The keto diet (also known as the ketogenic diet) is well known for being low in carbohydrates. Keto is a state in which the body produces ketones in the liver, which are then used for energy. The keto diet can also be known as a low carb diet, low carb high fat (LCHF), or any diet that limits carbohydrates to a low level (typically lower than 30 grams of carbs).

keto diet

When you’re on the keto diet, because it’s lower in carbohydrates, most of your calories come from fats and protein to fuel the body.

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When you ingest carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into the simplest molecule possible, glucose. This molecule forces your body to produce insulin. Insulin transports carbs across membranes to either be used directly as energy or to be stored for later use (either in fat or muscle/liver glycogen). Glucose is the easiest molecule for your body to convert into and use for energy at any given time. Glucose will be the first thing chosen to use for an energy source.

Insulin is produced to process the glucose in your bloodstream, to transport it around your body, and to store it where necessary. When your body is using glycogen or glucose as its main energy source, your body will not need to burn fat. It’s therefore more likely that your body will store fat so it can be used at a later point in time when your energy (glycogen) levels are low. So, when you’re on a higher carbohydrate diet, your body will use glycogen as its main energy source.

However, when you lower your carb intake, your body is pushed into ketosis. Keto is a natural process which we rely on when our food intake is low for an extended period of time. It helps us continue to thrive. While in ketosis, your body produces ketones from breaking down fats in your liver. This is how your body continues to produce energy to fuel your body’s demands.

The ultimate goal behind adopting a keto diet is forcing your body into this metabolic state in which it produces ketones. YOU ARE NOT STARVING YOUR BODY. You are simply limiting your body’s consumption of carbohydrates and replacing it with dietary fats and proteins. Our bodies have evolved to be able to perform normal daily functions without carbohydrates. When we saturate our body with fats and proteins, they burn ketones as their main energy source.

keto diet

Most people typically consume high quantities of carbohydrates on a daily basis. Our bodies are used to the routine of the breakdown of carbohydrates to use them for energy. However, our bodies have only a few enzymes to deal with fats. Primarily fats are stored for energy. The constant buildup of fats stored for energy is what leads to fat gain and, eventually, obesity. So once our bodies encounter a lack of glycogen, a lower consumption of carbohydrates to break down into glucose, and an increase in fat intake, they adjust by building up a new supply of these enzymes.

As your body begins to enter a ketogenic state, it will use the glycogen that is left. Eventually your muscles and liver will be depleted of glycogen. This depletion can lead to a lack of energy, a lethargic feeling, dizziness, headaches, and sometimes even “flu-like” symptoms.

It’s not entirely clear what exactly causes these feelings but it’s believed to be the lack of electrolytes (which are flushed out). Carbohydrates help bring fluid to your muscles and the ratio of water to carbohydrates is roughly 4:1 (in grams). This is similar to the diuretic effect and explains why, when athletes drop to the weight class below, they decrease their carbohydrate consumption. The decrease in carb consumption lowers their fluid retention and therefore their weight. However, during a ketogenic diet it’s advisable to make your water and sodium intakes higher than normal, to prevent these feelings and to make your first experience of ketosis more enjoyable.

A typical person who starts a ketogenic diet and consumes 20-40 grams of net carbs per day takes approximately two weeks to enter keto. If net carbs are dropped to fewer than 15 grams of carbohydrates, the adaption process can be shortened to approximately seven to ten days. The more physical activity you participate in also plays a role. Lifting and performing sprints decreases the adaptation time because your body burns glycogen to fuel those intensive activities.

Some people report a loss of strength or endurance during this phase and once they’ve entered ketosis. This is completely normal. Once you have adapted to this state and your body has become more efficient at using fats for fuel, your performance will begin to rise back to baseline. Many also report that they seem to have more energy throughout the day and are more focused once they have adapted to this ketogenic state.

keto diet

When you opt to start a keto diet, you’ll want to make sure you plan ahead of time. You’ll want to know which foods to have on hand and what you needs to go on your shopping list. You don’t have to have a set “diet” plan where you eat the same meticulously-planned meals every day for months on end. You will soon notice that many of the foods you had eaten in the past will no longer be a staple in your diet.

As I mentioned earlier, you will want to keep your net carbohydrates at between 20 and 40 grams, but to stay below 30 grams would be optimal, as the lower you can keep your net carbs, the better the diet will work.

Let me backtrack, as you might want to know the definition of a net carb.

A net carb is the amount of carbs you ingest minus the fiber. So if you eat some vegetables – let’s say half a cup of steamed green beans – you’ve eaten roughly three grams of fiber and a total of seven grams of carbs.

7 total grams – 3 grams of fiber = 4 net carbs

Since you will limit your carbohydrates, these trace carbs will come from things such as vegetables, nuts, and some dairy products. A good macronutrients intake would be 65-75% fats, 20-30% protein, and 5% or less of carbohydrates. You will want to avoid things like bread, pasta, potatoes, fried items, cereals, beans, legumes, fruit, and of course sweets.

This leaves you with most of your macronutrients coming from things like meats (beef, chicken, fish, pork, bison, seafood, veal, eggs, etc.), green and leafy vegetables, and healthy fats/oils (olive, coconut, macadamia, grass-fed butter, etc.).

As for snacks, some good things to keep on hand would be nuts and nut butters (almond, cashew, sunflower, etc.), cheeses, and protein shakes.

There are a myriad of benefits of the keto diet, including but not limited to:

  • Improved cholesterol due to improved triglyceride and cholesterol levels from arterial buildup
  • Improved focus and energy as insulin spikes and crashes are minimized due to decrease in carbohydrate consumption
  • Improved blood sugar since insulin levels are kept lower
  • Increase in weight loss as the body is burning fat as its primary fuel source, and limiting carbohydrates tends to decrease overall caloric intake
  • Decrease in hunger due to satiety provided by fats and proteins as well as increased vegetable intake
keto diet

As I mentioned earlier, at first on the keto diet you will likely see a decrease in performance when it comes to strength and endurance. However, once you have adapted to ketosis and use fat for energy, strength and endurance should return to normal. The key is to be patient, let your body adjust and see how it naturally reacts. The ability to build muscle will be much more difficult without carbohydrates, but it is still possible. Make sure you keep your protein intake high and that you still eat a surplus of calories. This will require some work but your muscle mass gain should come with less fat gain it would if you were to consume a normal about of carbohydrates.

Research results are mixed when it comes to the true long term effects of the maintenance of a keto diet for strength and performance. Your results will depend on how your body reacts, what you are training for, and how you train. Because glycogen is required for these explosive sports, those who do explosive sports such as weightlifting and sprinting are not likely to benefit as much as the typical gym goer.

To keep things in check, I recommend having a re-feed day every two to four weeks to keep your hormone levels in check and to keep your fuel levels high. Some people (usually naturally lean individuals) can even get away with having a re-feed every week.

There has been a lot of debate about whether or not the keto diet is dangerous. There have been studies that show both good and bad effects. However, the main problem is how to eat a high amount of carbohydrates with high amounts of fats. If you limit carbs with the keto diet, it will not result in the adverse effects that come with high carbohydrate consumption.

Excess carbs are stored as fat. Eating a high amount of carbohydrates, if not kept in check, can lead to fat gain and obesity, as well as lower activity levels. But, again these issues tend to occur when you consume both high amount of carbs and high amounts of fats, not just high amounts of fats like in the keto diet.

Many think the keto diet can lead to kidney issues but this is debatable. If you don’t have a history of kidney disease or dysfunctions, you are less likely to have problems. However, you should always check with a physician prior to starting a keto diet.

All in all, if you eat fewer carbohydrates and increase your fat and protein intake, it can have a positive impact on your health through improvements in your blood sugar and cholesterol levels and by a decrease in your body weight.

Once you get the hang of a low carb style of eating, things tend to become easier and you’re likely to see some impressive results. Please check with your physican prior to starting any dietary protocol and if you have prior kidney issues or are type I diabetic, I would advise you not follow a ketogenic diet.

Brandon Smitley is a strength coach and personal trainer from Indiana. Brandon is currently attending Indiana State University where he is obtaining his Master’s degree in coaching. Brandon graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor’s degree in Health and Fitness. Brandon was named the 2011 Personal Trainer of the Year. He has worked with multiple Division I athletes, youth athletes in various sports, and even grandparents and regular weekend warriors. Brandon has competed in multiple disciplines such as wrestling, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and Olympic lifting. He holds the 4th highest raw squat and total at 132-lbs. with best lifts including a 501-lb squat, 303-lb bench, 501-lb deadlift, and 1306-lb total. He was invited to train at the notorious Westside Barbell with Louie Simmons but is currently being sponsored by the best company in the industry, EliteFTS. Brandon is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), and USAW Sports Performance Level 1 Coach (USAW).

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