Drawbacks from the keto diet
Aside from the myths surrounding keto, it’s important to note that the benefits to endurance and fat-metabolism do come with some drawbacks. This doesn’t make it a bad diet – it just shows us who it is appropriate for and when you should use it. A diet is a tool, and if used appropriately, can be of great benefit.
First, keto diets appear to reduce top-end strength and power. The ability to produce force is the key for strength, and keto diets seem to lower threshold power output. This means that strength, strength-endurance, and muscle-building can all become limited. Keto benefits aerobic energy production, but strength, power, and hypertrophy all rely on short-term (less than 4 minute) energy systems.
This is fine, as the trade-off is a much higher threshold for endurance performance, but it does make keto inappropriate for those trying to maximize strength, muscle growth, or power.
This goes further to demonstrate that it is appropriate for females (who already have heightened endurance and reduced carb metabolism), endurance athletes, and the elderly who are dealing with glucose metabolism deficiency.
Second, keto is not for building muscle or strength: protein restriction is a crucial part of the keto diet, but it also severely limits strength and muscle development. Ketosis is a condition where energy is limited, and building a calorie-surplus diet with low-protein and very-high-fat is a real problem for several health markers.
We’ve already mentioned that the diet comes with a restriction on short-term energy production, and this is an indirect way of reducing muscle growth. Muscle and strength gains are predicated on improved resistance training performance, high protein intake, leucine intake, and cell volume – all of which are reduced by low-carb diets.
Third, keto does not have a monopoly on lowering carb intake: you don’t need to use an LCHF diet to gain the benefits of reduced carb intake. This is a common trait among many diets that aim to increase relative protein and unsaturated fat intake. Things like acne, blood sugar, and other changes should be seen through the lens of improved dietary quality and moderation. They’re not specific to keto.
If you reduce your refined- and total-carb intake, boost your nutrient intake, and increase protein intake, you’ll see similar changes. You might not get the endurance benefits of keto, but you will find that there are comparable changes to your metabolism, body fat, and other markers for health.
How to get into a keto diet
So, is the keto diet right for you? If the answer is yes, then it’s actually relatively easy to get into a keto diet and begin your keto adaptation. Maximum fat efficiency may take around three months, true, but its effects can start working within just a few weeks and is relatively simple to begin.
1. Calorie restriction
This is obvious: if you want to lose weight, you need to reduce your calorie intake. The keto diet is likely to benefit most from a calorie reduction of 10-20%. Any more than this can become a serious struggle (and will be true for any diet). A keto diet isn’t necessarily appropriate for weight-gain.
This level of calorie restriction is also unlikely to seriously damage your muscle mass and has even been linked to the possibility of increasing muscle when resistance training. Clearly, it’s a safe bet and will keep you healthy.
2. Carb reduction
Obviously, keto means cutting carbs. We usually say around 50g is the upper limit for carbs on an LCHF diet, but we’ve seen advocates for even lower carb intake, with around 35g total carbs. This seems excessive – especially because fiber intake should be around 30g a day by itself.
It’s important to note that NET carbs are the carbs that aren’t fiber. Keeping these below 30g a day seems to be optimal for a keto-adaptive diet. This means drastically reducing digestible carbs from all sources. You’ll find that most of these carbs end up coming from veggies, so track them carefully. as it’s easy to over-consume if you’re not careful. Carbs are everywhere…
Fiber is crucial, and some carbohydrates will be key to burning fat effectively due to the interactions between fats and carbs in the body. It’s this simple: you’re not aiming for zero carbs. Low carbs is the point, not total carb elimination.
3. Improve the quality of your fat and protein intake
If you’re going to structure your diet around lean proteins and fats, you need to make sure you’re getting these from high-quality sources.
Fats break down into 3 categories: saturated, mono-unsaturated, and polyunsaturated. These can all play a role in your diet, but in general we tend to consume too many saturated fat and not enough unsaturated fats. You should aim for 1/3 of your fat intake from each of these sources and prioritize poly-unsaturated fats if at all possible.
Try to get your fats from plant and fish sources too, as they bring associated benefits to heart health, mood and mental health, and a variety of other health markers.
Protein sources should likewise be split between plant, fish, and meat sources. Relying on animal sources alone is a poor idea, as excessive animal protein intake comes with its own risks. Consume no more than 50% of your protein from red meat, and try to increase the contribution of plant and fish foods wherever you can.
4. Focus on dietary quality and whole foods
This is a simple rule of healthy eating: consume more whole and nutrient-dense foods.
This means relying on the staples: lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, leafy greens and other cruciferous vegetables, plant oils, high-quality dairy, etc. While many take the keto diet to be a catch-all solution to health, there’s a difference between a high-quality keto diet and a low-quality one: bacon-burgers aren’t the same as venison with spinach, diced pepper, and goat’s cheese.
Make the same positive choices that we’d look for in any other diet, and you can get the very best out of a keto diet.
Risks on keto
As with any diet, there may be some individual risks that you need to watch out for. We all respond differently to different macro balances, and monitoring the risks is an easy way to manage them and stay healthy. Here are some of the more-likely issues you may encounter when on a keto diet.
Keto flu, dehydration, and headaches
The “keto flu” is a common symptom of LCHF diets and the early days of the keto adaptation process. This is the result of a combination of energy deficiency in the brain and the risk of reduced hydration and electrolyte balance. This comes with regular flu symptoms and the possibility of headaches.
This is very normal, and being aware ahead of time is key to avoiding and managing the symptoms. Make sure to remove carbs from your diet slowly rather than simply going “cold turkey.” Additionally, be aware that you’ll be urinating more and struggling to retain hydration due to losses in electrolytes from your diet.
Focus on staying hydrated to avoid symptoms – you may also want to supplement electrolytes during this period. You can do this with custom-made rehydration drinks or simply add a pinch of sea salt to your fluids. This will also help reduce the risk of dehydration and the associated health risks. You’ll also frequently see suggestions to drink pickle juice or chicken broth. Both of these inexpensive sources of electrolytes (salts) that can help as well.
Fats and gallstones
The high fat intake associated with the keto diet comes with a few other concerns besides electrolyte deficiency and dehydration, but they tend to overlap some. Rather, the types and quantities of fat you consume play an important role in the formation of gallstones and the quality of your overall digestive health.
Consuming too much animal protein and animal fats, while dehydrated and under-fed on fiber, can all add up to an increased gallstone risk. This is another great reason to track your hydration and fat sources very closely. These factors add up, and your risk of stones can be easily combated if you know what you’re doing.
Make sure that you’re not consuming excess saturated fat (especially from animal sources) and that you’re staying hydrated and consuming saturated fats alongside high-quality leafy greens. These should act to minimize any risks.
Digestive health on keto
The adaptation process to a ketogenic diet isn’t just about fat-metabolism but the digestion and management of fats as well. You’ll need to watch your dietary intake and timing to ensure proper health.
Consuming too many fatty foods – specifically oily foods – without sufficient dietary fiber or protein can lead to loose stool and digestive discomfort, as well as increase your chronic risk of gastrointestinal disorders and illnesses.
For this reason, the balance of meals on a keto diet is even more important than when on a “normal” diet. A mixed meal with well-balanced macro portions will be crucial to keep your digestion regular and healthy.
Mild ketosis side effects
You’ll likely experience a few small changes while on keto, but they shouldn’t be particularly concerning. In fact, we’re only highlighting them here so that you’re not surprised if they come up while you’re dieting.
First, you’re likely to experience dry mouth, unpleasant breath, and possibly a low-level rash on your skin during the adaptation period. This is the result of free acetone in the body – something that can be a mild concern but again easily managed.
There’s no real need to worry though. You should be fine. If you see any side effects that continue to worsen or become independently serious, you should see a medical professional. However, it’s not likely to be a real problem, and these problems will dissipate as you become more efficient with fat-metabolism and your body gets used to your new diet.
Who is keto for: a review
This is the big question around keto and whether or not you should try it: do you fit into the groups of people that will train and perform better on an LCHF diet? There are a few – and sometimes they overlap – so we’ll outline just who can get the most out of a ketogenic diet.
1. Endurance athletes
If you’ll be running out your carb “gas tank” with long bouts of exercise, you may want to consider keto. You only have two options in this situation: eat carbs during your workout or ditch carbs and learn to metabolize fats.
For many – especially those in ultra-endurance sports – keto will probably be the better choice. You can burn huge amounts of body fat by performing huge amounts of aerobic exercise without carbs for fuel. This also means a more even performance from start to finish, as you won’t be constantly running out of fuel.
Between these two benefits, it’s clear that endurance athletes, or anyone looking to burn body fat by doing huge amounts of cardio, can benefit from this great way to manage body weight and boost performance.
This is something we mentioned above, but it also overlaps some with endurance athletes. Females are better at metabolizing fat and have a higher endurance performance relative to their male counterparts. This means that a female athlete, fed on an LCHF diet, will be even more effective at burning body fat during ultra-endurance training.
Even if you’re just looking to burn fat and get lean on a keto diet, you’ll experience greater results from keto if you’re training with aerobic exercise as a woman. There are some concerns about decreasing power output (since this is the trade-off for better endurance in women), but if you’re not training for peak 1-rep strength or power, this can be a great choice.
3. Anyone with a sugary junk food problem
You can use keto just for the behavioral/habitual benefits, if you think it’d help.
The diet that completely eliminates any sugary foods is the one that will help you deal with the long-term problems of sugar cravings. If your dietary weaknesses are related to sweet foods, this is one of the best diets for dealing with carb intake, because that macro is so heavily restricted.
Making better dietary choices is half the battle when it comes to health and fitness, so using the keto diet in this way is a great choice. Additionally, you’ll consume more high-fat foods, which might just make the diet easier if you’re a fan of savory foods and want to enjoy them, just so you can stick with it!
4. Diabetics, pre-diabetics, and those with insulin resistance
This one is obvious: eating fewer carbs is a good dietary guideline for anyone who is struggling with blood sugar and/or insulin resistance. Getting your fat intake up and your carb intake down is a simple way of decreasing the overall glycemic index (GI) of your diet.
As mentioned above, this is also a way of reducing sugar cravings and increasing dietary adherence. With the slow-digesting nature of proteins and fats, you’ll reduce your overall dietary GI slightly too. These combined benefits are a great way to start combatting the symptoms and behaviors that surround your risk profile.
Ketogenic diets have risen to popularity through sheer necessity in the public health world. We are struggling with a high-carb, low-quality fat problem. This is a serious concern for our national health, because diabetes is such a common killer, and other ailments like cardiovascular disease are all linked to over-eating.
The keto diet is not perfect – it comes with its pros and its cons. The real question is whether it’s a good fit for your current situation. If you want to get better at endurance, are a female looking to improve your stamina, are concerned with the effects of aging, or simply think it’d be easier than a higher-carb diet, then it’s likely the diet for you.
The way we look at this type of diet though has to evolve past tribalism – the keto diet isn’t perfect or dangerous, if performed properly. It’s a matter of finding what fits your habits and needs. If that means a lot of savory foods and plenty of fibrous veggies, then it’s a deal.
What we recommend is that if it fits your goals and you’re going to give it a try, then you have to commit to it. You have to make the diet work by dedicating 2-3 months to trying it out and seeing what your personal response is. Anything less than this is likely going to be ineffective, because keto adaptation is a slow process, and you won’t see the full benefits of the diet until somewhere around that time frame.
Put the time in and improve the quality of your diet though, and the keto diet may well be the best choice for you.