The Perks of Fasting, With None of the Work

A sizzeling pork – David W. Cerny / Reuter

A new drink mimics the effect of eating very few carbs—and promises the attendant performance boost—while you scarf all the donuts you want.

Olga Khazan / This article was originally published by The Atlantic.

“If there’s a downside, it is kind of crazy tasting,” said Geoff Woo, the founder of HVMN, a Silicon Valley company that makes nootropics, or performance-enhancing supplements. We were in a conference room in The Atlantic’s office building, and he was bracing me for my trial run of his latest product.It was a small, clear vial labeled “Ketone,” a new type of energy drink his company is releasing this week. Its nutrition label says it contains 120 calories, but no carbs, no fat, and no protein. Instead, it’s all ketones, the chemical that Woo and his company are calling a “fourth food group.” He hopes the drink will allow people to reap the benefits of occasional fasting—high ketone levels inside the body—without actually having to not eat.

I unscrewed the top and, college-days muscle memory kicking in, chugged it like a shot of Captain Morgan. It tasted like cough syrup that had been poured into a garbage bag and left in the sun.

“Augh!” I cried.

“I compare it to a combination of a liquor shot with nail-polish remover,” Woo said.

Woo’s coworker, Brianna Stubbs, went to fetch me a glass of water. “We’ve done a lot of work to make it better,” she said.

Within an hour, the drink was supposed to help improve my athletic performance by changing how my body burned energy during exercise. Some people also say it helps them feel more energetic and focused on their work.

“I would say almost standard eating is an eating disorder.”

About 25 minutes after I drank Ketone, Woo and Stubbs pricked my finger to see if it was working. My blood sugar, which had verged on diabetic levels from some pineapple I had eaten that morning, was down to near-normal levels. Meanwhile, my ketones, which had been practically nonexistent before imbibing—measuring just 0.2 millimolar—had soared to 4.9.

“It would have taken me six days of fasting to get to that level normally,” Woo said. “To hit five is pretty crazy.”

Ketones are chemicals made from fat that the body burns for fuel when it runs out of carbohydrates. The process of burning these ketones is called “ketosis,” and it can be achieved through either fasting or through a “ketogenic” diet that’s high in fat and very low in carbohydrates. The ketogenic diet was initially developed more than a century ago to control seizures in epileptic children. Today, some healthy people fast intermittently or follow ketogenic diets in order to remain in a near-constant state of ketosis, saying it helps them control their weight, feel more energetic, and stay focused.

My trial bottle of Ketone (Olga Khazan / The Atlantic)

“I would say almost standard eating is an eating disorder, in the sense that when you get invited out for happy hour or a lunch meeting, we don’t do that because we’re hungry,” Woo said. “We do that because it’s a cultural norm … Romans centered their meals around one large meal a day, typically around lunch. A lot of East Asian cultures had two large meals a day. ”

Though ketones are considered an especially efficient energy source, the liquid version isn’t found in food; it had to be manufactured in a lab. Because the keto diet can be unappealing—low on fruit and vegetables and high on bun-less burgers—it can be hard for all but the most committed to stick with it. And though intermittent fasting can help the body attain the same reported benefits, fasting is, well … fasting.

Kieran Clarke, a professor of physiological biochemistry at the University of Oxford, began researching dietary ketones in 2003 as part of a U.S. Department of Defense grant that was intended to find ways to help troops perform better on the battlefield. She and her collaborators created the ketone ester, as these liquid ketones are called. Clarke founded a company, T∆S, to market her findings, and she licensed the intellectual property to HVMN (which is pronounced “human”).

“I’m a little skeptical about the idea of enhancing performance in young, healthy people.”

Each bottle of HVMN’s Ketone provides 25 grams of the ketone ester. The drink can now be preordered, but it doesn’t come cheap: A three-bottle package—three doses meant to be taken, at most, within a day—sells for $99. The FDA has blessed HVMN as “generally recognized as safe,” but it’s considered a food, not a supplement.

You’re supposed to take the ketones an hour before you work out to boost performance, or 30 minutes after you exercise for recovery. The company claims that some people feel a sense of enhanced focus and “flow” after drinking the substance, though the evidence behind this claim is less established.

It’s not necessary to fast or follow a ketogenic diet while drinking Ketone, but Woo said it could be a type of “bridge” to get people through the first few rough days of fasting. (Clarke, in fact, recommended drinking Ketone with a banana or another carb, so the body has its choice of fuel.)

In a study of 39 elite cyclists published last year, Clarke and others found the athletes were able to go 400 meters further in half an hour after drinking a ketone drink, compared with a carbohydrate- or fat-based energy drink. One reason for the increased performance could be that their muscles contained lower levels of lactate, which causes an achy feeling while working out. Rats on a ketone diet have also run farther on a treadmill and completed a maze faster than rats on a regular diet.

Ketone esters have been shown to have some promise in Alzheimer’s patients and in people with traumatic brain injuries as well, but research on ketones’ cognitive benefits is still very early.

Most recently, Stubbs, a scientist with HVMN and a British rowing champion, found that ketone esters can suppress appetite by controlling ghrelin, a hunger hormone. The reason my glucose dropped after drinking Ketone, Woo speculated, is that the drink signaled to my liver to stop releasing sugar. He is hopeful that, eventually, dietary ketones could become a treatment for people with type 2 diabetes.