Many athletes have concerns about onboarding a Keto diet. Concerns range from the effects of “Keto Flu”, workout regiment disruptions, and just gathering proper information about eating habits.
EAS ambassador and ketogenic diet evangelist Dave Scott discusses many of these commonly asked questions about Keto diets.
EAS: What is the “Keto Flu” and why do people complain about it?
DS: While I haven’t personally experienced the “Keto Flu”, I do realize that some athletes complain of feeling poorly during the transition from a high-carb to a LCHF way of eating. It’s likely that some of the side effects are a result of inadequate fluids, electrolytes, and even inadequate intake of micronutrients such as magnesium. Given that carbohydrate naturally stores water in the system and as the carb levels decrease, diuresis naturally follows. But simply drinking more water will not completely solve the issue. Athletes need add in sodium to aid in absorption of these fluids.
Another common culprit of malaise could be low levels of magnesium- the mineral which plays a vital role in several metabolic processes required for exercise, such as mitochondrial function; protein, carb, and fat synthesis; energy-delivery processes; and electrolyte balance. It has been shown that even marginal magnesium deficiencies can actually impair performance as well as amplify the effects of strenuous exercise. Supplementing with magnesium can help during times of deficiency as can incorporating magnesium-rich food sources- such as peanuts, swiss chard, and other nuts and seeds- into the LCHF plan.
EAS: Should athletes continue strength training as they adapt to a ketogenic diet?
DS: I’m an advocate of strength training for all types of athletes and so I feel strongly that it’s important to maintain this type of exercise. However – during your keto adaptation phase – you might find yourself reaching muscle failure sooner than usual. This will pass as you adapt to your new LCHF diet.
Any athlete who follows a strength training regimen will benefit from paying careful attention to their overall protein intake to ensure it’s adequate. Research and experts recommend that protein intake be increased during strength training or high intensity interval training sessions. Aim for in 1.6 to 2.2 grams of high quality protein per kg of lean body weight for optimal results. My go to is a smoothie (recipe below) made with EAS 100% Whey protein given its high quality and because whey offers an effective amount of the amino acid leucine, needed to promote muscle protein synthesis and aid in recovery.
EAS: Many athletes worry that they’ll feel hungry as they drastically cut calories or because they’re accustomed to filling up on low-calorie foods to fill the void. Will their fears be realized?
DS: I’ve found that one of the benefits of a LCHF diet is that you turn off the “sugar switch”, begin to efficiently metabolize healthy fats, and get off of the insulin rollercoaster. By eliminating these high and low fluctuations, the body learns to draw from its other steady state of fuel: ketone bodies.
The body is continually exchanging sensory information between the stomach and the brain. Eating healthy fats affect your satiety center by stimulating the production of leptin, a hormone produced by adipose (“fat”) tissue that works in the brain to inhibit food intake and increase thermogenesis. Leptin sends a signal of “fullness”, creating the desire to stop eating.
Once you become keto-adapted, you’ll be pleased to discover that you’ll have the urge to eat less throughout the day, likely thanks to the stable levels of hormones, reduced insulin sensitivity, and filling, satiating power of fat.
EAS: Should an athlete in the middle of racing season consider transitioning to keto? If they want to begin transitioning to a LCHF diet, how long before the next race should they start?
DS: While athletes can transition to this lifestyle at any point in time, it’s easiest during the “off-season” or during blocks of less intense training. Because everyone’s adaptation phase is different, I recommend planning at least 6 weeks in advance in order to allow for a successful transition to a LCHF diet before the next race.
EAS: Once keto-adapted, how should athletes fuel during races?
DS: Excellent question! In this day and age when so many endurance events are sponsored by sugary drinks and high carb foods, it can be challenging to devise a personal race fueling strategy that works with your new ketogenic lifestyle.
I recommend the following for the athletes I advise:
- Eat a pre-race breakfast high in healthy fats (e.g., two poached eggs on a slice of gluten-free toast with avocado and smoked salmon), washed down with a cup of my keto-coffee: brewed black with a dollop of coconut oil.
- Hydrate during the race with EAS Myoplex BCAA & Electrolytes (which comes in convenient single-serve sleeves that are easy to transport on the bike in a bento box or jersey pocket or while on the run in a jersey pocket or stashed along the band of a visor).
- Instead of sugary gels, fuel with either packets of nut butter (available on-line or at most organic retailers) or – even better – try fueling with my own personal blend of nut butter and coconut oil; place both ingredients in a durable blender such as a Vitamix, blend until smooth and then transfer to a gel flask that you can carry on a belt while racing.
- Immediately following the race, begin recovery with an EAS Myoplex Keto shake plus with an added scoop of EAS Muscle Armor (its HMB helps prevent post-exercise muscle soreness). Enjoy these two products mixed together or separately (which is helpful for rehydration).
EAS: Dave, speaking about macronutrients, do you consider all sources of fats and oils to be equal or are some better than others?
DS: Certainly some choices are better than others, similar to some choices of protein being of high-quality and others not having the appropriate amino acid profile to support an athlete’s endeavors. Similarly, some sources of carbohydrate are healthier choices, fit into the diet, and offer health benefits beyond energy alone. Sources of carbohydrates and sources of fats and oils that should make their way onto your plate are listed below:
Polyunsaturated fats known as Omega–3 fatty acids are an especially heart healthy fat and research has found that these sources can effectively help with lowering high triglyceride values in your blood.
Omega–3 fats can be found in:
- Salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and rainbow trout
- Tofu and other soybean products
- Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
Monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA) fat are considered “heart healthy” and can help with improving cholesterol when used in place of unhealthy fats. That being said, select sources of PUFAs are high in omega–6 fatty acids which are known to promote inflammation. These sources – called out below- should be consumed in moderation.
Some sources of MUFAs:
- Canola Oil
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, pecans, peanuts, pine nuts, or sunflower seeds
- Olive oil and olives
- Peanut Oil and butter
Sources of PUFAs: (consume in moderation)
- Oils: vegetable oils (such as safflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed)
- Vegetable oil-based margarines
Given the high fat content of the ketogenic diet and the fact that athletes tend to have a more favorable lipid profile compared to the rest of the population, Saturated fats have a place on the plate. Saturated fats are mainly found in foods that come from animals (such as meat and dairy), but they can also be found in most fried foods and some prepackaged foods. Obviously, you’ll want to steer clear of breaded and fried foods and overly processed and packaged foods (just like you would when following any type of diet that is appropriate for an athlete!).
Saturated fats are often classified- perhaps wrongly- as extremely unhealthy because they increase LDL (“bad” cholesterol) levels in your body and increase your risk for heart disease.
Many saturated fats are “solid” fats that you can see, such as the fat in meat. Other sources of saturated fats include:
- High-fat cheeses
- High fat dairy (such as sour cream, whole milk, heavy whipping cream, half-and-half)
- High-fat cuts of meat
- Coconut and Coconut Oil
- Palm Kernel Oil
A note about trans fat:
Trans fat is most simply liquid oils turned into solid fats during food processing. This processing makes the oils incredibly shelf stable (and the products in which it is found are often overly processed and designed to live forever on your grocer’s shelves).
There is also a small amount of trans fat that occurs naturally in some meat and dairy products, but those found in processed foods tend to be the most harmful to your health. Trans fats serve up a double whammy to your cholesterol, by increasing LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and decreasing HDL (“healthy” cholesterol). You’ll want to avoid trans fat, so look on nutrition labels for ingredients such as “partially hydrogenated” oils or shortening. In addition, look for trans fat in the nutritional information in products, such as commercially baked cookies, crackers, and pies, and fried foods (which you aren’t eating anyways, right?!?)
You likely already realize that your intake of carbohydrate is going to be very limited when you transition to this way of eating. While you’re intake will vary based on your overall calorie intake, it’s likely that you’ll be aiming for an intake of approximately 50grams. High-carb foods like grains, cereals, juices, candy, etc. don’t have a place on your plate. Where should your carbohydrate come from? Dr. Jeff Volek and Dr. Stephen Phinney, leading researchers in this space and authors of The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance, suggest:
- 5–10 grams from protein-based foods
- 10–15 grams from vegetables (note: these are not starchy vegetables like corn, peas, or potatoes. Rather these are nutrient-dense, fibrous, and low calorie greens, cucumbers, cruciferous vegetables, etc).
- 5–10 grams from nuts and seeds (note: some nuts and seeds have more carbohydrate than others. Macadamia nuts are one of the best choices; peanuts tend to have higher carbohydrate content)
- 5–10 grams from fruits (note: berries and melon are some of the best choices; bananas, grapes, and other high-sugar fruits should be limited)
- 5–10 grams from miscellaneous sources
EAS: Can athletes consume caffeine while on a LCHF diet?
DS: Yes, I consume caffeine in moderation and always before noon, usually in a cup of my morning keto coffee (i.e., brewed black with a dollop of coconut oil). The caffeine helps release free fatty acids (FFA) and also has an antioxidant benefit. Caffeine is also known to reduce perceived exertion and therefore can aid in making the workout easier- which comes in handy as an athlete works to transition from high carb to low carb and may be feeling winded and fatigued.
EAS: Can athletes consume alcohol while on a LCHF diet?
DS: Whether or not to drink alcohol is a personal choice. I choose to occasionally have a glass of red wine with dinner.
Alcohol contains 7 cal/gm, and there are most always carbohydrates present in alcoholic drinks. I treat alcohol like any other carbohydrate and, therefore, count its carb content against my daily allocation. For example, my large glass of red wine would provide between 25 to 30 grams of carbs.
EAS: Dave, any tips and tricks for complying with your LCHF diet?
DS: I’m committed to a LCHF diet because it makes me feel better all day long, keeps my weight down, my energy high and has resulted in a much healthier blood profile.
Achieving these benefits is really dependent upon consistency, and that consistency starts with a list of my go-to foods.
My secret weapon, Coconut oil!
If you’ve followed me for more than 5 minutes, you know that I’m crazy about coconut oil! I use it in almost every meal, and mix it into my coffee and smoothies. I also use coconut oil for cooking vegetables. The oil doesn’t degrade at high temperatures, so I cook with it more than any other oil.
My daily smoothie
Speaking of smoothies, I make one almost every day that fuels me throughout my morning workouts and coaching sessions. Here’s what’s in it:
- ¾ cup of dark organic berries (frozen)
- ¾ cup of mixed almonds, walnuts & macadamia nuts
- 1 cup of unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 Tbsp of organic coconut oil
- ½ cup of full fat plain Greek yogurt
- ½ a packet of EAS Myoplex Keto Meal Replacement Powder or 2 scoops EAS 100% Whey protein
I’ll drink half immediately, and carry the remainder in a large insulated travel mug to enjoy later as my midmorning snack.
Every day I make sure that I have multiple blocks of at least 2 hours long during which I don’t consume any calories. This prevents the over-production of insulin and trains my body to properly regulate my hunger hormones, leptin and gherlin.
Finish the day strong
After dinner is often when many of us succumb to the habit of mindless snacking or the temptation of a high-carb dessert or bedtime snack. Don’t do it!
I have learned to emulate the French (and many other Europeans) by having a small cheese plate with a couple squares of dark chocolate.
If you have additional questions for Dave, he can be reached through his website. He loves helping other athletes experience the benefits of a LCHF lifestyle!