What is the Ultimate Aim of a Low-Carb Diet? (HINT: It's Not Ketosis!)

Bacon Wrapped Chicken Legs
The ultimate aim of a low-carb diet
is not what you think.

Do you know what the ultimate aim of a low-carb diet is?

Most people would say, "getting into ketosis and staying there," but that isn't quite right.

While ketosis does trigger fat burning, which can help you shed those excess pounds, ketosis is NOT the ultimate aim of a low-carb diet. Here's what is.



Yesterday morning at the Atkins subreddit, a forum participant was looking into the Atkins program because Atkins allows you to raise your carbs above 20 per day.

For 6 weeks, she has been doing the 20-gram Keto Diet, which requires you to count protein grams and calories, as well as keep your carbohydrates below 20. She's eating within her low-carb macros, but she's hungry and having trouble sleeping because of it.

She didn't say how many calories she was eating, but did say she was struggling to make low carb work for her, even though she's mostly eating meat, fats, and vegetables.

After she posted a sample menu, many of the Atkins sub-forum participants tried to tell her that she was eating too many vegetables, but she defended what she was currently doing:

"I don't think that's right," she said, once informed that Atkins Induction was 3 cups of salad OR 2 cups of salad plus 1 cup of cooked vegetables -- only.

Like many low carbers, including some of those forum participants, she had trouble understanding that the Keto Diet, general low carb, and especially Atkins were different low-carb plans with different requirements and different aims and goals.

Roasted Chicken Breast with a 2-Cup Lettuce Salad
Atkins Induction allows 3 cups of salad
OR 2 cups of salad + 1 cup cooked vegetables per day.

"Isn't the ultimate aim of Atkins to stay in ketosis?" she asked. "To find whatever carb level you can tolerate the most that doesn't kick you out of ketosis, so you burn fat?"

Well, yes . . . and no.

Ketosis does trigger fat burning, due to a lack of glucose to feed the brain. And yes, Atkins does ask you to find your carbohydrate tolerance, so you know where the line is, as well as how your body responds to different low-carb foods.

But, ketosis is not the ultimate aim of a low-carb diet.

Pinterest Image: Oriental Pork Stew

Keto Diet Versus Atkins - What's the Difference?


If you hang around the low-carb community for any length of time, you'll quickly see that the community as a whole is fractured into various low-carb groups. Each group has a different set of beliefs, concerns, approaches, and goals.

The Keto Diet, for example, was originally based on the book written by Lyle McDonald several years ago called, The Ketogenic Diet. This approach to carbohydrate restriction works extremely well for those who have a history of dieting because it requires you to eat at a calorie deficit, as well as severely reduce your carbs.

In a very real sense, it combines two different approaches of dieting into one plan -- calorie and carbohydrate reduction -- giving you the best of both worlds. It's goal? To carve the pounds off quickly and easily.

Quiche Made with Eggs, Broccoli, and Lots of Cheese
Keto Diet has no restrictions on cheese, heavy cream,
or other low-carb foods. 

On Keto, you don't have any food restrictions like you do on current Atkins plans. Since you track calories, you're free to eat any low-carb foods you like, in any amount, provided you stay under 20 carbs a day and don't go over on calories. At pre-maintenance, you add additional fats to your diet, rather than carbs.


Using this approach works for a lot of people, especially those who love tracking their macros, because you don't overeat. However, eating anything you want doesn't always eliminate hunger, which is why the woman at Reddit was considering switching plans.

Which carbs you add to your plan is sometimes more important than how many you eat.

On Keto, there is no such thing as eating too many vegetables. However, most Keto folks eat mostly meat and fat, with very few veggies.

Favorite foods tend to be sausage, cheese, and other incidental carbs. Vegetables are sometimes used as an afterthought, more like a condiment to add a bit of variety and bulk to your meals.

Two Long Links of Italian Sausage
People doing the Reddit form of Keto eat more
incidental carbs in sausage and cheese, than vegetables.

Atkins' original focus was on eliminating hunger by controlling blood sugar, rather than restricting calories, so the weight came off easily without a lot of struggle. It quickly got your hunger under control because it didn't include a lot of vegetables:
  • The original Atkins plan was only about 5 carbs or so, which Dr. Atkins referred to as biologically zero.
  • In 1992, Induction was raised to about 10 carbs, or less, due to the addition of a few steamed vegetables (2/3 cup a day).
  • In 2002, Atkins Induction reached 20 carbs a day.
Current versions of the Atkins Diet allow even more carbs on Induction, 20 net carbs (which is 35 total) for Atkins 20, the same as Keto, if followed like the book recommends using 6 cups vegetables. Atkins 40 doesn't have an Induction period, and starts you out at 40 net carbs.

These newer versions are designed for those who are younger, more active, health conscious, and only mildly insulin resistant.

For those who are older or more insulin resistant -- either due to obesity or having a history of yo-yo dieting -- eating at 20 net carbs is often too high to curb hunger and cravings. Obviously, this isn't true for everyone, but I've been seeing this happen more and more often lately.

Ultimate Aim of Low Carb Isn't Ketosis. Here's What Is:


Burning Fats Lets You Eat Steak, Chicken, Asparagus, and Fatty Sauces
How easily your body mobilizes and burns body fat
is a better gauge than being in ketosis.


The state of ketosis is essential to trigger ketone production. There is no argument with that.

But, once the body has switched metabolic pathways and predominantly begins to burn fats over glucose, the ultimate aim of a low-carb diet changes to something more long-term.

When the brain adapts to using ketones for most of its energy needs, your muscles begin to become insulin resistant. This resistance saves the ketones for the brain.

In a pinch, you can burn ketones during extensive exercise, when fuel is needed quickly, but unless you're a long-distance athlete, ketone production rarely affects the rate at which you lose body fat, so staying in ketosis doesn't make a very good ultimate aim.

How well you can:
  • mobilize body fat
  • up-regulate fat-burning enzymes
  • break down triglyceride into fatty acids
  • and oxidize those fatty acids for fuel
is a better gauge of how successful your low-carb diet will be, and according to Dr. Phinney, is the real ultimate aim of a low-carb diet.

This fat mobilization and usage is called "fat adaption," and based on the body's remarkable ability to adapt to available fuel sources. A fat-adapted individual can easily access their body-fat stores and use that body for energy throughout the day.

It's using your body fat that is the goal here. Not ketosis. Ketosis is merely a side effect of fat breakdown, a backup mechanism to save the brain from dying when glucose is scarce.


How Long Does it Take to Become Fat Adapted?


According to Dr. Phinney, it takes a good 4 to 6 weeks, or even more, to fully adapt to the state of ketosis. But keep in mind that he deals with highly trained individuals. Trained athletes are his experience.

In real life situations, where you are overfed and sedentary, fat adaption has been reported to take as long as 8 to 12 weeks. Or even more. In addition, the more carbs you eat, the longer it will take for the body to adapt to oxidizing fats because it won't have to.

If you take a break for a special occasion during the adaption time period or you eat more carbs than you should, because it was only a cheat or two, those extra carbohydrates will slow down or interfere with the fat-adaption process.

It takes a while for the body to set up the alternative pathway, and then become as proficient in burning fats for fuel as it was in burning glucose, because adaption involves every single cell in the body and how those cells use incoming energy.

Eating too many carbs before the body completely switches over will interfere with the conversion process, so cheating or taking liberties before you're fully adapted can have negative consequences.

In a very real sense you can find yourself in a sort of limbo where hunger doesn't go down and cravings keep driving you to cheat over and over again.

What Does it Mean to be Fat Adapted?


My Bacon-Wrapped Jalapeno Peppers Stuffed with Cream Cheese and Broiled
Fat-Adaption is when your body
learns to burn fatty acids efficiently.

Ketosis and fat adaption are not the same thing.

Before adaption, the body is still primed to burn glucose, which is easier and takes less processing. In ketosis, you do break down triglycerides into fatty acids, creating ketones for the brain, but the body won't be efficient at burning those fatty acids.

Many people new to ketosis struggle with endurance issues, tiredness, and a lack of mental clarity, which goes away once you start to burn body fat more efficiently.

When not adapted yet, the muscles pull glucose in from the bloodstream, when available. Glucose can be used in its current form or stored as glycogen for future use. Burning fats is a bit more complicated since fats are in the form of triglyceride and must be converted into fatty acids first.

During the fat adaption process, your muscles become insulin resistant and stop pulling in glucose from the bloodstream. Instead of using glucose to fuel your daily activities, the muscles begin using fatty acids.

Using fatty acids causes your triglyceride levels in the bloodstream to go down, allows Leptin to get past the blood brain barrier, and saves any available glucose for the brain and other cells that don't have mitochondria. This type of insulin resistance isn't bad. It's part of the fat-adaption process.

The longer you abstain from carbohydrates, the more proficient your muscles and other body systems will get at using fatty acids for fuel.

If you continue restricting carbs and training your body to oxidize fats, provided you have the ability to increase the enzymes needed for higher fat oxidation, you will get as proficient at fat burning as you were at glucose burning.

In fact, many people find that once they're fat adapted, they can have a higher carb day, once in a while, without disturbing their ability to oxidize fats, since the body becomes more metabolically flexible.

A carb overdose is handled differently by the body once fat adapted.

The body can actually use carbs when available, then easily switch back to using fats once the glucose is used and carbs are low. You don't have to start at square one again.

Only a few individuals remain so insulin resistant that they have to stay at ultra-low carbohydrate levels indefinitely. But then, that's why the Atkins Diet is structured as it is. Unlike the Keto Diet, Atkins allows you to discover your own personalized carbohydrate tolerance.

Benefits of Being Fat Adapted


Being in ketosis means you're breaking down triglycerides into fatty acids, with ketone production being a by-product of that process. However, if you're not fat adapted, despite being in ketosis, the body still wants to use glucose.

Like the woman at the beginning of this article, the body ramps up your hunger hormones while looking for glucose, and the result is pure torture and misery, especially if you're restricting calories at the same time.

On the other hand, once you become fat adapted, the body will prefer to burn fatty acids over glucose.

Hormone levels and enzymes will literally change over to using fats instead of sugar for fuel. Once changed, glycogen levels stay low and water retention won't be as big of a problem as it was when you were going through the transition.

Since fatty acids are nutrient-dense, once you are fat adapted, you'll be able to go longer in between meals before feeling hungry, with no hypoglycemic effects. Missing meals will no longer be a big deal. You're likely to lose your desire for sugary foods and often forget to eat, as well.

This is because you'll feel satiated with less food and what you do eat will provide good, sturdy energy levels. You'll also begin sleeping better after making the switch, and your thinking will become crystal clear. Memory is also said to get better.

Fat Adaption is the Ultimate Aim of a Low-Carb Diet!


Ketosis doesn't have very much to do with weight loss.

It is simply the state of ramping up the production of ketones to fulfill the energy requirements for the brain when glucose is in short supply.

For endurance athletes, blood ketone levels are important because the body can use those ketones to fuel athletic activities.

For non-athletes, their presence isn't relevant because the muscles save them for the brain. Ketones in the bloodstream are simply ketones that your brain hasn't used yet.

If your ketone blood level gets too high, the body will secrete insulin to prevent their further production until the brain has used what's already available.

Under high-ketone conditions, the muscles can also use ketones to bring their level back down, but these precautions against ketoacidosis slow down weight loss.

They do not speed it up.

When your body is busy burning excess ketones, it is not busy burning body fat!

In fact, the triglyceride in the blood, when insulin is secreted to control your ketone level, can be easily re-stored because it's already in the form of stored body fat.

In general, the build-up of ketones in the bloodstream isn't relevant to weight loss because the state of ketosis is NOT what drives fat loss.

Yes, Dr. Atkins thought it did.

But today, we know that fat adaption ramps up the need for large amounts of fatty acids by the muscles, heart, and other body systems. It's fat adaption and improved insulin sensitivity that causes the liver to mobilize your fat stores and provide that substrate for the body to use.

It's fat-adaption that drives weight loss.

Fat adaption is the ultimate aim of a low-carb diet. And not ketosis!


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