Antithesis: Keto is a fad
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (which tbh is not the worst thing considering what’s happening in the world right now), you are likely familiar with, or have least heard of, the term “keto”.
Chances are, you are thinking, “keto is when you eat bacon & cheese and lose weight, right? when people say “fats are good”?”
Well, yes, but that’s not all of it.
As with anything that becomes mainstream-ified, the integrity of the reason behind its popularity gets adulterated by all the derivative commercial hoopla. (Another example would be the deluge of quote-unquote CBD products being sold everywhere from WholeFoods, the bodega next door, to the coffee cart guy outside Midtown offices… during the pre-WHF era, of course.) Subsequently, comes the backlash. Following all the bastardization, the quintessence of the thing itself becomes vilified! Borrowing from Hegel (or, say Marx?), the Ketogenic dialectic is currently deep in the “antithesis” stage.
Synthesis: Metabolic Flexibility
Before we arrive at the “synthesis,” we must first re-examine the reason “keto” became relevant in the first place.
For that, a bit of biology: ketosis describes the metabolic state where our body is using ketones as its primary energy substrate (fuel) for powering cellular functions. Ketones are derivatives of fatty acids; and fatty acids are found in fats, which can be found in food (like, ribeye steak) or already in storage in our body (like, around our waistlines; and even thin people still carry some adipose (fat) tissue).
When we are not in ketosis, the main energy substrate that fuels our body is glucose (sugar molecules). Glucose is derived from food (from carbohydrates) and from glycogen stores our body (back-up tanks of glucose are stored in the liver and muscle tissues).
So, what’s wrong with the status quo -- why not just continue using glucose as our main fuel?
It’s not that sugar-burning is bad in and of itself. The problem arises when we marry non-stop sugar-burning with our modern “lifestyles” (the triad of diet, exercise, stress management). For argument’s sake, I will be exaggerating (only a little bit) here. Hypothetically, IF:
1A) we rely on ready-made or processed foods (or meal-replacement energy beverages) for most of our meals,
1B) plus, treat ourselves with the (not-so-)occasional desserts and sweets (both in solid and liquid consistencies),
2) while not getting enough exercise -- because let’s face it, our sedentary work hours bleed right into Netflix binges on the couch --
3) and not getting enough good quality sleep,
4) and we are constantly low-key stressed out from work / COVID / social media / general life stuff,
THEN, that’s when we have a problem. The good news is that the solution to this problem lies on the other side of the same coin. Making lifestyle decisions that induce metabolic flexibility will ultimately result in a smart-fuel (or Tesla level) body that can switch back and forth between ketone-burning and glucose-burning modes.
The Key: The Triad
To be clear, the individual should not bear full blame for leading an exclusively sugar-burning lifestyle. It is rather largely a result of forces greater than the individual. Many of us were born into an economy driven by office warriors and consequently ended up working desk jobs, living in (sub)urban cities where convenience is paramount, at a time where advances in food engineering and the demands of capitalism have resulted in a plethora of processed “foods” that are nutrient-poor and hyper-palatable (aka addictive). Not to mention, many of us were for decades in earnest compliance with the government’s “healthy eating” dietary recommendations (which were heavily influenced, if not outright funded and designed by the food industry giants).
To the individual’s detriment, the hyper-sugarized lifestyle has a tremendous self-reinforcing momentum. Gradually but definitively, the constant injection of glucose from our diet impairs our body’s natural ability to properly and efficiently use it as fuel. I have in the past covered in more detail how insulin resistance (the inability to move glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells to be used as fuel) not only makes us fat, but also has insidious casual links with serious diseases (i.e. Type-2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancers, etc.).
But, knowledge is power! The individual can exercise sovereignty over each small lifestyle decision day in and day out, and behavioral science shows that decision-making itself can be divorced from sheer willpower through clever habit-building. Cultivating a lifestyle that promotes metabolic flexibility should be our goal if we want to have long, healthy, thriving, and productive lives. Instead of switching from one fad diet to the next or going on restrictive low-calorie diets that last for three days, we should focus on balancing the triad of food, exercise, and stress management. They are the three levers on our control panel that we can use to signal fat-burning or sugar-burning mode to best serve our body’s needs and to maximize our quality of life.