protein gluconeogenesis on a low-carb diet


WHAT IS GLUCONEOGENESIS?

Gluconeogenesis is the creation of glucose, gluco meaning sugar and genesis meaning creation. Easy, right? Great, we’re done here.

Not quite. It’s important to understand gluconeogenesis so you can avoid it and live right in the low-carb, ketogenic sweet spot.

On the surface, low-carb dieting seems simple: if you eat carbs, they create glucose, and that becomes your body’s fuel; if you cut the carbs and eat fat, your body creates ketones and burns fat.

Low-carb allows you to switch the metabolic pathway your body takes to run your engine, switching you from a glucose fuel to a ketone fuel (1).

But there is one, little hitch to this plan. There are 3 macro nutrients:

  • FAT

  • CARBOHYDRATES

  • PROTEIN

Low-carb dieters spend so much time focusing on fat and carbs that they sometimes forget about protein and assume it’s a non-factor.

An abundance of protein can lead to gluconeogenesis, where your liver turns protein into glucose for fuel. This third metabolic pathway is actually a survival mechanism your body has evolved to help you stay alive in times of starvation. Your body can pull amino acids from stored muscle protein to turn into glucose in order to feed you and keep you moving (2).

But giving the liver too much protein by over-eating the forgotten macro will also trigger this effect and stop the production of the ketones low-carb diets need if they want to run their systems on fat and burn off the excess.

GLUCONEOGENSIS AT THE BEGINNING OF KETOSIS

If it’s not clear just yet, gluconeogenesis is something you want to avoid on a low-carb diet. The problem is that you can’t avoid it, not completely anyway. Gluconeogenesis actually plays a role in your transition into the ketogenic state (3).

When you decide to start your low-carb lifestyle the first thing you do is stop eating an abundance of carbs and keep your carb intake to around 20g per day, which is not enough to create glucose for fuel.

You’re now getting a majority of your calories from fat, so your liver will switch over to fat as it’s metabolic pathway and begin producing ketones. This is the transition period every low-carb dieter must wait out: “getting into keto” or “getting into a ketogenic state.”

The transition takes less time for some and longer for others and can last between 1 and 5 days depending on your body and your previous, daily carb intake and glucose stores.

So what happens during that waiting period, the time between having burned off all your excess carbs and when your liver recognizes that fat is now your preferred macro nutrient, and it begins to produce ketones?

Gluconeogenesis happens. It fills in the gap between being carb-starved and having enough fat abundance to start churning out the ketones. For a brief time, your body feels the stress of not having a fuel source, assumes you are starving to death, and jumps into synthesizing your protein through gluconeogenesis (4).

But if you eat too much protein during that switching over period, your liver will never jump to making ketones: it will just keep on doing what it’s been doing, turning protein into glucose and keeping you out of ketosis.

There are, of course, tricks to keeping this from happening:

1. Most importantly, keep your protein intake to 20% of your daily caloric intake.

2. Fasting. Fasting, even intermittently, can serve as a kind of reset that pushes your body into the creation of ketones when fat is in abundance.

3. Exercising will help burn off excess glucose and kick start your metabolism into cranking out the ketones. Moderate cardio and weights are best.

4. Exogenous Ketones: a ketone supplement that will supply your body with ketones faster and give your liver a head start.

The ultimate goal is to use gluconeogenesis to bridge the gap between a glucose fueled body and a ketone fueled body, then never use it again.

PROTEIN INTAKE

Now please don’t think protein is bad. Protein is very, very good for you. But, on a low-carb diet, you have to find the sweet spot.

  • Too much protein leads to gluconeogenesis, keeping ketosis and fat-burn from occurring.

  • Not enough Protein will cause muscle loss and can lead to a longer wait time to get into keto, and ketone production pauses later in your journey.

Yes, it’s a tad confusing and bit like Goldilocks and the juuuuust right porridge. You need to calculate the correct amount of protein you should be eating every day based on your calorie intake totals and your level of daily activity.

All this amounts to more keto math, but we at niKETO have made it easy:

KETO CALCULATOR

Just plug in your body stats along with your ultimate goal or reason for starting a low-carb lifestyle –be it weight loss, maintenance, or weight or muscle gain- and your ideal macro stats will pop-up.

The important thing to note about calculators is they get you close to the approximate numbers that will work for you based on your activity level, but every person is different, and your activity levels may change from day to day.

Because of this, it is important that you listen to your body and pay attention to how it responds on the scale.

If your energy levels are fluctuating, and you aren’t seeing the benefits of keto within the first 30 days, step back and redo the numbers. If you feel like you’re losing strength or visible muscle tone, it’s time to experiment with upping your protein intake.

The general guidelines are as follows:

  • If you lead a mostly sedentary lifestyle where you sit at a desk all day and your exercise is mostly walking to and from your car, you suggested protein intake is between .5 and .7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.

EXAMPLE: A sedentary, 200 pound man would have a protein range of 100g to 140g per day

A sedentary, 150 pound woman would have a protein range of 75g to 105g per day

  • If you have an active lifestyle with a job that keeps you moving for most of the day, and you only really sit for breaks, your suggested protein intake is between .8 and 1 gram per pound of body weight per day.

EXAMPLE: A sedentary, 200 pound man would have a protein range of 160g to 200g per day

A sedentary, 150 pound woman would have a protein range of 120g to 150g per day

  • If you lead an active lifestyle and are weightlifting to gain more muscle it’s suggested you set your protein intake range between 1.1 and 1.3 grams per pound of body weight per day.

EXAMPLE: A sedentary, 200 pound man would have a protein range of 220g to 260g per day

A sedentary, 150 pound woman would have a protein range of 165g to 195g per day

But remember, if you up your protein intake, you need to make sure you scale up your fat intake to keep the fat macro percentage at 70% of your overall daily calories.

Check out our niKETO meal plans. They are designed and calculated to give you the correct macro percentages and the right amount of protein throughout the day to ensure you are getting enough without overdoing it and putting you into gluconeogenesis.

PUT IT ALL TOGETHER

Gluconeogenesis is one of the three metabolic pathways that your liver can take to make your fuel, and it can disrupt the main goal of keto, which is to get into the ketone burning pathway that runs your body on the fats you eat and the stored fat that most of us would like to do away with.

Now that you understand gluconeogenesis, how it works, and how it inhibits your low-carb progress, you are armed with the knowledge you need to prevent it.

Follow the steps above to make sure you land in the protein consumption sweet-spot and you’ll avoid the gluconeogenesis slowdowns.

You now know that if you do fall out of ketosis and can’t figure out why, you need to look at gluconeogenesis as the possible culprit, and you can fix it by adjusting your protein intake. Too many people never make it into keto or get knocked out without understanding their protein and how easy it is to solve the problem. More people quit keto due to this lack of understanding than for any other reason.

DON’T LET IT HAPPEN TO YOU!

(cue film noir organ music)

REFERENCES

(1) Erika Gebel, PhD. The Liver's Role: How It Processes Fats and Carbs. diabetesforecast.org. http://www.diabetesforecast.org/2012/feb/the-liver-s-role-how-it-processes-fats-and-carbs.html?referrer=https. February 2012. Accessed Sep. 17th, 2018

(2) Margriet AB Veldhorst Margriet S Westerterp-Plantenga Klaas R Westerterp. Gluconeogenesis and energy expenditure after a high-protein, carbohydrate-free diet. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 90, Issue 3, 1 September 2009, Pages 519–526. July 29th, 2009.

(3) Xinhua Chen, Nayyar Iqbal, and Guenther Boden. The effects of free fatty acids on gluconeogenesis and glycogenolysis in normal subjects. Volume 103, Issue 3 J Clin Invest. 103(3):365–372. Feb. 1st, 1999.

(4) Schutz Y. Protein turnover, ureagenesis and gluconeogenesis. Int J Vitam Nutr Res.1(2-3):101-7. doi: 10.1024/0300-9831/a000064. March 8th, 2011.


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