When and How To Effectively Use A Ketogenic Diet

Chad Kirkham

is the Owner of The Warrior Path, MAP Fitness, and is Head of Strength & Conditioning at MAS Thaiboxing. Chad has devoted years to the study of maximizing performance and health for the purpose of making sure our nations military and emergency service personnel are as safe as possible executing their sworn duties.

Ketogenic diets have been developing a huge cult following over the past few years. Currently it is the most popular searched diet on google. This boom in popularity is primarily due to it being pushed by many fitness influencers. Its health benefits may have been exaggerated during the initial frenzied interest in it but as the years have gone by science has finally began to catch up by developing high quality studies, but do they back the claims. As we speak there are close to 140 ongoing studies on ketogenic diets trying to both prove and disprove the diet.

So the question becomes; what is a ketogenic diet, are they safe, when and where are they effective, where are they ineffective and should I go on one? 

What Is A Ketogenic Diet

To start it off lets discuss what a ketogenic diet is. Keotgenic diets is a specific diet which is very high in fat content while also being low in carbohydrates and protein. 

This lack of carbohydrates allows your body to begin to produce ketone bodies from fat molecules breaking down, which your body uses to help to fuel brain function.                            

Typically ketogenic diets require 50 grams of carbohydrates or less per day in order to effectively produce ketone bodies, with roughly 75-95% of their total caloric intake coming from fat sources. This can be very difficult to follow especially for people who have spent years following the traditional american diet which is very fat and carbohydrate rich.

Is It Safe?

If you are thinking that you once you begin to consume this diet and your health will immediately start withering away into sickness, then you are mistaken. You can live a relatively healthy functional life while on a low carbohydrate diet.

Now this doesn't mean its perfect. In fact far from it, there are many known risks associated with ketogenic diets. But in order to see if it will benefit you, you must weight the costs and benefits.            

One key example of this is it has immense benefits for those with epilepsy, both reducing the frequency and the severity. But on the other side there is the chance of ketoacidosis (dangerously high ketone levels) can occur. Ketoacidosis is when too many ketones are being produced and it makes your blood too acidic for your body to process and regulate.

When & Where Is It Effective?

Ketogenic diets primarily are used as a weight loss diet. In this aspect they have had mixed results. There has been some evidence it can be effective in weight loss when the person is unable to control their hunger urges. This is not because of some magical fat burning property of the diet. Instead it is because high amounts of dietary fat can cause nausea and for people who eat until satiation this may cause them to consume fewer calories.

There is some evidence to suggest that on ketogenic diets your body will have a slightly increased ability to metabolize body fat at similar caloric as high carb low fat diets. Based on this evidence there may be a slight increase in fat mass loss while on ketogenic diets but the amounts are fairly insignificant and there is some contention on if this actually occurs or if it is just a poorly made study. 

Another factor is that many of these diets avoid traditional junk food. Junk foods tend to have higher calorie content coming primarily from fat and carbohydrate sources and have a slower rate of satiation which cause most people to over eat. So a reduction in the frequency of these being consumed will assist in weight loss.

One thing to note is that if you decide to go onto a ketogenic diet, this doesn't give you free reign to eat whatever fat laden low carbohydrate food you want. We still have to follow the laws of physics, you still need to manage your energy intake and output. Too many calories will cause weight gain no matter what even if it is keto-friendly food.

There is one main athlete class which may find benefits of being on ketogenic diets, endurance athletes. These athletes have specific metabolic energy systems which utilizes fat as a primary energy source during low intensity long distance events, but this is only beneficial if they train and compete at low enough intensity where carbohydrate metabolization does not occur.

Ketogenic diets may be beneficial to some individuals with food sensitivity issues which cause gastrointestinal distress. Many of these issues are cause by carbohydrate consumption. For these individuals it would make sense to go on ketogenic diet or elimination diet in 90% of situations.

Because this diet allows for the reduction of ATP and water retention it can be beneficial for people and body building athletes to use it intermittently to have the "shredded look". For many people just trying to look good naked this may be a very positive way for you to supplement hard training session to get the look you desire.

Finally the biggest benefit to ketogenic diets are for a specific group of people, epileptics. The consumption of a ketogenic diet has been shown to decrease epileptic episodes in patients who are on anti-epileptic drugs but have persisting epilepsy. 

Where Is It Ineffective?

There are definetly situations where ketogenic diets are effective but there are also many effects that will hinder performance. Some of these effects include:

  • Reduction in time to exhaustion (as high as 47% quicker)
  • Reduced ability to have Metabolic Flexibility (ability to use fat and carbohydrates as an energy source) which is necessary for almost all athletes
  • A worsened ability to digest and utilize carbohydrates. This can be particularly harmful or potentially fully debilitating over a course, selection or field exercise as many of the food sources provided are carbohydrate or milk based (whey protein, bread, crackers, etc)
  • Ketogenic diets can also cause a long term reduction in ATP production. ATP is a chemical form of stored energy which is required for muscular contractions and as an energy source during anaerobic activity. ATP is produced through a variety of system, two of the main ones being the glycolytic system and the Krebs cycle, both of which uses carbohydrate molecules as a means of production.  One thing to note is that ATP is stored in muscles primarily as a fluid, as it decreases we see a slight shift in baseline weight and individuals will start to look "leaner". This is not fat mass loss as many proponents of the diet will claim.
  • Finally the last major downside is a reduced protein intake, this can result in a decreased amount of muscle mass being developed. Over time there is some evidence that this can result in increased rates of catabolism (muscle mass reduction), this is not ideal especially if you are using this diet for better performance capabilities. Most studies have shown an increase in catabolism after about 6 weeks of consuming the diet.

Some Things To Watch Out For When On The Keto-Diet

On this style of diet you need to be extra cautious of the food you are consuming as it can have reduced effectiveness or even complete lack of functionality by consuming a variety of foods and supplements.

 The introduction and slight over consumption of carbs can negatively effect many of benefits associated with ketogenic diets. Such as the food satiation, "lean look" from decreased water retention and ATP, and ketone body productions. Carbohydrates are "hidden" in a variety of everyday foods and even in many that may be considered keto-friendly. One example is cheese, while cheese has a high fat content and in specific quantities it is a ketogenic friendly food source but it also contains lactose, lactase, and other compounds which are carbohydrates. Small amounts of these should not effect the benefits of the diet but if this becomes a staple food for yourself then you will quickly stop being ketogenic. Another example which is a big folly for the common keto-dieter is nut butters. While there are many varieties of nut butter that can be consistently eaten while on a ketogenic diet, most grocery store variants contain added sugar to make it more palatable for the mass market. While delicious this is highly detrimental to the ketogenic diet. Finally are the food recommendations that some promote, they are labelled as keto friendly but even just by glancing at the image you can plainly see more than 50g of carbs. One such example had almost a full plate of rice and beans and a white fish (low in fat) and suggested it was keto friendly.

Exogenous ketones are a common supplement people utilize to help supplement their ketogenic diet and while they can be beneficial to your health they also has a downside. Ketones have a specific metabolic pathway from being released from fat to passing throughout the body. During this process some are released and passed through urine. As such this has become the most common way people test to see if they are in a ketogenic state. But when people utilize exogenous ketone supplements the majority of those ketones arn't passed into the bloodstream and utilized. Instead they are passed into the urine and excreted. This can commonly cause false positives on ketogenic tests and make it so that practitioners may not realize when they are in or out of a ketogenic state.

Finally there is some evidence to suggest that over consumption of protein may cause the body to stop being in a ketogenic state. While this hasn't been definitively proven it should still be taken into account when consuming this diet.

Should I Go On A Ketogenic Diet?

I know this post has been fairly negative towards the ketogenic diet. From the evidence I have observed I just don't see it being as effective as its proponents claim. It definitely has benefits and in general I am ecstatic for it's prevalence, "why" you may ask? Well it has allowed for a whole new wave of people taking control of their health and bettering themselves. That is worth more than all its current known negative consequences. Just because its not perfect or ideal doesn't mean much when it is making us improve.

 For the majority of people, a ketogenic diet is not at all necessary. With proper fitness and nutrition a mixed diet can be significantly more effective than a ketogenic diet for both muscle development, high intensity performance, as well as fat mass reduction. Keto's inflexibility also leads to having some significant issues when trying to have a social life where you may go out for dinner periodically, as its hard to find Keto food at restaurants.

If you are a tactical athlete or looking for high end performance then I would highly recommend against consuming this style of diet. There is no clear evidence showing that it is better or even compares in long term development against a healthy mixed macro nutrient diet. Stick to what is flexible and what has been proven to work for thousands of world class athletes.

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