What are Ketones?

what are ketones

Ketones and Your Health, Mind, and Waist Line

Can the body run out of energy? Normally, the human body derives energy from fats, carbohydrates, and protein. But there is another source of energy the body relies on.

Ketones, or ketone bodies, are an alternative source of energy our bodies can use and their effect on our overall health is monumental [1].

Whether you’ve been a follower of the ketogenic diet for some time or you’ve never heard of ketone bodies until just now, there is much to understand if you want to utilize the power of ketones. Keep reading to learn what ketones are and how they can help or hurt your health.


What are ketones?

From a chemistry standpoint, ketones are organic compounds that contain a carbonyl group and two hydrocarbon groups. But a simpler definition of ketones is that they are the body’s way of producing energy when it needs to [2].

If you follow a typical diet, you might find yourself scarfing down a donut for breakfast, wolfing down a sub sandwich during lunch, and enjoying a romantic pasta dinner with your significant other after work.

One thing these meals all have in common is a high concentration of carbohydrates. After carbohydrates are eaten, they break down into different types of sugars (fructose, glucose, and galactose) and are then used by the body as energy.

But if you skip the donut and have a salad for lunch, sugar levels begin to dip, and your body is forced to find an alternative source of energy. As it begins to break down fat, the liver produces ketones in a process known as beta-oxidation [3].


How does the body use ketones?

Our bodies are less likely to use ketones than the bodies of our ancestors were. When we compare our current diet to what was available hundreds of years ago, we have an abundance of processed and sugary foods at our disposal. Therefore, our glucose levels don’t always reach levels that are low enough for ketones to be produced.

So why do some people change their diets to produce ketones? There are several functional benefits of ketones you should be aware of, including:

  • Improved mental performance
  • Increased energy
  • Less cravings for sugary foods
  • Improved metabolism
  • Weight loss
  • Stabilized blood sugar

Because of these benefits, the ketogenic diet has gained plenty of followers and has encouraged science to explore the power of ketones [4].


Ketones and diseases

Like any change in diet, there are some who have adverse reactions to an increase in ketone production. At the same time, others experience superior benefits. Here are just a couple ways ketones play a role in diseases.


In a person without diabetes, ketones form because of low glucose levels. But for someone with diabetes, ketones form because there isn’t enough insulin in the body to move glucose throughout the body. Because the body believes its glucose levels aren’t at the level it needs them to be, even though they are, ketones form as fat is broken down.

For someone with diabetes, a build-up of ketones can quickly become dangerous. Ketones are acidic and as they’re released into the blood, blood acidity levels can quickly become life-threatening. This is more common with those diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes though people with Type 2 are still at risk.



For those battling Alzheimer’s, ketones are currently being considered as a potential treatment. A study of 20 patients diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment were treated with either a placebo or medium chain triglycerides, compounds that promote ketone production [5].

The study showed that memory greatly improved in those who took the triglycerides. While there is still no cure for Alzheimer’s, dietary interventions, such as ketosis, could be the solution to deteriorating brain health.


Ketones and weight loss

Utilizing ketones is a fantastic way to burn fat while still being able to consume a satisfying number of calories and maintain high energy levels.

To start a ketogenic diet, you’ll want to slowly cut out carbs from your diet and eat moderate amounts of protein. Doing so will safely lower your blood sugar levels and trigger the production of ketones. As your body starts to switch to running entirely on fat, pounds can quickly drop off.

When switching to a low-carb diet, focus on eating eggs, meat, natural fats, seafood, cheese, and vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, broccoli, cauliflower, green peppers, avocado, asparagus, and cucumber [6].

Avoid starchy foods, including pasta, bread, rice, fruit, potatoes, and baked goods.

Water is always great, but coffee and tea are okay if you skip the sweeteners. Red wine is also acceptable in moderation. Avoid juice, soda, and overly sweetened drinks.


How to take avoid side effects

When first embarking on a ketogenic diet, you can expect to experience several negative symptoms as the body transitions. This is common and shouldn’t be cause for alarm. Commonly known as the “low-carb flu”, you can expect the following symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Increased hunger
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nausea


Though discouraging at first, these symptoms usually resolve after a few days.

Other common side effects of a ketogenic diet include:

  • Bad breath
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Leg cramps
  • Digestive issues


In rare cases, kidney stones and raised cholesterol levels are possible side effects. To minimize side effects related to ketosis, make the following part of your lifestyle and diet.

  • Stay hydrated. Increasing your water intake is crucial in ketosis, especially when starting out.
  • Exercise moderately. While you can still exercise, tone things down for a few days when starting a ketogenic diet.
  • Move slowly. Don’t stop eating carbs entirely. Instead, slowly cut them out of your diet to ease the transition into ketosis.
  • Add more salt to your diet. When you reduce your carb intake, substantial amounts of sodium escape from the body. Add more salt to your food when possible.
  • Add more fiber to your diet. Don’t cut out all types of carbs. Consume fiber-rich foods like seeds, berries, veggies, and nuts.


Ketosis can improve your health in several ways. One of the most sought out benefits is weight loss, but ketones also boost mental clarify and physical performance.

While considered safe for most, there is always the risk for side effects. It’s crucial to speak with your physician before beginning a low-carb diet with a goal of ketosis.

Ketosis can help you gain energy, lose excess weight, and improve your focus. If you’ve been considering a ketogenic diet, now is a wonderful time to start [7].


  1. Kiranjit K. Dhillon; Sonu Gupta.
    Biochemistry, Ketogenesis
    Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2018 Jan-.
  2. Brianna J. Stubbs,1 Pete J. Cox,1 Rhys D. Evans,1 Peter Santer,1 Jack J. Miller,1,2 Olivia K. Faull,1 Snapper Magor-Elliott,1 Satoshi Hiyama,3 Matthew Stirling,4 and Kieran Clarke1,*
    On the Metabolism of Exogenous Ketones in Humans
    Front Physiol. 2017; 8: 848. Published online 2017 Oct 30. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2017.00848
  3. Sander Michel Houtencorresponding author and Ronald J. A. Wanders
    A general introduction to the biochemistry of mitochondrial fatty acid β-oxidation
    J Inherit Metab Dis. 2010 Oct; 33(5): 469–477. Published online 2010 Mar 2. doi: 10.1007/s10545-010-9061-2
  4. Patrycja Puchalska and Peter A. Crawford1
    Multi-dimensional roles of ketone bodies in fuel metabolism, signaling, and therapeutics
    Cell Metab. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2018 Feb 7. Published in final edited form as: Cell Metab. 2017 Feb 7; 25(2): 262–284. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2016.12.022
  5. Reger MA1, Henderson ST, Hale C, Cholerton B, Baker LD, Watson GS, Hyde K, Chapman D, Craft S.
    Effects of beta-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults.
    Neurobiol Aging. 2004 Mar;25(3):311-4.
  6. Wajeed Masood; Kalyan R. Uppaluri.
    Ketogenic Diet
    Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2018 Jan-.
  7. Antonio Paoli,1,* Gerardo Bosco,1 Enrico M. Camporesi,2,3 and Devanand Mangar3,4
    Ketosis, ketogenic diet and food intake control: a complex relationship
    Front Psychol. 2015; 6: 27. Published online 2015 Feb 2. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00027
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