Here we are. It’s summer now. My unofficial poll has told me that 90% of people procrastinated and are now freaking out about getting into “beach shape.” Naturally, everyone is looking for the “get lean quick scheme.”
This year’s trendy solution is the ketogenic diet. This diet is rarely dangerous, but I don’t recommend it to any of my clients. I’ll get to why.
I know, I know “Alex, it’s summer! Why are you taking us to school?!” If you’re gonna try the whole ketogenic thing, you have to understand how it works.
Remember, I said rarely dangerous, instead of never dangerous.
Ketosis is a naturally occurring state where the body switches its primary energy source from glucose to fat. This can only happen when you’re out of glucose and consuming low amounts of protein.
Glucose is a product of carbohydrates, stored in the cells of skeletal muscle and the liver. Protein is broken down into amino acids during digestion. These amino acids can be converted into a glucose substitute and used as energy through a process called gluconeogenesis. To reach ketosis, both of these resources need to be exhausted.
With no glucose to use for energy, the liver uses fat to create ketones as an energy alternative. Once these are being used as a primary energy source, congratulations, you are officially in ketosis.
The whole process is like when you were a kid and bought a whole Halloween sized bag of Starburst, but hated the yellow ones. You ate everything other piece in the bag before you resorted to that disgusting fake lemon flavor. To your body, the lemon Starburst are ketones, and glucose is every other flavor.
Problems with Ketogenic Diets
Going low carb can be brutal. Carbs are your body’s absolute favorite source of energy (think red Starburst – yum!). Ketogenic dieting can have early side effects including headache, lethargy, irritability, leg cramps, constipation, and heart palpitations.
Sounds fun, right?
Studies conducted on athletes during prolonged ketosis showed a dive in performance. Using fat as a primary energy source is ok for endurance athletes, since aerobic activity runs on fat. Although, none of the endurance athletes showed any improvement in their performance while in a ketogenic state. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t help either.
Non-endurance athletes in the studies showed a steep decline in performance on the diet. Anaerobic activity requires adequate carbs and protein. So any athlete in a sport that requires strength, speed, quickness, or explosive movement (ie: almost all sports) performed significantly worse.
Ketogenic diets are downright dangerous for people with Type 1 Diabetes, and some other conditions that require blood sugar and insulin regulation. With Type 1 Diabetes, ketogenic eating can pass right through ketosis and plunge into ketoacidosis. Symptoms of ketoacidosis include nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, confusion, coma, and eventually death.
Finally, the weight loss research. Thus far, no studies have shown that ketosis produces repeatable and/or prolonged weight loss results. In researching for this article I found a lot of articles that claimed weight loss was a certainty with a ketogenic diet. These article interpreted the research in a sneaky, selective way. Some folks lost weight, but not specifically as a result of ketosis. Their weight loss was because of a hefty calorie deficit due to the insane restrictions of the ketogenic diet.
Calorie deficits always result in weight loss.
When Ketosis Is Beneficial
Ketogenic diets have shown benefit in cases of specific metabolic diseases, neurodegeneration, and some brain injuries. The two most common are as treatment for Alzheimer’s and epilepsy.
To avoid mind-numbing detail on something outside my scope of practice, here is the punchline:
If you are using ketogenic nutrition to treat a specific condition
- talk to your doctor
- make sure this treatment has been successful before
- have your transition to a ketogenic diet supervised by a pro
- know how to measure whether it yields results
If you’re on a ketogenic diet and it shows no effect on the ailment you’re trying to treat, there’s no reason to stay on the diet.
Bodybuilding Final Cutting Phase:
The other beneficial use is in the weeks leading up to a bodybuilding show. To lose as much body fat as possible, a bodybuilder’s carb intake will dip as low as possible while still supporting required activity.
How to Go Keto
If you want to try it anyway, here’s how you do it.
Here’s the common misconception: a high fat diet doesn’t mean you can eat whatever garbage you want. You’ll still have a heart attack and die if all you eat is bacon.
In practice, ketogenic dieting is one of the most restrictive eating plans you can follow. Macronutrient (carbs, fat, protein) ratios for a ketogenic diet are 10-20% protein, 5% Carbohydrates (as close to 0% as you can stand), and 75-85% fat.
This means you can’t eat dairy, fruit, grains, beans and legumes, starchy veggies, sweet veggies, and 99.9% of processed food.
Really doesn’t leave much, does it?
On top of that, you have to pay close attention to what fats you are eating. There are three kinds of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. You need to eating food that balances those fats evenly.
Otherwise, the membrane of you cells (which is a lipid bilayer and lipids are fat) get thick and inflexible, making it difficult for things to get in and out. Then, you can’t move fat from one cell to another for oxidation (burning for energy); in addition to the zillion other things that enter and exit your cells for basic functions.
What To Do Instead
So, I’ve just spent this whole article talking shit about this year’s fat loss fad.
But, that doesn’t help anyone! What should you do instead?
There is only one verifiable, time-honored, battle tested, universal solution:
Proper nutrition fundamentals.
Check out my article Fat Loss Simplified for the answer to losing weight.
Then, download this free Fat Loss Cheat Sheet. It includes a portion control infographic from the great folks at Precision Nutrition, a sample fat loss program for the gym, and a worksheet for dictating your limits called The Art of Quitting which is derivative of this article.