Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Nutrition Debate #135: What About Physical Energy?

“What about physical energy?” That’s the header of a paragraph on the home page of a website from the UK called “The Low Carb Diabetic.” It describes how many people report they feel more energized on a low carb diet than they do on a “balanced” diet that includes lots of carbohydrates. I have reported this myself many times in “The Nutrition Debate,” and J. Stanton of reported it in a blog post some months back here. His headline was “There’s Another Level Above ‘I’m Feeling Fine.” His conclusion: “Result: I’m in the best physical and mental shape of my life. I don’t feel ‘fine’: I feel great. Some days I even feel unstoppable.” I couldn’t agree more, but it’s very subjective. How do you measure it?

Well, “The Low Carb Diabetic” gives us a way to measure it. I never studied organic chemistry, so I can’t attest to the veracity of this quantitative explanation of the increased energy from a VLC ketogenic diet, but here is his postulation:

“Strictly speaking, we burn neither glucose nor fat for physical energy. Energy within our cells actually comes from a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. When its molecular bonds are broken, energy is released in the mitochondria, the power plants of our cells. A glucose molecule will generate 36 ATP molecules. A 6 carbon fatty acid molecule will generate 48 ATP molecules. Therefore, when insulin levels are low and the body can access fatty acids as a fuel source, physical energy levels can actually increase on a low carb diet. Anecdotally, many on low carb diets often report feeling considerably more energetic, without the peaks and troughs of energy which appear to come with a diet high in carbohydrates.”

Do the math: 48 ATP molecules from a fatty acid molecule vs. 36 ATP molecules from a glucose molecule. That’s one third more energy! Of course, I don’t know if it really works that way, but it is reaffirming for me to see a tangible and plausible explanation for my sense of an increased and stable level of energy. I like to say I feel “pumped” all the time when I am in a ketogenic state. Is it because I am using ketones for energy? Who knows, and who cares really. It is a very real feeling to me. I like never feeling tired and always full of energy and “pep.” I feel like I’m a kid again.

Whatever the explanation, barring any thyroid condition, the reality is that you can feel great on a diet that is Very Low Carb (VLC). I am defining VLC at 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrate a day (or less, even). The body has no minimum requirement for dietary carbs. It will make all the glucose it needs (for certain cells that do not have ATP “power plants”). And the brain and the heart love to use ketones for energy. There are actually several medical conditions that benefit from very restricted carb diets, including childhood epilepsy and PCOS. Certain cancers use glucose for fuel, and several scientific papers have shown a ketogenic diet as therapeutic for treating those cancers.

Besides the increased physical energy benefit from eating VLC, there is the element of mood elevation. Again, this is anecdotal, but I am almost “hyper” when I am in a ketogenic state. I’m not talking about “ups” and “downs” though, as if I were taking “speed,” which is slang for amphetamines. I am talking about a stable and elevated mood level.

Amphetamines, as an aside, were once prescribed as “diet pills.” Dexamyl and Dexedrine were routinely administered to help people lose weight, or elevate mood (as anti-depressants) or stay up all night to prepare for an exam. In my youth I foolishly “did” them. Then, in the late 60’s, a Dr. Stillman came out with a “high protein/low fat” diet. I did that diet with amphetamines in the morning and barbiturates at night to regulate my body’s energy level. As I recollect, the Stillman Diet was the first “diet” I ever tried. I lost 65 pounds, but soon thereafter regained it all.

Anyway, all that was foolishness. I am an older and much wiser man now. I have come to accept that 1) I have a broken metabolism with the result that I am insulin resistant and as a consequence cannot tolerate carbohydrates in my diet; 2) that the best way to “correct” my hyperglycemia, hypertension and hyperlipidemia, as well as lose weight permanently and regulate and stabilize my energy levels, is to eat a Very Low Carb ketogenic diet every day for the rest of my life. It is a lifestyle change. It is a Way of Eating (WOE) that I find delicious and very satisfying – both in the sense of pleasurable as well as satiating. I feel “full” on very little food. I don’t feel hungry. I never snack and often “forget” to eat lunch.

Feeling full on a really small meal is a new paradigm, and it takes a little getting used to. When I told my egg vendor at the farmer’s market recently that I had decided to increase my daily serving of eggs at breakfast from 2 to 3, and reduce the bacon from 2 strips to 1, she asked me, “Is that all you have?” She was genuinely surprised. No juice. No bread. No jam or jelly. Just protein and fat. I told her “yes,” except for a heaping teaspoon of ghee in my coffee.

When I recently told the nanny of my step daughter’s children that I just eat a can of sardines packed in olive oil for lunch, she said, “Is that all you eat?” Again, I said “yes,” and I eat it even though I am not hungry at lunch time. Maybe I need to rethink that lunch. Why am I eating lunch if I am not hungry? Why indeed! I am running on my fat reserves, my body loves its ketones, and I am full of energy.  Maybe even one-third more physical energy than on glucose!

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