It never fails that with each new year there seems to be a new diet that is better than all that have come before. We have rotated from blaming fat consumption, mostly in part due to successful lobbying and marketing funded by the Sugar Industry, to once again pointing the finger at carbohydrates. I’ll admit, most all fad diets “work”, but is the mechanism behind the weight loss or positive change truly healthy and sustainable? What are the long-term effects? Today I felt the urge to dig back into a topic I posted on a year ago. I’m not looking to have a debate, rather providing my take on carbohydrates and the rise of ketogenic dieting.
Why are carbohydrates necessary?
Carbohydrates for many people are a scary thought, this is due in part to a false association between carbs and weight gain. Understanding that a carbohydrate can do the direct opposite (build muscle and help you lean out) rather than to gain fat and become overweight is important. If sedentary, then yes carbohydrates may be an issue for an individual. If, however, you are active or participating in a training program they can make all the difference in success or failure on physique goals.
As a coach, I utilize carbohydrates as a variable for recovery in my clients. In most cases, protein and fat needs remain steady. Keep in mind that everyone has unique goals, background, and genetic response to foods thus individual plans may differ. Carbohydrates also have a direct relation to energy levels in the gym, or the ability to perform. Performance carries over to strength gain and putting on lean tissue (muscle). Also, as previously mentioned, they are important to refill glucose stores and aid in recovery of your body after working out.
What are my thoughts on Ketogenic diets?
A ketogenic diet is in general high fat, low protein, and extremely low carb (less than 25g or lower per day). This is required to enter ketosis. Once in ketosis, your body will use ketones in place of glucose. Yes, your body still requires glucose for specific functions, but you do not need to ingest carbohydrates to get glucose, your body can convert protein and amino acids for this need. The aim of a ketogenic diet is to force your body into breaking down fats in the liver as the primary energy source. Optimal ketone levels offer many benefits. Keep in mind, I said “optimal” …more on this in a bit.
• In ketosis your body uses ketones and fat for fuel, thus protein sparing and lowered need for protein.
• Blood sugar levels are much more stable using ketones, therefore you don’t get hungry as often.
• Weight Loss
• Increased energy and cognitive function
Before you sign on to this latest popular dietary approach, you will want to consider the other side of the equation.
• A decrease in performance and strength in the gym for performance-based athletes.
• Very rigid, as you need to consume a large amount of fats and next to no carbohydrates. This can be a difficulty in social situations and in general is very restrictive.
• Getting into nutritional ketosis and maintaining optimal ketone levels is rather difficult and there is no specific formula to guarantee getting there.
• Carbohydrates (glucose) are muscle sparing by nature, therefore if utilized appropriately can provide the same benefit received from ketosis.
• Increased risk of metabolic damage and impact to the bodies normal hormonal response.
• Keto Flu – symptoms of fatigue, headache, nausea
• Gastric Issues – cramps and constipation
It is inevitable that there will always be a new product, or nutritional plan, touted as the better way to do things. Or marketed as the missing link that we need to realize our physique goals. This is not to say that ketogenic diets do not have a purpose or beneficial application. Studies are actively being conducted by Dr. Dominic D’Agostino on the medical benefit of ketogenic diets as a treatment for conditions such as epilepsy, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, there are studies showing a ketogenic diet being effective when applied to endurance athletes. The caveat, both applications require precise applications of the diet for certain periods of time.
To conclude, be wary of the simple fix. A ketogenic diet isn’t the missing link to you achieving optimal health and physique goals for the long haul. Carbohydrates are not your enemy, especially regarding those looking to maintain lean mass and/or make strength gains in the gym. A plan that merely requires cutting out of carbohydrates may seem a simple, and attractive option. In my opinion, I do not feel this is a sustainable approach or one that can be applied without very close guidance. Remember, the overall goal with our health is to employ solutions that build habits and skills to ensure success for the long-term. In many cases, short-term fixes are just that. Individuals will have what is defined as “success”, usually from quick weight loss, only to cause damage to themselves metabolically and end up in a worse place then when they started (and in many cases, gain back the weight and then some).
Indeed, many people implement a ketogenic lifestyle based on a primary goal of weight loss. Following the trend of recent reports, those who are successful in weight loss on the keto diet eventually end up gaining the weight back. Two reasons for this include:
• Initial weight loss was water loss
• Initial weight loss was due to caloric restriction (i.e. – removing carbs drastically limits your nutritional options)
Quick note on ketone products: The supplement industry has taken note of the popularity of ketogenic diets. And to ensure that companies do not miss out on the lucrative opportunity, they have pumped out many ketone products. A word of caution, most ketone products on the market have very limited lab research, and do not have adequate human studies and scientific data to conclude effectiveness or claims of impact.
Scientific studies / backing literature:
Ketogenic Diets have no metabolic advantage
Ketogenic Diet & Cancer
Ketogenic Diet & Epilepsy
Ketogenic Diet & Alzheimer’s
Ketogenic Diet benefits body composition and well-being