Category Archives: Diet

An Unbiased, Objective Keto Breakdown: Is It Right For You?


I have no stake in the Keto game; I neither love nor hate the diet. I’ve done it for a few months, which I think is crucial when critiquing any diet. It’s important to experience something yourself before recommending or discouraging someone else from using it, particularly as a nutritionist. There are aspects of the diet that I like and aspects that I dislike. Keto is by far the hottest weight loss diet right now, and naturally every diet will have its benefits and drawbacks.

Dieting is both very simple and very complex. You have to find the right method of restricting your calorie intake. While the idea of restricting calories is elementary, the follow through is what most people struggle with. They know what to do, they just can’t do it. What is the easiest way for you to control your calorie intake over a sustained period of time? Could it be Keto?


Benefits

Weight Loss

The number one reason most people experiment with the ketogenic diet is for weight loss. As we mentioned, the number one key to success with weight loss is the person’s ability to comply with the diet over a long period of time. The ketogenic diet is restrictive… but also not. Hear me out. The diet is restrictive in the sense that you are essentially eliminating an entire macronutrient group, carbohydrates. No more fruits, bread, pasta, starches, grains etc. In that regard the diet seems very restrictive. But you have to consider what happens when you consume carbohydrates. You get a surge of energy due to a spike in blood glucose levels, followed by a subsequent drop in said glucose. This leads to low energy, more hunger, and cravings for more carbs. Hard to stay on a diet when you’re feeling ‘hangry’ every three hours.

Since you are not ingesting carbohydrates on the ketogenic diet, your blood sugar remains stable all day every day. Hunger pangs become much less frequent, and you’ll often find yourself going hours without the thought of food entering your mind. This is a huge plus for any dieter.

However, achieving a caloric deficit is still vital. If there is any metabolic benefit to the ketogenic diet, it is minor. You cannot simply remove carbs, eat pepperoni and cheese all day, and expect to lose weight. You have to eat responsibly.

Brain Health/Disease Prevention

Many people report improvements in mental clarity on keto. The brain can use both glucose and ketones (the energy derived from fat metabolization) to function. These reports are largely anecdotal, as it would be difficult to measure differences in mental acuity from glucose vs. ketones since there are so many other variables involved. In addition, would it necessarily be the ketones providing the improved brain function or is it the stability in blood glucose?

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the ketogenic diet is its effect on neurodegenerative diseases. As mentioned before, the brain can use both glucose and ketones for energy. However, glucose is the preferred energy source. If glucose is available, the brain (and body in most cases) will use it. Many neurodegenerative diseases are based upon the brain’s inability to use glucose. By starving the body of glucose and consuming high amounts of fats, it allows ketones to become the main fuel source and gives the brain an alternate fuel to use.

This ideology applies to certain forms of cancer as well. Many cancer cells rely on glucose to thrive and grow. These same cells are unable to utilize ketones. Once again, starving the body of glucose and using ketones as its main energy source may be helpful in mitigating the effects of certain diseases. (Note: I am not a doctor, just telling you what I know).

Low Inflammation

Carbohydrates cause inflammation to some degree, largely based on the type and quality of carbohydrate. Inflammation has its place and function, but too much can lead to pain, disease, etc. Although I feel the gluten intolerance narrative is largely overblown, there are some people that truly have a hard time digesting gluten. The same applies to dairy. If you are a person with say, chronic joint pain, perhaps a low carb or keto diet can help alleviate the symptoms.

Endurance Athletes

The body has multiple energy systems when it comes to exercise. The energy system you use is based on both the intensity and duration of the activity. Endurance athletes use mainly the slow glycolytic (carbohydrate fueled) and beta oxidative (fat fueled) energy systems. Carbohydrate storage has a limited capacity, eventually the body will turn to fats for fuel. Fats are a robust energy source, they can sustain activity for a very long time. Unfortunately, most people are so reliant on carbs that they have a hard time making the transition to fats when carbohydrate stores run low.

Ever heard of a runner getting his ‘second wind?’ This occurs when they have made the switch from carbs to fats. An aerobic athlete can forgo this period of fatigue if they are running on fats from the very beginning.


Drawbacks

The Delicate State That is Ketosis

Your body wants to use carbs for energy. It’s dying to use carbs for energy. Carbs are truly the body’s preferred energy source. Anyone who has done the ketogenic diet for an extended period knows that it is not only hard to get into ketosis, it’s hard to stay in ketosis. The only way to truly know is to use a blood ketone meter, which I own. I can tell you from experience, blood ketone levels fluctuate all day every day, leaving you questioning what you’re doing wrong… or right. Point is, it can be a frustrating experience.

You may experience gut issues when making the transition from a carbohydrate-based diet to a fat-based diet. I’ll spare you the details, but you may become well acquainted with your lavatory.

The worst thing that can happen is being in what I call ‘no man’s land’, where you are consuming too many carbs to get into ketosis but not enough to fuel your day-to-day activity.

The Long Term Sustainability of Elimination Diets

Will you really be able to avoid cake, pizza, and ice cream for the rest of your life? Better yet, should you? The body wants to achieve homeostasis and thus will adjust to anything you do (within reason). If you avoid carbs for a long period you will lose the ability to tolerate carbs. You will produce less of the digestive enzymes to break down carbs. This is why I suggest cycling off of keto every few months and slowly re-introduce carbs back into your diet, just for a week or so.

Anaerobic Sport Performance

Earlier we touched on the keto diet’s application to endurance sports. We mentioned how endurance athletes utilize both carbs and fats during exercise. This is not the case for all sports. Anaerobic sports like football, sprinting, hockey, and mixed martial arts among others primarily utilize creatine and carbohydrates for energy. Rarely will the athlete utilize fats unless they are completely depleted. Even then, the beta oxidative system that utilizes fats will not be able to keep up with the high speed nature of the sport and thus the athlete’s performance will suffer greatly.

Included in these anaerobic sports is bodybuilding. If you are a gym rat looking to put on as much muscle as possible, then the keto diet is just not optimal. I’m not saying it’s impossible to add muscle, that would be an irresponsible statement. However, the lack of carbs will negatively impact anabolism and performance in the gym. The glycolytic energy system is a major component of bodybuilding.

Making the Mental Shift

This is rarely discussed but in my opinion is the biggest barrier to success with the ketogenic diet. We have been brought up in a world that heavily markets low fat or fat free foods, dressings, desserts, and meals. When you are bombarded with this for your entire life, it becomes hard to accept anything else as true.

I know fats are important for many aspects of overall health and wellness. Hell, I know saturated fats are important. But I must admit, it was hard to make the mental shift and accept the fact that I have to eat upwards of 200g of fat per day in order to get into a state of ketosis. All too often I have people come up to me asking for advice on keto and in almost every situation they are eating too much protein and/or not enough fat. They experience the ‘no man’s land’ state that I alluded to earlier.


Conclusion

Keto is MOST appropriate for:

  1. Sedentary people looking to lose weight and improve their health
  2. People who may be predisposed to certain diseases
  3. Endurance athletes

Keto may not be ideal for:

  1. Anaerobic athletes or people looking to gain maximal amounts of muscle
  2. People who live a lifestyle in which they cannot consistently consume meals that allow them maintain a state of ketosis.

Why Reverse Dieting is Nearly Impossible

Dieting for a bodybuilding show is one of the most challenging things a person can do. Life is stressful as it is, and during a contest prep there’s no junk food to turn to for relief when work and relationships are kicking your ass. A typical contest prep diet usually lasts about 12 weeks, with cardio making an unwanted guest appearance late in the process. The body does not want to be at low body fat levels, and it will do everything in its power to stop you from getting there.

After showtime has come and gone, many fitness coaches recommend that their client go through a reverse diet. A reverse diet is a systematic and slow increase in calories over a period of time to rebuild what is a now a slow churning metabolism. Metabolism is directly related to calorie intake; if your intake is low then your metabolic rate will slow to adjust to that level. On the surface, it may appear that a bodybuilding competitor has a furnace-like metabolism, but that is likely not the case. Aside from the genetically gifted, most competitors have to go through hell to be stage ready.

Reverse dieting seems quite logical. Slow increases in calories will allow the metabolism to rev up and minimize body fat accumulation in the process. A typical reverse diet will have the client adding about 10g of carbs and 5g of fat to their macronutrient totals each week. Sounds like a reasonable course of action aside from one thing; there is a huge margin of error when it comes to calorie counting.

Lets say you go to the grocery store and pick up a box of granola bars. The nutrition facts panel on the side of the box is an approximation. In fact, the FDA allows for up to 20% error on these labels. This revelation nearly throws the concept of reverse dieting out the window. You could be meticulous and perfect and weigh and track every food item, yet still be inaccurate. The only way to know exactly how many calories are in something is to put the food in an instrument called a bomb calorimeter. In a nutshell, this instrument burns the food and measures the heat generated to determine the calorie content. I assure you that many foods have not gone through this process. This is not what strict MyFitnessPal users want to hear, but it’s the truth.

So what’s the answer when it comes to post contest dieting? Personally, I have my clients go back to their pre-contest maintenance level. Will they put on body fat in the process? Probably. Is that a bad thing? No. No one will claim that bodybuilding is healthy. Walking around at dangerously low body fat levels is not optimal for hormone function and general health. Plus, I think it’s a bit irresponsible to have a client go on a 12 week reverse diet immediately after a 12 week contest prep diet. No one should be dieting for half a year.

I’m not saying reverse dieting does not or can not work. I understand the concept, but just believe the implementation is nearly impossible. Theory and practice are two different things.

How Do We Burn Fat? Do Fat Burning Supplements Work?

The process of burning stored body fat is often misunderstood, so why don’t we set the record straight right off the bat.  Your body is constantly releasing, burning, and storing body fat.  Our adipose (fat) tissue is full of stored triglycerides that we would ideally like to oxidize to get the lean, sculpted physique we desire.  A triglyceride consists of three fatty acids held together by a glycerol backbone.  Interestingly, the fatty acids don’t have to be the same.  One triglyceride molecule can contain a combination of different saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, etc. fatty acids.

When a stored triglyceride is released, the glycerol backbone breaks off and the fatty acids enter the bloodstream.  However, it is important to note that the process does not end here.  You still have to oxidize, or burn the fatty acids, ideally via exercise (although we can still burn fat at rest as well).  Otherwise, the fatty acids can become a stored triglyceride all over again through a process called re-esterification.  What a shame it would be to release stored body fat only for it to return home again.  Remember when I said the body is constantly releasing, burning, and storing body fat?  The cycle never ends.

So how can optimize this process and release and burn more than we store?  The primary method is by achieving a caloric deficit.  Boring answer I know, but hey that’s science.  A caloric deficit can be achieved by consuming less calories in our diet and/or burning more with exercise.  We can also increase our metabolic rate so that we burn more at rest.  The primary method of increasing resting metabolic rate is adding more lean muscle, which burns more calories compared to adipose tissue.

Where do fat burning supplements come into play?  How do they work, if at all?  They actually perform a little bit of each fat burning component; suppressing appetite and increasing metabolic rate.  This is achieved mainly through the stimulant-based ingredients.  Caffeine, yohimbine, and ephedrine can all help suppress appetite, thus leading to less calories consumed.  More important, however, is their hormonal effect.

Certain ingredients in fat burners can increase hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine.  These hormones signal the release of stored triglycerides into the blood to (hopefully) be oxidized.  In addition, a quality thermogenic should have adequate doses of the amino acid carnitine, which helps fatty acids enter the mitochondria of the cell to be converted to energy.  This is why most fat burning supplements instruct you to take them prior to exercise.  Remember what we said earlier, fatty acids can be re-esterified back into adipose tissue even after being released.  If you’re not an active person, these supplements really won’t do much for you.

At the very least we can agree that the scientific theory is there, but is it worth the cost?  Thermogenic supplements generally range anywhere from $50 to $100.  In my opinion, while the logical mechanism to burn fat is somewhat evident, the research is still iffy at best.  Also, there is an unreasonable expectation that these supplements will cause massive changes in body composition.  In the end, you still have to put forth the effort in the gym, which most are simply unwilling to do.  If you have the disposable income to purchase a fat burner, along with the willingness to still train hard, then by all means do so.  If you have your doubts about the research and don’t want to fork over the cash, then I wouldn’t fault you there either.

Hopefully my concluding statement didn’t appear like a cop-out.  Thermogenic supplements are ‘okay.’  Personally, I usually go with an ephedrine/caffeine stack rather than purchase a supplement off a store shelf.  It is cost efficient and gets the job done.

Why We Need to Stop Demonizing Sugar

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Any conversation with a knowledgeable nutritionist will likely result in frustration for the enthusiastic answer seeker. The reason being, very few things in nutrition are black and white. The answer to many of these ‘is this food good or bad’ questions is ‘it depends.’ Aside from trans fats, I would have a hard time coming up with a nutrient that is unequivocally bad and provides no benefit of any kind. In recent years, sugar has overtaken fat as the culprit for our country’s obesity and health problems. Are we casting blame in the right place?

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What is Sugar?

It bothers me when I hear people, especially doctors, use the words sugar, carbohydrates, and glucose interchangeably. They are not the same. Sugar is a disaccharide, consisting of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. Stay with me here, I won’t get too ‘sciencey’ on you. Glucose is our body’s preferred energy source. It provides energy for our brain (good), exercise (good), can be stored in muscle cells as glycogen (good), and stored in fat cells (not so good). So one half of the equation is pretty good, glucose has some definite benefits for us. Fructose, on the other hand, is much more limited. Fructose is stored in the liver as glycogen (no problems there). However, the capacity of our liver glycogen will eventually fill up. Once it reaches capacity, the excess fructose has to go somewhere. Unlike glucose, fructose can’t be used by most of our cells. Excess fructose in the liver is converted to triglycerides, which can then be stored as fat (not good).

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Should Fructose be Avoided Completely?

As mentioned, fructose is metabolized in the liver. What many don’t realize is that your liver is a huge organ, it’s about the size of a football. In times of need, like during low carb dieting, fasting, sleeping, or exercising, your liver will pump out that stored glycogen to be used. Your pancreas will secrete a hormone called glucagon to signal the liver to release stored glycogen in these situations. Point is, those glycogen stores in the liver will deplete over time, so fructose does serve a purpose. While it wouldn’t be optimal to get the majority of your carbohydrates from fructose, it shouldn’t be avoided altogether.

It is clear that an optimal diet would consist of proportionately more glucose than fructose, as glucose can provide more for us overall. Starchy carbohydrates like rice, sweet potatoes, and oats are nearly 100% glucose. However, glucose is not completely absolved of wrongdoing. Remember that any glucose not used for immediate energy, brain function, or storage as muscle glycogen will be stored in fat cells. You need to be mindful of your current situation, and not overeat starchy carbohydrates either.

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What About Healthier Sugars Like Agave

Marketing is extraordinary. You may find agave in the organic/healthy section of your supermarket. However, agave is about 75% fructose, which is even more than the dreaded high fructose corn syrup.

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Final Verdict

In general, do most people eat too much sugar? Absolutely. But, they overeat on starches and fats as well. It would irresponsible to cast blame on one nutrient for our collective health problems. Remember Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is often to correct one. Collectively, we eat too much and exercise too little.

Don’t Ruin Flexible Dieting For the Rest of Us

Flexible dieting, also known as IIFYM, is the most polarizing diet protocol in the fitness world right now.  Users punch their information into a total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) calculator, which then spits out a caloric value and individual macronutrient totals.  The idea behind flexible dieting is that weight loss and weight gain is based primarily on calorie (and subsequently macronutrient) intake.  Thus, food choices are considered somewhat irrelevant as long as one hits their daily macronutrient goals.  It’s hard to argue this point since any intelligent dietitian or nutritionist will tell you that thermodynamics is the basis of any successful diet.  Even the ketogenic diet, which completely changes the body’s primary fuel source, brings thermodynamics into play.  It’s unclear whether or not ketones are metabolically advantageous.  Even if they are, the question becomes ‘how advantageous are they compared to carbs?’  Odds are: not enough to make a considerable difference, but I digress.

The reason flexible dieting is so polarizing is because of an assumption about the diet that is often ignored.  The assumption is that the dieter is getting adequate micronutrients and fiber every day.  If the person is fulfilling this need, then quite frankly it’s hard to eat ‘junk’ all day.  You need a variety of nutrient dense whole foods to get the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that is vital for optimal health.  The problem is… most people aren’t doing this.  And it’s not just a few people ruining the reputation of the diet for the noble IIFYMers either.  Social media makes things very transparent.  Our precious fitspo and fitfam hashtags reveal that people are doing this on a daily basis.

I call this phenomena ‘macro hoarding.’  It occurs when someone consumes mainly protein during breakfast and lunch, thus leaving a ton of fat and carbs left to be used on desserts, pizza, candy, etc. at night.  This is fine once in a while; like a night out with friends where a drunken diner run is almost inevitable.  This is actually a smart, strategic move to keep yourself on track.  Doing this on a daily basis however is not what this diet was designed for, and quite frankly may be a precursor to an eating disorder or at the very least a warped relationship with food.  Flexible dieting is about freedom, not a free-for-all.

Don’t be the one to take advantage of the system.  Do it with your diet and it’ll be a matter of time before it translates to other aspects of your life.