Ketones: What Are They?

Ketones are a type of chemical made in the liver, usually resulting from being in ketosis.

When our bodies don’t have enough glucose to turn into energy, either due to fasting, or a low-carb diet, our bodies make ketones as a new energy source.

As our bodies get low on glucose, it turns our fat into ketones which starts a metabolic fat-burning process in our body.

You don’t have to be on a ketogenic diet to experience ketones. If you took a blood sample, they would be in our blood at this moment. 

In this article, you’ll discover what ketones are, the different kinds of ketones, how our body uses them, and much more. 

Ketone Bodies

When our bodies start to break down our fat stores for energy, ketone bodies are the byproduct of that process. 

Once the restriction of carbohydrates takes place, our bodies go into a state called ketosis.

If you start a low-carb diet, do a fasting protocol such as intermittent fasting, or do heavy strenuous exercise, the stores of glucose in our bodies start to burn up as we use that for energy.

As glucose (our blood sugar) runs out, our bodies need to switch to a different source of fuel to perform well. 

By switching to a ketogenic diet, the fuel source is dietary fat instead of carbohydrates. 

This process is known as beta-oxidation, which is where your body starts breaking down our fat stores to use as fuel. 

Our bodies can also use these ketone bodies, which are formed in the liver.

The main goal of the ketogenic diet is to reach the point where your body shifts into ketosis, and ketone bodies are made as energy.

The benefits of ketosis have been studied and shown to lower blood glucose levels, help lose weight, reduce appetite, improve cholesterol, and a lot more. (1)

The 3 Different Types Of Ketones

There are three different kinds of ketone bodies. They are:

  • Beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB). Beta-hydroxybutyrate is the short-chain form of 3-carbon ketone bodies and is the only ketone body that can cross the blood-brain barrier. It is not only the most important ketone body for the brain but also the most abundant.
  • Acetoacetate (AcAc). Acetoacetate is the 2nd most abundant ketone body and is important in breaking down fatty acids to be used as a source of energy. 3-Hydroxybutyrate is the “backup” ketone body, useful when acetoacetate levels are low.
  • Acetone. This is the simplest and smallest of the ketone bodies.

Why We Use Ketones

When glucose wasn’t available as an energy source, our ancestors needed to rely on another source of fuel. That fuel source was ketones.

Now, food can be found easily in grocery stores and fast food places, but our ancestors would go for long periods of hunting before they could finally eat.

Many generations later, our bodies still has the ability to adapt to the same situations by using ketones as an energy source.

Ketones are very beneficial for cognitive performance as BHB can cross the blood-brain barrier giving the brain an efficient source of fuel. (2)

They’ve also been shown to provide the body with high levels of energy as well for exercise. (3) The body will be burning fat at a steady pace once you’ve reached ketosis and highly effective in day-to-day performance. 

How To Test Your Ketone Levels

There are a few options you have if you want to test your ketone levels. The three options are through your urine, breath, and blood.

The most accurate measure is going to be a blood test.

Urine strips are only beneficial in the beginning when you’re first getting into ketosis, and your body is beginning to filter and use ketones that are being created.

To test, you will have to urinate on a strip, and a specific color will indicate the level of ketones you’re producing.

This is the easiest and most affordable way for someone to check their levels.

As you become more keto-adapted, the ketone bodies in your urine will get lower over time making it a less reliable way to check the longer you’re on the ketogenic diet.

The breath test is a less invasive way to get your levels checked, but it’s not always accurate. It measures the amount of acetone that’s present.

When you get your blood checked, the levels of ketones you’re producing can be anywhere from 0-3 or even greater. This is the most accurate measure of ketones as it measures beta-hydroxybutyrate levels in your blood but can be costly. 

Ketones are measured in millimoles per liter (mmol/L), and your results will vary from others. Your diet, activity levels, and how long you’ve been on the ketogenic diet will determine where your specific range is.

If you’re between .6 -1.5 mmol/L, you’re considered to be in a low to moderate range. On the other hand, 1.6-3 mmol/L is considered a high level, and anything above that is a very high level.

Nutritional Ketosis And Ketones

If you’re looking for the health benefits of producing ketones, the best way is through a ketogenic diet with careful supervision by a doctor.

As you restrict your carbohydrate intake to around 5% of your daily calories, but no more than 50 grams, you’ll get into ketosis very quickly.

To make sure you’re not going over your allotted carbohydrates for the day, it’s recommended you use a calorie tracking app such as MyFitnessPal or something similar.

You’ll largely cut out the following foods:

  • Anything processed or sugary like candy and baked goods
  • Fruit juices and anything high in sugar like soda
  • Most fruits high in carbs
  • Starchy food like potatoes, rice, pasta, and bread

Don’t forget the other macronutrient, protein, because how much you consume of that will also matter.

The ketogenic diet is a moderate protein diet which means you’ll be consuming around 20-25% of your calories from protein. The remainder of your calories (70-75%) will come from fat.

It’s important to be aware of the short-term side effects that may arise from starting a ketogenic diet, like the keto flu. Still, there are keto flu remedies that can alleviate your symptoms or help you avoid them altogether if known beforehand.

Another big side effect of starting a keto diet is dehydration through the loss of electrolytes. 

Related: 8 Ketogenic Dieting Mistakes Common With Beginners

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