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Is the Keto Diet the Right Plan for Elite Athletes?

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by Matt Weik

The ketogenic diet is a hot topic in the realm of diets these days, especially for those looking to lose weight and drop body fat. As made popular by celebrities, those following a keto diet implement a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet that goes against nearly every traditional nutrition requirement for athletes.

Yet, some athletes are using the keto diet. Are they doing more harm than good?

As you might be aware, athletes are told to consume a certain amount of carbohydrates before or during an athletic event or workout to sustain energy and help improve recovery for the next practice, game, or training session.

Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for the cells in our bodies. So, the question is, for an athlete, is the keto diet the right choice? Being that the keto diet is such a low-carb nutrition plan, is it sustainable for athletes or will it hinder their performance levels? Let’s discuss.

Should Athletes Go for Carbs or Low Carbs Like the Keto Diet for Energy?

So, for endurance athletes, like marathon runners and rowers, athletes might benefit better from a keto diet than the athletes who use and demand short bursts of energy. However, that’s still not saying that it’s the best nutrition plan out there for endurance athletes either – we’re simply trying to find a means where a keto diet could be fit into an athlete’s lifestyle.

According to Dr. Clifton Page, who is an assistant professor of orthopedics as well as family medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, keto diets are more beneficial for those who are into endurance sports but only after a period of adaptation takes place.

What exactly does that mean? Why would there be an “adaptation period” that needs to take place? Well, the truth is, your body doesn’t simply switch over from using carbohydrates as its main source of energy to fat overnight. It’s used to fuel up through consuming carbohydrates and is looking for carbohydrates to utilize and convert into energy.

It might take several months for the body to switch from using carbohydrates to using primarily fats as its primary energy resources, hence the adaptation period for the keto diet. That said, should you have a high carbohydrate meal while trying the keto diet, it could slow down the adaptation periods because you’re now taking yourself out of ketosis and reintroducing carbohydrates back into the system.

What Does the Science Say?

Research on athletes utilizing the keto diet is quite mixed at the moment – but then again, that seems to be the case with many pieces of research these days. For every piece of research showing something is effective, you’ll find another piece saying it shows no significant difference. But nonetheless, there is some research out there touting the keto diet as being effective for elite athletes.

A 2016 study evaluated the difference in metabolism between the athletes on a keto diet and those who followed a high-carbohydrate diet. The athletes following the keto diet burned 2.3 times as much fat as those who were on a high-carbohydrate diet.

This allowed the athletes to experience extended energy levels to sustain their performance over a longer period of time. This study also suggests that athletes who do endurance sports can efficiently utilize fat for energy (rather than the typical carbohydrates) that helps them to work out and train in the gym longer – as well as the keto diet supporting fat loss.

On the other hand, some research shows that the keto diet might not be the ideal nutrition plan for specific types of athletes.

When you are training or performing at a high intensity, your overall performance may be reduced on a keto diet because of low blood sugar and a lack of muscle glycogen to pull from. This is mainly the case for those athletes who are into sprint-like sports or sports that require quick and immediate bursts of energy, such as heavy weightlifting.

As mentioned, the research on the keto diet for athletes is mixed as of right now. When you switch your body into ketosis to use fat instead of carbohydrates for energy, you may find you have the ability to train for longer periods of time, but it may impact your intensity due to a lack of carbohydrates. Therefore, athletes would need to weigh the pros and cons when deciding on if they want to implement and utilize the keto diet.

Tips for Athletes on the Keto Diet

If you are ready to start the keto diet, the best and healthiest way to go about it is to include nuts, meats, avocado, dairy foods, olive oil, some fruits, and vegetables into your nutrition plan, and avoid things like shakes, dessert, keto bars, and ketogenic coffee.

Eventually, you may wish to include keto products into your nutrition plan, but to get started, the key is to start converting your fuel source from carbohydrates to fats by replacing the carbohydrates (except for fruit and various vegetables) in your diet with healthy fat options.

Timing is also important when it comes to eating carbohydrates on the keto diet. Again, this doesn’t mean slam a baked potato or a big bowl of pasta. It’s healthy carbohydrates coming from nutrient-dense vegetables. Consume them right before and directly after your workouts to help your body get ready and repair itself post-workout. Before going fully into the keto diet, it is recommended that you first lower your carbs slowly and notice how it affects your performance and how you feel in general. From there, you can decide if the keto diet is a nutrition plan you’d want to implement.

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