated like olive and avocado are fairly stable.
Other vegetable oils like sesame, hemp, flax and soybean are best saved for drizzling on meals, or using in dressings.
This goes for any diet, but is especially important if you are eating ketogenic. If you are deriving a large amount of calories from fats, then you’ll be needing to consume a fair amount of meat, fish and animal products (even if you go veggie keto, cheeses and eggs are still going to be staples).
Its probably no mystery that at the lower end of the spectrum these products can be highly contaminated.
A lot of toxicity is stored in the fat tissues of animals, and when consumed we take on that toxicity increasing our toxic load. Thats also passed down to the products they produce. Watch out for:
- Contamination in industrial livestock and poultry farming (review article based in china – but similar approaches to farming exist across US and UK)
- Contamination in conventional dairy (increased use of hormones and antibiotics in dairy cows and implications for human health).
- Eggs from large scale chicken ops (A free range egg was found to have a ω6: ω3 of 1:3, whereas a standard USDA egg contains a ration of 19:9. This is due to the diet the hens are reared on).
- Larger fish like Tuna which can bioaccumulate heavy metals like Mercury (Exposure depends where they are caught)
- Processed meats – cold cuts, bacon – (consider moderation) see why here
- Farmed Fish (There are both risks and benefits)
Sure, you may still derive the metabolic benefits of a ketogenic diet with poor quality foods, but in the long term the accumulation of toxicity may start to mess with more than just your metabolic health.
Bear in mind that everyones tolerance, exposure and clearance of toxicity differs. Depending on why you are going Keto in the first place, food quality may not be such a priority.
Just on a need to know basis – poor quality foods tend to put a heavier burden on your detoxification pathways, which need nutrients to operate. Biotransformation and detoxification are energetically costly and nutritionally expensive processes. Depleting nutritional reserves from increased toxic load may offset some of the benefits that can be derived from a ketogenic diet.
For example – to burn fats efficiently, the process of beta-oxidation and energy metabolism require various co-factors (nutrients). If these nutrients aren’t readily available, then your metabolic turnover may be compromised. In addition, animals (and their products) fed high grain diets may carry a greater inflammatory burden, which could interfere with insulin sensitivity for example.
Im going to mention organic produce here because:
- Organophosphorous pesticides can increase toxic load, and although they can be biotransformed, toxicity can remain within tissues.
- Cumulative Organophosphorous Pesticide exposure may have negative consequences for mental health. However, the study limitations may fail to differentiate between acute and cumulative expose, and rely on memory recall of participants.
- Soils polluted chemically and exposed to Genetically Modified Organisms pose a threat to its biodiversity (2) and may subsequently impact the nutrition of the crops grown in it.
Some foods have a heavier exposure than others, so you might consider sourcing the higher ones organically. Check this list for the dirty dozen – most heavily sprayed produce, and clean 15 – food sources that may not need to be sourced organically/have lower levels of residual pesticides.
I know that budgets are a factor, and sourcing all food free range, grass fed, organic is idealistic. Just be mindful of where it comes from, how it is produced and try to get some of it from quality sources.
Find a local butcher who knows where their meats and animal products come from, and how they are raised. Try to find a variety of fish and mix up your consumption. A local fishmonger will be unlikely to supply farmed fish and can tell you where it comes from.
I suppose it all depends on why you are doing a ketogenic diet in the first place. Someone looking to lose weight may not need to be so concerned with this aspect (short term).
However, if your goal is to therapeutically treat a health condition, then minimising inflammation, oxidative stress and toxic load are going to be key and rely on optimising nutrition. I wont dive into the pathology here, but food quality contributes (directly and indirectly) to these processes.
Excessive Calorie Deficit
Im going to include this section specifically for those who are using the ketogenic diet for weight loss. Traditionally you might have restricted calories in order to stimulate weight loss, even long term perhaps.
I wont dive too deep into energy metabolism here, but essentially the concept of calories in vs calories out is flawed in that:
- It fails to consider the functional properties that a specific food has (due to its unique matrix of nutrients) on metabolism. Just the calories.
- Calories are an arbitrary measurement to be human body. We consciously understand the concept of caloric value, but that doesn’t mean that our bodies do.
By shifting the composition of macronutrients in your diet, you change the hormonal response elicited by your body. Metabolism is governed by hormonal factors, and carbohydrates tend to stimulate the production of insulin which is an anabolic hormone (building). That goes for fat and muscle.
Cutting down on carbohydrates reduces the stimulus to produce so much insulin, and while there are more factors governing metabolism – this one contributes largely.
Now Im not saying because of this you can eat as much fat as you want. Im saying that because of a powerful shift in hormonal activity and thereby metabolism, tackling weight loss with traditional wisdom need not be such a focus.
Don’t get me wrong if we eat too much ‘energy’ in general, be it a protein, carbohydrate or fat – then it will either be stored as glycogen or triglycerides (fat). You just don’t need to be so scrutinous about calories.
You might consider using total caloric intake as a benchmark to measure your progress, but be mindful that your response to food isn’t so much governed by the amount of calories you eat; rather your individual biochemical make up and how that influences the pathways that partition, store, breakdown and assemble nutrients.
See this great publication – Is a Calorie Really a Calorie? Metabolic Advantage of Low-Carbohydrate Diets
This randomised trial looked at a low fat vs a low carbohydrate diet and their respective effects on weight loss. The low carb group actually consumed 300 extra calories yet lost more weight that the low fat and control group. The study was limited in participant numbers though, so it will be interesting to see if the results can be reproduced in larger populations.
Too Much Fat
Fats are friends, but not in excess. Bear in mind that when your body has received the necessary components it needs for fuelling activity, maintenance and basic metabolic reactions, excess energy from fat will be stored as triglycerides in your adipocytes (fat cells).
Although a greater percentage of your calories will be coming from fats, that doesn’t necessarily mean to go to down on them. With any style of eating, mindfulness is key. Even with a more finely tuned fat burning pathway and mitochondrial activity, excessive fat consumption beyond your requirements will be stored.
Keep an eye on calories (calories are just an external quantification of what we identify as ‘energy’) your body doesn’t know what a calorie is. However – keeping an eye on the rough level can help maintain a benchmark of how your body responds to what you are eating. Refine from there.
Whilst you may want to gain a tighter control on insulin, blood sugar and therefore things like mood, energy, weight and mental acuity – that doesn’t mean you have to go full Atkins.
Eating a small amount of fruit every day or every few days may technically knock you out of ketosis temporarily, but that very same day you should find yourself back in the keto zone. I cant say thats the case for all fruits, as their nutritional composition varies and so will the blood sugar response they evoke.
But if you eat say a handful of berries, the trade off you get from being out of ketosis is worth it because most berries tend to be great sources of antioxidants. Phytonutrients like anthocyannins serve antioxidant functions, whilst also being highly anti – inflammatory.
They are also packaged in a way which helps keep the blood sugar response low, likely due to their fibre content – lignin’s and cellulose in particular.
These are insoluble fibres which slow the uptake of sugars, nourish beneficial bacteria and promote DNA repair. So although you are taking on sugars, the impact of such consumption isn’t a big deal – in controlled amounts of course.
High Volume High Intensity Training
Whilst this will not be of major concern to everyone reading this, the type of exercise you engage in can affect the extent to which you stand to benefit from ketosis.
Whilst fat is an optimal fuel source for low – moderate intensity exercise 35 – 75 % VO2 Max (60-80% HR Max); it doesn’t quite fit the bill for higher intensity work.
If you are a power athlete or do a large volume of training, then relying on dietary fat alone may prove to be problematic. Some report reduced power output when trying to work at higher intensity, and there is also the risk of eating into muscle mass to meet the needs for glycolytic energy.
If you do want to still draw the benefits from ketosis but need to train at higher intensities and with higher workloads, then you might consider cyclic ketosis.
This involves eating carbohydrates either before, after (or both) particularly strenuous. So your carb consumption is conditional to the training you are doing. That means you will still experience windows of ketosis, and are optimally nourished for training.
Try to time your carbohydrates in the evening after your more intense work in the PM. Not only will this support muscle growth and recovery, but encourages a restful night’s sleep and mood through hormonal regulation of insulin and cortisol.
Having carbs at night also means that you spend the majority of the day in ketosis. Around 200-300 kcal of carbohydrate from sweet potato, brown rice or quinoa should do it. It might be more, maybe less – use your intuition, training and tracking to assess how much works for you.