Keto or Not?
Ketosis, or “keto”, is the big thing right now. The dieting ecosystem goes through phases – carb cycling, low fat, ketosis, various cleanses, “gluten-free” – and at the moment, ketosis seems to be the king of the hill in fitness circles. BHB salts are huge in the supplement game right now as well, with many companies coming out with innovative and industry-leading ketone salt supplements to assist with getting you into and maintaining a ketogenic state.
That being said, there are a few things that need to be addressed.
Is your diet conducive to inducing a ketogenic state?
Is ketosis a worthwhile metabolic state for performance, muscle gain, or fat loss?
Is the rigidity of the diet worth the results?
Your Diet May Not Be Keto
Low-carb dieting on its own is not conducive to ketosis; a “bodybuilder keto” diet, which supplies ample protein and fats while putting a miniscule cap on carbohydrate intake, will never tune your metabolism to tap into lipid stores to generate ketones. The underlying factor behind this is gluconeogenesis, a metabolic process that allows the body to convert amino acids (from protein intake) into glucose. If protein intake remains (too) high, your body will simply convert that protein into simple carbohydrates for fuel, and the “metabolic switch” that forces your body to utilize ketones as fuel will never be tripped.
A true ketogenic diet’s requirements vary from individual to individual, but as a rough guideline protein intake should never exceed 20% of your total caloric intake.
As expected, carbohydrates should remain low as well, with no more than 5-7% of your calories coming from carbs. The rest of your calories should come from fats – oils, butters, avocados, egg yolks. Unfortunately, this leaves individuals with a fairly short list of foods that are suitable for a ketogenic diet.
Ketosis is Not Necessarily Conducive to High-Intensity Performance
As athletes, when one weighs the pros and cons of hopping headfirst into keto, one must factor in the diet’s impact on performance. A 2014 study of cyclists aged 28-32 years, who competed in off-road cycling with a training experience of at least 5 years and a minimal VO2max of 55 mL/kg/min, led to a simple conclusion:
While ketosis did indeed increase long-term endurance (based upon sessions that lasted roughly two hours), it drastically decreased short-term high intensity performance. The ketone-adapated athletes also experience a significantly lower level of muscle damage from lactic acid, leading to quicker recovery between sessions
Thus each athlete must consider their performance goals – endurance athletes would fare quite favorably when utilizing a ketogenic approach to dieting, while strength and explosive athletes would be better off utilizing a traditional dieting method that incorporates an adequate amount of carbohydrates.
Ketosis Has No Advantage in Regards to Body Composition
The main driving factor behind adopting a ketogenic deit, for most individuals, is the belief that it will assist in recomposition and/or muscle preservation.
Another 2014 study of twenty six college-aged, resistance trained men showed that ketosis, on its own, had no impact whatsoever on hypertrophy or muscle retention. On the contrary, a CYCLICAL Ketogenic Diet (carb cycling, in which one would have a carb-laden feeding period once a week) showed favorable increases in both muscle mass and fat loss. Ultrasound scans determined that muscle mass increased to a greater extent in the CKD (cyclical ketogenic diet) group (0.25cm) as compared to the traditional western group (roughly 0cm, inconsequential). Fat mass decreased to a greater extent in the CKD group (1kg) as compared to the (0 kg, inconsequential).
With that in mind, ketosis is not conducive to any advantage in body composition. A cyclical ketogenic diet, on the other hand, could be quite advantageous.
Is it worth it?
Ultimately, the effectiveness of a diet on paper is worth nothing if you can’t adhere to it; and a true ketogenic diet is about as hard to adhere to as it gets. Even with the plethora of ingenious “keto-friendly” recipes available online, you still have to fit them into the stringent macronutrient guidelines, rendering the majority of them fairly useless.
Ultimately, it’s down to YOU. Though ketosis may not be the best diet path for many, some find the increased mental clarity, endurance, and steady energy levels to be more than enough benefit to justify it. Weigh the pros and cons, give it a try, and see if it works for you – there’s no harm in trying!
Jared Boynton holds a degree in Biochemistry from the University of Tennessee, and is an internet-based performance and conditioning coach and the owner of Genomax Performance Coaching. His experience has been accrued through years of real-world implementation with both his own physique and the physiques of numerous clients. You can contact Jared via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his website, www.GenomaxCoaching.com.
Jacob T Rauch et. al “The effects of ketogenic dieting on skeletal muscle and fat mass”, J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014; 11(Suppl 1): P40.
Adam Zajac et. al “The Effects of a Ketogenic Diet on Exercise Metabolism and Physical Performance in Off-Road Cyclists.”, Nutrients. 2014 Jul; 6(7): 2493–2508.
Stephen D Phinney “Ketogenic diets and physical performance”, Nutr Metab (Lond). 2004; 1: 2.