High-Tech, Low-Carb: Profile of Ken Ford
A half-dozen years ago, the institute found new growth by looking beyond its forte in computers and electro-mechanical devices into how to extend human performance via biology. One sign of the shift: Of seven recent institute podcasts, an award-winning series called STEMTalk, six have been related to nutrition or human biology.
Institute researchers began investigating how to mitigate the tendency of the body and human performance to fail, as Ford says, “in spectacular ways” in extreme environments such as space, under the sea and in combat. Ford looked inward: As a teen wrestler in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he would cut carbs to make his weight class. He discovered he felt better on a low-carb, high-protein and high-fat diet.
The scientific explanation? As our prehistoric ancestors experienced periods of starvation between hunts, the human body evolved. When no carbohydrates were available, the body adapted to burn body fat to fuel our brains and bodies, producing molecules collectively called ketones. Our brains run “preferentially” on ketones, Ford says.
Decades earlier, researchers at Johns Hopkins had treated epilepsy with a highfat diet built around an effective, if gross, fat slushee. In recent years, ultra-endurance athletes, soldiers and, increasingly, the general public have rediscovered the ketogenic diet, leading to a proliferation of keto-diet research, books and cookbooks.
The aim, once the body adjusts, is ketosis, a state in which the body burns ketones efficiently — possibly providing a critical edge for ultra-athletes and soldiers who otherwise would “hit the wall” when their glycogen stores are exhausted and they can’t stop to refuel on carbs. Devotees say they feel better and report improved mental clarity and stamina.
A byproduct of the diet is a lean body. Some researchers see ketosis helping a host of bodily systems — possibly producing extended lifespans and long-term health, with applications from treating brain injury to cancer.
It’s not an easy diet to follow, so the military began to fund and test supplements that could produce high ketone levels without adhering strictly to the diet. D’Agostino has been doing militaryfunded work on ketosis.
Lots came together for the institute. Ford happened to sit on a defense scientific review board as the military’s interest in synthetic ketones increased. He could offer insights. Institute researchers, meanwhile, took an interest in ketones and human performance. As the keto diet took hold among the public, consumers hunting for a scientific understanding of ketosis found the institute. When he gave talks on artificial intelligence, Ford says, “I would get a few questions on AI and a hundred ketone questions, and the talk wasn’t even on ketones.”
In the process, Ford found himself in a new spotlight. “Ford is the hub of the current ketones conversation,” Outside magazine said of him in an extended 2016 piece. He’s been visible enough during the keto-craze that a stranger in a restaurant in Jackson, Wyo., recognized him from a podcast about ketones.
“A huge societal phenomenon,” Ford says. “The public is hungry for this.” Indeed, when he emails a reporter a link to a podcast he did on artificial intelligence, it lands in the inbox right after a spam for a Keto UltraDiet.
Ford is of several minds about the phenomenon. “Am I sure it’s good? No, I’m not,” he says. Most institute employees, by the way, don’t follow the keto diet, which requires regular attention to your ketone levels. The morning we met, Ford already had done two pin-prick blood tests to measure his ketone levels, one before and one after exercising.
Ford notes that a keto diet, strictly speaking, is nothing more than a diet that produces ketosis. Eat nothing but Crisco shortening and you’ll be in ketosis, but you won’t be healthy. Hence, the need for cookbooks that promote avocados and other appetizing high-fat, highprotein, minuscule-carb fare.
A healthy keto diet, Ford says, is ideal for ultra-endurance athletes — the reason Outside magazine wrote about him and the reason some Special Ops soldiers follow it. It helps muscle endurance and aerobic capacity. It’s not at all clear, however, that it helps athletes boost muscle strength or anaerobic capacity.
Ford thinks keto has advantages for aging recreational athletes and also helps as hormone production dwindles with age. “For older people in particular, I think it’s a good thing,” he says. Personally, he gets 60% of his calories from fat — though he hastens to make clear it’s the percentage of calories, not the volume of food — with the rest coming from protein. He doesn’t eat carbs intentionally, though he gets small amounts by eating foods such as spinach that contain them. He can name the last time he intentionally ate carbs: A tiny serving of pasta in Italy several years ago. “It made me sick, sick, sick. I run on ketones,” he says.
The diet itself is well understood, so the institute can add little to it, Ford says. But the institute does have an opportunity in studying synthetics that boost ketone levels, which interests both the military and private manufacturers, who smell a rich market. By using supplements, soldiers, ultra-athletes and others can skip the diet, but make their ketone levels — and presumably endurance — spike for hours. The question is how that supplementation affects human physical and cognitive performance and resilience in extreme environments like space or battlefields — research that is in the institute’s sweet spot.