Lately there has been an influx of people interested in the ketogenic diet. If you are unfamiliar with this approach, it basically means you starve yourself (pun absolutely intended) of carbohydrates (less than 20g/day), to the point where your body flips on a protective mechanism to preserve the brain and supply it energy.
At super low levels of carbohydrate intake, in times of starvation, or if you are unable to process blood glucose because you have diabetes (and have not had insulin), the brain needs a source of fuel. It does this by breaking down fat in the body and supplying your brain with ketones. This protects your brain and keeps it performing optimally, especially those times of dire need. Ketones can keep you alive for a little bit, but ketoacidosis can also kill you.
So why are we talking about this? Well, to be honest, I’m almost 100 percent sure you have heard of ketosis. There are many “gurus” out there who are talking about this approach, and trying to help people through this approach. The problem is, this type of methodology bastardizes carbohydrates as a whole: meaning they exclude things like sweet potatoes or whole fruits. Along with many of these foods, you are also losing a ton of nutrients through vitamins and minerals. Why is that important? Well, if we are trying to optimize the way we look and feel, depriving ourselves of vitamins and minerals is not going to help our metabolic processes succeed.
From the energy supply standpoint, ketosis can work *** depending on what you are doing in the gym. If you are staying aerobic and low intensity enough, then yeah, it can work. However, take into account how we specifically train at our gym. Much of what we do in the gym is highly anaerobic- meaning it needs glycogen to get the engine going. So without those sources, you can’t push your intensity beyond what your body can efficiently get energy through the system. To me, that’s completely limiting your potential. So, imagine yourself on a long run and then you get to a long hill. Your HR starts to climb but your energy efficiency stays put. That means you can’t keep up your pace, and will have to slow down. You won’t have a choice. Here is the problem with that. You can’t diet your way to building muscle. If you want to be healthy, feel good, and look good, you need to build muscle. Muscle takes hard work to build. By going Keto, you are making it even harder, or close to impossible, to build muscle.
Aside from that, carbohydrates are not the devil. When the hell did bananas and apples become “too sugary.” There is one ingredient in a potato, yet we are willing to remove these items and replace them with greens powder, bars, protein powders, and shove unnecessary pills down our throats. We just have to have the perspective that says what we are willing to accept. And from that standpoint, it’s just flawed logic. Three servings of fruit are not going to make you fat. Collectively choosing poor foods will.
Why are carbs actually important for fat loss? Muscle tissue. We don’t need huge amounts of them, but we need them to store that glycogen we’ve been talking about. As we strength train, we create microtrauma, and then the inflammatory process happens. To rebuild, and repair, and create new muscle tissue, we need a steady supply of amino acids (protein), and carbohydrates to store in the muscle. So with more muscle tissue, we are more metabolically active at rest. This helps us maintain our weight, and burn more calories at rest.
Intakes like the ones in ketosis have been shown to reduce the active muscle on our body (muscle wasting), which defeats the purpose long term (See Tinsley and Willoghby, 2016). Less muscle, slower metabolism. This can be debated, but at the end of the day, you have to take into account you, your goals, and streamlining the process for results. I also recognize the value in personal preference, but I’m sorry, just because you can eat bacon and chicken wings and still be in ketosis, doesn’t make it healthier.
So, to wrap up- carbs will always be the king for high performance. You don’t need to be on the high end of the spectrum, but they are there for a reason. For building muscle and overall performance, keto is not a great fit with hard training. Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, is how smart we think we are. We think we know a lot about nutrition, but in reality we are just getting started. Your body is smarter than you. It will protect a joint by tightening a muscle when the joint is hurt. It goes into ketosis when you haven’t eaten enough of an energy supply for the brain. It will also tone down your metabolic rate when you sit on the couch all day.
Guys. Don’t make things more complex than they need to be. Fruits and whole food carb sources are great ways to get nutrients, fiber, and supply energy, so you can crush your workouts. Feel free to experiment, but be willing to face the consequences and see the results.
Tinsley, G.M. & Willoughby, D.S. Fat-Free Mass Changes During Ketogenic Diets and the Potential Role of Resistance Training. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2016, 26, 78-92. http://dx.doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2015-0070