Why Keto and Not Low Carb – Pitfalls of Low-Carb Nutrition

Why Keto and not Low-Carb - Pitfalls of Low-Carb Nutrition


Update 2017: This post has been deprecated (not in line with my current thoughts. Read more on the ‘about’ page)

While reading Jimmy Moore and Dr. Westman’s Keto Clarity, I started pondering on this. Most of us know that reducing carbohydrate intake (especially simple sugars) is very beneficial to one’s health, but if you are following a low-carb diet and you are not in ketosis, there may be some issues.

If you consume, say, 100-150g of carbs a day, much of it will be used by the brain [1], while the remainder will be insufficient to supply for the energy demands of the rest of the cells throughout your body.

In this situation, you’re not producing ketones (because of the higher carbohydrate intake) to supply for the energy demands of the brain and most of the cells. No wonder the fatigue and light-headedness you’d experience.

Low-Carb vs. Keto

When you eat low-carbohydrate but you do not go low enough to become ketotic, you’re still a sugar burner (and a very inefficient one) and you’re likely to fall of the wagon because you do not experience the benefits of ketosis.

When you’re doing low-carb and you are not ketotic, some of your body’s cells will use fatty acids for energy indeed, but your brain cannot use them directly as they cannot cross the blood-brain barrier.

Cravings and hunger are most likely to occur under this protocol as your cells will scream at you to give them sugar. The foggy mind may be persistent.

Note that this type of scenario can happen when you are very-low-carb and eat high-protein. You’ll not be able to enter ketosis due to gluconeogenesis (GNG) – synthesis of glucose mostly from protein substrates.

This will also occur when you’re just starting out a ketogenic diet because your body needs time to accommodate to switching to primarily burning fat for energy instead of glucose. It also needs time to start to efficiently use ketone bodies as energy sources.

It takes time because more mitochondria will be created to support the fat metabolism [2, 3]. Besides, a predominant fat metabolism requires higher enzymatic support.

That’s why I think ketosis is a permanent desired state as long as the feeding pattern is well formulated.

You can do a simple web-search and find thousands of studies on low-carb diets, some of them being poorly conducted and interpreted, while others would resemble real inefficiencies of low-carb diets.

Finding good studies on ketogenic diets is also challenging because folks from the research community confuse well-formulated ketogenic diets (where you don’t have to use multivitamin pills and supplements – see Wahls Paleo Plus or Phinney and Volek’s perspective) with diets that are high in fat and poor in nutrients, high in fat and carbs, high in fat and protein or other poorly designed version of diets high in fat.

I consider that being on a low-carb diet (and not being ketotic) is like being between metabolisms: you’re not efficiently burning sugar because you don’t have enough and you’re not in ketosis to burn fat primarily). This also happens if you go in and out of ketosis (note for carb-cycling and carb-loading). You never become keto-adapted to experience all the benefits of this state. From a biochemical perspective, insulin is the master orchestrator here.

However, these situations are better than following a high-carb diet.

Ketosis is Different

I honestly encourage you not to believe me. Learn how to efficiently read studies, read The Wahls Protocol, read the studies of Dominic D’Agostino regarding ketogenic diets for treating cancer as well as their use as tools for enhancing SEAL’s training and performance. Read Phinney and Volek’s book, read Keto Clarity by Jimmy Moore and Dr. Eric Westman. And most importantly, watch Volek’s presentation on keto-adaptation.

Ketosis is a desired state as long as your nutrition is well formulated. I’m talking about a nutrient rich keto-diet and not a diet that’s 85%+ fat, which is supplemented with multi-vitamins and minerals. If you don’t have a medical condition requiring such drastic strategies and if you’re a healthy person, a diet high-in-fat-moderate-in-protein-low-in-carbs which promotes ketogenesis (production of ketone bodies) and is nutrient rich would be preferable.

Once again, ketosis should not be a state in which you constantly get in and out because you never become keto-adapted to harness benefits such as extensive energy levels, clear mind, no hunger, and no cravings, as well as enhanced physical performance. One may know they are keto-adapted when they can perform well physically both in endurance and strength training while they are in ketosis.

Producing ketone bodies will make your brain use them in proportion of at least 70% [8] – see the image at the top of the post. They will efficiently be used by your heart, liver, and muscle, as well as most of the cells in your body.

Getting There…

There is no magic number for carbohydrate intake to trigger ketosis, but as Jimmy Moore put it in Keto Clarity:

1. Start at 20g of carbs per day and stick with that for a couple of days

2. If you’re in ketosis, you can increase your carb intake by 5-10g per day up to the point where you see ketone production starting to decline. That’s how you find your personal threshold.

3. If you’re not in ketosis with 20g of carbs per day (less likely), then reduce carb intake even lower. As your body starts recovering its insulin and leptin sensitivity you’ll be able to increase your carbohydrates to more sustainable levels.

Concluding Thoughts

Many of my friends and people who I talk to are going in and out of ketosis often and for different reasons. Folks, that’s not okay! You’re in-between if you do this and you may only cause yourself a lot of stress. Better not try doing this if you can’t do it well. I know you’re gonna hate me for this, but it is what I currently think.


1. El Bacha, T., Luz, M. & Da Poian, A. (2010) Dynamic Adaptation of Nutrient Utilization in Humans. Nature Education 3(9):8

2. Bough, K. J., Wetherington, J., Hassel, B., Pare, J. F., Gawryluk, J. W., Greene, J. G., … & Dingledine, R. J. (2006). Mitochondrial biogenesis in the anticonvulsant mechanism of the ketogenic diet. Annals of neurology, 60(2), 223-235.

3. Bénit, P., & Rustin, P. (2012). Changing the diet to make more mitochondria and protect the heart. Circulation research, 110(8), 1047-1048.

4. Phinney and Volek – The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living

5. Maria Emmerich – Keto-Adapted

6. Jimmy Moore and Eric Westman – Keto-Clarity

7. Terry Wahls – The Wahls Protocol

8. Longo, V. D., & Mattson, M. P. (2014). Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications. Cell metabolism, 19(2), 181-192.

Photo: here

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24 Responses to Why Keto and Not Low Carb – Pitfalls of Low-Carb Nutrition

  1. PhilT says:

    If you’re not in ketosis at 20 grams (presumably grams of what Americans call “Total Carbohydrate” ?) then it seems likely you aren’t going to be in ketosis with 20g less, should that be achievable.

    Are their other variables to consider ? things that spring to mind include alcohol, protein and specific carbohydrates like fructose or perhaps *ose

    • Chris Chris says:

      There is a less likelihood that you may not be in ketosis when you consume 20g of total carbs for a few days on a well formulated ketogenic diet, considering you’re a healthy human being. A version of a well formulated ketogenic diet is the Wahls Paleo Plus…

      If you would not like to keep lowering carbs and expect for ketosis to emerge…I’d recommend doing an intermittent fasting or if you feel like not wanting to deprive yourself from eating, then doing a fat-fast would be another choice.

      A fat fast occurs when you eat 85-90% or more of your calories from fat and you consume ~1000kcals. But, I’d do the intermittent fasting…

  2. alex says:

    Thanks for this great post. I have a question regarding to carb loading. I have come across Kiefer’s Carb backloading and Carb Nite. Do you think theses protocols are safe? I also follow Jimmy Moore’s blogs a lot, and Kiefer is ione of his keto experts in the book. I am confused now….


    • Chris Chris says:

      You should probably know my answer. Keto-adapted individuals who eat a well-formulated ketogenic diet do not need carb-loading. At least that works for me. Carb-loading will only mess with keto-adaptation and you’ll never be able to truly achieve it. If long term ketogenic diet does not work for you, you can use Jaminet’s approach and do Kiefer’s protocol once a week. But higher intake of carbohydrate will only increase ROS production over the long term which leads to accelerated aging and that’s enough of a reason for me to be in constant ketosis…

      But it’s more than food for me: it’s about using CT (cold thermogenesis), optimizing my circadian rythm, optimizing hormonal levels, lowering EMF (electromagnetic field – especially when I sleep), IF (intermittent fasting) and other protocol that I discover as I research more…

      • alex says:

        Dear Chris: Thanks so much for your prompt reply. I have also been practicing nutritional ketosis and I am very keen to learn more about this lifestyle. That is why I try to read everything that is related to ketosis. The problem is that there is just so many different views on this topic. I actually started to get into ketosis from reading Dr. Attia’s blog (although he insists that it should not be the reason for someone to practice ketosis because he is doing it). I also read Dr. Volek’s book and really try to follow everything it says. I guess my problem is that I have not been losing weight or decreasing my body fat percentage on low carb high fat ketogenic diet (my blood ketone level consistently registered aroud 0.9-1.5 mM range). Maybe it is time to restrict calorie intake.


        • Fred Hahn says:

          Perhaps you are eating too much protein and too little fat? That you lost no fat at all is VERY odd indeed. Are you strength training? This will help a lot.

          • Chris Chris says:

            Day to day fatloss is difficult to assess. Think of it this way, if you create a caloric deficit of 500kcals you may burn additional 50-60g of fat (if you’re a good fat burner), which cannot be noticed on a scale even on a weekly basis. I guess it takes perseverance…

          • alex says:

            Dear Fred: thank you so much for your advice. I think i may have been eating too many protein rich meals. I do choose fattier cuts though. I just recently tested my blood ketone level 2 hours post my meal….my ketone level significantly decreased from 2.5mM to 0.6mM….so you are right, I am eating way too much protein. I do resistance training 3 days a week, but i don’t lift heavy. I do P90X 3 a lot.

  3. alex says:

    Dear Chris: Thank you so much for your advice. I started my nutritional ketosis with a 15% body fat. I later on learned from Kiefer’s podcast that it would be difficult to decrease the body fat % down to single digit with his Carb backloading program (although i am currently not doing this program). I do believe that there is no way to stay in nutritional ketosis by introducing a huge amount of carbs post workout. I had a cheat day with carbs last week and it took me an entire week to get my blood ketone level back to around 1.0mM. But i am keeping my mind open about different experts’ opinions. Since most of the great success stories of nutritional ketosis are largely based on overweight or type II diabetic patients. There is not much information on relatively healthy individuals who want to stay on ketosis for a long time and exercise on a regular basis.


    • Chris Chris says:

      I dont know much about Kiefer’s protocol but I do not fancy carb loading. There’s a different picture when you talk about keto-adapted individuals (people who have been into constant nutritional ketosis for longer periods of time). I’ve been stick to NK almost constantly for about 1 year now. I can say and feel that I’m fairly keto-adapted. Have no problem doing HIT sessions after 24+ hour fasting and both my strength and endurance training have started improving a couple of weeks after I started NK. You can check my FB profile in case you wanna see some pics.

      If you find that I’m not a good source of information for this you may wanna check Peter Attia’s blog and his videos on youtube (he’s been a keto performer), as well as Volek’s presentations.

      And you may also wanna check Barry Murray protocol. He advocates that keto-adaptation and increases in performance may come from months of sticking to NK. It’s not like you can just carb-backload every couple of days. It will totally confuse your body…

      Hopefully this helps

      • alex says:

        Dear Chris: Thanks so much for your advice! I did read Dr. Attia’s blog quite a bit which led me to Dr. Volek and Dr. Phinney’s work. I was simply amazed how many people talk about Kiefer’s protocol in the gym. Also he was one of the keto experts in Jimmy Moore’s KetoClarity book.

        I will stick with NK for sure. There are just way too many lines of evidence supporting NK is perhaps the best lifestyle for us.
        I just sometimes get confused by my morning blood glucose level (sometimes it is in the 100 mg/dl right after i wake up). I thought it should be low when someone is on a LCHF diet (or in NK).

        To tell you the truth, when my ketone is high, I feel great. However, I tried to carb-load last weekend…I felt terrible. I felt so sleepy (it almost felt like drunk).

        It took me 3 days to get my ketone level up to the 1.0 mM level. I will probably not gonna try carb-loading again.

        Thanks so much for your support and comments

        Love your site!

  4. Fred Hahn says:

    Alex – ditch the PX 90 and just do 2 HIT strength workouts a week. Do you sleep well?

    • alex says:

      Dear Fred: thanks for your advice. Do you have any suggestion on which HIIT training i should do? There are just simply too many out there on the internet. I have been doing P90X because that was how I lost weight a couple of years ago (on a so-called healthy carb-loaded clean diet). I will definitely ditch P90X since I heard that it contains way too much volume and it may eventually hurt the body (I still like Tony Horton’s humor though).

      My sleep is ok, i usually get about 6 to 7 hours of sleep. If I sleep more, I actually feel tired in the morning. However, I do wake up in the middle of the night sometimes. Too much water before bedtime (NK makes me drink a lot of water).

      Really appreciate your support and comments!

      you guys really rock!

      • Chris Chris says:

        I’d personally recommend the Slow Burn protocol of Fred, you can see it in his book…or Doug McGuff’s Big 5 Protocol which is in Body by Science. I also talk about it in my book Ketone Power 😉

  5. Edgar Gassan says:

    Hello Chris, great article, i am a runner coach and a runner myself, i am 34, from Venezuela, with a hypothyroid issue controlled by a dayly pill. I read about ketosis, and benefit from ketogenic diet just recently from ben greenfield books and ketoclarity book. Now here is the thing. reading your post i fall along the low carb not ketogenic person, in terms of my carb and protein consumption. i went from a 60% carb (every type, pasta feast, etc), 20-20 fat-protein diet, to a try with less carb higher protein that did not work for me, and now i am giving a try to a really nutrient dense diet but 55% fat, 20% protein, 25% carb, with 13 hours IF daily. i do not know what a person should feel when being ketogenic or so, but i definetly feel great, better than i used to feel before (after 4 horrible weeks of weakness, headaches and dizziness). being in south america, in venezuela, its get tricky for me to test on ketones, and my lifestyle , put me in some situation on weekends that i dont mind to grab a cheat meal of pizza, or and ice cream or so. My question is, do you believe in term of health primarily and performance that i would get some positive changes with the type of diet i am on right now, or its better not to be on the grey line, and either go all the whey down on carbs or simply go back to the Usual my plate diet conserving the nutrient dense part of the diet. Thank you!!!!

    • Chris Chris says:

      Edgar, yes. It’s much better than your old way of nutrition. And most importantly if you say you feel better. Depending on the caloric intake, 25% carbs may be sufficient for your brain and some of your body cells as long as those carbs come from non simple sugars (good sources of carbohydrates). However, I’d recommend you try and experiment with very low carb (ketogenic) to see how it works for you.

      But dont do it for 2-3 days and then ditch it by saying it doesnt work. If you wanna jump in the keto wagon, make sure you stick to strict ketosis for at least 3-4 weeks and then see how you feel. This would allow your body to slightly adapt to burning fat and ketones primarily.

      There are resources in the keto-section of my blog and you also have my book in the book section which says about my n=1 experiment when shifting from low carb to keto.

      Let me know how it goes.

  6. Edgar Gassan says:

    Great, I will give it a try and let you know, i honestly felt like jumping the canyon from the beginning, but some reason made me hesitate and try the macronutrient % i am on right now. First my thyroid issue, as usually keto diet kind of hammer the thyroid , so i did not want to mess to much in to that. and second my kid love to watch a movie with me with a pizza or ice cream, and that is pretty much all i do from bad carbs and i honestly do not want quit on that part, not because i miss the pizza or the ice cream, but because of the time with my kid itself.

    In term of my carb intake, it goes around 80- 125 g of carb dayly,mostly from nutrient dense carbs, and one serving of a low glicemic serving of fruit a day (not eaten alone to evoid spiking insulin). when i do long runs or high intense day, i might go up a bit more on carb but just for the post running meal, as i found it work for me.

    On fats, leaving in south america and coast, i found real coconut water and meat right from the fruit dayly, Cold press real coconut oil, coconut milk i make myself, olive oil, avocados, some seeds and nuts, and real butter not as often as the others. and fats from protein foods, like beef liver, sardines, chicken feet and broth, etc.

    One last question that get me confuse still, about saturated fats. should i consider the MTC oil like the coconut oil, or the coconut meat from the fruit to be into the 30% saturated fat a day from the 100% fats? or i can go free on coconut oil and meat, and just consider as Carefully saturated the fats from animal sources like butter or so???

    Thank You for your replies!!!.

    • Chris Chris says:

      I think that you can eat as much coconut natural based foods (meat, oil) as you feel like it. that’s free eating…keep the organ meats coming! they are extremely rich sources of nutrients and anti-oxidants…

  7. Anna says:

    Sorry this article makes no sense. You are incorrectly comparing low-carb to ketogenic, saying low-carb is 100 to 150 grams of carbs per day? Low-carb is no such thing. Low-carb usually starts in a phase of induction for two weeks at 20 grams of carbs per day and only when the person has reached goal weight do they slowly climb the carb ladder, introducing more carbs into their diet, but never to a level of 100-150 grams per day. Of course if you’re at 100-150 grams per day you’ll still have cravings and of course at that level, you won’t be in a state of ketosis where you’re burning fat for energy. I don’t think you are adequately comparing the two when you completely mis-characterize low-carb eating.

  8. I think if you are fairly lean already and need to bulk, you won’t need to be on a ketosis everyday. But a low carb diet would be still beneficial to maintain so you won’t “dirty bulk”.

    • Chris Chris says:

      This post is very old and not in line with my current strategy. You can look at more recent posts here and videos from my youtube channel. I’m currently not keto. 🙂

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