Though you may know it simply as a “low carb” diet, ketogenic diets are the hottest properties on the market right now. As a matter of fact in the last few years there have been “over 1500 low carb/ low glycemic products introduced into the marketplace” that will account for “over $30 billion dollars in expected sales this year alone”. That’s staggering support for a diet concept that, not so long ago, was lambasted and demonized as totally unhealthy! But even more staggering, is the fact that “26 million Americans are currently on a hardcore low carb diet right now”.
In the past, the medical community balked at this sort of diet. They claimed that while it was beneficial for those who were diabetic and forced into watching insulin, and useful for some who were epileptic and required seizure control through dietary means, it was hardly beneficial for all people. But can 26 million Americans be wrong about the benefits of ketogenic diets? Time will certainly tell, but the results seem already to be far more positive than anyone expected.
Okay, now let’s get real…
The bodybuilding community has been able to say one thing, for sure, for many years: Ketogenic diets do work and produce some spectacular results. We’ve been able to say this for years and years—ever since the days of Joe Gold, Bill Pearl and others drank cream by the pint, along with tuna from a can, to get ripped—because the competitor’s physique cannot tell a lie.
But while bodybuilders aren’t anti-carb like many who understand ketogenic diets only in the sense that carbs = bad foods and fats = good foods that deliver them from obesity, or at least that they don’t mix well within an isolated day, it is becoming increasingly sophisticated in the way it’s implemented for aesthetic purposes in our sport. Hopefully, after a few years of experience with ketogenic diets, the general public will begin to understand how to make it work as a mainstay in their lives. We think it’s probably one of the most pivotal, meaningful and important discoveries of 20th century nutrition.
A certain amount of how these ketogenic diets can be utilized as a means for actual ongoing maintenance, has been introduced to the public, but only in a rudimentary manner that supports a general disinterest in hardcore discipline and actual lofty physique goals. Enter “net carbs”. That’s something that bodybuilders just don’t think about. Sure, it’s important to understand how the body actually reads carbohydrates and which ones count and which ones don’t, but mostly, these Spartan goal-driven folks could sit down to a meal of plain tuna and steamed broccoli, every 2 hours, day in and day out, and rarely complain. That’s because food is a means to an end, not the end itself or a reason for living. It’s all about input, output, and causing the body to act in a way that you want it to, when you want it to.
Net carbs are a way for the general public to include some carbs in their diets, depending upon their maintenance tolerance, and feel like a normal person. What counts as a net carb is anything that is sugar or starch in a particular food. What doesn’t count is sugar alcohol and fiber. One is naturally occurring and one is not. These engineered foods are enabling the general public to maintain their 20-30 pound weight loss, while feeling like real human beings.
How Bodybuilders Have Used Ketogenic Diets
Early pioneers of bodybuilding knew that fat and protein definitely did mix and used it to their advantage during the beach blanket bingo hey-day of bodybuilding. Arnold was a part of that, and then ushered in a new era where carbohydrates were king of the jungle gym and were seen as more important to a bodybuilder’s ultimate growth—along with protein—than fat ever could be. Neither were wrong, exactly, but carbs were always a point of trickiness in terms of depletion and loading and many more mistakes were made as a result of manipulating carbohydrates than fats. Still, we saw incredible conditioning in both eras.
When diets like Dr. Barry Sears’ glycemic based “Enter The Zone” became popular in 1995, and Atkins revamped his earlier book into a combination ketogenic diet called “Atkins New Diet Revolution”, ketogenic diets made a comeback and resurgence onto the scene, and bodybuilders slowly began adopting the theory once again. But this time, it was more livable and adapted to the needs of an aesthetic athlete who wanted to drop just fat, not muscle, and take it to the nth degree! It was no longer the old 4:1 ratio of 1930’s ketogenic diets—where 80% of calories came from fats and 20% from proteins. It was more like a balance of 2:3 (40% fat and 60% protein).
But in this day and age, ketogenic diets are much better understood and are used much more correctly than in the days of meat and lettuce and cream. Ketogenic diets can be implemented in a healthy manner, provided the person understands what it’s all about, what the various forms accomplish, and how to use ketogenic diets to best serve dietary and physique goals.
Types of Ketogenic Diets
Ketogenic diets are a Godsend to those who must get their body into cosmetic shape relatively rapidly. By rapidly, we don’t mean within 3-5 days. However, a strict induction phase—the likes of which you would find in Atkins or the South Beach Diet—could actually make an appreciable difference in anyone’s weight within 10-14 days.
But within the scheme of things and given how overweight many bodybuilders began to be in the off season in the early 90’s, it was just in the nick of time that ketogenic eating came back into the picture and to the rescue. Truth is, as a result, we don’t really see many truly fat bodybuilders in the off season any longer. We may see bloated ones, but that’s an entirely different issue and cause.
The whole point of starting a ketogenic diet, as a bodybuilder, is to kick off a diet by bringing you from insulin resistance more into the realm of insulin sensitivity, depending upon your initial condition. Once you begin returning to more normal responses to food, it’s essential to change your game. Luckily, there are a few options within the ketogenic realm to satisfy this need…
There are three types of ketogenic diets:
SKD (Standard Ketogenic Diet) – This is the sort of diet that Atkins represents in its first induction phase, and to some extent, in the sense that only products with low “net carbs” are eaten to maintain. This is still low carb as a lifestyle and doesn’t include days where carbs and high, then low, then high again.
CKD (Cyclical Ketogenic Diet) – This type of ketogenic diet loads and unloads carbs in a cyclical pattern. This can be done one of two ways. The most common is to go low carb (unload carbs and glycogen) for 2-3 days at a time, then load with carbs for one to two days and repeat the cycle. Or, it can mean a cyclical pattern over the course of one whole day, where carbs are loaded until 2pm and then unloaded the rest of the day and evening.
TKD (Targeted Ketogenic Diet) – This type of ketogenic diet targets specific times during the day when carbs can be consumed. That means that carbs are usually only ingested around the time of exercise only so that they are quickly utilized and not allowed to spike insulin or be circulating within the body to cause fat storage.
The SKD is the type of diet that most of those 26 million Americans are following, to some degree, according to Time Magazine. It’s the most sensible for the average person who is prone to insulin resistance, has obesity or high body fat levels in their history, or is fairly realistic about their eating habits and knows that a low fat lifestyle isn’t for them.
But is a low fat lifestyle good for anyone? Some who follow it might say that it is, but studies have proven that fat, provided it doesn’t originate from a source such as trans-fatty acids or purely saturated fat, is beneficial to body function, metabolic health and overall well-being. The side effect, if eaten in healthy proportions is both energy and weight loss/ maintenance.
How a Ketogenic Diet Works
The aim in a ketogenic diet is to switch the primary fuel used by the body from carbohydrates (sugar, breads, etc) to fats (such as olive oil, fish oils or flax oil, preferably). When this happens within certain ratios of fat to protein to carbohydrate, the body is thrown into a state of ketosis.
Ketones are the by-products of fats being metabolized. In fact, when fats are metabolized, they throw off 90% ketones and 10% glucose. When carbohydrates are eaten, 100% of the by-product becomes glucose. With protein, it’s 46% ketones and 54% glucose. Protein, then, is the neutral macronutrient.
When ketones begin circulating in the blood, their presence interrupts the normal Krebs energy cycle (which relies heavily upon glucose) and forces the body into choosing stored fat as a source of energy to burn, rather than glucose in the diet as a by-product of having just eaten carbohydrates, or glycogen stored in the muscles, or even muscle tissue.
The body also begins to rely upon dietary fat as the mainstay of its energy. Because it is twice as calorie dense, and therefore twice as efficient an energy source, and doesn’t stimulate the release of insulin [which signals the storage of fat], the body adapts well to fat as its source of energy. Nothing is lost in mental capacity and levels of well-being are high. If you still think it’s odd, just remember, man evolved by eating this diet from the dawn of time. There was no white flour, no grain of any kind, no sugar, no processed foods—just high protein, fatty animal flesh, and legume shoots and berries.
But switching from carbs to fats sounds scary to most people unfamiliar and inexperienced with the diet. They fear that their arteries will clog overnight and they’ll die of a heart attack. But recent studies done on excessive carbohydrate and sugar intake indicate that they are just as likely, in abundance, to cause a build up of unhealthy (LDL-Low Density Lipoproteins) blood lipids and elevated levels of cholesterol. There’s also a choice between good and bad fats. If you were to eat a slab of salmon, a green salad with olive oil and vinegar and 8 spears of asparagus for dinner every night, or chicken breast, broccoli and a half an avocado for lunch, you’d be lean and healthier than any human you could ever imagine. Understanding this is half the battle.
Can Fat Make You Fat?
What makes people fat, is not fats themselves. What makes people fat in this day and age is complex. Most of all, in the U.S. portion control is the real culprit. Whole populations in other countries that are unfettered by a “big” complex (bigger house, bigger car, bigger portion) can eat just about anything, in moderation, and seem to maintain better health and a more appropriate weight-to-height ratio than we do here in America. But the processing we’ve come to rely upon for preservation, longer shelf life, better taste and increased convenience also contributes to the staggering rates of obesity in this country.
Ketogenic diets can help in this effort, and are aiding, many millions of people who currently have adopted some form of the ketogenic diet. Fat never made anyone fat. In fact, the body burns its own fat in the presence of fat. That is what ketogenesis is based on. But if that’s true, how can we demonize carbohydrates? No one is demonizing them, just being selective about which ones to eat in certain phases where they are allowed, and being exclusive of them in phases where it’s called for.
Here’s How to Use Each Type of Ketogenic Diet
The SKD is the sort of diet that anyone who hasn’t been dieting should adopt in the first phase of any diet, only because it’s so capable of jump-starting and putting the body back into a place where it reacts more normally, believe it or not. Just as one may switch routines in the gym, or change things up in terms of exercises, intensity or rep and set schemes, so too can the dieter shake things up by using phases to cause change within the metabolism of the body.
Technically, like Atkins induction phase of 2+ weeks, carbohydrates should number about 20 grams daily. That’s hard to do, considering that even high fat nuts have carbohydrates. It usually represents about 2 servings of green vegetables and two moderate sized green salads over the course of one day, along with protein. Sound appealing? Probably not so much. But an SKD isn’t the sort of diet you should remain on for long periods either. Physically, it’s deficient of the important low-glycemic carbohydrates that you may be able to have in the future, depending upon your body type and history, and is boring and difficult to follow mentally for much longer than a few weeks.
Many on Atkins would identify this as their diet, but it really isn’t. In fact, Atkins doesn’t really fit into any of these categories in its next phase. But once it reaches the phase of maintenance, it’s much more like a CKD than anything else, though it may be isolated into one day as opposed to a 3 days on/ 1 day off cycle as bodybuilders tend to follow.
The CKD is probably the most interesting diet because it leaves a lot of flexibility for many different kind of approaches. The first is a true cycling of carbs over the course of a few days, as we mentioned. The second would be to cycle the carbs within one given day. For example, only eat low glycemic complex carbs until noon, and then eat only green vegetables for the remainder of the day. This is for people who have sorted out just how many carbs they can tolerate throughout any given day, and how much fat is necessary to keep things in balance. Too much of one and not enough of the other can throw things off kilter.
Some even use the CKD as a means to dip in and out of an SKD for weeks at a time. The CKD/SKD connection is the most logical, of course. That’s when you go for 2 weeks on the SKD, then gradually introduce personally ‘safe’ lower glycemic carbs into the mix in some form, on a regular basis for another few weeks, and then go right back into the SKD again. This is truly effective body manipulation for bodybuilders, and probably what most do during a contest phase. After a long food-abusive off season, the metabolism starts out poor and sluggish, gets better when the metabolism begins to burn like a wildfire, carbs are reintroduced, and then are removed again to shock the body into even better condition by delving deep into ketosis for about a week. The final days are typically a filling period where carbs and fats are coupled for maximum muscle fullness and a tight skinned, ripped to the bone look.
The final ketogenic diet is the TKD and is used by some bodybuilders in the off season or pre-season, to support training while weaning themselves off heavy carb meals. This can be an effective pre-induction phase, or for those who burn calories fairly easily through activity, can act as a way to boost workouts with glucose, then resume a low glycemic carb ingestion schedule. Personally, we would say this is the least effective type of ketogenic diet for most people because it’s really not allowing the body to ever dip into ketosis at all. Truly, this is just carb control, rather than ketogenic.
How to Know if You Are in Ketosis
There are these neat little test strips that you can purchase at any pharmacy, that tell the tale of whether you are in ketosis or not. They are extremely useful because they not only can tell you if you are in ketosis, they can tell you if you are too far, not far enough or just where you want to be. They are a scientific, quantifiable means by which anyone can determine where they are and where they need to be, and enable anyone to tweak their diets to meet their needs. They are used during urination and are run through the stream quickly. They read out in seconds.
If you find that you are following an SKD and are not getting the fast results you expect (which you ought to using an SKD) then you should buy some test strips and monitor yourself throughout this first phase. It’s essential to allow yourself to dip fairly far into ketosis during an induction phase.
Is Ketosis Right for You?
That depends who you are and why you’re using it, but in general, we happen to believe that it can be useful for anyone who needs to shed pounds. If you look at most theories of diet and training, and you treat them as tools by which you can achieve what you’re after, then you’ll use them correctly by adapting them to your individual needs. Nothing says you have to follow an induction phase of an SKD type for just 2 weeks. Maybe you need 2 months of it! Some people who are extremely overweight do actually need a lot more metabolic repair as a result of months or years of reckless eating practices.
Whatever you choose, the reality is, ketogenic diets are highly useful for many different purposes. And let’s face it, we could never say that about low fat diets or high fiber diets or any of the rest of the diets that we saw come and go in the 90’s.