The Ketogenic Diet for Athletes
The ketogenic diet has grown increasingly popular in recent years and one of the most beneficial aspects of this trend is the new found understanding and acceptance of the importance of fat in the diet. However, because of its focus on decreasing carbohydrate intake, which can provide fuel, promote recovery, and reduce muscle breakdown, it is controversial, especially for elite athletes.
Let’s explore what the keto diet is, how to follow it, and if it is right for you and your training demands.
What is the Keto Diet?
The basic premise of the keto diet is to consume a high amount of fat, an adequate amount of protein, and very little carbs.
Typically, the body uses glucose (converted from carbs) as its primary source of fuel. When you limit your intake of carbs (think 20-50 g per day), your liver produces ketones from fat which act as an alternative fuel source for the body. When your body produces these ketones, it also enters a metabolic state called ketosis, which mimics the effects of fasting.
There are several varieties of the keto diet in order to be more appropriate for athletes.
The standard ketogenic diet involves consuming 75% of your calories from fat, 20% from protein, and only 5% from carbs.
The cyclical ketogenic diet includes high-carb refeed days. For example, you may follow a standard ketogenic diet for 5 days and then allow yourself 2 high-carb refeed days.
The targeted ketogenic diet involves adding carbs into your diet around your workouts in order to keep up the necessary intensity.
Finally, the high protein ketogenic diet involves consuming 60% of your calories from fat, 35% from protein, and only 5% from carbs.
What to Eat
When following the keto diet, your main fuel source is fat. The key to the keto diet is not to reduce calories, just to reduce carbs. You must still be consuming enough calories to fuel your training; these calories will just come primarily from fat instead of carbs.
Your diet should be full of natural fats, like butter and olive oil, meat, fish, cheese, and eggs. In order to enjoy the benefits of a nutrient dense diet, you must continue to consume many vegetables as well. However, you should be eating low-carb options, such as spinach, avocados, lettuce, asparagus, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, and kale.
Some fruits, such as strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries can also be included in your diet in moderation.
What to Avoid
Keeping your carb intake at or below 50 g per day can be incredibly difficult. Some of the main foods to avoid in order to achieve this are fruit, potatoes, pasta, bread, rice, beer, and soda.
How to Consume More Fat
What may seem almost as daunting as cutting out carbs is making up the rest of your calories from fat. Listed below are some of the easiest ways that you can incorporate more fat into your diet.
- Choose whole, full-fat dairy products
- Cook with fat. Feel free to switch up your sources, such as butter, olive oil, coconut oil, etc.
- Ensure your snacks contain fat. Some great options include, cheese and low-carb nuts, such as pecans, brazil, and macadamia.
- Don’t be afraid to top your meals with oil, butter, sauce, or dressing.
Energy for Exercise
One of the biggest concerns for athletes about the ketogenic diet is how it will affect exercise performance. Carbs play an important role in muscle growth and high intensity exercise performance. Complex carbs, like sweet potatoes, help to keep your body fueled over an extended period of time and can help to increase the amount of work that your body is able to perform in a given training session.
However, studies have shown that fat provides energy at an endurance pace (low to moderate intensity). Because fat is primarily used for fuel during low-intensity exercise. The keto diet may be beneficial for you if you participate in longer duration, low-intensity exercise.
Most athletes, such as football, rugby, or hockey players, will require a higher carbohydrate intake in order to maintain or improve their performance levels. For these athletes, the keto diet may not be an effective long-term strategy but can be used strategically to help improve their performance.
Some studies suggest that exercising with low glycogen stores (relying on fat for energy rather than carbs) is an effective training technique. This strategy is often referred to with the quote, “train low, compete high.” Additionally, the keto diet is extremely effective for fat loss, which may be required by athletes in weight-dependent sports and to improve their fat to muscle ratio.
The ketogenic diet is controversial, especially when it comes to athletic performance. Your nutrition directly affects performance in training and in competition. Therefore, its extremely important to follow a diet that works for you and your sport. If you choose to incorporate the ketogenic diet into your lifestyle, ensure you are consuming high quality sources of beneficial fatty acids and consider trying one of the variations of the ketogenic diet, such as the cyclical keto diet or the targeted keto diet, in order to ensure that you continue to reach peak performance.