Maybe you want to lose weight. Maybe you’ve heard keto clears your head and helps with mood.
Whatever your reason for going keto, you’re probably already wading through a swath of information. Not all the information on the internet is equal, however, and you might not know what to trust.
Ketosis might seem like a medically diagnosed condition according to something things you’ve read. You’re wondering if it’s possible to tell if you’re in ketosis or not.
Is your diet working? Are you actually using ketone bodies instead of carbs?
Today, I’m going to give you a few litmus tests to determine if you’re in ketosis or not.
The History and Science of Ketosis
Fasting as a concept and practice has been around for millennia. Greek physicians used it to treat epilepsy in the ancient world as early as 500 B.C.
This practice of starving the body to heal the brain became standard practice over the next two thousand years or so.
But a keto diet isn’t just fasting. While starving your body will put you in a state of ketosis, it’s just not sustainable in the long-term for obvious reasons.
The keto diet is about tricking your body into burning fats instead of carbs. It’s about putting it into lean mode and keeping it there.
But we didn’t start using the term ketogenic until the 20th century. In 1911, two French physicians published the first study on ketogenic treatment of epilepsy. But it wasn’t until 1921 that Dr. Wilder at the Mayo Clinic coined the term Ketogenic Diet.
Dr. Wilder found success with the diet. He reduced the number of seizures in three patients.
Over the next 100 years, physicians have refined the ketosis diet for epilepsy treatment in children. Instead of mere intermittent fasting, physicians now use a fat-to-non-fat ratio of 4:1 in children over 1 year of age.
When Did The Keto Diet Become a Popular Diet?
Ketosis was just a medical term for most of the 20th Century.
But in 1976, after the popularity of the almost-keto diet by Dr. Atkins, the “Last Chance Diet” entered the race. It wasn’t exactly keto either, but the concept was there.
D.O. Robert Linn created a high-fat and protein-rich elixir and claimed it would help you lose weight.
Of course, without other essential nutrients, you die. And 60 people killed themselves accidentally by solely taking Robert Linn’s weight loss elixir.
This resulted in a negligence lawsuit and new product regulations in the U.S.
But the accompanying diet was on the right track. And Dr. Linn did do a lot of research on ketosis for weight loss.
Then came Dr. Phinney, a Ph.D. and MIT-trained nutritional biochemist. His interest was in eating for endurance sports and performance.
The Last Chance Diet had piqued his interest and he began conducting his own studies on liquid ketogenic diets. He learned from Dr. Linn’s failure and added adequate minerals to the liquid diet.
The Oprah Effect
While Phinney was conducting research, Oprah popularized Optifast and that’s when high-fat, low-carb really took off. Throughout the next 20 years, Americans began to see low-carb as a good thing and even rediscovered the Atkins diet from the 70s.
But there were lots of fad diets and no science. Athletes were experimenting on themselves outside the lab, but science just hadn’t taken an interest yet.
Science Takes it to a New Level
In 2013, scientists at the Gladstone Institute published in Science journal. They found that the ketone body beta-hydroxybutyrate (say that ten times fast!) activated antioxidant and anti-inflammatory genes in the body.
From there Tim Ferris took up the call. The diet exploded even further with entrepreneurs and productivity junkies hopping on the bandwagon.
As more studies come out about the benefits of ketosis, more people are adopting the diet. We still don’t know what the long-term effects of staying in ketosis are, but at least the short-term effects have been promising.
How to Know You’re in Ketosis
If your brain quit functioning, you’d die. It’s the control center for the entire body even superseding the heart.
Naturally, your body would want to preserve brain function at all costs. The brain naturally subsists on carbohydrates. But it has a backup system to keep it going in case carbs just aren’t available.
This is ketosis. When your liver starts producing ketones in lieu of carbs. Your brain can run on these chemicals too.
You can jumpstart this process by either fasting or cutting carbs and increasing fat and protein intake. An ideal macronutrient ratio is:
- Fat: 65-75%
- Protein: 10-20%
- Carbs: 5-10%
But your body isn’t going to be used to this sudden change. Some of the below symptoms aren’t actually good symptoms of ketosis. You should consult your doctor to help correct some imbalances if they arise.
1. Stinky Breath
This isn’t just the bad breath you get while sleeping or after forgetting to brush for a day. When you primarily ate carbs, you might have developed this kind of smell when you got overly hungry.
One of the chemicals your body produces in ketosis is acetone. It’s a byproduct of fat and protein breakdown.
What does it smell like? Well, a little bit of acetone doesn’t smell too bad. People describe it as fruity. Nail lack remover is a well-known acetone so you might associate the smell of your breath with nail lack remover.
When you’re full on keto, it can become pretty astringent. More like rotten fruit than fresh fruit. Don’t worry, though, it will eventually disappear when you body starts producing more of that beta-hydroxybutyrate that is the most beneficial ketone body.
2. Muscle Cramps/Spasms
One of the negative side effects of ketosis is the electrolyte imbalance. When the chemicals of ketosis create build up in the bloodstream, you lose vital nutrients and you become dehydrated.
And if you don’t eat right when trying the keto diet, you’ll end up cutting nutrients you ultimately need for a healthy body and brain. If you start experiencing muscle cramps, contact your doctor. You’ll need to either change your diet or start taking supplements. Drinking more water and taking magnesium and potassium supplements can help.
At first, your brain isn’t going to be happy. It’s used to getting its common food source of carbs and sugar.
Mild headaches are normal while transitioning to ketosis. These typically last less than one week. But if they persist longer than a week, go see your doctor.
Something worse could be happening. Especially if you’re experiencing headaches with muscle cramps. This is a sure sign of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance and you should fix this immediately.
4. Unusual Thirst
When you go into ketosis, you lose water. Your body might react by craving more water.
Again, just like the headaches and the muscle cramps, being excessively thirsty can be a sign of dehydration. But if you experience thirst for only a short time, you’re probably just experiencing normal keto side effects.
To avoid dehydration, drink enough water. Your urine should be clear or wheat colored when you use the restroom.
5. Temporary Loss of Energy
Your body’s been using carbs as energy for a time. Your glycogen stores will be gone. That’s literal energy for your muscles, organs, and brain.
Your body will transfer its fuel source from carbs to fats. It’s not done overnight, so it takes some time from your body to adapt. It will cause you to want to curl up and sleep to conserve energy.
Don’t give in. Even if it sucks, you need to train your body to keep going and start using fat for energy.
6. Energy Eventually Picks Back Up and You Feel Grrreat!
Tony the Tiger probably doesn’t approve of the keto diet because he’d sell less cereal, but he would approve of feeling grrreat! That’s what people report when they finally get over the initial energy hump.
Your body is now keto-adapted and getting energy from all that fat you’re eating (plus your body fat). And now you don’t have to fuel it as often.
While there is no way to actually measure energy levels before and after keto onboarding, anecdotally it does help people feel more energized.
7. Decreased Appetite
You’re burning the stores of fat in your body instead of the quick energy from glycogen. This could be why most people feel less hungry while in keto.
The thing about fat burning is that it’s a slower source of energy. You won’t get a sudden rush of energy and blood sugar spike from eating an avocado.
What happens when you’re in keto is this: your body breaks down the fats, stores them, and then you use them. Since you don’t need to eat as often when in ketosis, you’re likely to be less hungry.
8. An Uptick in Focus
The reason Tim Ferris took up the Keto diet wasn’t exactly to lose weight. Just like his BulletProof coffee, he wanted something to increase his focus and productivity.
It seems that, at least in epilepsy patients, focus actually does increase with keto transition.
9. Ketones Actually Increase
You can check this a variety of ways. It’s possible to check blood ketone levels.
You can have your doctor do a blood test or get a ketone testing meter kit. Your levels should be at 0.5-3 millimoles per liter.
You can use a breath analyzer to test for acetone or use litmus tests for urine.
10. You Actually Lose Weight!
This is the effect most people are after. You may not walk on stage with a Radio Flyer full of pig fat like Oprah did back in the 90s, but you might brag to your friends about how much you lost.
A meta-analysis from 2013 suggests that the keto diet is more effective at long term weight loss than low-fat diets.
You Might Experience Other Symptoms
As the ketones in your blood increase, you might experience other symptoms. Sleep might be harder for a while. You might get a bit of stomach upset as you get used to all that fat.