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Table of Contents
1. Challenging Biases
In 2015, I spent half the year experimenting with a Ketogenic diet.
Now, this is perhaps where you stare into your Smartphone, Kindle, Macbook, or, if you’re still living in the 19th fucking century, your Windows PC aghast at the idea someone would actually want to attempt a diet like this. Oh, right…what’s a ketogenic diet, My bad. I’m jumping ahead. Let’s jump back a bit.
What The Shit Is A Ketogenic Diet?
There tends to be a lot of confusion around what a ketogenic diet actually is. When most people think of a ketogenic diet, they assume a low carb, high protein diet – which it isn’t. A ketogenic diet is a carbohydrate restricted, sufficient protein, high-fat diet. Meaning: 70-75% of your diet should be coming from fats, 5-10% from carbs, and 15-20% from protein.
Generally, carb intake is set between 30-50g per day. Some people can increase carb intake to 100g per day and still be in ketosis, but for most, the 30-50g mark works best.
The goal with a ketogenic diet is to shift your body from using glucose as its main fuel source to fat. When you restrict carbohydrates, the body enters into a metabolic state known as ‘ketosis; where the liver converts stored fat (triglycerides) into ketones. These ketones are what the body uses to fuel your brain, organs, and muscles.
Ok. Now stare into your smartphone, Kindle, Macbook aghast and ask me why.
WHY!? WHY DO SOMETHING AS CRAZY AS THIS?
Oh, I thought you’d never ask. For a few reasons.
- Challenging My Own Biases: for many years I was staunchly against low-carb diets of any kind; let alone a zero carb diet like keto. But, at the same time I’m always preaching the importance of being open-minded and trying things. This experiment was, mainly, about challenging my own biases. Translated: not being a damn hypocrite.
- Curiosity: ketogenic dieting has been a popular diet for many years now, but I really think it hit its mainstream peak around the end of 2014 and really took off in 2015. A lot of this has to do with credible, and evidence-based, coaches like Menno Henselmans who were openly espousing the benefits and advantages of a ketogenic diet.
- Increasing My Coaching Tool Box: I’m a coach. And for me to provide the best service I can to all my clients it’s my job to learn about all sorts of diets and nutrition strategies so I can best serve those who trust me to.
- Increase My Own Knowledge: I’m an autodidact, which is just a pretentious way to say, “I love to learn and experiment”. Reading textbooks is awesome, but more often than not, actually trying things teaches you more than any textbook can.
As with most things, there are a few misconceptions people have about the ketogenic diet. This, not surprisingly, also tends to be those people who have never actually tried the diet themselves but ‘heard’ it was ‘bad’ because a friend said so. I’m not one for rumours– let’s separate facts from fiction.
- You’ll lose muscle and strength: perhaps the most pervasive misconception is you’ll lose all your muscle and strength if you switch to keto. This only happens to those who don’t set their diet up correctly. Remember at the start when I said, “this is a high-fat, low-carb, sufficient protein diet?”, well, the people who struggle with and see a dip in performance tend to be the people who rank up protein intake, drop their carbohydrates and pay no attention to their fat intake.
As long as you set up the diet correctly, and pay attention to things like electrolytes (more on all of this later) you won’t see a dip in performance.
And this may well just be an n=1, but I continued to set PR’s in the gym, and muscle loss? I’ll let you be the judge…
- The “Protein Sparing Effect”: the protein sparing effect is the idea that as your body has a fair amount of body fat to use as fuel it won’t revert to breaking down and using your muscles. This sounds great in theory, and does hold some truth but isn’t entirely correct.
Sure, the more bodyfat you have the more the body will use the fat stores for energy, but as you begin to get leaner and body fat drops, your muscles are still at risk of being used for fuel – this can be offset by consuming adequate protein and strength training.
Do you know what else is protein sparing? Carbs. When you consume adequate amounts of carbohydrates, your body will ‘spare’ protein (muscle) and use the carbs for energy; when you give the body dietary fat, it will spare protein and use fat for fuel.
Do you know what is more ‘protein sparing’ than carbs and fats? Yup, protein. This is why protein intake is required to be kept at adequate levels, and sometimes even higher, during a dieting phase.
- You’ll Never Get Hungry: one of the biggest benefits of the Ketogenic diet is the appetite suppressant effects, which i’ll discuss in more detail later. However, this doesn’t override biology. When you start to get really lean, your body is going to fight to get you back to your normal body weight regardless what your diet or macro composition is. And a large part of that means feeling hungry.
- You’ll Burn More Fat If You Eat Fat: this is the most common argument you hear supporting the use of keto or any low carb diet – “eat fat to burn fat”. And again, this is one of those ideas where what’s really going on is misconstrued to what people want you to think is going on.
If you increase your dietary fat intake, your body will ‘burn more fat’ but “fat burning” doesn’t equate to “body fat burning”. Simply, your body’s burning more fat because that’s all it has to use for fuel (when carbohydrates are removed), but if you’re consuming more calories than you’re burning, you can eat all the fat you want – you’re still gaining body fat. Why? It’s to do with a little something called, “Fat Balance”.
Take a look at the image above. Your body is constantly storing and burning fat in a day (first image). It’s the long-term balance that will decide if you’re losing or gaining fat. If the amount of fat you burn stays the same as the fat you store over the long term = body fat remains the same. If the amount of fat you burn over an extended period of time is less than the amount you store = fat gain (image 2) If the amount of fat you burn exceeds the amount of fat you store = fat loss (image 3). Gettit? Good. Then let us move on.
- YOU NEED CARBS!!!: while carbs can most definitely aid performance, they’re not as necessary as people think. And as long as you set your ketogenic diet up properly, you’ll be surprised by the amount of energy you have.
- High Protein Intake Kicks You Out of Ketosis: This myth is constantly spouted by keto-folk, and it’s utterly and completely false. The myth: eating too much protein will kick you out of ketosis. This isn’t true. Bill Lagakos of Calories Proper has written a great piece on why this doesn’t happen in humans, you can read that here.
Now, just because high protein intake won’t kick you out of ketosis, this doesn’t mean go nuts with protein consumption; remember, this is a high-fat diet, and so, fat should be the dominant macronutrient.
- Keto Works Better For Fat Loss: I’m a bit torn on this one. While I’ve gotten lean on a higher carb diet before (see image below), I did find being in a state of Ketosis to be more conducive to tackling the ‘trouble’ areas – what people more commonly refer to as stubborn fat.
But, does being in a state of ketosis override total caloric intake – meaning, you can eat as much as you like without any fat gain? Absolutely not.
Ok, now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s get into the experiment.
2. The Experiment Begins
Prepping for the Experiment
Before we get into the experiment, I need to explain what I did before starting. To make things ‘fair’, I decided to gain some, uh… weight. Here, see for yourself.
As you can see from the pic, I was pretty lean before going into the experiment. And seeing that I wanted to test out the diet thoroughly, It made sense. Though, I’m never doing that shit again.
I went from around 166/167 lbs all the way up to 175lbs.
So, here I was: Fat. Now to begin. I tested the three variants of the Keto diet: the SKD, CKD, and TKD.
SKD: Standard Ketogenic Diet
The SKD, abbreviated for Standard Ketogenic Diet, is the traditional keto diet I described at the start: 30-50g carbs all coming from vegetables, sufficient protein intake, and the remainder of calories to be filled with fat. I started with the SKD approach to ensure that I entered into a state of ketosis before experimenting with the others.
What I did
I brought my calorie intake back down to maintenance – 2500 calories – from the absurd 5k calorie weight gain diet I’d been on to ‘prep’ for this whole thing. I figured I’d lose some weight just from the reduction back to normality, and I was interested to see if there were any ‘metabolic’ advantages as is claimed by a lot of the Keto folk. This was the difference in body composition between the end of my 5k cal weight gain and a week into the experiment. You can see the drop in bloat.
This was what my weekly calorie and weigh-ins looked like.
A few things that bear noting:
1. If you’re wondering why my starting weight was 171.7lbs as opposed to the 175lbs I mentioned above – I was away from home for a week and a few days after I’d started the experiment. And as I had no access to weighing scales, I couldn’t record my weight. I lost around ~5lbs by the time I got back home.
2. You’ll note the disparity in calorie intake – I prefer a calorie undulation™ approach, with a focus on the weekly average intake (green tab at bottom) as opposed to daily intake.
So, my starting calorie and macro intake came in at:
2500 calories, 168 grams of protein, 27 grams of carbs (kept them under 30), and a whooping 200 grams of fats.
I was on the SKD for around 6 weeks before deciding to ‘carb-up’ and move onto experimenting with a CKD approach.
Here’s a picture of my progress thus far.
I guess I should also mention this. I had my bodyfat tested via the BodPod around this time, and I came in at 11.9%. I had intended to have it tested again at regular intervals, but I just never bothered. You can read about the test and some of my thoughts, here.
I also had my blood tested around this time. I was curious to see how 6 weeks on such a high fat intake affected my health markers. These were the results.
Everything was normal. As is evident by the extremely official looking letter above.
Surprisingly, I really, really enjoyed the SKD. I’ve always had a preference for fattier foods over sugary or carby foods, so omitting carbs wasn’t a big deal. Here are a few things I noticed and experienced.
- Mental clarity: there was this was really strong mental clarity in thought and concentration. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying being in ketosis gave me cognitive superpowers akin to NZT; but, it was noticeable.
- Appetite Suppression: this was definitely very real. At first I thought maybe it was just me, but digging into the research, turns out I wasn’t going crazy (which is always good).
I came across this meta-analysis – a review of all the studies that have been done on the topic – which compared ketogenic low-calorie diets with normal low-calorie diets, and found the keto low-calorie group showed a superior appetite suppression effect than standard low-calorie diets. The researchers commenting:
“Individuals were less hungry and exhibited greater fullness/ satiety while adhering to VLED, and individuals adhering to KLCD were less hungry and had a reduced desire to eat. Although these absolute changes in appetite were small, they occurred within the context of energy restriction, which is known to increase appetite in obese people.
Thus, the clinical benefit of a ketogenic diet is in preventing an increase in appetite, despite weight loss, although individuals may indeed feel slightly less hungry (or more full or satisfied). Ketosis appears to provide a plausible explanation for this suppression of appetite.”
- Energy? This was perhaps my biggest worry, and why I was so anti-keto in the past. I use to believe that if I cut out all my carbs my energy levels would tank and so would my performance in the weight room. This never happened. Energy levels remained stable and I continued to set PR’s in the gym*.
*I should point out here that while energy levels remained stable at the start, as I got leaner, and calories got lower, carbohydrates most definitely helped my performance – I touch on this in more detail when I discuss TKD.
- The Dreaded Keto Flu? The keto flu is the name given to the symptoms people tend to experience during transitioning into ketosis, so called due to the similarities to the conventional flu. Symptoms include: Headaches, nausea, brain fog, fatigue and lethargy.
I personally never experienced the keto flu, why? Maybe I’m superhuman, or, more likely, because I’d set up the diet properly – eating enough fat, consuming electrolytes, and drinking enough water.
CKD: Cyclical Ketogenic Diet
After 6 weeks on a strict (standard) ketogenic diet, I decided it was time to experiment with the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet.
The premise is simple: you follow a standard ketogenic diet from Monday to Friday, and then you spend anywhere from 12-24 hours loading up on carbs.
The carb load aspect of the CKD is what differentiates the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet from the standard Ketogenic Diet. Many bodybuilders and physique athletes have been known to utilise this approach in preparation for shows or photo shoots.
This, of course, brings us to the question, why? Why use a CKD when you could simply stick with a Standard Ketogenic Diet. There are a few reasons:
- The “Anabolic Rebound”: This is the crux of Lyle McDonald’s UD 2.0 diet. The depletion of glycogen throughout the week, and then loading carbs, can – apparently – help with an “anabolic rebound” effect that can lend itself to muscle gain. I haven’t really seen anything significant on this and doubt it happens to any measurable degree*.
*This idea of the “anabolic rebound” is something I’ve been wanting to experiment with, and plan to do sometime in the future.
- Aesthetics: As calories get low, stress hormones like Cortisol increase which can cause water retention, increasing calories – specifically carbs – can reduce cortisol, help you drop excess water, and give your physique a leaner, tighter look.
- Performance: when calories become low, relying solely on ketones to fuel high-intensity training can become tough. Loading carbs can help replenish glycogen stores which can help you through the next weeks worth of training.
What I did
I followed a standard ketogenic diet from Monday through halfway on Friday. I then went to the gym and did a whole body high rep, depletion workout to prepare for the ensuing 24 hours of carb debauchery.
On the Friday, I consumed somewhere around 200-300 grams of carbohydrates on top of my normal calorie intake and I then spent the whole of Saturday stuffing my face with high carb foods – cereals, bagels, rice, potatoes etc. – consuming in excess of 600 grams of carbohydrates as the image below shows. The carb load came to an end Saturday evening.
The screenshot above is what my first week looked like on the CKD. The two red cells are my carb up days. You can see the macro intake beside them. I had intended to keep my fat intake around 40-50 grams, but alas! I went over that number. Which really isn’t a big deal. You might be wondering what the shit happened on Tuesday, where my calories were extremely low. I’d love to tell ya, but I can’t remember. I assume I was either not that hungry, or I was out all day and just forgot to eat.
Here’s what my physique looked like before the carb up, and 24 hours after.
You can see a visible difference in the two photos – the carb up really ‘filled me out’ – particular point of note is abs and chest.
I pretty much followed the same protocol for around 6 weeks before it just became too much and I decided to move on and experiment with the TKD.
Initially, having been on zero carbs for 6 weeks, the thought of carb loading was almost sexual; but, the novelty soon wore off and the task became more onerous than pleasurable. Look, I know, this sounds like one of those “first world problems” –whatever, you try it, and let me know how long you last.
I, personally, wasn’t a fan of this approach, but I know plenty people who love it. So each to their own I guess.
TKD: Targeted Ketogenic Diet
The Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD) is a compromise between a strict ketogenic diet, and the more excessive cyclical ketogenic diet. In the TKD, you follow a strict ketogenic diet but allow yourself anywhere between 20-50 grams of fast digesting carbs around the workout window.
What I did
Simple: 30 minutes before training I would consume some form of fast digesting carbohydrates. The carb choice tended to vary, but generally it was either Dextrose or a Mars bar. Yes, a Mars bar, they worked surprisingly well.
So, an example training day looked like this:
- Breakfast – high fat, moderate protein
- Lunch – high fat, moderate protein
- 30 minutes before training – 30-50g of carbs (either dextrose mixed into a whey protein shake, or a Mars bar)
- Dinner – higher protein, lower fat
The TKD was definitely my favourite variant of all the Ketogenic Diets. I had gotten pretty lean by this point in the experiment – I’d hazard a guess around 8% bodyfat – and energy levels began to drop pretty hard. The small intake of carbohydrates before the workout provided me with ample amount of energy to train hard which in turn helped retain my muscle and strength.
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