Is Ketogenic Dieting Bad For Natural Athletes

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Contest Prep Ketogenic Dieting

So what is ketogenic dieting?

Ketogenic dieting has many versions but is simply dieting by limiting your carb intake to very low levels, sometimes even zero carbs except what’s in the protein or fats sources you eat. When you go low enough carb for a period of time your body starts to run off ketones (fats) for fuel and is in a constant fat burning state. There is cyclical keto dieting (CKD), and targeted keto dieting (TKD) and we have seen popular versions such as The Atkins Diet or in the bodybuilding world their have been books such as “Bodyopus” by Dan Duchaine or “Ketogenic Dieting” by Lyle Mcdonald that have made an impact. Keto dieting is very popular because it helps people drop weight very fast, and is an excellent way to burn body fat. It is also popular because most methods involve a very large carb up once a week where people get to eat loads of carbs. This all sounds great right?

A Little Disclaimer

Now that I have given you a quick overview I want to let you know before we go any further what I don’t advocate as far as keto dieting. First of all, there are a lot of coaches out there that start athletes prepping on keto at 16-20 weeks out, WAY too far out to be starting this type of diet. I don’t care how high the calories, it’s never a good idea to start that low carb that far out. There are people doing the Beverly version of this diet with a carb up twice a week usually on Sunday and Wednesday that only consists of a banana, broccoli, sweet potato and some oats before bed which is hardly enough to restock glycogen stores from being no-carb for days.

I also don’t advocate for ketogenic dieting except as a last possible scenario and after all other options have been explored.

I will go into the good, the bad and also a way to implement it in this article, but I want to make sure people understand that as a coach who has been doing this for many years I know first hand keto is always the last tool used in the toolbox.

The Good

The positives to keto dieting look great on paper. This type of dieting is VERY easy to follow, you simply don’t add in carbohydrates to your diet and eat protein and fats. Anyone can do this, you can even do it on the road if you have an emergency and run into a gas station or a fast food joint and get a quick meal comprised of protein and fats. Another positive of this diet is that with protein and fats in the diets fats as the main fuel source they blunt hunger because they take so long to digest.

When it’s done right people rarely feel hungry.

Also a positive is that while your body is running on fats/ketones for fuel most people report feeling pretty good overall, sharper concentration and just a well balanced feeling everyday that is probably tied to the fact blood sugar is stable and you don’t see the up and down movement like you do when eating carbs. The last positive is that you can drop quite a bit of fat in a short period of time on this diet, especially the first month or so but after that the negatives start to weigh in.

The Bad

The negatives to keto dieting far outweigh the positives in my opinion. One negative aspect is that when you are very low carb you will go flat in the muscle- we have all seen the flat look like the muscle has no “pop” to it. This is always noticeable to the athlete when they cant get a good pump in the gym no matter how hard they try. Besides the mental aspect that being flat has on a competitor, the real problem is that having a flat muscle over time will lower protein synthesis and the rate of recovery for the muscle after a workout is less than what it could be by replenishing the muscle with glycogen.

What that means is that muscle loss on a ketogenic diet is very common, and should be expected in the common ketogenic dieting approaches.

You can couple all of this with loss of strength, loss of sex drive is reported by most, and hormone levels get out of whack by both male and female competitors. Dieting with no carbs over a long period of time also chronically raises cortisol levels which translates to muscle loss and inability to hit that stubborn fat loss for a natural competitor. And finally another thing to watch for is that when you restrict yourself from using carbs for a long period of time your insulin sensitivity isn’t as good as it is while eating carbohydrates and when you reintroduce them the ability to store them as fat is usually much greater than it is before starting a keto diet.

Another Option

So is there a good, safe way to use ketogenic dieting if you are in a situation that may warrant it? I have found a way to run a modified version of a targeted keto diet (TKD) that will work for a good 3-4 weeks without any signs of strength loss or muscle loss reported by clients but has gotten them stage ready when they were behind. I have used this approach with some of our better known IFPA pro’s such as Matt Holcomb and DFAC World Champion Robert Johnson to get the last bit off of them for a show and they responded very well.

Here is the situation and what I propose works and and works well.

Matt is 4 weeks out from his first show of the year and needs to look his best to place well and get a Yorton Cup Qualification. He is weighing 185 lbs, and we know historically that to be peeled he needs to weigh 180-181. His body has stalled out a bit trying to get that last bit of fat off, his macros are 210 protein, 200 carbs and 50 fats. Most of the time people will simply keep lowering carbs and pushing, but with it being 4 weeks from a show we don’t have time to take any chances that his body is stalled out and fighting us, so we opt for a TKD approach.

We will take all his 200 daily carbohydrates except 30 carbs and replace those with fats. Those 30 carbs we saved will be used in the form of dextrose to drink while he works out as they will put a stop to cortisol levels shooting up in the body from being keto but will also help spike protein synthesis levels higher and help with holding onto muscle during this time. (This is KEY to this approach, do not skip this part of the plan) So now our macros look like this- 210 pro/30 carbs/125 fats and his calorie levels did not change. Matt will keep his training to 6 days a week on this plan, and will have a weekly carb up now that will be in the region of 500-1000 carbs depending on a lot of variables. The leaner you are, the more restricted you are the more carbohydrates you will need. I see a lot of people that I coach need at least 1000 carbs a week on a plan like this.

The cardio Matt does will also need to be very specific. Steady State cardio is very popular on ketogenic dieting but that will also contribute to very high cortisol levels and is something we are trying to avoid. I have found that with the intra workout carbs that doing HIIT after the workout is best as it is just and extension of the workout but the “afterburn” and fat burning that results for 6-8 hours after a session is way better for fat burning that steady state which is only burning fat while doing that particular session.

Matt goes on to get sharper right off the bat in the first week, and by his second week he is noticeably leaner and back on track. By week 3 he is at his stage conditioning and looking very hard and lean, yet isn’t appearing as flat as most people on the ketogenic diet due to having about 1000 carbs a week to refuel.

Peak week approaches and Matt ends up nailing his conditioning and looks his all time best just in time.

Matt Holcomb Keto

The above is an example of a scenario I have used multiple times in the past, most recently with Robert Johnson who went on to win the 2013 DFAC World Finals and also place 2nd at the Yorton Cup both very big prestigious events. Without the approach we took he would not have been as sharp and lean as if we had kept carbs in the diet and just kept pushing against his body being stubborn.
Robert Johnson Keto

So Why Does This Work So Well

So what is the key to this diet working so well over a short period of time? When you start using fats/ketones for fuel your body uses fat at rest, and a ketone yields 7 cals per gram when burned. Your ability to burn more calories at rest in the absence of carbs is almost double of what it normally is. Also, the workouts are much more efficient with the carbs intra workout fueling you and your strength levels shouldn’t drop much if at all over a short period of time. Another key is that we didn’t drop overall calories, we just replaced most of the carbs with fat calories. This is a big big part of why this plan will work as fats work well as a fuel source but if they are taken too low along with carbohydrates too low it is a definite that muscle loss will occur and happen very rapidly. We are striving to avoid all of this on this short term 4 week plan to get you back on track so you can hit the stage looking sharp.

So Whats Really Happening

In a nutshell this is what the plan will do for you as I give you an example of one day on diet – you wake up and are in a ketogenic state, burning fats for fuel. You go about your day eating pro/fat meals, using fats as fuel and burning body fat at a greater rate than if carbs where in the diet and halting the flow of fat loss. You get to the gym, have the intra workout carbs and stop the fat loss process. The workout speeds up metabolism and gives you the “afterburn” you experience for hours and hours after the workout, which burns a LOT of body fat esp coupled with the fact that after the workout you are going back to pro/fat meals and back to a fat burning state. This will MAXIMIZE fat burning each day, while limiting muscle loss and a lot of the problems associated with keto dieting. Still though, as good as this sounds if this is done for more than a month from what I have seen with clients you will start to experience the negative side effects.

Three to four weeks is a nice short burst, but longer isn’t recommended.

Before I end this article I need to touch on the use of key supplements to help keep you at your fullest and sharpest. Here is a list of supplements I would make sure to have in the plan:

  • Fiber– with the lower carb plan fiber takes a hit and it will be needed in supplemental form. (recommended sugar free metamucil)
  • Creatine– use intra workout to help keep the muscles full and strength up. (recommended 1st Phorm Creatine Monohydrate)
  • Salt– use at most meals and will work to keep the muscles full of water and also help with muscular contraction. (recommended sea salt)
  • Beta alanine– use before the workout to help fight lactic acid levels and to help push through hard workouts without wearing down as fast. (recommended 1st Phorm AlphaCre)
  • Dextrose– use intra workout to fuel the workout and replenish carbs to the muscles while exercising. (recommended 1st Phorm Ignition)
  • BCAA’s– use intra workout to help spike protein synthesis and maximize muscle recovery and growth. (recommended Scivation Xtend)
  • Multi-vitamin– use Post workout to fight free radicals. (recommended 1st Phorm M-factor)
  • Vitamin C– use Post workout to help lower cortisol levels. (recommended Ester-C)

Robert Johnson DFAC
If you are someone who fits the scenario above and need to lose some fat pretty fast in the final weeks leading up to your show this plan will work well. Don’t use this though unless absolutely necessary. If you feel you may be behind and have the option of moving the show back then that is better than going this route. Also, make sure you start dieting out far enough so you have less chance of running into a problem of being behind as the show gets closer.