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Nutritional Ketosis: Fat-Burning as a Tool


Fat-burning as a powerful metabolic tool. As of this writing, I have been in clinical practice for 32 years— Thirty-two years of listening to people’s health concerns and seeking answers to the big questions of systemic health.

An old saying goes, “Truth drops like a stone.” In this article I am talking about a nutritional truth that has “dropped like a stone” for me.

I grew up on a largely self-sustaining Mennonite farm in Capay Rancho northwest of Chico. Whole food was a way of life from the time I was born. Nonetheless, although born a healthy child, by the time I was 6 years old, my health was compromised by severe allergies, asthma, and acute respiratory infections. These issues continued to plague me into adulthood and no doubt played an important role in my career choice to become a holistic doctor.

Through the years, I gathered information, applied it to my own life, and shared it with my patients. I observed that every-body does better on a whole-food diet and that most people have less inflammation in their bodies when they reduce or eliminate gluten-containing grains: wheat, oats, barley, and rye. However, as I watched even gluten-free, whole-foodists gain weight and develop metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, elevated blood lipids, and midline weight gain), I knew that there was more to the story.

In 2010, I started teaching a 21-day purification program to individuals and groups. This program involved a two-week course of vegetables; the first week raw only, the second week raw and cooked. The third week we added in fats and proteins of plant and animal origin.

I observed that most people found the first two weeks of this program difficult. They were hungry and had cravings. Nonetheless, many succeeded in having a very positive outcome, even life-changing. Others not so much. While some people lost weight easily, others did not. While some people saw significant reduction in inflammatory symptoms, others saw only minor improvements. I also came to realize that the people who struggled the most with this program had the highest rate of recidivism. I started to focus on these people. What was different about them?

After studying the human energy pathways and pondering my struggles, I had a suspicion: Carbohydrate Intolerance! It turned out that I was right.

After developing one of the first “Nutritional Ketosis” programs, I started to see the results that had been elusive for so long. People who hadn’t been able to get results before started getting results—weight loss, stabilized blood sugars, decreased pain, improved skin, migraine headaches gone, sleep restored, anxiety/depression alleviated, immunity improved, and more.

Nutritional Ketosis, aka “Keto,” aka “fat-burning,” is perhaps the most powerful tool a person can possibly learn to use to positively manage health.

With few exceptions, humans are dual-fuel hybrids capable of burning sugar (glucose) or fat (ketones) for fuel. While sugar is processed into the cells of the body via the hormone insulin, fats are converted to ketone fuel by enzymes in the liver.

Sugar/glucose is a dirty fuel. I equate it to burning a tire in your living room to stay warm. Most people wouldn’t do that unless they were in danger of freezing to death because they know tire fumes are super toxic. But if you are eating carbohydrates as a primary nutrient source, you are polluting your body with poisons just as surely as if you were lighting a tire in your house every day.

Healthy fats, on the other hand, are like lighting a wood stove with oak logs—a long, clean burn.

The tricky part of all this is that you can’t just add fats to carbs. You have to remove carbs or do without food altogether (fasting).

You see, your brilliant body will always, 100 percent of the time, burn carbs before fats. Why? Your body is thrifty and self-preserving. Sugars are powerful fuels but toxic when in the bloodstream … better to burn them ASAP! After glucose is processed via insulin, it takes a varying amount of time for the metabolites to clear the system. Only then will your liver start making ketones out of fat.

Bottom line: If you eat more than 30-50 grams of carbs per day, you will most likely never burn fat for fuel.

By the way, high-protein diets are problematic. A body can use only a finite amount of protein. I see athletes pushing super-high-protein smoothies all the time. Bad idea!! More protein than you can metabolize will not force your body to make bigger muscles! Excess protein will just stress out your kidneys and be turned into sugar by your liver. Protein needs vary with size, age, and activity.

When eating a low-carb, moderate-protein, high-fat diet, most people will enter the state of Nutritional Ketosis within 10 days. I can usually tell when people are ketosis by how they look and act. They just look lighter and brighter! When I ask them how they are doing, they say, “Great!” with an ear-to-ear grin. Then I know.

Once you have entered the realm of “keto,” you ideally want to stay there uninterruptedly (as much as possible) for 18 weeks. During this time your body undergoes adaptive changes particular to fat-burning. This process is known as “Ketogenic Adaptation.”

Once adapted to fat-burning:

  • Your body will use water and minerals differently.
  • Your thyroid function will throttle down a bit.
  • Inflammatory processes, driven by sugar and insulin, will settle down, relieving hosts of symptoms: arthritis, anxiety, heartburn, rosacea, insomnia, headaches, body pain. …
  • Blood sugars, even for insulin-dependent diabetics, will tend to normalize and stabilize.
  • Hunger and cravings will dissipate.
  • Energy levels will rise and stabilize.
  • Brain fog will clear.
  • Bad attitudes will improve.
  • Weight will be lost.


And then there is the huge discussion around “Keto” and cancer. Know this: Cancer cells live on glucose. Period. That’s why PET scans work; they measure the glucose uptake of cells. Cells sucking up a lot of sugar show up as cancerous.

Caution! Please do not confuse “nutritional ketosis” with “keto-acidosis.” Keto-acidosis is a very dangerous situation that occurs mostly in Type I diabetics and has nothing to do with nutritional ketosis.

I have come to regard fat-burning as a powerful metabolic tool. Once you know how to turn it on and use it, it’s in your toolbox for life.

Does everybody need to live in ketosis all the time forever? No.

But once you realize how great it feels, you will probably want to spend the majority of your time there. Or you might choose to use it intermittently to manage weight, an acute health crisis, or “die the good death.”

Regardless, if you don’t know you have this amazing metabolic tool and know how to use it, it does you no good at all.

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Nutritional Ketosis: Fat-Burning as a Tool - by Dr. Deborah Penner

Dr. Deborah Penner, Nutritionist. Chico, California