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Most athletes have been told to “run on carbs”, especially endurance athletes. Through popular media, we have seen countless cereal and oat brands suggest that eating carbs will give you more energy, but is that really true?
In recent years, athletes have opted to use fat as fuel for optimum energy and performance. Research has shown that the right kind of fats can be used as a cleaner fuel source1 than glucose.
Many people, from crossfit athletes to marathon runners, have been consuming high-fat diets to enhance their overall athletic performance. Science is now beginning to discover that by becoming fat adapted, we can train our bodies to use fat for energy instead of carbs.
In this article, we are going to discuss how athletes can use fat to fuel their training sessions. We will also discuss popular topics such as BulletProof Coffee and Intermittent Fasting, both recommended to increase fat loss and energy.
Keep reading to find out more!
What is keto?
Similar to the Atkins Diet, the keto diet is essentially a low-carb, high-fat diet.
By consuming fat as your main fuel source instead of carbs (or protein, but we’ll get to that later!), your body goes into a process called ketosis. This essentially means that your body is burning fat for energy.
Our bodies usually go into ketosis if we fast long enough, which is where the concept of intermittent fasting2 comes from. The longer you fast, the more ketones your body will produce.
In order to bring your body into ketosis, athletes on keto will need to consume less than 30-50 grams of net carbs per day, so it will be important to track your food intake daily at the beginning of your transition.
It is important to remember that following a ketogenic diet means you will need to prioritize healthy fats over protein. Lean protein should be eaten in moderation, such as chicken and lean beef. If you do consume these foods, make sure you have them with other fat sources like avocado, butter, or olive oil.
How does keto work?
Since most people are adapted to using glucose for energy, it is recommended to begin a keto diet gradually. Your body will continue to burn off the last of your glucose and begin to opt for the fat that you are consuming.
Consuming high-quality fats such as coconut oil, ghee, grass-fed butter and beef3, wild-caught fish, and pasture-raised eggs (to name a few) can help kickstart your body into ketosis. Here is a breakdown of the different types of fat:
- Monounsaturated: The healthiest type of fat, found in avocado, peanut butter, almonds, and olives. Shown to reduce LDL Cholesterol4 levels.
- Trans: The most detrimental fats, try to avoid these as much as possible. Fried foods and margarine have the highest amounts of trans fats.
- Polyunsaturated: Usually found in fatty fish and nuts, polyunsaturated fats produce Omega-3 and Omega-65, which your body cannot produce on its own.
- Saturated: Saturated fats like coconut oil, grass-fed beef, and grass-fed lamb contain CLA6 which promotes healthy weight loss. Since this fat tends to be more yellow, meaning there are more carotenoids (yes, more than carrots!), it is also beneficial for your eyesight and skin. Coconut oil also contains MCT7, which is a powerful source of fatty chain that can kickstart your body into ketosis and give you ultra focus all day.
Decades of research in the late twentieth century demonized saturated fats. While there are some saturated fats that are not as beneficial (low-quality beef, pasteurized/processed dairy products), consuming grass-fed beef and coconut oil is shown to not clog your arteries8.
The more fat you eat, the more your body will adapt to burning fat instead of carbs. It is important to remember that as you consume more fat, you must be consuming fewer carbs, because if not you will gain weight.
Who should consider keto for athletes?
If you have been on a high-carb or fat-restrictive diet, and find that you are experiencing symptoms such as bloating, rashes, acne, or brain fog, it may be time to consider adapting your body to run on fat.
Keto endurance athletes, especially marathon runners, benefit greatly from a high-fat diet, as they are able to consume less food for more energy.
A benefit of following a keto diet is that your hunger cues will regulate, meaning you will not have as many cravings or feel as unsatiated as you used to.
Athletes who are busy and do not have much time to think about food may also benefit from keto, as they will be able to eat simple foods that are adequate in calories, fat, and protein.
Is keto good for athletes?
Many people wonder if athletes can do keto, and the answer is yes! Utilizing ketones is a cleaner way to burn energy. Athletes will experience more energy and focus while consuming simple, high-quality fatty foods.
Benefits of keto for athletes
Keto has many benefits for athletes. One benefit is that performance will be enhanced, runners may run longer and faster, and weightlifters may lift heavier. Since ketosis also increases focus, training sessions will become more effective.
On a high-fat diet, athletes will feel slimmer and more in control of their appetite, thus, they will not feel the need to constantly snack or over-fuel before performing.
Keto diet plan for athletes
Following a keto diet is relatively easy for most. Food sources usually come in the form of animal products and fruits and vegetables. If you are new to the keto diet, here is a plan to enhance your athletic performance and brain power:
Optional: Bulletproof coffee (if you are doing intermittent fasting)
- Eggs with the yolk, avocado, and broccoli with grass-fed butter and salt.
- Low-carb smoothie: 1 cup frozen cauliflower, 3 TBSP frozen wild blueberries, 2 TBSP almond butter, 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk, 1 scoop of grass-fed collagen or whey protein.
- Salmon with a salad, avocado, and extra virgin olive oil.
- Tuna salad with avocado mayo on top of greens.
- Grass-fed beef bowls with greens, avocado, cauliflower rice, and cooked cabbage.
- Keto “chili”, low carb and bean-free.
Thankfully, the ketogenic diet proves to be simple, as it focuses on consuming fats that come from straightforward sources. As mentioned, it is a good idea to track your meals at the beginning to ensure that your carbohydrate consumption is low.
Keto for weight loss
As mentioned, keto has been around for decades as a way to lose weight fast while enjoying better-tasting food.
Many keto foods enhance fat loss, such as grass-fed beef (which has CLA, an important molecule that helps burn fat). Additionally, much of the healthy saturated fats consumed on a keto diet, such as coconut oil and MCT oil, promote a special bacteria9 in the gut that is associated with weight loss or slimness.
Eating a high-fat diet helps balance hormones and cholesterol levels. Since hormones are made of fat and protein10, eating a ketogenic diet will allow these hormones to regulate and bring the body back to a healthy balance.
Keto for muscle gain
Although most people believe that you need more protein to gain muscle mass, it is still possible to gain muscle mass on a high-fat diet. Most fatty foods such as grass-fed beef, lamb, and salmon are high in fat and protein, which will help promote muscle growth and maintenance.
Since eating more fat will give you more energy output, you will find that your workouts will become more effective in growing muscle. You can read about this in more detail here.
It may be a good idea to supplement with a keto-friendly protein supplement11. It is best to search for a natural protein powder (plant-based or animal-based) that has been tested for heavy metal toxicity.
If you are looking to gain muscle, opt for more strength training over cardio, as cardio has been shown to decrease muscle mass along with fat. Strength training has been scientifically proven12 to burn fat throughout the day, which means that your body will become even more energized as it adapts.
If you do wish to include cardio with your strength training, aim for 10,000 steps per day, or do cardio on your active rest day to benefit your cardiovascular health.
Since a diet high in protein can result in uric acid buildup in the body, consuming a high-fat diet can lead to less lactate buildup13, which means you will experience faster recovery times and less muscle soreness.
Keto macros for athletes
The typical macros for a keto athlete will vary with the type of training involved. A general rule of thumb would be the following:
The above are estimates, so you can adjust them to your caloric needs.
Keto side effects
Many people stop following the keto diet due to something commonly known as ‘The Keto Flu’14. This is when the body begins to lose glucose in place of ketones, and starts to feel low on energy before it learns to adapt to fat.
Because of this, you may feel lightheaded and fatigued the first few days of being on a keto diet. Some of these side effects are also due to low blood pressure, since you will be consuming fewer carbohydrates which increases blood pressure.
In extreme cases, some people may experience ketoacidosis, and is more prevalent in people who are diabetic or pre-diabetic. This is when the body produces too many ketones and inhibits the production of insulin.
Some people have also reported having to urinate more often. Again, this is a signal that your body is in need of salt. Consuming iodized salt or adding electrolytes to your morning water upon waking can help clear up some of these common symptoms of the keto diet.
Keto errors to avoid
While you shouldn’t count calories on a high-fat diet, it is important to consume the right kinds of fat to put your body into ketosis.
If you are consuming a high-fat diet but are not mindful of your carb consumption, you can run the risk of gaining weight. Be sure to consume less than 30-50g of net carbs (total carbohydrates- fiber = net carbs) each day.
While many products on store shelves claim that they are keto-friendly, most of them contain inflammatory oils such as sunflower/canola oil, and many other processed ingredients and preservatives.
Additionally, processed foods on the shelves can still contain a higher amount of carbs (even if they are net carbs). If you do choose to consume these foods, it may be a good idea to count your daily carb intake.
It is best to keep in mind that keto desserts are still desserts, and are higher in fat and carbs, and should be enjoyed in moderation.
Eating out can be difficult for people on a low-carb diet, since many restaurant foods have hidden carbs in the form of breading, sauces, and sugar. If you are going at a restaurant and you are unsure if it is keto-friendly, check to see if their menu is online and assess your order beforehand.
Furthermore, some people do not meet their caloric needs while on the keto diet, since high-fat foods are satiating. This is another reason why tracking your calories and macros may be beneficial in the beginning.
Lastly, it is important to take supplements. Keep reading to find out more!
Keto supplements for athletes
Even though athletes are generally on the healthier side, it is important to note that many of our food products (yes, even if they are considered “natural”) are lacking in important vitamins and nutrients, and this is primarily a result of poor soil.
Keto diet athletes should find supplements that will improve their overall physical performance and energy levels. It is important to have your blood tested by a trusted medical doctor to determine if you are in need of any supplementation.
The below supplements are a general overview of common supplements that people following the keto may choose to take:
- Vitamin B-12: Although Vitamin B-12 is found primarily in meat, many people are deficient because of soil quality, as many of the animal products consumed are not grazing on nutrient-rich soil. The best form of B-12 to consume is methylated and in liquid form.
- Vitamin D15: Around 80% of the American population is deficient in Vitamin D. The most common and absorbable type of Vitamin D to take is Vitamin D3.
- Grass-Fed Collagen: Good for hair, skin, nails, and joints, collagen allows for increased mobility and contains an adequate amount of protein.
- Grass-Fed Whey: The most common form of protein supplement that people consume is whey protein. Again, it is important to ensure that you consume grass-fed bovine products for the added minerals and nutrients.
- MCT Oil16: MCT oil promotes the formation of ketones at a more powerful rate than whole coconut oil, which only contains 15% MCT. People who consume carbs with MCT oil have been shown to decrease insulin spikes and still run off ketones.
- Probiotics for Gut Health17: Taking care of your microbiome is extremely important when it comes to athletic performance. Your gut produces bacteria that are responsible for your digestion, weight, and energy levels.
Supplements should be high-quality to avoid added fillers in the gels or capsules, especially if you decide to take herbal supplements.
Pros and cons of the keto diet for athletes
Since everybody is different, keto athletes may experience different benefits and disadvantages from following the ketogenic diet. Here are some pros and cons to watch out for:
- Quick weight loss
- May improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Increased energy
- Better sleep
- Side effects in the beginning
- Some nutritional deficiencies if there is no supplementation
- High-quality products can be expensive
- Limited food choices
- Women may not respond well, as their bodies were not made for long fasting periods
Modified keto for athletes
In addition to finding a sustainable approach to the keto diet, most people follow a carb-refeed schedule.
Once a week, you can feed your body with healthy carbs to promote autophagy18, where the cells clean out any cellular toxins with the help of glucose. This may be beneficial for female keto athletes.
If you find that you need carbs while on the keto diet, it is best to consume them in the evening, preferably after 5 PM. If you eat carbs and fat during the day, you will most likely hold on to the fat you consume, which will cause you to gain weight.
There are ways to enhance the process of ketosis, especially if you have been on a fat-restrictive or high-carb diet.
Bulletproof Coffee and intermittent fasting
A good idea is to consider Bulletproof Coffee. Discovered by Silicon Valley Entrepreneur, Dave Asprey, Bulletproof Coffee is a blend of low-toxin coffee and fat sources such as grass-fed butter and coconut/MCT oil.
Since the coffee blended with fats does not spike insulin, consuming Bulletproof Coffee on an empty stomach in the morning mimics a fast while keeping you satiated.
By replacing your breakfast with Bulletproof Coffee, you will begin to adapt your body to a ketogenic state. You will also find that consuming fats for breakfast instead of carbs will keep you full and focused until lunchtime!
Drinking Bulletproof Coffee with protein powder may also be beneficial for females, since their bodies are not made to fast as long as males.
A typical intermittent fasting schedule may look like this:
- 6AM-1PM: Bulletproof coffee/ Fast
- 1PM-8PM: Eat without caloric restriction
- 8PM-6AM: Fast
There is no reason to fear fat. In fact, your body craves fat and needs it for important cellular processes. Fat is largely responsible for major and necessary functions such as neuron formation and hormone regulation.
If you have been on a restrictive diet, it may be time to consider following a high-fat diet to increase energy, fertility19, and brain power.
As seen from the information in this article, athletes can benefit greatly from a ketogenic diet mentally and physically.
As with any diet, good supplementation should be added, and plenty of healthy fats and vegetables should be consumed.
It will take time to adjust to a low-carb diet if you have been running on carbs for a while. Your body will learn to adapt to the new high-fat diet and will burn cleaner energy, supplying you with physical and mental stamina.
Before following any diet, it is important to talk with your doctor or sports medicine specialist to decide if following a keto diet is right for you.