Keto-adaptation: Is It Right for You?

ketogenic foodsKeto-adaptation is the process of transitioning your body from relying mostly on glucose (carbs) to fat for fuel instead.  As we discussed in a previous article, glucose is used for quick, explosive movement while fat is used as energy for longer durations of exercise at a slower pace.  When the body does not get enough glucose to replenish the liver and muscles, it begins to convert fat into ketones.  Ketones are your body’s solution to a glucose shortage and are used in many of the same instances as glucose would be used.  This includes supplying energy to the brain and muscles.

The process to becoming keto-adapted is pretty simple (mind you, simple and easy are not synonymous).  To become keto-adapted, you simply need to stay under 50 grams of carbs per day.

Simple?  Sure.

Easy? Nope.

You will be giving up a lot of common foods like breads, pastas, grains, starches, and starchy fruits.  They just have too many carbs, not to mention they are not very nutrient-dense and you will need to make every carb you consume count.

“That seems like a lot of restriction…doesn’t sound very healthy.”

Doesn’t sound healthy?  Is it worse than the garbage most people shove down their gullet day in and day out?  Didn’t think so.

“Touché, Jacob.  You are as witty as you are handsome.  But WHY should I try to become keto-adapted?  What benefits does it have over my current eating habits?”

  • You can stay leaner while exercising less.  Exhibit B of this series of studies takes 3 groups of highly trained endurance athletes and puts them each on a different diet.  Group A is the baseline, Group B adopts a high-carb, low-fat diet, and Group C adopts the inverse, low-carb, high-fat.  From there they tracked the maximal power output, VO2 max, calories consumed, body fat percentages, and training volume.  What they found was that the keto group performed at the same level as the others (similar max power output and VO2 max).  What’s interesting though is that the keto group ate 200-350 calories more than the other 2 groups and retained comparable body fat percentages all while exercising LESS than the other groups.  That’s right, their training volume was 8.7-9.3% lower than the other 2 groups!  Now that’s efficiency, baby!
  • No more crashes. Not car crashes…CARB crashes.  Carb-adapted individuals need to constantly fuel themselves or face the dreaded sugar crash.  Not only does this wreck havoc on your insulin levels, but it’s terribly inconvenient to be needing to eat every 2-3 hours.  The benefit of being fat-adapted is that your meals no longer cause an insulin dump in your body leading to a sugar crash shortly afterwards.  Since your body is trained to burn fat as its main fuel source, you won’t experience those crashes since everyone carries a substantial reserve around with them (aka body fat).  Missed lunch today?  No need to panic.  Skipped breakfast?  No brain fog.  Intermittent fasting becomes a breeze.  My personal fasting record is 3 days.  Felt a little hungry, but otherwise fine.
  • You’ll get more benefit from the carbs you DO eat.  Eating low carb increases your insulin sensitivity and makes your mitochondria operate more efficiently.  End result?  The carbs you do eat are used to their fullest and you’ll be running on NOS.
  • Performance might actually improve…a little.  Exhibits D&E cover athletic performance while on a ketogenic diet.  The chart from Exhibit D shows the performance of 2 groups of gymnasts.  The keto group performs slightly better than their peers.  This could be chalked up to simply falling into the margin of error range, but with all the other benefits we’ve covered, I’d be willing to wager there’s some definite correlation.

While eating a keto diet may provide a plethora of benefits, I would be remiss not to cover some issues that might arise while transitioning to a ketogenic diet:

  • You’ll probably get the flu.  No, not the viral kind.  As you’re body transitions from primarily burning carbs to fat, there’s typically a low period where it’s not getting the carbs it’s used to, but it’s also not effectively burning fat.  During this time, you’ll experience flu-like symptoms including aches, brain fog and fatigue.  The first time I went low-carb, I experienced this low-carb flu for about 2 days.  Some other people I have talked to said theirs lasted closer to 2 weeks.  It all depends on the individual.  Just ride it out.
  • Electrolyte imbalances.  Water is stored with the glucose in your muscles.  As the glucose supply goes, so does a LOT of water weight.  I have dropped anywhere from 5-8 pounds of water weight in the past when switching to a low carb diet.  With the water goes a lot of your salt and potassium.
  • You might get cramps.  I didn’t have this issue, but I know others who have.  This is due to the electrolyte imbalances.

“Gee…that all sounds very unpleasant.  Is there anything I can do to ease the symptoms as I transition to a ketogenic diet?”

Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to help keep you on your feet.

  • Take baby steps instead of going cold turkey.  If going cold turkey is too much, slowly lower the amount of carbs you eat every few days until you get under 50 grams.  This takes longer, but will give your body time to slowly adjust to the changes.
  • Replace relatively empty carbs with nutrient-dense options.  Grains, cereals, and starchy foods are typically not as nutrient-dense as vegetables like broccoli, spinach, kale, onions, etc.  Switching to healthier options will not only make it easier to reach your low-carb goal, but the extra nutrients will make the transition easier.
  • Begin sprinting regularly a few months before the transition.  Sprinting (reasons 1,4,&5 in the link) encourages the body to burn fat, giving your metabolism a head start on the process.  Sprinting also raises the threshold that determines what level of exertion your body can endure before it must switch from burning fat to burning carbs.  Higher exertion levels while still burning fat for fuel?  Sounds like a win in my book!
  • Take supplements.  Specifically potassium and magnesium.  Also, be sure to salt EVERYTHING.  You’ll need about 2 teaspoons of salt a day to help balance your electrolytes.
  • Eat extra fat during the transition.  This will give you more energy so you don’t feel like a puddle.  It also encourages your body to make the switch.
  • Drink caffeine.  Admit it…you don’t even care about the reasons.  You’re just looking for the go-ahead to continue your caffeine addiction.  Just keep your coffee black or use heavy whipping cream instead of those sugar-laced creamers.
  • Don’t cheat!  Going above the keto range during the transition will put you back at square one and all that hard work will be for naught.  Just don’t do it!

So there you have it in a rather lengthy nutshell.  Training in a ketogenic state isn’t for everyone, but I would strongly encourage you to at least give it a shot.

Have you trained ketogenic in the past?  Are you ketogenic now?  Share your experiences down below in the comment section and tell us what worked for you!

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