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The Ketogenic Diet: A Life Without Carbohydrates

The Ketogenic Diet: A Life Without Carbohydrates

Carbs. They’ve been a part of our lives ever since we can remember and the last thing our Mom and Dad ever told us about was how they should be limited and restricted. Now, I say restricted with a grain of salt, because I believe it places a negative connotation on something so positive. So, for the remainder of the article, we’ll refer to restricting carbohydrate intake as just limiting them. Anyways, a well-formulated ketogenic diet brings us to the question...

Can athletes actually maintain a diet high in fat and low in carbs?

YES!

Good news guys – you can be Keto and still kick ass as an athlete. The chances of it working in the long run? Well, that question is all up to YOU. From the very beginning, much like this opening article, placing a positive attitude and connotation on implementing a keto diet into your lifestyle is huge! How long you’ll last and if this new diet will become a lifestyle all depends on your mindset going in and the quality of advice and information you seek out on how to formulate your diet. While there are numerous forms of ‘low carbohydrate diets’ and there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all when it comes to nutrition, avoiding the pitfall of reducing carbs without replacing them with energy packed foods in their place is major.

The Ketogenic Diet Mindset

Athletes and non-athletes alike know the importance of mindset when approaching any type of task or adversity. We all know it’s important, but we have to realize the importance of being realistic. The keto diet honestly doesn’t work for everyone. Just like every other diet. Finding the diet that is right for your goals, needs, and lifestyle is the most important part. You may have tried low carb diets in the past and failed, and you may very well be wary to try one again. But with the proper guidance through keto-adaptation with a reasonably simple and satisfying weight-maintaining diet, many great things can be athletically accomplished.

So what does mindset have to do with it? If you don’t believe that a low carbohydrate or ketogenic lifestyle is safe or sustainable, or even right for you, then chances are, it won’t be. But if you are willing to change that same negative mindset into a positive one, and are willing to seek out the proper answers and guidance, with the confidence and willpower to succeed, the dietary strategy behind the ketogenic and low-carbohydrate lifestyles will work for you.

**MYTH BUSTER** Within the class of nutrients classified as ‘carbohydrates’, there actually is no single molecule that is essential for human health and/or well-being. This definitely doesn’t mean that blood sugar is completely unimportant, but rather than blood sugar can be well-maintained via metabolic processes such as gluconeogenesis without dietary carbohydrates in the keto-adapted human.

Cut the Crap – Reducing Your Carbohydrate Intake

It’s extremely important to fixate our mindset on the idea that the journey is the joy of the process, not just the end. The same idea can be applied to setting out on a carb cutting journey. Americans and much of the world have very strong mental and emotional ties to carbohydrates. It’s a way of life, its part of our lifestyles and culture, it just simply goes against modern day cultural thinking to cut out carbs. But just because you’re taking the right steps in the carb cutting direction doesn’t mean you’re going to change the representation or image of yourself within your roles of family and society – it simply means that you are making an adjustment to take an interest and investment in your health. It’s an adjustment, and at first sounds simple, but as you quickly find yourself in the thick of it, it’s extremely important to fuel your journey by educating yourself as much as possible on the carbohydrate and fat contents of the foods you currently eat. It also helps to develop a consistent and fluid shopping list to ensure having various low-carb foods on reserve. Given a modest amount of effort and mental investment, over time implementing meals, shopping trips, and food into your lifestyle will take the guessing game out of your food requirements.

How Low Should I Cut My Carbs?

Creating an environment within your body to be at a nutritional state of ketosis and maintaining it long enough to complete full keto-adaptation requires effort and time; to be exact, it’s about 2-4 weeks of carbohydrate restriction. While the specific amount/numbers of carbs to restrict in order to optimize fat burning and fat loss varies from individual to individual, most efforts are required to be under 50 grams per day (hold your jaw, yes I heard it drop, stick with me here). It may sound scary at first and that’s totally ok! We’ve been groomed and taught from societal norms that it is totally ok to consume upwards of 12 times that amount in just a single day. Believe me, and just trust me here, 50 grams of carbs with proper low-carb substitutes is not only manageable but maintainable and actually extremely enjoyable. You don’t have to give up satisfying foods, nor high-fat or highly satiating foods to achieve this. Don’t let yourself slip into a negative mindset here, keep the positive, remember the journey, and let us continue on.

Over-consuming protein is pretty important when it comes to reducing dietary carbs and getting into nutritional ketosis. You’re going to be eating more fat and protein as compared to carbs and once you’re keto-adapted your body will recognize satiety and enjoyment from fat and eating fat-containing foods. Does that mean eating twice the amount of steak and giving up that loaded baked potato? Yes. But many athletes who have gone through this process actually bring up the notion that it’s extremely empowering and liberating to get away from counting calories and express enjoying an uninterrupted flow of positive and motivating energy. (Remember that mindset thing we said was really important in the beginning? It’s really important to build a solid, positive foundation to build upon, so you can rely on it here.)

Cutting Carbs Cold Turkey

Probably not the best idea, but we’ll go over it. Back to the idea that the low-carb/keto lifestyle isn’t for everyone and is for some, there’s also plenty of individuals, athletes, and coaches out there that recommend various times allotted for cutting back carbs. While no one approach is perfect, and quite honestly there’s not much conclusive research on it, what we do know is that the 2-4 week window to keto-adapt holds true. Much progress/performance indicators aren’t really going to show themselves until you’re making substantial amounts of ketones (for most people – eating >50g carbs/day). Nobody mentally, or physically, likes stopping something immediately, so dramatically changing your diet ALL at once isn’t going to be the best idea. Gradually moving from processed and refined foods into whole and natural foods will take time, but will also make the keto transition easier.

50g Carb Keto Rule of Thumb

No, I didn’t just pull that number out of my ass and neither did anyone else. Based on your own food preferences and individual tolerance, the exact breakdown of ~50g carbs/day will come from various sources. If you’re looking for a general starter guide, then we’ve got you covered. Oh, and a side note, when it comes to carb loaded foods you keep in your pantry, don’t even go there. This includes and not limited to candy, juice, potatoes, pastry, cookies, cereal, crackers, etc. Generally speaking, these are the numbers most nutritionists and keto-advisors ideally like to see.

The idea behind the 50g carbs a day can be broken down such as:

Protein-based food

5 - 10 g

Fruits

5 - 10 g

Vegetables

10 - 15g

Nuts/Seeds

5 - 10g

Misc.

5 - 10g

 

Protein-Based Foods for Ketogenic Diet

Meats and cheeses are fair game when it comes to keto-goers. Hey, that’s something most people don’t get on their diet and absolutely love – CHEESE! Most fresh and unprocessed meats (yes – no salami or chorizo here people), fish and poultry, are acceptable forms. Avoid adding carbs to virtually carb-less meats and cheeses such as breading, heavily seasoning, and frying. Avoiding mystery cheeses such as ‘American Cheese’ and cheese squares, hot dogs and jerky, is the idea here because processing foods not only add in ingredients you don’t need but lack nutrients and actually remove them from meat that is beneficial in muscle function, such as potassium and magnesium.

That doesn't mean meats have to be plain though, and in most cases, are actually able to be flavored a whole lot better than you’ve ever had them processed as! (Insert positive mindset ;) ) Seasoning and marinating with condiments such as oils, citrus juices, sauces (soy, vinegar, etc.) and adding a wide variety of spices is pretty liberating. Plus, you’ll feel like a pretty creative little chef after a while, and that’ll impress any date of yours! Don’t worry about ‘trimming the fat’ off of meat, as the fat actually helps contribute to avoiding over-consuming protein in relativity to fat. The fat is beneficial to your body as fuel and contributes greatly to flavor and satiety where you’d normally rely on carbs. Eggs are also an excellent addition to any keto-diet as they are extremely low in the carbohydrate profile.

Cream can be used in place of milk or other additions to your daily coffee, protein shakes, smoothies, or other drinks you consume during the day. Plain Greek yogurt or unsweetened live culture plain yogurt made from whole milk works wonders during this change and lifestyle adjustment. Literally. You can add pretty much anything to yogurt and it’ll taste good. Notice your pallet profile over time as well, and this may be a very helpful thing to journal during your first few months of low-carbohydrate adaptation. If things aren’t sweet enough for you, which you’ll wean away from in time, add in touches of sweeteners such as xylitol, Splenda, Truvia, etc.

**MYTH BUSTER** We’ve all heard it, and seen it, and it’s that yogurt has a high total carbohydrate profile. So we’ve been accustomed to turning away from it in naturally fermented yogurt. The entirety of the ‘carbohydrate’ was actually lactose that has since been converted to lactic acid. This acid profile is what naturally makes yogurt sort of sour and makes the protein curdle (ever notice yogurt can be both a liquid and a solid?). The lactate in the yogurt as opposed to the lactose doesn’t actually raise insulin levels –OR– interfere with ketosis. Thus, what was originally thought to contain 14 grams of carbs, actually only contains about 5 grams of carbs. Turn to Unflavored Greek Yogurt instead of any of the following: fat-free, low-fat, reduced-fat cheeses & yogurts, cottage cheese or ricotta (non-fermented).

Vegetables for Ketogenic Diet – Not All Are Created Equal

Yay for veggies! (Mindset here, I know that wasn’t probably the first thing you thought when you read this section’s title.) You may have noticed that vegetables ideally make up the largest part of a keto-diet carbohydrate breakdown and for good reason. Vegetables should actually appear on your plate every single time you eat a meal. Try to avoid the starchy veggies such as potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, corn, carrots, beets, and dried beans and peas. A complete guide to foods, especially vegetables, can be found on the Complete Keto Diet Food List: What to Eat and Avoid.

Nuts and Seeds For The Ketogenic Diet

Nuts and seeds, and nut butters, respectively contain ~4-8 g carbs per ounce (wow right?) so limiting these to about 2oz a day is a good rule of thumb. Not a big nut or seed-eater? No problem. Just make sure the food you eat in place falls within the 5-10g/day range and isn’t just pure protein (remember, you need fat, fat is good, fat in food that is). Natural nut butters are preferred and especially ones without added sugars. 

Fruit For The Ketogenic Diet

Oh, the magic of fruit. It can quickly sabotage your keto in excess but it can also add a lot of enjoyable, satiety to your keto-diet. In the recommended amounts (5-10g/day) about 3.5 oz of fruit can be added into your keto-diet because they’re packed with nutrients and relatively low in carbohydrates. It’s important to remember that not all fruits are created equal though, and based on their individual profiles, some can be had more than others. Berries, tomatoes, olives and avocados (yes silly, those are fruits) are pretty low and recommended. Most other fruits are too high, despite their fiber profiles, and all fruit juices should be completely avoided as they are concentrated forms of carbs with zero fiber.

Carbs After Exercise for Athletes & Keto Athletes

It’s a pretty common belief and taught the practice that athletes need to replenish carbohydrates and in large amounts to promote glycogen synthesis post-workout. If you’re properly keto-adapted, this idea isn’t very relevant because your use of glycogen during exercise will be dramatically reduced. To put this in perspective, it’d be like rushing to put gasoline in a full tank of diesel fuel. It’s not relevant anymore because the engine runs on a different caliber of fuel.

**MYTH BUSTER** Consuming even small amounts of carbs post-workout for athletes dramatically decreases the release of fatty acids from fat stores and oxidation of fat in the muscle, not only interfering with Keto-adaption but also diminishing the effects on insulin sensitivity and other cardio-metabolic risk markers. Even in the absence of food, skeletal muscles have the capacity to replenish some of their glycogen at the expense of endogenous carbon sources such as lactate. Glycogen synthesis occurs even under conditions conducive to an increased oxidation of lactate post-exercise, such as during active recovery from high-intensity exercise. 

A ketogenic diet with less than 50g of carbs per day can be extremely beneficial and safe, sustainable, and satisfying for the every-day individual and even athletes. You’ll discover that over time, foods will become more satisfying and contain for satiety for their natural state instead of with the addition of other flavor profiles and additives. Although carbohydrates are a strong part of many societies, choosing to live a low-carbohydrate or keto-lifestyle will not keep you from enjoying festivities or life in general, but rather contribute to keeping you disease free and actually increasing your daily quality of life. Consuming mass amounts of carbs post-exercise has been found to be unnecessary and incorporating nutritious foods that you enjoy with a positive outlook can take you and your performance to the next level. Carbohydrates aren’t necessary anymore, and it’s completely okay to limit them, as long as you take the necessary investment and interest in replacing them appropriately. 

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