Does the Ketogenic Diet really work, or is it just another fitness industry gimmick?
The Ketogenic Diet seems pretty simple on face value. Eat a low amount of carbohydrate and increase fats, so you're using fat for fuel. But although it might sound simple, things are a little more complicated than that. So this article is going to cut through that complexity like a knife through butter (that's high fat so it's ok). Ultimately, you'll be able to decide if the Ketogenic Diet is one that will work for you, or whether it should be banished to the Room 101 of diets.
For a lot of people, the thought of cutting out sugar is a nightmare. And you might well be one of them. Sugar graces all the foods you love. Just think donuts, ice cream, soft drinks, cookies, jams, cereals, and fruit (for some people). And I'm sure you've tried to give them up in the past. But that only lasts for a couple of weeks. And before you know it you're binge eating your way through your bodyweight in sugary goodness.
So can the ketogenic diet work for 'normal' people that like 'normal' food? Or is the ketogenic diet for those with an ungodly amount of dedication and are happy for forego life's delicacies?
In this article I'm going to answer those questions for you. And by the end of the article you'll know if the ketogenic diet is right for you!
So put your feet up, grab a couple of donuts, because they might be your last (or are they?...).
Here's what the article is going to cover:
- What the ketogenic diet is.
- How it works.
- The pros and cons of the ketogenic diet.
- How to set up a ketogenic diet if you feel it's right for you.
What is a Ketogenic Diet and where the hell did it come from?
The ketogenic diet seems simple. Eat no carbs and have a ton of fat instead. But dig a bit deeper under the skin (or should that be fat?) and you'll find there are some complex processes going on in the body.
As I mentioned at the start, the basic principle of a ketogenic diet is to restrict carbohydrate intake. Typically, you'll be consuming under 100g of carbs per day. The actual amount varies from person to person. Because some people will need to go as low as 20-30g per day to achieve the desired effect, However, it's rare to see a ketogenic diet with more than 100g of carbs.
So what does this reduction in carbs actual mean?
Well, when you reduce carb intake significantly your body turns to your fat stores for energy. Your liver turns fatty acids into ketones (also known as ketone bodies) that are used as fuel for the brain and the body. So essentially, the purpose of reducing carbs is to create these ketones in the body, which become your alternative energy source. This is a state of ketosis.
The Ketogenic Diet is nothing new
Despite its growth in popularity in recent years, the ketogenic diet is really nothing new. In fact, it's been around since in the early 1900's. The diet morphed out of early research showing that fasting helped treat patients with epilepsy. However, because of the fact that fasting isn't sustainable long-term an alternative had to be found. And as a result further research showed that a low carb diet had very similar results to those that had fasted. The first ketogenic diet was used by Dr. Wilder in 1921 to treat epilepsy patients.
Fast forward to the modern era and the ketogenic diet is now used for those chasing aesthetic physiques. It's use as a medical treatment is increasingly uncommon. Undoubtedly, you'll have heard of the Atkins Diet, which gained popularity in the 90's (although it was originally created in the 60's). Essentially, the Atkins Diet is a rebranded version of the ketogenic diet.
If you were to follow the Atkins diet you'd be able to have unlimited amounts of protein and fat. Because the only thing you need to control is your net carb intake (ie carbs minus fibre). And while that all sounds great, let's just think about that for a second.
Now, if you've you've seen or heard any of my content then you know how important a calorie deficit is to losing weight. So a diet that says you can have an unlimited amount of food is just plain wrong! Simple as that. And while piling in the protein and fat will make you feel full and possibly eat less, it's certainly no guarantee. And that's especially true if you're anything like me. Sit me down in an all you can eat Gaucho restaurant and I'll show the real meaning of unlimited!
Any diet that says you can eat an unlimited amount of food is horse shit. So tell Dr. Atkins to do one!
But now's not the time to tar the ketogenic diet with that same broad brush just yet. Because not all ketogenic diets are like Atkins.
So let's look in more detail at how the ketogenic diet works.
How does the Ketogenic Diet work?
I must have written this section several times over because my intention is not to give you a biology lesson. So hopefully, you're still with me in a few paragraphs time. And if I do start to lose you, feel free to skip on to the next section. After all, this bit is just for the geeks (like me) that like the detail.
Your body has 4 main sources of fuel. These are:
- Glucose (carbs)
- Amino Acids (protein)
- Free Fatty Acids (fats)
In a traditional diet that uses the first 3 energy sources, ketones do not play a key role in providing the body with a source of energy. The body gets energy from the first 3 by the food you consume on a daily basis. You will also have stored form of energy that the body can call on when required.
Shifting the metabolism
With the ketogenic diet your aim is to shift the main source of fuel away from glucose (carbs). And this is why it's essential to limit carb intake for the ketogenic diet to work. You are essentially aiming for a shift in metabolism. And this occurs when your body is depleted of glucose, both in the muscles and liver.
You may not realise it, but your body is an awesome and brilliant machine. It's always looking out for you and helping you to survive (despite what shit you might put it through). And when it comes to finding a source of energy things are no different. Because your body will always use the fuel source that is most prevalent in your bloodstream. So that means if you're eating a traditional diet, then glucose is most dominant in the bloodstream. If you reduce carbs, then fat becomes the most dominant and your primary fuel source.
But it's important to remember at this stage that the shift to using fat for fuel is not a permanent one. Because as soon as you start to consume carbs again, the body says, "Thank you very much". And goes right back to using glucose as the main fuel source. So if you're going keto, you've got to go all in.
What about protein?
So far there's been a lot of talk about carbs and fat, but not a lot of talk about protein. However, protein is an important consideration in the ketongenic diet. Why? Because in the early stages of adaptation to the diet, as glucose stores deplete, your body will also turn to amino acids for energy. These amino acids are stored in your muscle tissue. So if your body is hunting for amino acids then there's a risk of muscle breakdown. And you don't need me to tell you that's not desirable.
The good news is that the once the body is completely fat adapted then it will be using fat for fuel rather than amino acids from muscle tissue. To prevent any muscle loss in those early stages, just make sure you keep protein intake high. In fact, just keep protein intake high all the time. And that goes for whether you're on a ketogenic diet or not.
The timeline of the Ketogenic Diet
The shift away from using glucose as fuel, to using fat as fuel happens over time. Getting into a state of ketosis is not immediate. Here's a rough timeline of what's happening.
0 - 24 Hours:
- The body still has glucose to use as fuel.
- Energy from previous meals is still being used.
- After c.10 hours about 50% of your body's energy is coming from fat.
- 18 hours in and liver glycogen is typically gone.
24 - 48 Hours:
- Your body is becoming reliant of fat for fuel as well as stored glycogen in the liver.
- There's an increased use of amino acids. So watch out for that muscle breakdown!
- At the end of the timeframe, the use of glucose and amino acids slows.
2 - 7 Days+:
- By day 3, 90% of the body's energy is coming from fat and ketones.
- Your body tries to fight the process in the first week by increasing its own production of glucose (gluconeogenesis).
- Around the fourth day the body is in a state of ketosis (woo hoo for the keto fans).
- By week 2, the body down regulates gluconeogenesis as it adapts to ketogenesis.
- By week 3 most of your body is using fat for fuel. Only the brain is still using ketones.
- After 3 weeks, 93% of your body's fuel is coming from fat.
The pros and cons of the Ketogenic Diet
So here's where we get into the nitty gritty of the article. No doubt this is the bit you scrolled down to anyway. Because all you really want to know is if keto is even worth considering. So let me satisfy that desire and jump into the benefits and the drawbacks.
Does the Ketogenic Diet help you lose weight faster than any other diet?
Well, the answer to this question is, "a little of column A and a little of column B".
In the first few weeks, the ketogenic diet can help you lose weight quickly. And I emphasised the word 'weight' for a reason. Because it's mostly water weight you're losing and not a significant amount of fat. And certainly no more than any other type of diet.
And here's the reason why. Glycogen is stored with around 3 parts water, so for every gram of glycogen stored, there's 3 grams of water. So naturally, when you deplete glycogen through adoption of a ketogenic diet then you'll see big drops in weight initially. But it's mostly water, so don't get too excited. And that's why you should also be wary of companies and coaches selling you a mythical fat loss dream on a keto diet.
Promises of several kilos of fat loss in a few weeks is about as likely as waking up tomorrow to the sight of unicorns falling from the sky and pissing rainbows as they pass by your window.
So the short answer is 'yes'. A ketogenic diet probably will help you lose weight in the short-term. But it's fat loss we're after. No one chases water weight loss (unless they're a moron).
As for the long-term, it's a big high-fat no. The ketogenic diet won't help you lose weight faster than any other diet. And for the geeks out there (my kind of people) here's a couple of studies that highlight the fact keto isn't needed for weight loss.
p.s. the second one of those is my favourite. Because it says that, "reduced calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrient they emphasise".
Boom! Calorie F*ckin' Deficit people! Because science says so!
Does the Ketogenic Diet help you lose fat faster than any other diet?
No. We just covered that. Keep up!
But before move on to the next question, there's just one more thing to point out.
A lot of people think that because you're body is using fat for fuel then you'll be burning through all that belly fat in double time. Unfortunately, that's just not the case. Because even though you're using fat as fuel, you're also consuming far more fat than someone on a high carb diet.
And that means the overriding principle of energy balance is king. So, just remember the old adage...
It's all about the calorie deficit, no matter what diet you decide to follow.
Does the Ketogenic Diet help build more muscle than a regular high-carb diet?
No. In fact, it will actually impair your ability to build muscle. Let's take a high level look at some research to illustrate the point.
Keto-fanatics out there often reference studies that appear to fly in the face of what I just said.
But not all is as straight-forward as it seems with these studies. This study conducted at the University of Conneticut claimed to show that low carb diets were superior to high carb diets for building muscle and reducing body fat. The claims were that the subjects saw a 1.1kg increase in lean muscle and a 3.4kg decrease in fat. But what they fail to really highlight in the headlines is this...
The high fat group consumed around 180g of protein per day, compared to the other groups consuming 80-88g per day. And you probably don't need me to tell you that 80g of protein for a lifter is pretty pitiful.
Now I'm sure that the the keto zealots will happily fire a barrage of other studies at me to prove me wrong. But so far, I remain unconvinced. However, I'm always open to changing my mind.
The flip side of the debate
On the reverse side of the argument there is an abundance (I believe the scientific term is a "shit ton") of information to prove that a high carb diet is more beneficial for muscle growth.
One such nugget of research showed that a low-fat diet did have a negative impact on weight lifting. It highlighted a reduced number of repetitions on squat movements. Although there was no difference in leg extensions.
What it all boils down to is protein synthesis, ie the process by which your body replaces the damaged cells caused through resistance training. It's this process that effectively makes your muscles bigger and stronger over time. So you main goal is to increase protein synthesis as much as possible and reduce protein degradation.
The research shows strong evidence that a high carb diet leads to a greater level of protein synthesis, compared to a high fat diet. So, if your main goal is to build muscle then a ketogenic diet is probably not right for you.
Is the Ketogenic Diet easy to stick to?
In my experience, the Ketogenic Diet is about as easy to stick to as it is to not lick your lips after eating a sugary donut. Impossible!
Unless you've got the willpower of a saint, then you'll probably crack at some point and reach for the carbs. There are of course some people that love the diet and find it a breeze. But for 99.99% of the population a balanced diet incorporating all macros is much more sustainable. And above all, it'll be a more pleasurable experience.
Who will the Ketogenic Diet work for?
Now it might seem like I've got a vendetta against the ketogenic diet. But that's not the case. Because my philosophy is all about doing what's best for you. And if that means recommending a ketogenic diet, then so be it. However, for the majority of people I've ever worked with, it's just not pleasurable or sustainable.
But there are a few people that it will be suited to. Here's a few types of people that might want to consider a ketogenic diet.
Type 2 diabetics, or people suffering with insulin resistance.
If you experience either of these conditions, or any other related to carbohydrate metabolism then a ketogenic diet may help. But as these are medical conditions, then you should always consult your doctor first and decide if it's right for you. Studies do show a ketogenic diet may help, so it's at least worth considering.
Overweight and not exercising.
If your life consists of lounging about on the sofa, eating, pizza, drinking beer, and watching football all day long then you probably don't have much need for a high carb diet. Keto might still be at the extreme end of what you need, but limiting carb intake makes sense.
Limited sugary carbs, ie those high on the glycemic index, may help alleviate symptoms.
But if you’re relatively fit and well and don’t have any of those conditions, then the ketogenic diet is not necessary for you. And ultimately, it won’t bring you any greater results than a less restrictive diet.
Unless the idea of a low carb diet excites you, then I’d give keto a miss.
The Ketogenic Diet - The Final Word
In summary, the ketogenic diet is not a miracle diet that will lead to exponentially greater fat loss. And it's definitely not a license to eat as much as you like as long as you keep carbs low. Because calories matter and being in a calorie deficit is still what matters most.
The ketogenic diet is restrictive. And for the vast majority of you it will be too restrictive. You're likely to miss some of the foods you love. And that makes the risk of falling off the wagon, pretty damn high.
So for me that makes it a no go for most people out there. Unless of course you fall into either of those categories I mentioned earlier.
Ultimately, just embrace the carbs and make sure you're in a calorie deficit. Don't make it any more difficult and complicated than it needs to be.
I hope the article helped you get your head around the ketogenic diet and decide if it's right for you. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Not convinced by the Ketogenic Diet and want to know how to sort out your nutrition?
Now, if this article has made your mind up that the ketogenic diet isn't for you, I'm assuming you might want some help knowing what to do instead. I want to help you get the perfect nutrition plan that gets you to your goals and is full of foods you love. And if that sounds good then I've got a free online nutrition workshop you can register for by clicking the image below. In the workshop I'll walk you through the exact approach I use with all my clients to achieve great results. And it's also the approach I use to build my own physique.
By the end of the workshop, you'll have everything you need to achieve some fantastic results. And all without selling your soul to plain chicken and rice for every meal.
So if that sounds good, just click on the image below and register for free.
Happy training and happy eating.
Simon - IPF