Nutrition

Do Low‑Carb Diets Lead to Ketosis?

Published on: August 21, 2019

Do Low‑Carb Diets Lead to Ketosis?

Previous Article: How Long Does It Take to Get into Ketosis

Main Page (Index): Ketosis: The Complete Guide

Next Article: The Science Behind How to Get into Ketosis

Let us guess: You’re here because you heard that reducing your carbs is right for you. Perhaps you also learned that ketones are a better fuel than glucose. Now, you might be wondering: “Does reducing carbs induce ketosis?”

That’s what we’re going to answer in this guide.

A lot of people get themselves confused about low-carb and ketosis. They believe that merely eating fewer carbs can lead to a ketotic state. And it doesn’t matter if their diet is ketogenic in nature or not.

Keep reading to find out more.


Low Carb Diet

First things first: What defines a low-carbohydrate diet?

The truth is, there is no clear consensus about its definition. But here’s what studies tell us: A low-carb diet typically entails reducing your daily carb load to less than 130 grams [1].

So, how much protein and fat should you eat on a low-carb diet? Ideally, you should compensate for the carb reduction, and that means getting more of your calories from other macronutrients. You can decide how to split up your remaining macros between protein and fat depending on your preferences and goals.

Why do people go low-carb, anyway?

Scientific research shows that it can improve your blood glucose levels, especially if you’re diabetic or pre-diabetic. Instead of your blood glucose spiking after you eat,  a low-carb diet can help your levels stay more consistent and in the “normal” range [2].

low-carb-diet-help-maintain-a-healthy-blood-sugar-level

Because insulin is responsible for lowering your blood glucose levels, you will require less insulin as well. In case you’re not aware, constantly high insulin can lead to many problems, such as promoting fat storage in your body and increasing the risk of developing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes [2, 3].

If your blood glucose levels are not an issue, perhaps you’d like to lose some weight? Weight management happens to be a common motivation for eating fewer carbs.

When it comes to ketosis, a low-carb diet doesn’t necessarily increase ketone levels. Ketosis may or may not happen, so there’s no need to test your ketone levels if you’re on a low-carb diet.

As you can recall, a low-carb diet generally doesn’t have specific nutritional standards other than a daily carb intake of less than 130 grams.


ketosis-and-low-carb-diet

Ketogenic Diet

What makes the keto diet different from a low-carb diet?

The keto diet is a specific type of low-carb diet. It should result in a metabolic state called ketosis. Ketosis is characterized by increased ketone levels in the blood [4].

Think about it this way: A keto diet takes a low-carb approach, but not all low-carb diets are keto in nature.

Unlike a typical low-carb diet, a keto diet requires you to follow specific macronutrient percentages. To enter and stay in ketosis, your daily macros should look like this [5]:


  • 55% to 60% fat
  • 30% to 35% protein
  • 5% to 10% carbohydrates

As you can see, the majority of your calories come from fat, while protein intake should be moderate. Most importantly, your daily carb limit stays between 20 to 50 grams. This works for most people who follow a 2,000-calorie diet [5].

Remember this: In ketosis, your body is fueled by ketones instead of glucose. Ketones result from the metabolism of fatty acids by your liver.

Ketone bodies cross the blood-brain barrier to fuel your brain. They also fuel other tissues outside of your liver including [6]:

  • Skeletal muscle
  • Heart
  • Kidneys
  • Heart
  • Intestines

In order to confirm ketosis, you’ll need to check your ketone levels.

Please note that since a keto diet also involves reducing carbs, it can also help to better control your blood glucose and insulin levels.


low-carb-diet-and-ketosis

How a Low Carb Diet Helps You Reach Ketosis

You already know that a low-carb diet isn’t always keto. Furthermore, there are no standard rules for doing it except that you need to keep your carbs below 130 grams daily.

Again, this diet may or may not lead to ketosis.

Meanwhile, a keto diet has a lower carb limit - 20 to 50 grams per day. It also maintains a moderate protein and high fat intake.

It’s designed to achieve ketosis.

But you might wonder: How can lowering your carbs result in ketosis?

Whether it’s a typical low-carb approach or specific keto macros, what’s the process behind its ability to produce ketones?

Here’s what happens inside your body:

When you eat carbohydrates, carbs are ultimately metabolized to glucose - also known as “blood sugar”. As your blood sugar rises, your pancreas produces more insulin. Insulin tells your liver to use this glucose to fill up your glycogen stores [7, 8].

As you can tell, insulin enables your body to store glucose.

But let’s say that you’re planning to bring your dietary carbs down from 300 grams to 50 grams daily.

You’re doing all that you can to make it work for you. You clear out your pantry of carb-rich foods, avoid sweetened beverages, and even increase your physical activity.

What next?

Your body senses your blood glucose levels dropping. This causes your liver cells to compensate by converting stored glycogen into glucose to burn for energy. But eventually, glycogen gets depleted, at which point, ketone production occurs.

Once your ketone levels reach 0.5-3.0 mM, you’ll know that you’ve reached nutritional ketosis [9].


healthy-carbs-fresh-berries-good-for-keto-diet

How Many Carbs Can You Eat and Still Be in Ketosis?

Many people enter ketosis by limiting their carbs to 50 grams or less per day [5]. There are, however, some people who can tolerate more carbohydrates and still reach a ketotic state.

Of course, the amount of carbs you can eat while maintaining ketosis will depend on various factors. These factors include:


Activity level

Are you sedentary? Do you exercise more often? Physical activity depletes your glycogen stores. The higher the exercise intensity, the faster your muscle glycogen is degraded [10].

People who are very active or athletic will have a higher carb limit for ketosis than people who are sedentary.

How keto-adapted you are

Being in a keto-adapted state means that your body has developed the ability to use fat as fuel effectively [11].

One thing to note is that keto-adapted people can do well with higher amounts of carbs than those who aren’t keto-adapted.

To be able to achieve keto-adaptation, you need to stay in ketosis for at least several weeks to months. That way, your body adapts to its new source of fuel [11].

Stress

In general, the more stressed you are, the less carbohydrates you need. Why?

Stress causes your body to release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol can increase your blood glucose levels through gluconeogenesis [12]. High blood glucose hinders ketone production.

On top of being under a lot of stress, you don’t need to increase your blood glucose further by eating more carbs.


Popular low-carbohydrate diets

You can follow a typical low-carb diet that may or may not result in ketosis.

If you want to reach and sustain nutritional ketosis, a well-formulated keto diet is the way to go [13].

But since there is no one-size-fits-all diet, you need to find an approach that works for you. There are different ways to decrease your carb intake.

With that, here are some other specific low-carb diets you might consider:


atkins-diet

Atkins

The Atkins diet is a low-carbohydrate diet plan similar to the keto diet in terms of the induction (introductory) phase.

During the induction phase of Atkins, you need to eat less than 20 grams of net carbs daily for two weeks. Within this period, your ketones increase.

After two weeks, you’re going to slowly increase your carbs. You should be able to consume up to 100 grams per day.

Low-Carb Paleo

Think of the caveman and hunter-gatherers. Didn’t they eat fresh foods and healthy fats? The low-carb Paleo diet is like a well-formulated keto diet in the following ways:

low-carb-paleo-diet
  • You need to avoid anything refined and processed. This includes grains, vegetable oils, and packaged foods.
  • You can eat nuts, seeds, and oils (specifically olive oil and coconut oil).

When it comes to your daily carb limit on Paleo, consider your goals.

Mark Sisson recommends up to 50 grams of carbs per day if you’re looking for quick weight loss. This carb limit also results in ketosis for most people [14].

If you prefer steady and gradual weight loss, you can eat up to 100 grams per day [14].

Lastly, if you’re an “exerciser” and want to maintain a lean body, Sisson recommends up to 150 grams daily [14].


low-carb-mediterranean-diet

Low-Carb Mediterranean Diet

This diet minimizes or avoids starchy and refined carbohydrates. Examples of these carbs are white rice, bread, pasta, cereals, and desserts.

Like the keto diet, low-carb Mediterranean allows you to consume healthy fats and oils. You can also eat dairy and nuts.

The bottom line:

All low-carbohydrate diets mentioned can lead to ketosis. This is especially true if you combine any of these diets with exercise. Pay attention to your stress levels too.

But if your goal is sustained ketosis, you might want to go for a ketogenic diet. Sustained ketosis has benefits beyond weight control. It can lower inflammation in your body and improve your metabolic health [13].


tips-for-maintaining-ketosis

6 Tips on Eating Low Carb and Maintaining Ketosis

You could be taking a low-carb approach but going in and out of ketosis.

Now, you decide to “take it to the next level” to gain the health benefits of maintained ketosis.

Here are a few ways to make your diet work to your advantage:


1. Make whole foods a priority.

Processed foods are foods that have been canned or preserved. While they save you more time in meal prep, they can contain high amounts of sugar [15].

Examples of processed foods that tend to contain hidden sugars or carbs include [16]:

processed-foods-contain-hidden-sugars
  • Salad dressings
  • Barbecue sauces
  • Protein bars
  • “Sugar-free” desserts
  • Yogurt

Whole, unprocessed foods don’t contain hidden sugars and other additives that take you out of ketosis and could harm your health. One study has suggested that additives like coloring and emulsifiers may contribute to obesity [17].

Best of all, whole foods are dense in vitamins and minerals. By prioritizing them, you get to avoid micronutrient deficiencies, which could happen in a poorly formulated keto diet.


2. Add more healthy fats to your diet.

It’s challenging to reduce your carbs over the long term without increasing other macronutrients (and of course, that would result in starvation!). Your keto journey becomes easier if you have something to keep you satiated.

One of the rules of following a well-formulated ketogenic diet is this:

Consume fat to satiety.

Meaning, you’re going to have to eat fat until you feel full.

The kind of fat you eat also matters.

Research shows that medium chain medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) tend to be more satiating than long-chain triglycerides. Furthermore, consuming MCT instead of other fats may result in greater weight loss [18].

MCT-oil

Here’s another interesting finding:

MCT can increase your ketone levels (in conjunction with a keto diet, of course).

According to one study, MCT promotes ketosis in mammals, including man. This study also discussed an experiment with rats fed with MCT or corn oil (a long-chain triglyceride) [19].

1 hour after feeding the subjects with MCT, their ketone levels increased 18-fold. The ketone levels of those who were given corn oil only increased by about 2-fold [19].

Wondering what foods are rich in MCT? Some options are coconut oil and dairy products. You could also take pure MCT oil.


exogenous-ketone-supplements

3. Take exogenous ketone supplements.

Sometimes, low-carb dieters find themselves in a plateau. As you may already know, the body can adapt to a diet over time.

A person could no longer see fat loss. They could be out of ketosis.

Or what if you choose a typical low-carbohydrate diet and still want to be in ketosis? What if you’re planning to eat more carbs for a special occasion or a trip?

This is where exogenous ketones come in. Exogenous ketones are basically ketones that you take orally.

Study shows that exogenous ketone drinks increase BHB concentrations in your blood. BHB (beta-hydroxybutyrate) is the most abundant ketone in your body [20].

Taking exogenous ketones helps speed up ketosis by increasing your blood BHB levels.


fitness-is-important-for-keto-lifestyle

4. Add more movement into your day.

In other words, exercise more often.

Take the stairs. Set alarms that remind you to get up and move at home. Do recreational sports. Enjoy the great outdoors.

No matter what type of exercise you engage in, remember this:

Exercise depletes your body’s glycogen stores. After depleting glycogen, your body will burn fat, in turn increasing your ketone levels. So if you’re a low carb dieter, adding exercise to your regimen should help speed up ketosis.

But what about your exercise performance? Will a low-carb diet decrease it?

Let’s consider a recent study as an example:

The study showed the impact of a Western diet and a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat (VLCHF) on high-intensity interval training (HIIT) exercise [21].

18 males were subdivided into two groups. One group consumed a standard Western diet, while the other group consumed a VLCHF diet [21].

The VLCHF diet group consumed up to 50 grams of carbohydrates. There were no calorie restrictions [21].

Take note that all participants were disease-free. They didn’t take any medications or supplements [21].

After 4 weeks of following their prescribed diet, they performed HIIT sessions inside an exercise physiology laboratory [21].

The results?

Those who were in the VLCHF group had increased BHB ketone levels. They also had increased rates of fat oxidation. Most importantly, their exercise performance did not decrease [21].


fasting-for-ketosis

5. Consider short-term fasting.

Combining a low-carb diet and short-term fasting lets you enter a state of ketosis sooner.

Before you get started, you should keep in mind a few things:


Fasting is easy when you’ve reached keto-adaptation.

Fasting is a breeze for seasoned keto dieters. This is because their bodies can tap into their fat stores in the absence of food. Beginners are likely to experience hunger and cravings during the fasting period.


There are many ways to fast.

Meal skipping is the easiest method. Just skip one meal. It could be breakfast, lunch, or dinner - whichever suits your schedule. Another method is eating within a 9-hour window and fasting for the next 15 hours.


Fasting for over 24 hours has no benefit for long-term weight loss.

While fasting causes your ketones to rise, it won’t sustain long-term weight loss. Lean tissue loss may occur if you fast for more than a day [22, 23].


measuring-blood-ketones-is-the-most-accurate-method-for-checking-ketosis

6. Test for ketosis.

Knowing that you’re in ketosis is extremely helpful. It motivates you to implement the same strategies to maintain it.

To detect ketosis, be sure to test your ketone levels. Ketones are present in your breath, urine, and blood.

Measuring your blood ketones is the most reliable method. This involves pricking your finger and placing your blood on a ketone strip. The ketone strip is attached to a meter, which will show you your ketone levels.

If you’re in ketosis, you should get a reading of 0.5-3.0 mM [9].


Conclusion

Every low-carbohydrate diet out there can result in ketosis. You can do a typical low-carb regimen, the Atkins, or low-carb versions of Mediterranean or Paleo. But if you’re after sustained ketosis, know that a ketogenic diet achieves that.

Most people start to produce ketones after keeping carbs under 50 grams per day. But you also need to remember that each person’s carb limit varies depending on physical activity, keto-adaptation, and stress levels.

Lastly, if you plan to start a low-carb diet for ketosis, be sure to speak with your physician.


Takeaways

  • A ketogenic diet should result in sustained nutritional ketosis.
  • Ketogenic diets are low-carb, but not all low-carb diets are ketogenic in nature.
  • There are a couple of steps to do low-carb and still be in ketosis. Prioritize whole foods, eat more healthy fats, take exogenous ketones, exercise, fast, and test your ketones.

References:

  1. Oh R, Uppaluri KR. Low Carbohydrate Diet. 2019 January - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537084/
  2. Diabetes.co.uk. How Does Low Carb Work? - https://www.diabetes.co.uk/diet/how-low-carb-diets-work.html
  3. UT Southwestern Medical Center. High insulin levels tied to obesity pathway. 2014 August 25 - https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140825185319.htm
  4. View all references

Join Over 200,000 Fans

Sign up for the Kiss My Keto mailing list to get free keto resources, recipes, and strategies from the largest keto brand in the world.