Whether it is down at the gym or at your local running club, the chances are that you will have heard a little bit of the buzz around keto diets, and their potentially beneficial effects not just for athletes but for everyone. So, we thought we would take a quick look at just a few of the biggest questions around keto diets, and give you our thoughts on whether taking this approach to nutrition can be beneficial to us as athletes.
But first, it is probably worth taking a quick look at exactly what keto diets are, and the effect they are supposed to have on the body. So what are they and how do they work?
Time to cut the carbs
Ketogenic diets are essentially ones in which levels of carbohydrate intake are kept low, in order to encourage your body to enter a state known as ‘ketosis’. Usually, we prefer to get our energy from consuming carbohydrates – think of that big pasta dinner you have the night before a marathon.
But with a keto diet, that high level of carbohydrate intake is cut right back, forcing the body to look for alternative sources of energy. The most likely place it will find this energy is in your body’s fat reserves and in the increased levels of fat that you are consuming as a part of the diet. Your body will then turn this fat into a compound called ketones which, in turn, give us the energy we need.
While our bodies are more used to getting energy from carbs (which produce glucose and insulin, and so provide us with something we can convert into energy) keto diets use high intakes of fat (and our own fat reserves) to generate the energy we need.
It does this simply as a kind of survival mechanism. So, if we are in an environment in which we are unable to access the levels of carbs that we are used to, being able to go into a state of ketosis allows us to replace energy from glucose with energy from ketones that our body has produced by breaking down fats in the liver.
Keto for athletes
The big question for us then, as athletes, is whether a ketogenic diet is right for us. It is easy to see the advantages of a keto diet for someone who is looking, for example, to lose weight. Burning off fat is clearly a positive outcome for someone with this particular goal, but the benefits for athletes looking to improve performance is less clear.
While it is hard to say for sure, Keto diets seem, at the very least, to have a positive effect on body composition – something that can certainly be of benefit to athletes of all kinds.
But research on the matter is still on a relatively small scale, and a lot more work needs to be done to provide a more definitive answer to the question of how beneficial these kinds of diets are to athletes. According to a study of New Zealand athletes cited on RunnersWorld.com, research “showed that a 10-week keto diet improved the athletes’ body composition and well-being but not their performance. In fact, the athletes initially experienced reduced energy levels and an inability to undertake high-intensity bouts of exercise.”
The key to muscle building?
So what about for those of us who are doing our workouts in the gym? Well, this time the picture is a bit clearer when it comes to keto diets. The bottom line for us is that carbohydrates and the insulin they produce in our bodies perform a fundamental role in promoting muscle growth – so cutting the carbs will have a direct impact on your body’s ability to produce the muscles you’re after. Carbohydrates also help our bodies to recover more quickly, by reducing the impact of an intense workout on our immune system. So, once again, carbs have a big role to play in helping us to workout hard, build muscles and recover quickly. In the light of this, reducing the amount of carbs you consume, and forcing your body to burn fat instead, will clearly not help with muscle growth.
Ultimately, our take on keto diets is this. If you are looking to burn off a bit of extra fat and perhaps change your body composition for the better, then it is probably well worth giving these kinds of diet a try. But, if you are a body builder looking to grow muscle or a runner trying to improve your performance, then the jury is still very much out. The research that has been done on keto diets and the impact on performance just isn’t there yet – and what there is suggests that the benefits are mixed.
So, if you’re an ultra runner who wants to get better at being able to use your stores of fat to keep you going through to mile 50, then a keto diet might be a great way to prepare your body for this. But, if you’re a body builder or just some one who wants to feel energised and healthy when they run then you might be best sticking to the carbs for now.