You know that downer at the party who turns down a dish because ‘oh sorry, I don’t eat flour’? Yeah, that’s me. I never used to be “that guy”. I was the one polishing off every dish in front of me with the raging appetite of a hungry cyclist. Until a year and a half ago, that is, when I made a major life style change and “went keto”. A lot of people have asked why. So this is a summary, as short and sweet and to the point as I can make it.
My interest in the ketogenic diet began as a means to improve my performance in long distance racing and reduce inflammation, particularly as I was having serious trouble with my knees and other joints. I began reading up on all the material I could find as it related to endurance sport. There are a number of scientific studies made on the pros and cons of a ketogenic diet, with controlled tests showing its merits and drawbacks, though to date these studies have demonstrated few drawbacks and an overwhelming number of benefits. Some of the more remarkable of these being the useful treatment against inflammation in the brain which causes epilepsy and other seizures. It is also much discussed as a diet which may help fight against, or at any rate help to slow cancer, as cancer cells primarily feed off glucose.
Most of the studies and books written were done on and by men are and I found little information focusing on the effects of a keto diet on women. So, as per my usual MO, I decided I would play the guinea pig and experiment on myself. I can only tell you what I did and the effects I felt doing it. I have no definitive data collected over the last year and a half since I have successfully crossed over to the ranks of fat adapted athletes. I have, however, done numerous blood tests over the last year which show a perfect cholesterol, liver, and red/white blood cell count. In fact, the doctor testing my blood said the numbers are so perfect it is like I have the blood of a healthy, 5-year-old child.
If you have no idea what any of this “ketogenic” stuff means, I will explain very briefly in terms that I personally understood initially coming from a place of complete ignorance on the subject. Our body can run on two kinds of fuel: glucose, which we get from carbohydrates, or ketones, which kick into gear when we start to burn fat instead of glucose.
“A ketogenic diet is quite simply any diet that forces the body into a process called ketosis, whereby fats are burned instead of carbohydrates for use as energy. A proper ketogenic diet calls for the dieter to consume high amounts of fat, adequate amounts of protein, and very low amounts of carbohydrates. Our bodies are used to turning carbohydrates into glucose to send all over the body as energy. When we enter ketosis by sufficiently limiting our carbohydrate intake, our livers start breaking down fat cells into fatty acids and ketones, to be used as energy.” –http://theketogenicdiet.org, a comprehensive site which further details all the hows, whys and whats.
A good analogy of how this translates for me as an endurance athlete, would be a car running on dirty fuel, vs. clean fuel. The body, as a machine, functions better, goes longer and does not break down as quickly running on the clean fuel that is a ketogenic diet. The most obvious and exciting effect for me in comparison to my previous high carb diet is the incredible mental and physical energy I feel even at the end of a long 300+ km day on the bike. In the past, I would collapse on the couch, unable to do much else after a hard ride, the exhaustion in my body meant my brain was in a useless fog. I would simply want to eat and sleep. Now when I come home, I can go straight into working, writing, socialising with no drop in my usual energy. I have often come back having cycled 12 hours on a capfull of coconut oil, a handful of nuts, a few slices of cheese and a couple protein bars and feel no hunger to the point that I can wait a few hours before eating a meal without turning into the Incredible Hulk–which was me on a carb diet when I did not refuel immediately. Here’s the best part: no bonking! On carbs, you absolutely must keep inbibing fuel or you will inevitably bonk the moment your glucose levels drop. Not so when you’re burning ketones. Your body gets so efficient at utilizing fat, you can run out of food and keep going for hours without any significant drop in your energy level. On a long distance, unsupported race, this can be a huge dealbreaker when you find yourself riding for long stretches with no services to refuel. It also means you have to refuel less often, ergo less stopping, and more mileage on the other riders.
The second most obvious benefit I noticed was that even during racing season, and weeks of high stress and mileage on the bike, my body would lose fat but retain muscle. Previously, I would lose both.
Third, and this is a big one for women and particularly female athletes, my hormonal balance has levelled out dramatically. It used to be all over the place, constantly changing according to how much cycling and exercise I was doing, and of course, my moods would follow. Now I never get those spikes and drops I formerly experienced. My body adapts fluidly from competing and training to the off season recovery months with little perceived hormonal fluctuation.
Fourth, I sleep better. My average is 7-8 hours a night, and I wake up feeling sharp and energetic. It used to take me a long time to wake up. Oh and did I mention the energy? Constant energy all day long. No longer do I get that attack of midday sleepiness and the call for a short afternoon nap. I also recover faster after periods of intense training. Previously I needed a day or two of rest after a harder day on the bike, now my muscles are ready to go again within a very short time.
I should mention that everybody’s bodies function a bit differently and what may work for one will not necessarily work the same for another. The ketogenic diet has many variations ranging from some “good” carbs to almost none. Some people just need more carbs, period, so it is important to figure out what works on an individual basis. I played around with it the first 6 months to find out how my body reacted and how well it could adapt to the diet. I did not go “cold turkey”, ie drop all carbs for two weeks to force the body into instant ketosis, as some do. I started by eliminating all refined carbs, grains, sugar and pulses. I continued eating plenty of rice, potatoes, fruit and other grey zone carbs, so my body did not go into any kind of dramatic withdrawl. Gradually, I reduced the quantities of those carbs during high training periods, while adding plenty of healthy fats and high fat foods to my diet like olive oil, coconut oil, butter, avocado, nuts, sheep/goat cheeses, full fat Greek yogurt and eggs.
It took those six months to figure out what worked best, noting what I had eaten on the days when I felt groggy and lacking energy to understand what I needed to add or subtract.
Today, my average diet looks more or less like this:
I get up in the morning and have a coffee or two, drink a capfull of xct oil (a condensed coconut oil you can find here: http://www.bulletproof.com/nutrition/quality-fats/ ) and either a glass of 100% natural coconut water which is full of potassium, magnesium and Vit C, or a teaspoon of tumeric powder (with a high level of curcumin and black pepper) mixed into a quarter cup of water—a natural anti-inflammatory and helps repair damage in the body. With this I will often take an aspirin with Vit C, good for maintaining a healthy heart and reducing inflammation and a couple capsules of cod liver oil for my Vit. A and D.
After this, I am fairly buzzing with enough energy to rival the Flash, and off I go on a training ride. The first food I eat will be at around 1:00 or 2:00 pm, either just back from training, or half way through a long ride. An average lunch consists of mostly vegetables, generally the green kinds—broccoli, spinach, salads, escarole, avocado, peas, zucchini, aubergines, cauliflower, sometimes beetroot, carrot, tomatoes, etc. With the vegetables, I’ll either have an omlette, a piece of oily fish or some high fat seafood, a ball of mozzarella, or very occasionally a piece of chicken or other meat. Everything is completely drowned in olive oil, and I mean swimming. The more the better. Sometimes I’ll drizzle the xct oil on top as well. I’ll cook the omlette with lots of creamy cheese and butter. Things like bacon and salami are great sources of protein and fat, and while absolutely delicious, I have stopped eating anything from pigs. They are just too intelligent, I think about eating my dog and it just hurts. Yeah, conscientious objector. I am feeling that way about most animals these days. So, eggs. Lotsa eggs.
I try to consume 200 grams of fat a day. Sometimes if I feel I need some extra calories, I’ll throw in a sweet potato, some quinoa, or wild rice. I felt like I needed it more often in the early days. Now I feel so full on the veggies, protein and oil, I rarely eat more.
Dinner is more or less the same, which I try to eat within 8 hours of my lunch. If I need to snack between meals, I always have a container of mixed nuts to hand. Sometimes I’ll eat some berries and seeds with Greek yogurt, or make a coconut or goat milk shake with protein collagen powder.
Basically, I fast 16 hours out of 24, whether I am training or not. My body does not get hungry, it burns the fat slowly and efficientlly and goes on burning it at the same rate all day long, because it is not worried about the next time I will feed it.
Alcohol. Everybody wants to know about that one. I drink wine every single day. Proud wino right here. I believe it is the secret to a long and healthy life. It is an antioxidant and great for maintaining a healthy heart. Ask almost any centinarian or really healthy older person you know and you will find nearly the lot of them drink wine. Something about the fermentation of the wine seems to have little effect in raising glucose levels like other alcohols. Not the sweet desert wines, but that seems obvious. No sugary cocktails. Not ever. Sometimes a straight up whisky in the winter. The point of everything in life is moderation. If you cannot drink a glass or two without ending up dancing on the bar top three bottles later, then better not to go there at all. I avoid beer though I have occasionally cheated at the end of a long ride when I felt like one. Because life’s too short not to, right?
Speaking of cheating, yes, I do. Once your body is fat adapted it can swing in and out of ketosis fairly easily, so one slice of your favourite treat once in awhile is not going to destroy months of good behaviour. When I came back from my last race I treated myself to the best ever Napoletan pizza. It tasted wonderful right before its after effects kicked in: groggy, a bit of a headache and my stomach felt like it was working overtime. Flour is a drug. That is why people are addicted to it. So when you cheat make it count.
That is it really. I am curious to hear from other athletes, women or anyone who have gone over to the Keto side, about your experience of it. Below I am posting a couple links to some good resources with further info for anyone interested to know more. Also I would recommend two great books which go into the diet, its benefits and the whole lifestyle, particularly as it relates to endurance sport. The first is called Primal Endurance by Mark Sisson. The second, which is an incredibly interesting story and read is Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall.
http://www.ruled.me/ketogenic-diet-food-list/ for a complete list of foods as an easy guide of what to eat and drink.
http://www.dominicdagostino.com the guy doing the science, with interesting info on all the benefits, but particularly check out his studies on
- Practical Information on Ketogenic Diets, by Dominic D’Agostino
- Metabolic Strategies for Neurodegenerative Diseases and Cancer