No More Dragon Breath
Too many people who eat low carb diets believe that they have to live with the intense bad breath nicknamed "ketobreath" if they are to keep their carbs down either to control their blood sugar or lose weight.
That's because they believe that the bad breath is a sign that they are eating what is called a "ketogenic diet" which some dieters and low carb enthusiasts believe makes it much easier to burn off fat.
The term "ketogenic" simply means "producing ketones." Ketones are a byproduct of fat digestion. They become significant when you are eating so few grams of carbohydrate each day because at that point most of your cells switch over to burning fats, including ketones, rather than glucose.
You can tell when you have entered a ketogenic state because your body will dump a great deal of water when this happens, causing a weight loss of anywhere from two to six pounds within a day or two. When you exit the ketogenic state, those same water-related pounds come right back. Why this happens is explained in greater detail HERE.
Unfortunately, most people who cut carbs low enough to remain in a ketogenic state for more than a few weeks develop a distinctive and truly awful bad breath that they assume is a necessary part of eating a ketogenic diet. This is not true but widely believed.
It is also the major reason why the loved ones of low carb dieter, after a period of patience, may start undermining the low carbers' diet, tempting them with carbs in the hope that if they ruin their loved one's diet they will no longer have to live with the wretched smell of that "ketobreath." This is rational behavior on the part of those loved ones. The bad breath--which the dieter usually can't themselves smell--is often so strong it makes riding in a car with the dieter unpleasant--to say nothing about more intimate contact.
The usual advice that dieters give each other in online support groups is to drink more water or use breath mints. But these solutions rarely work and many very low carb dieters continue to reek, though because, for some reason, it is considered embarrassing to mention another person's bad breath, it may be months or even years until someone is brave enough to mention this.
Ketobreath Is Mostly PROTEIN Breath
Fortunately, for people who have found that low carb dieting is their only hope of losing weight, it is not necessary to give off dreadful fumes in order to diet successfully. Why? Because it turns out that what causes dragon breath is not excess ketones--though this is the explanation you usually hear in online diet support groups. The real cause of ketobreath istoo much protein.Low carb dieters who are eating huge portions of meat at every meal and lots of eggs for breakfast are invariably eating far more protein than they need.
The reason this causes bad breath is that every bit of excess protein you eat that isn't turned into muscle is broken down by the liver and converted into carbs through a process called gluconeogenesis. The other product of gluconeogenesis are smelly ammonia compounds. These ammonia compounds are first excreted via the kidney, and if there are still more of them to get rid of, they are exhaled in the breath.
That is why, if you are eating too much protein, you will often detect a strong ammonia smell in your urine. In some cases this ammonia might even cause a diaper-rash-like irritation. But when you are exhaling ammonia compounds through your breath you often experience no symptom that makes you aware of it--except, perhaps, that people keep a lot of distance between you and theirselves.
Other Diets Cause "Dieter's Breath" Too
Paradoxically, dieters whose diets have too little protein can also get "ketobreath." That's because when dieters don't take in enough protein for their bodies' needs, their bodies cannibalize their own muscle protein and break it down. That's why starving yourself on low fat diet--which recent studies have show will cause more loss of lean muscle than does a low carb diet--can also generate this telltale bad breath.
Eating a Lot of Eggs Can Make Dragon Breath Worse
If you already have a breath problem, starting your day out by eating a big plate of eggs can make it worse. That's because eggs contain sulfur which also creates stinky compounds that can also be excreted through the breath.
The Cure is Simple
It is possible to eat a low carb diet without emitting toxic fumes. The key is to eat only as much protein as your body actually needs. This turns out to be a lot less protein than most dieters eat when they begin very low carb diets.
The idea that very low carb diets have to be very high protein diets developed back in the days when the low fat diet ruled the medical world. The doctors who promoted low carb diets knew that there was no way they could title a book "Fat Power" and tell readers to eat a very high fat diet, since fat had been so thoroughly demonized. So instead they described their low carb diets as "high protein diets." But the most effective low carb diets--both for weight loss and blood sugar control--are indeed high fat diets, much higher in fat than they are in protein.
In fact, your body only needs you to eat enough protein each day to do two things. One is to build and repair your muscle tissue as it suffers normal wear and tear and provide the basic material for various enzymes. Everyone needs some protein every day for this function no matter what they are eating, since our bodies can't store protein.
The other thing our bodies may need extra dietary protein occurs only when we are getting so little carbohydrate in our food each day that we aren't getting the small but essential amount of glucose we need to keep the neurons in our brain functioning. These neurons, unlike the rest of the cells in our body must burn glucose and can't burn any form of fat. When our diet doesn't supply this small but essential ration of glucose, our livers convert some dietary protein into glucose.
What is not mentioned in the bestselling diet books, however, is that while you do need quite a bit of extra protein during the first few weeks after you start a very low carb diet, the amount of glucose you need drops dramatically after only three weeks of eating a very low carb, ketogenic diet. This is because during that time many of your cells will switch from burning ketones to burning free free fatty acids--a product of fat digestion--and others will start burning ketones. The amount of glucose you need will thus drop and after this change is complete you may only need a few extra ounces of protein a day to supply the glucose your brain needs. All the rest of the excess protein you eat will be broken down in a way that produces those smelly ammonia compounds.
It's Easy To Learn How Much Protein Is Right For You
How much protein you need to satisfy your body's requirements is different for each person, but depends largely on your size, metabolic rate, and how much carbohydrate you are eating each day.
These, fortunately, can be calculated using the special low carb-oriented nutritional calculator you'll find on our Nutritional Calculator web page. Use this calculator to determine how much protein your body needs. Be honest about your carbohydrate intake, and if in doubt, overestimate it, since the calculator will add in a bit extra protein to make sure you aren't going to end up cannibalizing your own muscle.
When you eat only the amount of protein the calculator says you need for a few days, you should see your bad breath problem clear right up.
If you are trying to lose weight, eliminating unneeded protein should help get your weight loss going again. However, if most of what you've been eating has been protein rich meats, when you cut back on protein be sure to keep your calories high enough that you don't slow your metabolism too much.
Eating at starvation levels, though it does cause weight loss over the short term, will leave you unable to eat at normal maintenance levels for your weight in the future. Months of eating at starvation levels result in your brain raising the levels of the hormones that make you hungry and slowing down the rate at which you burn fuel--this change can become permanent and may make it easy to pack on pounds of body fat by eating at a calorie level that would have been maintenance for your new weight level, had you not damaged your metabolism with extreme dieting.
To avoid going into this kind of starvation state, if you have been eating mostly protein, you may need to replace some of the calories you were getting from protein with healthy fats like those found in butter and cheese, olive oil, and nuts.
You May Not Need or Want to Eat a Ketogenic Diet
My personal experience has been that, though it is true that being in a ketogenic state suppresses hunger very effectively, it does not guarantee weight loss. It is very possible to eat at extremely low carbohydrate intake levels for many months without losing a single pound. I've done it, and so have many other people who report their experiences to low carb diet support groups.
My own very extensive experiments with logging food intake has convinced me that it is indeed how many calories you eat that determine how much weight you lose, no matter what the composition of your diet. Cutting back on protein often gets weight loss happening again for low carb dieters, mostly because it eliminates a lot of unneeded calories.
It is also true that smaller people, older people, and many post-menopausal women have such modest caloric needs even when just maintaining their weights that it is not possible for them to cut their calories down to a level that will produce weight loss without also cutting back significantly on fats.
This makes it impossible for them to eat at the very high fat intake levels that large men who eat ketogenic diets claim speeds their weight loss. If I eat enough protein to supply my body with the protein needed for muscle maintenance, there isn't enough room in my daily intake for more fat than would constitute only 60% of my daily intake, no matter how much carbohydrate I eat.
The good news is that it is not necessary to be in a ketogenic state to lose weight or to control blood sugars. Many people with diabetes, especially those who have access to safe diabetes drugs, are able to keep their blood sugars in the healthy range without having to eat ketogenic diets.
Indeed, many of us find that after eating a very low carb diet for a few years and restoring our blood sugar to healthy levels we feel better and more energetic if we keep our carb intake just high enough to avoid going into a ketogenic state. For many this means eating at a carb intake level somewhere between 90-110 g a day, though the actual level ranges from 80-125 grams a day, depending on our body size. Larger people can stay in a ketogenic state eating a higher intake of carbs.
There is no particular magic to remaining in the ketogenic state once you have brought your blood sugar down to normal levels and kept them there for long enough to restore normal health. Blood sugar spikes are what make us hungry, not the fact we are burning glucose instead of fat. So while a ketogenic diet can be a very useful way to normalize blood sugar and eliminate the hunger that makes weight gain so difficult, it does not have to be a lifelong diet if you can find other ways to keep your blood sugar from spiking. Many people find that metformin is very helpful for achieving this.
Learn More About How Low Carb Diets Really Work
To succeed at your long term diet you will need more information than can easily be read off a web site. Jenny Ruhl's book, Diet 101: The Truth About Low Carb Diets provides you with the kind of in depth information you will find nowhere else.