Basic food groups, like whole grains, fruits, and dairy have been a staple of the modern diet for centuries, but could another soon be added? A team of researchers from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology has revealed the physical and mental benefits of ketones, a natural chemical the body produces when it confronts periods of starvation or food scarcity. Their findings may lead to the advent of a new food group to boost endurance and memory.

The body typically runs on glucose for energy, but when there isn’t enough, ketones kick in. Knowing this, researchers fed rats a blend of ketone ester supplements while they cut back on 30 percent of their daily calorie intake, while a second group of rats were only fed a diet of carbohydrates and fat. After five days on the new diet, rats ran 32 percent further on the treadmill and 38 percent faster and had a healthier, stronger heartbeat compared to rats that were not fed ketones. When placed in a maze to test the rats’ memory, researchers found the rats fed the ketone diet were able to complete the maze faster and more accurately compared to rats that weren’t taking ketone supplements.

"The dramatic improvements in exercise performance and cognitive function will no doubt interest athletes and professional sports teams worldwide,” said the study’s co-author Andrew J. Murray, a researcher in the department of physiology, development and neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, in a statement.

Foods that are high in fat help initiate ketone production, along with a moderate portion of protein. However, not all fats were created equal, which is why choosing your ketone-inducing food items strategically is key to getting the most out of your carb sacrifice. Nuts, avocados, eggs, cheeses, lean meats, fish, and poultry are all excellent sources to choose from.

Previous research has found the ketogenic diet can be a beneficial weight loss approach for overweight or obese people. Carbohydrates break down into glucose, which is why the key to a ketogenic diet is to make an extreme cut back on carbohydrates in order to trigger ketone production. In the long term, obese patients experience significant weight loss after 16 to 24 weeks of carbohydrate restriction, however experts warn dieters to eventually ease back into carbohydrates. The newly discovered cognitive and physical benefits of ketogenic diets are a bonus.

"This may be a new horizon on the energy balance sheet in certain nutrional or physiological situations" Murray said. "Further research into the potential benefits of ketone ester for human health is vital, and only just beginning."

The ketogenic diet has also been shown to help calm the brain in children at risk for seizures . Read here.

Source: Murray AJ, Clarke K, and Knight NS, et al. Novel ketone diet enhances physical and cognitive performance FASEB. 2016.