Although it is not a particularly new fad, the Ketogenic Diet is a topic I have gotten a lot of questions on recently. Usually the question presents itself as: “what’s up with this ketogenic diet, and should I do it?” The answer to those questions are somewhat complex, so it is very difficult to provide a general answer on the spot. The details are crucial when discussing “keto.”
What is it?
First and foremost, let’s cover what keto actually is. If one were to subsist off a diet which causes their body to mimic the state of fasting for a long enough period, their body’s form of producing energy would shift. The goal is to get the body to stop relying on stored glucose (which we get from consuming carbohydrates) for energy production, and instead utilizing a fuel source called ketone-bodies.
In order to turn to this alternative fuel source, someone would need to consume a diet comprised of roughly 65-70% fats, 20-25% protein, and 5-10% carbohydrates. After maintaining this diet for a long enough period (typically 7-10 days), the body begins turning to a ketone-based fuel method, which we call “ketosis.” If someone is intentionally inducing ketosis through nutrition, we call that the Ketogenic Diet.
What is the point?
Some people’s bodies respond really well to a ketone fuel source. There are a variety of different reasons for this, but they are incredibly complex. However, for those who do respond well to ketosis, the process of mobilizing ketone bodies as a fuel source helps burn fat, gain muscle, and increases cognitive function. Which are all good things.
Successful keto dieters typically experience a leaner, more muscular physique, a surge in energy and testosterone production, and clearer, more focused thoughts. It is because of this that people who succeed on a ketogenic diet make so much noise about how amazing the diet is. This is not the case for everyone, however.
Should I try eating keto?
As mentioned before, this is not a simple answer. Without very extensive (and very expensive) bloodwork, there is no way to immediately know whether or not your body will respond well to a ketogenic diet. Therefore, trial and error is the only way to seriously find out how it works for you.
I have seen two people close to me go all-in on trying keto in the past few years. One quickly got into the best shape of his life, had his chronic headaches (which had been going on for 15 years) completely go away, and he approached life with a newfound vigor. The other saw almost no change physically, chronically felt depleted of energy, and felt as though his immune system was weakened. Two different people, same exact diet, drastically different results.
One thing I can say for sure, however, is I do not recommend experimenting with a ketogenic diet if you are an athlete. Although “increased energy” is often reported with successful keto dieters, the type of energy is a more sustained, long-term, slow-burning energy. This type of energy is advantageous in day-to-day life, but not particularly advantageous in most sports, and certainly is not ideal for athletic strength training. Most athletes will perform best on a traditional carb-adapted diet.
As with any rule, there are exceptions. The one exception I find to be particularly interesting in these circumstances is that of the cyclical ketogenic diet. Anyone who read the post about carbs and carb cycling may notice that this practice is relatively close to something we do regularly with our athletes. The concept of the cyclical ketogenic diet is: eat like you are on a ketogenic diet nearly all the time, and then introduce carbs in times of high intensity exercise. Essentially, this is carb cycling, a strategy we recommend to nearly any athlete trying to get lean without losing a step physically.
However, the cyclical ketogenic diet takes things one step further. Instead of simply avoiding carbs on off days, it requires a hefty dose of healthy fats throughout the day, and a very specific and concentrated dose of carbohydrates with a workout.
The reason these carbs would not influence ketosis is because your body uses glucose first if any is available for energy. If the carbs are dosed appropriately during a workout, they will all be used up, and none will be stored in the muscle or liver as glycogen. Therefore, once the energy is depleted, the body would automatically switch back to a ketone-burning process.
So, who should try a cyclical ketogenic diet? Again, it is important to keep in mind that ketosis simply will not work for some people based on their physiology. However, people that may want to experiment with a cyclical ketogenic diet are: very active people who train regularly but could afford to lose some body fat (ie. me), or athletes who are overweight and could perform better in their sport if they were leaner, and can afford to lose a bit of muscle along the way. Notice, this is a very small percentage of athletes. That being said, I am currently experimenting with a cyclical ketogenic diet, and I will keep everyone posted on how it works out for me.
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Conclusion: Ketosis is cool, but not for everyone, and definitely not for nearly all athletes. Furthermore, it is very easy to mess up a ketogenic diet, and the slightest slip-up can cause any work you put into the diet to be rendered useless.
That being said, if you are very driven, open to experimentation, willing to pay too much for groceries, and can afford to possibly deal with the negatives if it doesn’t work out for you, the cyclical ketogenic diet seems like a pretty solid general fitness alternative to a traditional carb-dense diet.