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Ketogenic diets or “keto” diets seem to be enjoying a surge of popularity right now, especially among the fitness community. As with most fads, there’s also a distinct lack of information floating around out there, or worse, some straight-up misinformation. As I’ve been using a ketogenic diet over the past few weeks to finish up a very drastic weight cut for an upcoming judo tournament as part of my Going Superhuman series, I figured this would be a perfect time to discuss the keto diet, and whether you should (or should not) give it a shot!
What is a ketogenic diet?
To drastically oversimplify things, a ketogenic diet is a high fat, moderate protein, extreme low carb diet. There are a couple different takes on the nutritional plan, but I personally have been doing a high-protein keto split. This means that out of my usual targeted caloric intake, I get
60-70% of my calories from fat.
25-35% of my calories from protein.
5% of my calories from carbohydrates.
This means that if I’m on a 2000 calorie diet, in one day I would consume
133-155 grams of fat.
125-174 grams of protein.
25-30 grams of carbohydrates.
Now of course, those are target numbers, but the biggest goal I have every day is to eat less than 50 grams of carbohydrates, and consume more calories from fat than calories from protein. Normally, when laying out our nutritional and macro plans out, we prioritize protein over all else. But, in a ketogenic diet, you prioritize fat first.
How a Ketogenic Diet Works
I’m going to come at this from a relatively basic perspective, without throwing too much scientific jargon at you.
So, normally our muscles and brains are powered primarily by glucose. We get glucose primarily from carbohydrates, although our body can also create glucose through breaking down protein, or by releasing stored glucose in our muscles. When you go on a keto diet, you are striving to put your diet into a ketogenic state. In a ketogenic state, your body basically changes the way it runs, and the type of fuel it uses. Instead of running off glucose, your body instead adapts to run off of ketones, which are synthesized from fat, instead of protein and carbohydrates.
These ketones are capable of providing fuel to both your muscles and your brain just like glucose. In fact, in some cases your brain runs better on ketones, which is why the ketogenic diet was originally devised as a form of treatment for epilepsy patients. Which leads into…
So what’s the purpose of a keto diet?
In addition to the epilepsy-stopping abilities of the keto diet, it’s also got an important element to look at from a fitness perspective: it makes your body prefer fat as a fuel source. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this…
Because your body prioritizes fat over glucose, it will be reluctant to convert protein to glucose once you’re in a ketogenic state, as long as you’re getting enough dietary fat. It will also be reluctant to break down muscle fibers to use as fuel, which is also something that can happen on a standard deficit if you’re not getting enough protein and muscle stimulation.
This means that, even on a caloric deficit, your muscles are effectively “insulated” against your body “eating” them, meaning you lose very little muscle mass.
Additionally, fat is very good at inducing satiety, meaning it helps you feel full better than protein or carbohydrates. This is why a plate of bacon and eggs can keep a person going all day sometimes, but you’re hungry an hour after you eat a plate of chinese food (with its huge mounds of white rice.) This means that while on a ketogenic diet, even if you’re on a caloric deficit, you have a tendency to feel less hungry. This can make it a lot easier to stick to your caloric limit for the day.
Plus you can eat a whole lot of bacon.
Alright, sign me up! Wait…what are the drawbacks?
Well, I’m glad you asked! It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, as awesome as a keto diet sounds.
First off, there’s health and safety. A ketogenic diet is a pretty extreme dietary shift, and it can put serious stress on your liver and kidneys if you don’t do it properly. If you’re diabetic or at risk for diabetes there’s risk of ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis is ketosis’s big bad brother, and it will straight up kill you dead. Seriously.
If you’re diabetic or at risk for diabetes, I wouldn’t even consider a ketogenic diet. Even if you aren’t, I’d recommend you talk to your doctor and also potentially a registered dietician before making such a shift in your diet.
Now, let’s say you do that, and you switch to keto. The first week is going to suck. Your body is going to wonder what the heck happened to its steady supply of brain sugar. Your muscles will feel fatigued, you’ll be tired, you’ll probably get headaches…a lot of people have described the first week of a ketogenic diet like having the flu. Having just gone through it myself, I concur.
Once you’re past that phase, you’re going to start feeling great, assuming you’ve balanced your macros well. However, you’re also going to still find yourself missing carbohydrates. It’s difficult to eat out sometimes, and although I can have plenty of leafy greens and cruciferous veggies, I find myself really craving cake, and ice cream. It sounds trivial, but honestly it gets a little old.
Finally, there’s transitioning off. Unless you are actually epileptic and you’re on a keto diet to treat that, you’re probably not going to “go keto” forever. Once you’re coming off, you’re going to get hit with the keto flu all over again, albeit not as badly.
Finally, there’s physical performance issues to consider. Ketones are great brain fuel, but they are not as great for your muscles. For some activities, you don’t notice, but your performance in high intensity and anaerobic activities like sprinting, martial arts, and other similar events are going to suffer. As such, it’s not a great idea for any athletes that engage in sports along those lines. I’m honestly a little nervous because I’m utilizing this diet to cut down for a judo tournament, but the diet itself will probably have a bit of a negative impact on my performance.
So how’d it work for me?
Well, utilizing a HUGE caloric deficit (~1200/day) and a ketogenic diet plan I’ve gone from 193.2 to 182.9 lbs in a little over two weeks (October 22nd-November 9th.) Now, I want to stress, this is not a healthy long term diet plan, and I’m not going to be continuing that massive deficit OR the keto diet beyond this Saturday, the 12th. But, I found myself in kind of a crappy position due to my own poor planning towards the end of October, and needed to cut a massive amount of weight before my tournament this Saturday. I don’t think I could have managed it without the ketogenic diet (at least not without losing a lot of muscle in the process.)
If you’re interested, I’m going to be going over this cut and how I’ve felt about it in this week’s Going Superhuman episode, including side-by-side before and after pictures (comparing me in February to me today.) I’m also going to go over what’s been the negative stressor occupying my time for the blog/channel, now that it’s FINALLY over and done with. That video will be going up on the YouTube channel later today, so go subscribe if you haven’t already!
We’ll be back again on Monday with a new character, so I’ll see you then! Live boldly, change the world, and continue to be awesome!
Dan “DaRatmastah” Wallace
pile of bacon card from https://mtgcardsmith.com/view/pile-of-bacon?list=user