The vegan ketogenic diet is a variation on the standard ketogenic diet. It works in the same way, the only difference being we obtain our carbs, protein and fats from non-animal sources.
The goal of this diet is to force the body to change it’s primary fuel source from carbs and glucose to fats and ‘ketones’. The ketogenic diet all but eliminates carbs from the diet, and comes with many benefits including weight loss, lower blood sugar, stable energy levels and more!
The purpose of this article is to explain exactly what happens to your body when you start following the rules of vegan keto.
And so without further ado, let’s begin!
How Exactly Does a Low Carb Ketogenic Diet Work?
Carbohydrates are one of the main types of nutrients your body uses for energy, along with fats and protein. On a normal, western, carb heavy diet your body uses carbohydrates as its primary fuel source, followed by excess protein, and finally stored body fat. Normally, the liver synthesizes carbs and converts it to glucose for fuel. The left-over glucose gets stored in the liver as glycogen (glycogen makes up 10% of liver mass) and a small amount in the muscles for easy access.
When you are fasting or drastically reduce your intake of carbohydrates as you would with a ketogenic diet, there isn’t enough glucose being produced to fuel your body, so the liver synthesizes fat, converting it to ketone bodies that you can use for fuel.
This state is called Ketosis and it’s a normal metabolic state wherein the body is being fuelled by fat, not glucose (blood sugar).
What Happens When You Enter Ketosis
Two things happen when you reduce your carb intake:
- First, your blood sugar levels drop (or stabilize if you tend to overindulge in carbs).
- Second, your body starts turning stored fat into ketones for energy.
Let’s start with blood sugar.
When your blood sugar drops, so do your insulin levels. Insulin is a hormone made by your pancreas which makes it possible for your body to use the sugar from carbs. Interestingly, one of the biomarkers associated with longevity (Maalouf, Rho, Mattson) is reduced fasting insulin levels.
Anyway here’s where things get interesting…
When insulin levels go down, fat stores are released from the body as energy, and when insulin levels are up, fat stays locked in the cells. Essentially Insulin promotes fat storage. So reducing your carb intake and subsequently reducing your insulin levels unlocks the fat stores in your body.
Now what about these “ketones”?
The second thing that happens when you reduce your carb intake and your insulin levels drop is your liver turns this “unlocked” but still stored fat into ketone bodies to use as fuel. Ketone bodies are the molecules produced by the liver when it breaks down fatty acids instead of carbohydrates (Laffel).
Note that Ketones are always present in the blood but at increased levels when you cut carbs or engage in intermittent fasting. Pregnant women and infants also have elevated levels of ketones in their blood.
Let us explain further…
Free Fatty Acids (FFAs) and Ketones
If carbs are in short supply and the body uses its limited stores of glucose it will turn to excess protein for glucose (it does this through a process called gluconeogenesis). And once this is depleted the liver begins breaking down free fatty acids (FFA) which can be used for energy by most parts of the body (the brain and central nervous system cannot use FFAs). FFAs and ketones do not cause insulin levels and blood sugar levels to rise, whereas carbs do.
During this process ketones are released into the blood stream, which these serve as an alternate source of fuel for the brain. The brain can use ketones for up to 75% of it’s energy, and for the remaining 25% is will get needed glucose from any carbs you eat, and/or by gluconeogenesis. As more FFAs are broken down and ketones begin to enter the bloodstream in higher amounts the body enters a state of “nutritional ketosis”.
It get’s better:
When in a state of nutritional ketosis, the body has a nearly unlimited source of energy (fat) and no longer requires much glucose so the liver slows its rate of glucose production causing insulin levels to drop. In this state, the body uses fat as its primary source of energy, quite literally turning your body into a fat burning machine.
How to Get into Nutritional Ketosis
To get into a state of nutritional ketosis you’ll need to severely restrict your carbohydrate intake so your glycogen stores are depleted and your body turns to fat for fuel. This typically means you’ll want to reduce your carb intake to around 30g net carbs per day.
In fact any period of fasting will send you into ketosis in some form, including a good night’s sleep. The longer the fast, the deeper the ketosis you will experience. This can happen after 2 – 4 days of restricting carbohydrates to the levels recommended in this guide, but while your body may start switching to fat as it’s fuel source at this point and begin metabolizing fat into ketone bodies, it’s just the beginning.
Like anything it takes time for your body to adapt to this state, and for your body to become truly fat adapted (metabolising fat with high efficiency) it usually takes a minimum of 3-4 weeks of committed keto dieting (Phinney).
We hope this post has helped you to understand exactly how the ketogenic diet works. Remember for vegan’s its the same thing we just avoid animal products and get our macros from other sources instead.
As usual, if you have any questions please post them in the comments section below and we’ll try to respond as soon as possible!