Many people have heard about the Ketogenic Diet, but did you know it is a viable solution for athletes as well?
The Ketogenic Diet is based around the principle of eating a very low amount of carbohydrates, and a very high amount of protein and healthy dietary fat, which puts your body in a state of “ketosis.”
The Ketogenic Diet also often advocates for not always eating breakfast, which is also consistent with the diet strategy intermittent fasting. Further recommendations for those people on the keto meal plan include drinking lots of fluids and keeping your salt intake stable.
The Ketogenic Diet has been gaining popularity over the past couple of years, and it is an effective way for many people to lose weight. In fact, the very low carb Ketogenic Diet has shown to be able to maintain muscle mass and strength while promoting rapid weight loss (Casanueva et al., 2020).
Furthermore, according to a study published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine,
“In conclusion, moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise experiences no decrement following adaptation to a Ketogenic Diet.”
However, the same study also stated,
“Decreases in exercise economy are observed >70% VO2max in trained endurance athletes which may negate performance within field settings.”
Many athletes shy away from it because of the concern it will reduce their performance and ability to exercise properly. After all, the human body does require regular carbohydrate consumption as a primary source of fuel.
So, can we maintain our muscle gains and athletic performance ability while being on an extremely low-carb diet?
Although it seems challenging, it’s completely possible!
There are many ways to get the energy you need for working out without compromising your Ketogenic Diet, even if you are a professional athlete!
The Ketogenic Diet can help athletes get an aesthetic physique and maintain their athletic function.
Keep reading below to find out the best way to exercise while in ketosis and how to use the Ketogenic Diet as an athlete.
Is the Ketogenic Diet Safe for Athletes?
To examine whether or not the Ketogenic Diet is safe for athletes, let’s look at a study (Nolan, Rush, Kaye, 2019) that was done on a 37 year of cyclist with Type 1 Diabetes who used the Ketogenic Diet to prepare for a 20 day, 4011km bike ride.
Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body does not naturally produce the required amount of insulin, forcing the individual to remain dependent on external insulin sources, as well as strictly manage their glucose intake. For the four years preceding the bicycle ride, the man maintained a very-low-carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet, where he consumed less than 25-30 grams of carbohydrates per day.
The bicycle ride itself was completed without any rest days, and certain days included over 250 km of riding. Ten days into the ride, the man experienced one episode of hypoglycemia, in which he interrupted his ride to administer carbohydrates to himself. During the ride, the average deviation of his blood glucose level was only 2.1 mmol/l, and he only spent 4.9% of the time with a blood glucose level above 10 mmol/l.
Although more research needs to be conducted with more controlled experiments, such as how quickly this diet can make positive effects on controlling glycemic variability for active people, these results demonstrate that a very low carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet can be useful for active people, specifically, those who are looking to control their blood sugar levels.
Furthermore, the validity of high-protein, low carb diets has been examined in numerous other ways as well. According to a study published in Nutrition Reviews,
“In short-term studies, dietary protein modulates energy intake via the sensation of satiety and increases total energy expenditure by increasing the thermic effect of feeding. Whereas these effects did not contribute to weight and fat loss in those studies in which energy intake was fixed, one ad libitum study does suggest that a high-protein diet results in a greater decrease in energy intake, and therefore greater weight and fat loss.
Additionally, according to a 2008 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,
“In the short term, high-protein, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diets reduce hunger and lower food intake significantly more than do high-protein, medium-carbohydrate nonketogenic diets.”
Negatives of the Keto Diet for Athletes
The main negative of the Keto Diet for athletes is that carbohydrates are an important fuel source for the body and healthy carbohydrates provide valuable micronutrients.
Carbohydrates are an essential nutrient because they provided the simplest form of energy for the human body. Carbohydrates are easily converted to glucose, which is the primary energy source for the brain and provides energy for daily functions.
Additionally, when limiting carbohydrates, not only are you limiting the intake of readily used energy, but you are also limiting the intake of valuable vitamins and minerals, along with fiber and phytochemicals that are found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
If you are an athlete who decides to use the Ketogenic Diet, you are sacrificing both the efficient fuel source and the micronutrients from healthy carbohydrates.
Additionally, another main concern I have with the low carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet is that it does not adequately fit the lifestyle of most people. Comparatively, the Mediterranean Diet has also shown to be effective for helping with weight loss, improving glucose control, becoming healthier, and it has shown to be sustainable for a lifetime (Bolla, Caretto, Laurenzi, Scavini, & Piemonti, 2019).
If you are an athlete considering using the Keto Diet, it is important to understand the reason you want to use this diet strategy.
For those whose primary goal is rapid, short term weight loss, I believe that the lower end of the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) is a viable option, especially for those who are confident with their ability to maintain a specific set of diet parameters. For carbohydrates, the AMDR is 45-65% of daily total nutrient intake.
So, I would consider around 40-50% on the lower end.
In general, I believe that any low carb diet for weight loss is more viable for those who have sedentary jobs and are not as physically active.
Contrarily, I believe those who are more physically active benefit more from the higher end of the AMDR range for carbohydrate intake since as physical activity or exercise increases, the body relies more on carbohydrates for its predominant fuel source (Murray & Rosenbloom, 2018).
However, that doesn’t mean that athletes cannot use the Ketogenic Diet!
How to Get into Ketosis for Athletes
The Ketogenic Diet works by putting your body into a state of “ketosis,” where the body begins to use body fat as a fuel source. However, you should be aware the body may also use lean muscle mass for a fuel source as well. Furthermore, you should be aware that although you may appear to burn body fat very rapidly, if you do not maintain a healthy amount of energy and nutrient intake, this weight loss will be accompanied by severe fatigue and you will not be able to maintain the diet.
When you are in a state of “ketosis,” the body produces ketone bodies through the conversion of fatty acids from body fat and the compound acetyl CoA (acetyl coenzyme A). These ketones become your primary fuel source while you are on a Ketogenic Diet.
Achieving a state of ketosis takes a lot of planning and focus, especially as an athlete, because otherwise, it can lead to significant health problems.
Here are some tips that can help you get into ketosis properly:
Lower You Carb Consumption:
The most crucial factor in achieving ketosis is reducing your intake of carbohydrates significantly. Under normal circumstances, your body will choose glucose as its primary source of energy.
Your body normally stores glucose in the form of glycogen in your muscles and liver, but when you reduce your daily intake of carbohydrates, this stored glycogen level depletes. As a result, the body must find another fuel source.
Most Ketogenic Diets advise a maximum of 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. In the study I previously mentioned, the cyclist consumed only 25-30 grams of carbohydrates per day and was able to function at a high level. You should reduce your carbohydrate intake gradually, so you do not shock your body too much.
Increase Your Protein and Healthy Dietary Fat Intake:
If you are going to lower your carbohydrate significantly to get into ketosis, you still need to provide yourself with ample nutrition through the forms of healthy dietary fats and protein. According to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, additional benefits of high-protein intake include:
- Increased Satiety—protein generally increases satiety to a greater extent than carbohydrate or fat and may facilitate a reduction in energy consumption under ad libitum dietary conditions
- Increased Thermogenesis—higher-protein diets are associated with increased thermogenesis, which also influences satiety and augments energy expenditure
- Maintenance or accretion of fat-free mass
One of the problems of very low carbohydrate Ketogenic Diets is that you will likely end up consuming a lot of animal protein sources, instead of vegan protein sources. If you are going to eat a high protein diet, avoid red meat as much as possible. Red meat contains high amounts of saturated fat, which is a significant risk factor for heart disease.
You should attempt to eat as many unsaturated fats as possible, so foods such as salmon become an outstanding choice.
How to Exercise When You’re In Ketosis
If you’re interested in the Ketogenic Diet as an athlete, it is likely that you also want to know how to exercise while in ketosis before beginning the diet.
Even for non-athletes, one of the most common keto diet mistakes is foregoing physical activity. You don’t need to quit exercising just because you are on a low-carb diet. However, you may need to modify your workout routine until your body adapts to the reduced carbohydrate intake.
Exercising, even when in ketosis, has many health benefits. Exercising while in ketosis will help you to burn more calories while also maintaining muscle mass.
If you are an athlete and interested in the Ketogenic Diet (for weight loss or other reasons), controlling the timing and type of carbohydrates you eat is the key to successfully training well in ketosis.
The Targeted Keto Diet for Athletes
A targeted Ketogenic Diet is recommended for those who do moderate amounts of exercise daily.
The targeted Ketogenic Diet involves the dieter consuming 25 to 50 grams of carbohydrates right before their workout, fueling their muscles for the duration of their training session.
I recommend that you consume something high in carbohydrates approximately one-hour before working out for the best results.
Not only do you want to consume a large number of carbs at this time, but you need to be wise about the carbs you choose as well. The best option is to consume complex carbohydrates which will provide energy for the longest amount of time possible.
The Cyclical Keto Diet for Athletes
For those who do very high-intensity workouts daily, the cyclical keto diet is best for you.
The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet involves having one or two full days of high-carbohydrate consumption (refeeding days) throughout your week. Through doing this, you’ll be able to refill those muscle and glycogen stores for better energy overall!
You will be out of ketosis temporarily, but this is the best option to ensure maximal performance.
Even though you can consume a lot of carbohydrates overall, focus on lower-glycemic-index foods for better health and results. When re-entering ketosis, use this easy method after the refeeding days:
- Day 1: Don’t eat anything after 6 PM
- Day 2: Exercise (High-Intensity) and take in a very limited amount of carbohydrates
- Day 3: Exercise (moderate-intensity) and go back to a normal Ketogenic Diet
The Best Keto-Friendly Foods for Athletes
If you’re an athlete looking to use the ketogenic diet, there are many keto-friendly foods that are delicious and nutritious. However, you have to be careful because doing a low-carb Ketogenic Diet means you will be consuming a high-fat diet. As you decrease the number of carbohydrates you are consuming, you will need to increase your dietary fat consumption to provide enough total calories for your body.
The consumption of dietary fats (lipids) is a critical component of any healthy diet strategy; however, the type, quantity, and quality of dietary fat that is consumed is vitally important.
Fats are a unique fuel source for the body because, unlike carbohydrates and proteins, fats cannot be converted to glucose.
Although fats are a viable energy source for the body, they cannot easily supply energy to the brain or nervous system, which depends on glucose as a fuel source.
Furthermore, almost all of the excess fat that is consumed by the body is stored as fat, unlike protein and carbohydrates. However, although unhealthy dietary fats (saturated fat and trans fat) has significant negative health implications, eating unsaturated fats provides numerous positives for overall health.
Saturated fats have been linked to increased LDL cholesterol, which is a prominent risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Furthermore, since dietary fat contains the most calories per gram, and understanding excess dietary fat is easily converted to body fat, a diet high in fat can easily contribute to weight gain due to exceeding energy requirements.
Contrarily, adding unsaturated fats to the diet instead of saturated fats has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol, therefore lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, omega-3 fatty acids have shown that they may protect against some cancers through their ability to reduce inflammation in the body, which also reduces other inflammation-based health problems such as asthma.
Unsaturated fats are an efficient fuel source for the body and should be consumed instead of saturated fats as they reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and can provide other health benefits for the body when calorie limits are not exceeded.
Now that you understand why you will be consuming mainly protein and dietary fats, let’s look at some of the best Ketogenic Diet foods for athletes:
Shellfish and fish are well endowed with nutrients such as vitamins, selenium, and potassium, along with protein and healthy dietary fats. On the other hand, shellfish and fish have either no carb content or little levels of carb content. As asserted by Eco Watch, all species of freshwater fish and marine water fish do not have any carb content.
Also, crustaceans such as clams, squids, oysters, and mussels have little levels of carbohydrates. Shrimps have no carb content.
Shellfish and fish have higher levels of omega-three fats.
Therefore, make sure that you incorporate seafood into your diet at least two to three times each week.
Vegetables such as spinach and kale, cauliflower, and broccoli have lower levels of carbohydrates. Also, these vegetables have high levels of vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, and minerals.
Therefore, non-starchy vegetables should form part of your everyday Ketogenic Diet. These vegetables can act as excellent substitutes for foods rich in carbohydrates.
For instance; you can have cauliflower instead of rice or mashed potatoes, and spaghetti squash instead of traditional spaghetti.
Olives are rich in antioxidants. Oleuropein is the primary type of antioxidant in olives. This antioxidant helps to reduce blood pressure. It will also prevent you from losing bone mass.
Olives generally have a low carb content. However, their carb content varies since they come in different sizes. A one-ounce serving of olives will have a carb content of two grams and a fiber content of one gram. Therefore, olives are keto-friendly.
Cheese contains little levels of carbohydrates and higher levels of fat. Due to this, cheese is keto-friendly.
Cheese also contains conjugated linoleic acid, a nutrient that will help you to strengthen your bones and muscles. However, be careful not to consume too much saturated fat from cheese.
One half of a medium-sized avocado contains about two grams of net carb content. Due to their lower levels of carbohydrates, avocados are keto-friendly.
Avocados contain a variety of vitamins and minerals, while also containing high amounts of healthy dietary fats and protein.
Seeds and Nuts
Seeds and nuts such as almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios, chia seeds, and walnuts are keto-friendly because they have a high-fat content, moderate amounts of protein, and a low carb content.
When you frequently incorporate seeds and nuts into your diet, you lower the chances of suffering from heart disease, depression, and cancer. Seeds and nuts also have a high fiber content.
You can read more about low-carb nuts and seeds here.
Poultry and Meat
If you are on a ketogenic diet, then poultry and meat are important because they have no carbohydrate content. However, they contain many vital vitamins and minerals, along with high levels of proteins. The most prevalent types of minerals found in poultry and meat include potassium, zinc, and selenium.
The healthiest type of red meat is grass-fed meat. This type of meat is higher in omega-three fats, antioxidants, and conjugated linoleic acid. These nutrients will help in the reduction of your blood pressure levels.
Choose white meat, instead of red meat, when possible.
What is MCT oil, you ask? MCT stands for Medium Chain Triglycerides, which are comprised of medium-chain fatty acids.
MCT oil is particularly advantageous because it is easy for the body to digest and absorb as energy. Unlike other fats, MCTs do not need bile or other pancreatic enzymes to help break them down.
Instead, they are smaller in size so they are readily absorbed by the small intestine and transported to the liver, where they are converted into ketones.
This means that MCTs are easily used by the body for fuel rather than being stored as fat.
MCT oil has anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties so it is helpful in maintaining optimal gut health by eliminating harmful gut bacteria.
One tablespoon of coconut oil consists of about 60% medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) whereas the remaining 40% is made up of other fats.
MCT Oil is the perfect supplement for adding with your smoothies, coffee, tea, and protein shakes.
You can visit KetoaHolics for getting your hands on the best version of MCT Oil available.
The benefits of MCT Oil and Coconut Oil are both impressive, and you can freely use whichever you desire if you are on the ketogenic diet.
The Best Keto Supplements for Athletes
As an athlete using the ketogenic diet, you may want to take advantage of the benefits of keto supplements. If you are going to purchase keto supplements, there are a variety of options.
One of the primary supplements for athletes doing the Ketogenic Diet is fish oil. However, although I do believe fish oil supplements are one of the best supplements for weight loss and muscle gain when you carefully research which supplements to choose, there are risks.
Dietary supplements are not regulated, and it has been shown that fish oil supplements likely do not contain the number of fatty acids and beneficial effects that their label describes (Albert et al., 2015). Furthermore, the processing necessary for Omega-3 fatty acid supplements may even induce lipid oxidization, which would interfere with the potential positive effect of the supplement itself (Mason & Sherratt, 2017).
Personally, I suggest Utzy Naturals U-Omega as a quality fish oil supplement you can trust:
Perfect Keto Supplements
However, Perfect Keto may be the best option.
Perfect Keto is made from 100 percent grass-fed collagen peptides. They’re derived from cattle raised in the United States and only have real ingredients. That means nothing artificial, no chemicals, and no binding agents.
An important element of your meal replacement supplement is protein, even though high-fat and low-carb is the focus. Perfect Keto is, in fact, perfect for this scenario since all shakes from Perfect Keto includes a two-to-one ratio of grass-fed collagen protein to MCT.
That allows for your body to enjoy an immediate boost of energy while absorbing premium protein and undergoing an increase in ketone levels.
Every time you enjoy a serving of Perfect Keto, you’ll be taking in five grams of pure MCT oil powder.
If you want to buy some, you can purchase Perfect Keto supplements on Amazon.
Concluding Thoughts – Is the Ketogenic Diet Good for Athletes?
Athletes can use a ketogenic diet for several benefits, including rapid, short-term weight loss and improved insulin resistance. However, there are negative aspects of the ketogenic diets for athletes, such as the difficulty of long-term maintenance and increased triglyceride levels (Mooradian, 2020).
Whether you are going to pack a keto lunch for work each day on your cyclical Keto Diet or maintain a rigorous targeted Keto Diet, adding the Ketogenic Diet to your life is an effective way for athletes to improve their health and body composition when done properly.
However, there are many risks associated with trying to do a low-carb Ketogenic Diet. Carbohydrates provide the necessary fuel for your entire body, and they provide many valuable nutrients that you cannot get from other foods.
If you would like to try restricting your carbohydrate intake to lose weight, you should first remember that the essence of weight loss is calories in vs calories out. Regardless of how many carbohydrates you are consuming, if you are in a calorie deficit each day (consuming fewer calories than you are burning) you will lose weight.
Therefore, your goal, if you are trying to lose weight or improve your body composition, should be to find the type of diet you can maintain that allows you to have a healthy calorie deficit day after day.
Instead of focusing on keeping a very low-carb Ketogenic Diet, I would first suggest using a moderately-low carb diet (around 40-50% AMDR of carbohydrates per day), while choosing nutrient-dense carbohydrates. I don’t suggest a low-carb Keto Diet for athletes mainly because it is difficult to fit into your lifestyle, and it is likely that you will feel depleted and tired.
A well-balanced diet that consists of a wide variety of whole, unprocessed plant foods, healthy fats, and lean protein that provides plenty of nutrients and helps athletes stay in a small yet significant calorie deficit per day is the healthiest dietary approach to long-term body composition improvements. If an athlete is particularly worried about carbohydrate intake, I would additionally address the significance of reducing highly processed carbohydrates and added sugar consumption and replacing these foods with whole, unprocessed carbohydrate sources such as fruits and vegetables (Mooradian, 2020).
However, through the right type of food choices and proper carbohydrate consumption and timing, you’ll be able to reach your goals for both overall health and athletic performance with the Ketogenic Diet for athletes.
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