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My take on the KETO diet and its effects on athletic performance

CAUTION: This is going to be a lengthy post as I will be sharing my thoughts on the controversial Ketogenic Diet. I was actually asked about this by ex PBA player Ali Peek last October 2018, wherein that time there weren’t controversial interviews and arguments yet about this fad diet.

Pero sinabi ko sa sarili ko na hindi muna ako magbibigay ng public opinion about the topic, not until I have applied to myself what I know and produced results for my current clients. So I decided to wait and also do my home work and today I think I can confidently share my piece about this topic.

Also, I want to be able to show a different angle in this hot issue coming from a viewpoint and experiences not only as a Registered Nutritionist-Dietitian but as a Nutrition Coach.

Beyond giving diet prescriptions and meal plans, my job as a Nutrition Coach really is to lead our clients to a mindset and lifestyle of sustainable healthy eating. Whether they are athletes, businessmen, executives, and even medical doctors. My utmost responsibility will always be the long-term benefits of their investment with me.

My discussion about the ketogenic diet will be on its effects on (1) weight management, (2) physique improvements and (3) exercise performance, since ito naman talaga ang pinagkakaguluhan natin ngayon.

As we all know, the ketogenic diet is a nutrition regimen that provides very high amount of fat and very little carbohydrates in the diet to force the body to produce ketone bodies (ketosis) that in turn attempts to replace carbohydrates/glucose as the body’s main source of energy. As we’ve been told, the ketogenic diet is originally intended as medical nutrition therapy for epilepsy. But nowadays, people aren’t really doing it to promote brain health. People are now doing the keto diet because they want to lose weight, to get ripped, or to achieve “improved” athletic performance. And this is what’s really stirring the controversy.

Sino nga ba naman ang hindi mae—excite sa keto diet? Papayat ka na at gaganda pa ang katawan mo kahit na kumain ka ng masasarap or minsan ng mga alam nating bawal. Tulad ng mga napapanood natin sa mga trending social media feeds na pwedeng pwede pala kumain ng chicharon na pangpapayat!

Pero ano nga ba talaga ang totoong itsura ng isang ketogenic meal kumpara sa isang standard Filipino meal at sa kung ano ang pinapagawa ko sa mga kliyente namin bilang isang nutrition coach?

A ketogenic diet would usually provide 5% carbs, 20% protein, and 75% fat of the daily total calorie allowance of a person. A typical Filipino diet prescription provides 55-70% carbs, 10-15% protein, 20-30% fat (source FEL). In my practice as a nutrition coach, I usually give 45-55% carbs, 25-30% protein, 20-25% fat. Proportions will vary depending on (1) goals, (2) activity level, and (3) If the client is engaged in sports.

Macro distribution will vary on type of sport and training periodization. Active individuals would generally get higher carb allowance while sedentary and overweight clients would generally get the lower range of carb allowance.

In a ketogenic diet, you get to eat enormous amounts of fat, ideally healthy fat, such as avocado, coconut, coconut milk and oil, olive oil and any other vegetable oil, nuts and nut butters, egg yolks, butter, cheese. You get to eat small portions of protein like meat, fish and seafoods, poultry and eggs. You can eat tiny servings of very low carb vegetables like leafy greens, veggies from the cabbage family, cucumber, zucchini, mushroom, and tomatoes.

But here’s what you cannot eat: most dairy (OMG hindi ka na pwede mag ice cream!), most fruits (kahit anong fruit bawal?), grains (so what’s gonna happen to adobo and rice or pork sinigang and rice?), beans and legumes, rootcrops and tubers like potatoes and sweet potatoes, and of course desserts. Hmmm…

A ketogenic diet would typically produce faster weight loss compared to a regular diet for the following reasons:

  1. By merely restricting carbohydrates, even if same daily calorie intake, stored glucose in the body will be mobilized. Within 2-3 days, glycogen (stored glucose) will be used up and in the process eliminating some body water (because glycogen is stored together with water). So the initial weight loss is usually because of reduction in body water, which is usually regained once normal eating pattern has resumed.

  2. With the depletion of carb stores, body fat stores together with fat from the diet are then used for energy as ketone bodies.

  3. The consumption of low carb diet generally results to higher protein and higher fat intake. I mentioned low carb, because to tell you frankly, many people who thought they’re doing a keto diet are actually just doing a low carb diet.

High consumption of protein and fat can result to lower overall calorie intake because of increased satiety and less feeling of hunger, which means you eat less. And when you eat less, you use your excess weight or body fat for energy. So basically, it's the eating less part that makes you lose weight.

A recently published study concluded that there really is no difference in weight loss over a period of 12 months among overweight adults when following a low carb or a low fat diet. It is the eating less and eating whole minimally processed foods that produces weight loss. (Gardner, JAMA 2018).

So what is my advise? Will the ketogenic diet help you? Kung ako ang tatanungin niyo, I would say that it is a legitimate dietary regimen…for medical nutrition therapy. Yes our bodies can use ketone bodies for energy in extreme situations such as starvation, but it doesn’t mean that we should under normal conditions. It’s like drinking alcohol, we know our bodies can detoxify it and metabolize it for storage or for energy, but it doesn’t mean we consume it for daily sustenance right? Clearly, I do not advocate the ketogenic diet as a means to weight loss.

I was already asked a couple of times to do it for different clients for the purpose of weight loss. But I declined. If your goal is just to lose weight, I believe the recently published research has already given us the answer. Personally, knowing how we Filipinos eat, leaving out rice from our diet will challenge not just our food preference but also our relationships. Because eating rice for us is a culture, it’s a tradition.

And I just want to be clear, people gain weight not because of eating rice or carbs but because of excessive intake of simple carbohydrates coupled with frequent consumption of fried foods. So if weight loss is your primary goal, the first thing that you need to do is to EVALUATE WHAT YOU ARE EATING and not just take out carbs from your current diet. Next, be conscious of HOW MUCH YOU ARE EATING. This is where it gets tricky. You really need to consult a qualified professional to know how much food you should really consume if you’re the type of person who has poor awareness on personal satiety levels. Also, take note WHEN ARE YOU EATING. Are you consuming food because you are really hungry? Or maybe because it is just out of habit. And lastly, consider also WHY YOU ARE EATING a particular food item.

So before thinking of diving in to complex diet ideas, think about first of what you’re eating. Because by merely consuming whole minimally processed foods, even without measuring at the start, this can already produce significant health and weight loss improvements. So four things: WHAT, HOW MUCH, WHEN AND WHY ARE YOU EATING are the things that you should think about if all you want is to lose weight.

Now if you’re goal is to get lean, then you better be ready with the trade-offs that you need to do in order to get that toned body especially those rock hard abs. And these “sacrifices” doesn't only concern food. When it comes to getting lean, 3 things come into play: nutrition, exercise, and sleep. Your nutrition program should provide you with sufficient amount of calories with the right proportion of macronutrients such that fat loss is maximized and lean mass is maintained without sacrificing exercise performance. Because you will have to exercise not just 3-4 times a week but as much as 5-6x/week 2x/day. And you have to make sure that you get as much as 9 hours of sleep depending on how low you would want your body fat percentage to be. This kind of lifestyle requires a lot of planning and may sometimes make you dissociate your self from social gatherings or even from your own family routines.

Now, we should not confuse this with the special needs of bodybuilders and physique athletes. A low carb diet regimen is really routinely used by them but ONLY during the cutting phase, wherein exercise intensity and duration is also altered. Strict nutrition regimens that are totally contradictory to the principles of good nutrition are done purposefully to achieve the desired body composition and appearance for the sport of bodybuilding. But you also need to know that it is when they look their best that they are at their weakest. Sakripisyo talaga, all for the love of their sport.

Therefore, when it comes to enhancing sport performance I strongly discourage athletes in following the ketogenic diet. Exercise performance is 50% nutrition and 50% conditioning (strength and skills). Yes, your talent and skills as athletes can bring you to a certain level, but your nutrition can bring you to a higher level.

You see, there is a complex dynamics between energy metabolism and fuel availability. Our body’s dependence on carbohydrates for energy increases with intensity of exercise. Conversely, fat energy is relied on during low to moderate intensity exercises (45-65% VO2max). But it doesn't mean that one energy system shuts off when the other is being utilized, it’s just that the dependency on one energy system is greater relative to exercise intensity. And as athletes, you are constantly subjected and are expected to perform at high intensity training.

Consuming a high fat diet will limit your exercise capacity during periods of high training load, hence nutrition periodization is a crucial approach to an athlete’s nutrition regimen.

I hope I was able to shed some light on this controversial diet. My objective really is to bring clarity on what its effect would be depending on your goals.

Have you tried the Keto Diet? What were your reasons for doing this diet? Let me know in the comments section below.

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