One of the most frequently asked questions by people encountering a Zero Carb diet for the first time, especially if they come from a low carb, ketogenic diet background, is…
Do I need to be concerned about or measure my level of ketones?
I think one of the main reasons this happens is because the descriptive label most often applied to this way of eating is Zero Carb, rather than Zero Plant Foods, All-Meat, or Carnivore (labels which are actually far more descriptively accurate). Additionally, this way of eating probably attracts more people from the low carb community than from any other dietary background. The question comes up often enough that I felt it might be helpful to collect some of the best responses offered by long term Zero Carb practitioners and put them into one place for easy reference.
Basically, as you will see from the quotes below, there is no need to measure blood, breath, or urine ketone levels while eating an All-Meat diet in order to experience the benefits that this way of eating offers.
I’ve been ZC nearly six years. A couple years ago I got scared about cancer (I’m adopted and discovered a long list of direct maternal relatives who died of cancer), so I bought a blood ketone meter, what with all the exciting research starting to happen around ketosis and cancer. When I’d been VLC eight years ago, I turned the ketostix purple consistently, so I figured I’d get a pretty good reading on a blood meter.
I couldn’t get above trace. My diet for years had been meat, egg yolks, butter and lard for cooking, water, coffee. That’s it. I began cutting meat and adding more butter. The number nudged up. I cut out beef entirely, eating chicken, pork and fish, and added coconut oil to my coffee. A little more nudge. I skipped breakfast and lunch and ate one small meal at night, smothered in butter. Finally, a reading over 1.0. I was elated. It had taken about fifteen days to get there. On day 20, I realized I felt awful. That feeling kept going for about another week, so I started to log my food into NutritionData.
I was eating 800 calories a day! I had no idea I was eating that little, just to get a reading on the damn meter. I went from a healthy ZC diet to 800 calories a day for a stupid number. That little adventure cost me a lot, too–I had a rebound effect for a long time afterwards, and didn’t fully recover my ZC zen until a few months ago, but that’s another story.
When I first read a few years ago that the Inuit didn’t register ketones, I didn’t believe it. They MUST have been in ketosis with all that fat and no carbohydrates in their diet. Now I think there’s a strong possibility that long-term keto-adaptation can lead some (many? most?) people to not “spill” ketones, even in their blood.
I don’t show more than trace ketones on the blood meter, and I’ve been ZC for nearly six years. As mentioned above, I have to drop to near-starvation levels to go above 1.0. Several long term folks have reported similar experiences. It’s an open question whether ‘being in ketosis’ is really the same as ‘showing ketones.’ Perhaps it’s possible that the longer you’re in ketosis, the more efficiently you use ketones, and – consequently – there’s less to measure, even in the blood.
Dr. Paul Mabry:
Just because you get a low number on a fingerstick ketone reading doesn’t mean you’re not in ketosis. The liver maybe supplying them the same way modern car plants are supplied parts using the “just in time system”. It’s the most efficient and cost effective. The get just enough parts every day keep the assembly line going. In the same way your liver may be sending “just enough” ketones to the cells of the body to fuel them with no build up in levels in the blood. This is common for folks in long term ketosis.
I have never used a Ketone stick and never plan to. I have no idea if I have ever been in ketosis, nor do I care. All I know is that I have lost 130 pounds, feel amazing, regained my fertility, have plenty of energy, and lead a happy and fulfilling life by eating high-fat meats and avoiding all carbs.
Those of us who have been on Zero Carb for a long time generally do not devote much attention to ketosis. If you eat meat and drink water, you’re going to be where you need to be both health-wise and weight-wise. Turning the Keto-Stix purple does NOT guarantee weight loss. After a while on Zero Carb, we don’t turn those strips dark colors anymore, nor can you detect it in our breath because our body learns to use the ketones efficiently and stops spilling them into the urine and breath. There might, however, be detectible ketones in the blood.
In the same way that sobriety is an obligate side effect of not consuming alcohol, ketosis is an obligate side effect of not consuming carbs. I tested my ketone levels hundreds of times throughout 2014 just for fun, and my readings were consistently between 1.4 – 1.9. Higher ketone levels are only a goal for those with severe brain or central nervous system malfunctions – like epilepsy or Alzheimer’s Disease – where running on ketones is the best or only option to reduce complications or mitigate disease progression. The rest of us can safely ignore ketone levels because, when you are not consuming any carbs, you will always be state of mild ketosis.
[Ash Simmonds is the creator of the High Steaks | Meat is Life website dedicated to sharing information on low carb eating and the author of Principia Ketogenica, the most complete collection of low carb research available in a single volume.]
After 3 years of low carb and checking those sticks every day for ketones, I lost 50 pounds. I went to Zero Carb and lost the last 30. I stopped worrying about my level of ketones and I never peed on a stick again. After 18 months of zero carb, I had a complete blood panel and urinalysis done. After a 12 hour fast, the lab detected ZERO ketones in my urine. Ketones DO NOT MATTER to the success of a Zero Carb diet. Monitoring and measuring them is a waste of time, money, and mental energy. During the years I was eating low carb, and then very low carb, my Keto-Stix were sometimes purple, but I never lost an ounce in the last year of eating very low carb in spite of being “in ketosis.”. In fact, I actually gained 10 pounds! I lost those last 30 pounds with Zero Carb and never thought about ketones again.
When I (Esmee) first found the Zero Carb community myself, I was very curious about the ketone issue. So, a nice man from the community who had been eating a Zero Carb diet for about 6 months volunteered to test his blood and breath ketone levels for me.
I have one keto blood strip left, from back when I tested regularly. I just ate a fairly protein heavy meal 45 minutes ago. It was a NY Strip steak (probably about 10-12 oz), topped with a burger (~ 8 oz) and two fried eggs. It’s probably around 130-140 gms of protein in a single sitting. Also, it’s likely the only time I’ll eat today. I will wait until about 5 pm, about 1.5 hours after eating it, and test my blood ketones at that moment.
Okay… at 5 pm, my blood ketones measure 0.7 indicating a low level of ketosis. The Ketonix Sport breath ketone meter gives me 6 green blinks, indicating a low level of ketosis. So, I am below the “target” range for those who want to get to an optimal level. My diet, as I have said, is pretty consistent from day to day, thus I suspect that this reading is pretty indicative of what I would get any other time. But it fell right where it was falling when I first switched to meat and was still measuring on a regular basis (between 0.5 and 1.0).
These days, I don’t test my blood ketones at all. I don’t test my breath ones either (I have the meter as well). When I transitioned to just meat, I slowly started to worry less and less about actually being in ketosis or not. When I was testing, at the start, I found myself to usually be between 0.5 and 1.0 on the blood meter. So, the low end.
After I moved over to a Zero Carb diet, I put away all my expensive ketone testing gear. It was just collecting dust. I don’t even want to think about all the money that I spent on ketone test devices and blood strips. It was easily several hundred dollars. And, it didn’t actually mean anything in the end. It is nice to not have anything to track or worry about now (except possibly over-cooking my steak).
Instead, I am now focused on how I feel, rather than on my level of ketosis. If I was to discover that eating meat until satiety was negatively impacting me being in ketosis, then I would just have to say that ketosis was a less than optimal state of being for me.
The Inuit Ketosis Controversy
Regarding Rose’s comment above about whether or not the Inuit were in Ketosis, these excerpts from Lierre Keith’s excellent book The Vegetarian Myth may explain this phenomenon…
The diet consists of “whale, caribou, musk ox, Arctic hare, rock ptarmigan, walrus, seal, polar bear, seagulls, geese, duck, auks, and fish, all often (but not always) eaten raw and fermented.” They also ate liberally of salmon and roe. Organ meats of large land mammals were also consumed raw…
The raw components of these fats are critical. The metabolism of cooked fats results in by-products called ketone bodies. An elevated number of ketone bodies in blood and urine is a state called Ketosis… Ketosis is a perfectly natural state. We evolved to store fat when we had plenty [of food], and burn fat when food was slim…
But what is more interesting is that studies of indigenous people eating essentially nothing but protein and fat “showed no Ketosis. These native people completely metabolized the fats in their… high fat diet because many of the fats were raw. This is not surprising since lipase [an enzyme for fat digestion] is found in concentrated amounts in raw! natural fats.”
~These excerpts are taken from pages 190-191.
In conclusion, it doesn’t seem to matter if we register ketones in our blood, breath, and urine or not while eating a Zero Carb diet because the beneficial effects of eating this way appear to be independent of ketone levels. However, it is probable that many – though not all – who follow a Zero Carb diet would likely register low levels of ketones in their blood if tested. But the cost of testing blood ketone levels on a regular basis is prohibitively expensive, and absolute ketone levels have not been observed to make any difference to the outcomes of the individuals following this dietary path.