For years, there have been different diet strategies churned out to the public. Diets that push low-carb intake (Atkins), clean vegetables and lean meats (paleo), low-carb, low-fat and high-protein (South Beach Diet) or completely vegan strategies.

Like most weight-loss, muscle-building diets, you must find the plan that works best for you. For athletes looking to begin a keto diet (low-carb, high fat), it is essential to understand the benefits and pitfalls of the diet before thoroughly engaging.

What is keto dieting?

Ketogenic, or keto dieting is a low-carb, high-fat diet currently pushed by celebrities and athletes alike. Now, it may sound confusing to have a diet that pushes for the consumption of fats (I thought those were bad?), but the genius of the diet lies in the fats. With the decrease in carbohydrates and increase in fat intake, your body kick starts its metabolic state, called ketosis. Through the process of ketosis, the body uses stored fats at fuel rather than carbohydrates.

Ketosis occurs during the diet as you use less carbs to fuel activity, and molecules called ketones begin to build up in the bloodstream. Low carbohydrate levels cause blood sugar levels to drop, and the body starts breaking down fat to use as energy. At this stage, your body becomes proficient in burning fats and providing fuel for activity.

Keto-Friendly Foods

  • Seafood
  • Low-carb vegetables such as raw spinach, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and zucchini
  • Cheese
  • Avocado
  • Meat and Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds like almonds, cashews and pistachios

Foods to Stay Away From

  • Beans and legumes
  • Grains
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Soda/juice drinks with high sugar levels
  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn
  • Alcohol

Benefits of Keto

While keto diets kickstart our metabolisms to burn fats to help lose weight, the diet can also help improve performance for specific athletes. Rather than relying on stored glucose (provided through carbohydrate consumption), the body instead relies on the stored fats to be burned to allow athletes to perform longer while maintaining energy levels.

Even athletes may use it to shed pounds before major events. While keto burns fats, it will help your body maintain muscle and not affect resting metabolic rate (RMR) even after it leads to significant weight loss.

Keto dieting can also provide improved recovery after activity in individuals on a diet consistently. With less glycogen being used to provide energy for exercise, you need fewer carbohydrates for the body to recover after an extensive workout. However, it will take significant time for the body to adapt to a low-carb diet, meaning recovery and performance may not be at their peak before then.

Other benefits of a keto diet include:

  • More weight loss at the start of the diet- low carb diets help rid the body of excess water during the first few weeks of dieting.
  • Increased “good” cholesterol
  • Reduced blood sugar levels
  • Lower blood pressure

What Kind of Athlete Will Benefit from a Keto diet?

Since keto dieting will burn fats rather than dip into the body’s carbohydrate/glycogen storage, athletes who engage in long duration, but low-intensity activities, are more likely to improve and sustain performance on a diet.

For example, running or cycling at a low intensity can be an excellent way to kick start fat loss while not burning carbohydrates. Because the burning of fats is a longer process, endurance athletes on a keto diet can perform for a longer duration at a lower intensity.

However, you can also use keto dieting in individuals with less ambitious performance goals. These kinds of individuals are more weekend warriors, novice athletes looking to shed unwanted fat on their daily runs or bike rides.

But Keto Isn’t Right for Everyone

Though the keto diet can provide plenty of health benefits, certain athletes should not rely on it to improve their performances. Individuals involved in anaerobic activities such as weightlifting or sprinting, should steer clear of keto dieting since carbohydrates primarily fuel anaerobic activity. With a low storage of carbohydrates and glycogen in the body, fats may not be the right diet for high-intensity, short-duration athletes. The low storage of carbohydrates can reduce exercise performance and even cause extended muscle inflammation and soreness post-exercise.

Is It Safe?

With any diet, there can be possible risks or side effects associated with the new system of eating. Some things to consider with keto dieting include:

  • The Keto Flu:  individuals first starting the diet can experience flu-like symptoms. These symptoms include nausea, fatigue, headache, irritability and weakness.
  • Excessive thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating/chills
  • Amenorrhea

How to Apply It

Successfully take part in the keto diet by breaking down the components of the diet itself to have the best outcome. Only going through the food supply in your fridge, freezer or pantry and throwing out anything with a high carbohydrate content is a good jumping-off point. Once the temptation of high-carb foods is gone, it is important to replace these foods with keto-friendly foods to make your meals around. These foods include:

  • Whole Eggs
  • Avocado
  • Olive Oil
  • Heavy Cream
  • Sour Cream
  • Salted Butter
  • Chicken Broth
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Vegetables
  • Fatty Fish - Salmon, mackerel, anchovies
Keto dieting checklist for athletes

Check the Ratio

For most people, a keto diet will consist of:

  • 70-75% fats
  • 15-20% proteins
  • 5-10% carbs, under 20 grams

Some helpful meal plans for beginners looking to do the keto diet include:

Breakfast: Fried Eggs with Veggies and Bacon

  • 2 Large Eggs
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 bacon strips
  • ¾ cup spinach
  • ½ mushrooms sautéed in bacon grease

Lunch: BLT Lettuce Wrap

  • 3 large leaves romaine lettuce
  • 6 strips of bacon
  • 2 oz. grilled chicken
  • 5 small cherry tomatoes
  • 1 oz. cheese
  • 2 tbsp mayonnaise

Dinner: Baked Salmon With Loaded Baked “Potatoes”

  • 4 oz Salmon with ½ tbsp butter
  • ¾ cauliflower steamed and mashed
  • 1 ½ tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp sour cream
  • 1 strip bacon
  • 1 tbsp scallions
  • 1.5 oz cheddar cheese

These are just a few options of meal plans on the keto diet, but you can use any combination of proteins, fats and carbs if you follow the correct ratios.

Do Your Research Before You Choose Any Diet

With the keto diet, you are creating a carbohydrate deficit that your body is likely not used to experience. Your body must take time adapting to the nutrients added or limited to your system. A ketogenic diet can be an excellent option for people who are looking to lose unwanted fat, people with diabetes or people looking to improve metabolic health. It may be less suitable for elite athletes or those wishing to add large amounts of muscle or weight. And with any diet, the benefits can only be established when individuals are consistent and stick to the plan.