Six years ago when I started the keto diet, I was actually afraid to tell anyone that I was doing it. At the time, I was a bodybuilder and powerlifter training out of Metroflex Gym, Long Beach (it was kind of like the meathead capital of the world during that period). In that gym, weakness was treated like a disease similar to alcoholism or depression. If you weren’t doing everything you could possibly do to put on massive amounts of muscle and to get as strong as possible, people would literally pull you aside to ask "if everything was ok.”
At the time, anything other than eating as much as possible (unless you were slimming down for a show), was considered insanity.
Times have changed, and keto has gone from being on the fringes of the fitness and bodybuilding world to now being one of the most talked about diets in the blogosphere. And with that comes the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Good in that more and more people are being exposed to low-carb lifestyles that can help them burn fat and avoid chronic diseases. Bad because, with its increasing popularity, more and more bad advice is being put out there by “influencers” and “gurus” who look great, but don’t really know what they’re doing. Ugly because keto has now seemed to turn into its own little pretentious diet cult, and this could turn many away from a lifestyle that could potentially help them. And inevitably, like every other popular diet, passing along information becomes like a game of telephone, where the ideas behind the ketogenic diet become distorted and perverted by the time they’re passed along to the masses.
Today, I want to clear up that game of telephone by discussing what the influencers, diet gurus, and cult followers seem to be missing when they talk about keto.
What is Ketosis? What is the Ketogenic Diet?
First off, people seem to be confusing the state of ketosis with one specific method of getting into ketosis, the ketogenic diet. Ketosis is a state where you are burning ketones for fuel rather than glucose. Ketones are fatty acids that your liver produces after it processes fat that’s been mobilized into your blood stream.
To understand how this happens, you have to understand something about fat. When fat is stored in its cell, it can’t be burned for fuel until it’s been mobilized into the blood stream. Fat mobilization happens in a low insulin state. That means that, if insulin is present in your blood due to consumption of protein or carbohydrates, fat cannot be mobilized for fuel. Instead, your body will use whatever glucose that’s in your bloodstream, or it will convert amino acids into glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. Those amino acids could come from protein that you’ve eaten, but they can also come from a breakdown of muscle tissue. To put it in very simple terms, if insulin is present, you are burning glucose or you are converting amino acids to be burned as glucose. You are not burning fat.
So how do we get into a state of ketosis? Through one of two methods:
Not eating - fasting is the old-fashioned way to achieve ketosis periodically. You keep your body from secreting insulin by not eating for a period of time and allowing it to tap into your own mobilized fat stores for fuel.
Eating a ketogenic diet - this more modern method involves making fat abundant while starving it of sources of glucose. This lowers insulin levels, which in turn, allows your body to switch to burning fatty acids that have been converted into ketones.Which method works best?
It really depends on your goal:
If you’re overweight and are trying to burn excess body fat, then keep in mind you are trying to burn stored fuel. Your goal is to get the fuel that’s currently sitting in your fat cells out and into the bloodstream so that it can be converted into fuel that you can use.
In this case, you don’t want to have extra fuel floating around in your bloodstream at any time, whether that be glucose or ketones. The body will always go to its most available source of energy. It needs to go through extra effort to mobilize fat out of its storage cells to create ketones. So if you have glucose or ketones in your blood stream, it will seek to use those bioavailable sources first without tapping into your own fat stores.
Hence, if your goal is to burn stored fat, consuming massive amounts of fat is not the best idea because you’ll be burning those extra ketones off rather than mobilizing stored fat for fuel.
Your best bet if you’re overweight is to incorporate intermittent fasting on top of a traditional ketogenic diet that consists of eating fat throughout the day. This would typically involve eating all of your calories - whether they are fats, carbs, or proteins - within an eight-hour window later in the day. To get the most out of fat mobilization, you would break the fast only after doing exercise.
Also understand that you can still burn fat this way whether or not you’re eating carbs in your eating window. The main issue will be that if you are eating carbs in your eating window, your brain will be running on glucose, which can make the fasting period a lot harder on your energy levels.
The main reason to do a ketogenic diet in combination with intermittent fasting is that you will have more energy when you are fat adapted. This makes life much easier. Additionally, if you are fasting, then you can be a bit more liberal with the amount of protein you eat within your eating window and you can probably benefit from raising it up to 35%-40% of your total calories without getting kicked out of ketosis. The benefit here is that, through gluconeogenesis, you’ll be able to replenish muscle glycogen that was depleted during your fasted workouts, and because you’ll be in a glycogen-depleted state, you’ll be secreting far less insulin.
One note of caution here for overweight women seeking to use the fasting method: make sure you are either supplementing with selenium or getting a good source of it, like Brazil nuts, in your diet. The danger with fasting is that you will slow down your thyroid. Selenium will help protect your thyroid and keep it functioning at the level you need to keep your metabolism going.
Tips for overweight people trying to burn fat through ketosis:
Incorporate intermittent fasting in combination with a low-carb/high-fat diet (LCHF) for maximum fat burn and energy.
Only drink water, tea, or black coffee during your fasting window.
Perform exercise prior to breaking your fast.
Ensure that you have a source of selenium in your diet either through supplementation or food.
Consume a diet of 50%-60% of calories from fat, 30%-40% of calories from protein, and less than 10% calories from carbs in your eating window to get maximum fat loss and brain energy. (Note: I do not consider fibrous green vegetables as carbs. They will not spike your insulin significantly and you can eat as many of these as you would like during your eating window.)
Keep some good low-carb/high-fat snack items around like FBOMB Fuel Packets.
If your goal is not to burn fat, but rather to build muscle or perform better, the rules change a little bit.
In this case, you’re seeking to get into ketosis to take advantage of its more efficient fueling process and muscle-sparing effects. Basically, if your main fuel source is ketones, your body will be less likely to break down muscle tissue to create glucose. In this case, emphasis should be placed on getting your body to burn ketones rather than glucose, whether they be from your own fat stores or extra ketones in the bloodstream. Therefore, athletes could benefit by getting a bit more fat into their bloodstreams throughout the day. Nevertheless, you would still want to limit the amount of insulin being secreted throughout the day to reduce reliance on glucose for fuel.
For these reasons, athletes may want to fast from protein and carbs earlier in the day prior to training. They could, however, benefit from taking medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) or exogenous ketones earlier in the day to help fuel their training sessions. Medium chain triglycerides, found in coconut oil or synthesized into MCT oil, are short chain fatty acids that quickly get converted into ketones. Exogenous ketones are beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) salts that the liver immediately converts into ketones. Both have performance enhancing benefits for training.
Given their higher activity levels, athletes seeking to benefit from ketosis can also benefit from higher protein levels and even slightly higher carbohydrate levels.
Here is a particularly effective protocol for enhancing performance and building muscle:
Consume only fat from coconut oil or MCT oil earlier in the day. You could also have a Macadamia with Coconut Nut Butter Blend FBOMB Fuel Pack. Delicious and effective!
Supplement with exogenous ketones prior to training.
Train in the morning.
Break your fast around noon with a salad, three eggs, Brazil nuts, and a fat-based salad dressing.
Have a large dinner consisting of animal protein, vegetables, and a small amount of starchy carbs if you’ve had a good training session that day (1 cup white rice or a potato).
Consume a bit more protein - somewhere close to 40%-50% of your total calories from protein sources.
The benefit for athletes in using this protocol is that they can actually get the benefits of both ketones and glucose. Glucose, in this case, is simply being used to replenish depleted glycogen stores. As noted in the seminal book, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney, athletes could consume as much as 150 grams of carbohydrates on a high activity day and remain in ketosis.
One problem I see with the way in which most popular gurus describe keto-adaptation is that they describe it as if it is some sort of excruciating crucible that people need to go through to achieve the “God like” state of ketosis. It’s actually not that hard. Yes, you will feel lower energy and potentially get headaches for a bit, but it’s not going to feel like you have the black plague.
If you’re overweight, then ketosis is going to be a bit harder to achieve simply because you’ll tend to have extra insulin in your bloodstream. Athletes, on the other hand, will have an easier time of adapting. Either way, during the adaptation phase, you’ll need to stick a little closer to the traditional 80/10/10 keto guidelines for 3-10 days (closer to 10 if you are overweight). This means 80% of your calories from fat, 10% from protein, and 10% from carbs.
I won’t go into detail because I offer a free course you can take to help you get started, but I’ll lay out some bullet points here.
Make sure most of your fat consumption is made up of MCTs from either coconut oil or MCT oil. These fats will raise ketone levels enough to get adequate fuel to your brain.
Take two tablespoons of Apple Cider Vinegar diluted in a glass of water each day. This will help get your liver to begin producing ketones.
Make sure you’re getting enough electrolytes by adding a natural non-iodized salt to your food and drinks throughout the day. This is the most neglected aspect of keto adaptation I see. During this process, your body pushes out water rapidly. This can lead to cramps and headaches that can exacerbate the keto flu. Salt will help replenish those electrolytes.
Drink at least half your bodyweight in fluid ounces of water plus an additional 10 ounces.
Keep some good low-carb/high-fat snack items around like FBOMB Nut Butter Fuel Packets.
Consume one to two avocados each day for potassium.
Finally, make sure you take 400-500mg of magnesium each night before bed. Magnesium tends to get depleted during the adaptation phase along with other minerals.
Don't Get Preachy!
Remember that ketosis is a tool. There are lots of ways to burn fat and enhance performance; the ketogenic diet is not the only way to do it. So while it’s completely fine to talk about how much you love keto, don’t talk down to anyone who chooses another method. You’re only making the diet less attractive by doing so and potentially driving people away from a diet that could potentially help them.
Still Have Questions?
I’m currently giving out a free Starting Keto training series that includes five training videos, a full keto adaptation guide, a 30-recipe keto cookbook, a full grocery list, daily workouts, and interviews with keto experts like Dr. Dominic D’Agostino, Mark Sisson, and others.
About the author:
Chris Albert is a trainer, nutrition coach, podcast host, entrepreneur, and Marine Corps Veteran. His show, the Warrior Soul Podcast, focuses on giving veterans tools, tactics, and strategies to live their best lives. Chris is an avid advocate of the keto and ancestral/paleo eating movements. His free course, Starting Keto Right, takes subscribers through everything they need to do to start and find success on the ketogenic diet.