There are fewer trends in today’s fitness world hotter than the ketogenic diet – Turn your body into a fat-burning machine! Heightened awareness, a lean, sexy body, and more! What’s not to like? That being said, ketogenic diets are not appropriate for everyone. Read the following to for my recommendations on whether or not the ketogenic diet is for you, and then keep reading to learn about my personal experience with a ketogenic-inspired diet.
The ketogenic diet is emphasizes a very high amount of fat and almost no carbs, and turns your body into a fat-burning machine. Before I get any further, let me first off say that ketogenic diets do work. By consuming a large percentage of healthy fats and minimizing your carb intake, you train your body to use fat as its main energy source, which means it uses stored fat to fuel your body.
This in stark contrast to the Standard American Diet (SAD), which emphasizes WAY too many carbs, and makes us fat as a result. (Remember the food pyramid? It’s terrible for you.) When we eat too many carbs, we end up using these readily-available carbohydrate sources as fuel, instead of stored fat. Unfortunately, this means that we aren’t burning fat.
On top of that, many of us make the mistake of measuring weight loss progress by how many calories we burn in our workout. So we do workouts that burn tons of calories, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), cycling, or running on a treadmill like a bear is chasing us. But when you’re doing these high-intensity exercises, guess what your body is using for fuel? Hint: It isn’t stored fat.
If your goal is burning fat, you should be focused on low to moderate intensity exercise, instead of burning as many calories as possible. This allows your body to use your stored fat for energy, instead of relying on carbohydrates. (This isn’t to say that you should avoid high intensity exercise altogether if you are focused on losing weight. High intensity exercise helps you build more muscle (which burns fat), keeps your heart healthy, and gives you an awesome rush of endorphins. But, it does mean that you shouldn’t just be doing high intensity exercise. Make sure to do light-intensity yoga, go for a walk or a light jog, a bike ride, or a relaxing swim, too.)
The flip side is that if we want to increase our athletic performance through high-intensity exercise, we should be fueling our body with more healthy carbs (like sweet potatoes, quinoa, and white rice). When you are using a ketogenic or high-fat diet and still doing lots of high-intensity exercise, your body more easily runs out of fuel. This results in excessive soreness, lowered performance, and less significant gains. Super sad face.
Below, you’ll see a chart that shows where your energy comes from, based on the intensity of the exercise, according to your V02 max (how quickly you’re breathing). Notice that as the intensity goes up, you become more reliant on energy from carbs. As intensity decreases, you rely on fats more.
To summarize, here’s who I think the ketogenic diet would and would not be appropriate for.
Ketogenic diet appropriate for those individuals who are:
- Interested in significant weight loss
- In their 30s and above, who have noticed they are not hungry in the morning and have a slowed metabolism
- Endurance athletes focused on low to medium-intensity exercise such as extended periods of running
- Reaching single digit body fat
- Exercising less than 60 minutes per day
Ketogenic NOT diet appropriate for those individuals who are:
- Interested in putting on significant muscle mass quickly
- Athletes training for high performance in explosive, quick movements (basketball, football, baseball)
- In their teens and early 20s
- Interested in significantly increasing strength or athletic performance
I’m not saying that you can’t put on weight or can’t train at a high level on a ketogenic diet, but I am saying that it is much harder. Carbs do not burn as “cleanly” as fats do, but they do burn with a higher intensity.
What MAY be an ideal approach is using a ketogenic diet to tone up or maintain, and NOT using the ketogenic diet when your goal is to significantly increase muscle size. Choosing one or the other does not mean you have to stick with it for life.
Before embarking on your own ketogenic diet, there’s a lot left to learn. For instance, what are some examples of healthy fats? How do you know you’re in a state of ketosis? What supplements should you be using? What does an actual ketogenic diet look like? For this, I recommend looking up resources from Dom D’Agnostico or Ben Greenfield.
Dom D’Agnostico on Tim Ferriss’ podcast: https://tim.blog/2015/11/03/dominic-dagostino/
Ben Greenfield – https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/2015/12/how-to-get-into-ketosis/
My Own Experience with Ketogenic Diets
After hearing about ketogenic diets, I decided to incorporate their influence into my diet. I don’t think I ever reached a state of ketosis, but I did consume a very high amount of fats, minimized my carb intake until the end of the day, and relied on a super green, very fatty smoothie to get me through and the morning and some of the afternoon. Here’s what I noticed:
1. I was ripped
During this period, I noticed I wasn’t ever really concerned that I was gaining weight or losing a low body-fat percentage. This isn’t usually the case. Sometimes I notice my body getting less toned than I like to see it, and at that point I make a note to myself to eat cleanly for the next few weeks. While incorporating ketogenic dieting principles, this did not happen – I stayed ripped.
2. I had energy, even without caffeine.
I had energy, even without caffeine. I felt very energized throughout the day, even though I wasn’t drinking caffeine. (I went on a caffeine hiatus for about 1.5 months from April through May. As of May 24, I’m getting back on to my no-caffeine diet after a weekend of coffee and caffeinated beverages at Paleo(f)x.) Some days I had more energy than others, but for the most part I noticed that having my traditional breakfast of eggs, mixed veggies, and avocado made me more sluggish than a green smoothie loaded with fats did. The green smoothie and intermittently fasting from more substantial food gave me more energy.
3. I was sore.
Since I film workouts, teach lessons, and then do my own workouts on top of the workouts I film, I find myself exercising from 2-4 hours per day. This is a lot, and not having enough carbs definitely took its toll. Most people don’t work out as much as me, so following this type of diet probably wouldn’t affect you as much, but for me I think the combined workouts from filming, teaching lessons, and strength training exhausted my glycogen stores (readily available energy, not stored fat).
4. I didn’t put on weight, even though I was trying.
I started lifting weights consistently back in February to get my body ready for lacrosse again, and so I added that into my yoga routine, along with some sprint work. Even though my workouts should have been adding more muscle, I noticed that I wasn’t really gaining any weight. I stayed right around 165. This tells me that I wasn’t getting enough calories in my diet, the calories I would have been getting from carbs.
My conclusion is that the ketogenic diet isn’t appropriate for me – at least, in this stage of my life.
In addition to filming and teaching yoga, I’m still doing sprints, lifting heavy, and playing sports, which means that I should be getting my fuel source from carbs, since these are high-intensity activities. To be fair, I did not make a huge effort to measure calories or increase my fat intake beyond what was comfortable. I could have started eating MCT oil by the spoonful, but I didn’t because it clashes with my diet philosophy of avoiding measurement and listening to my body instead. If I do decide to try the ketogenic diet again and experiment with the same workouts I’m doing now, I will have to remember to eat more when doing so, and maybe even start measuring.
Special thanks to Peter Bauman for his time at the Paleo(f)x conference last weekend, for discussing these ideas with me and helping me gain a better understanding on the pros and cons of ketogenic diets.