OK, here's the deal – I've said this before and I'll say it again: an extremely high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet is not for everyone.
But since ketones are a preferred fuel for the heart and the diaphragm, and because a state of ketosis can give you extreme focus and cognitive performance during difficult mental tasks, a ketogenic diet can be extremely useful for endurance athletes like triathletes, distance swimmers, cyclists, marathoners, ultra-runners, etc.
Problem is, there aren't a ton of resources out there about how highly active people can actually get into a state of ketosis without…
A) chugging coconut oil and MCT oil all day long, which (trust me, I've tried) gets boring really, really fast; or
B) experiencing some pretty extreme nutrient deficiencies from a ketogenic diet gone wrong – nutrient deficiencies that really get magnified when you combine them with crazy high levels of physical activity.
So in this article, author, triathlete, and ketogenic expert extraordinaire Patricia Daly is going to fill you in on how to do things the right way. Patricia just finished writing an amazing book called “Practical Keto Meal Plans For Endurance Athletes: Tips, Tricks And How To's For Optimizing Performance Using A High Fat, Low Carb Meal Plan“, and she's a wealth of information on this topic.
Take it away, Patricia.
Maybe the title of this article scares you a little bit…
…after all, if there’s so much that can “go wrong” with the ketogenic and low carb lifestyle, is it worth all the effort? Or do you think you will never “get there” and achieve nutritional ketosis because there seem to so many stumbling blocks in your way, like talk about thyroid damage, lack of energy or extreme dietary restriction?
Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds, and if you do a ketogenic diet the right way, you can avoid the potential health risks. It’s just important to have a basic understanding of nutrition and metabolism before embarking on this specific dietary approach, and a good way to do that is to see the kind of mistakes that people commonly make on a ketogenic diet, and also to get a few tasty keto recipes to get your creative wheels churning.
So in this article, you're going to get the top 10 mistakes low-carb athletes make, and 5 keto recipes for active people. Enjoy, leave your questions and comments below the post, and be sure to check out the brand new book just published by Greenfield Fitness Systems, entitled “Practical Keto Meal Plans For Endurance Athletes: Tips, Tricks And How To's For Optimizing Performance Using A High Fat, Low Carb Meal Plan.”
Mistake #1. Being Scared of Fat
The ketogenic diet is very different to the standard American or British- or any Western- diet. The main goal of a ketogenic lifestyle is to teach the body to use ketone bodies derived from fatty acids rather than glucose as the main source of energy. This is why the amount of fat you consume on a ketogenic is about 75-85+% of total daily calorie intake.
In other words, if you work out quite a bit you probably eat about 2,900 calories a day, of which about 2,300 will come from fat if you follow a ketogenic diet. Fat has 9 calories per gram, and therefore you will consume 256g of fat every day- depending on how much you train of course. To simplify this further: One tablespoon of olive oil, for instance, weighs about 14g, so all in all your daily fat intake will be about 18 tablespoons. Wow!
Although I was totally aware that I needed to focus mainly on fat when I started the ketogenic diet, I still had this mental block about it. I had been brain washed by the food industry for so long that fat is evil that it was really hard to convince myself of the opposite. And I was so used to eating carbs non-stop, doing carb loading before competitions and avoiding fat that it took me a while to get my head (and body) around this new way of eating. But it’s key to ketogenic success!
Mistake #2. Eating Too Much Protein
Another mistake beginners make is to replace most of the carbohydrates they used to eat with protein instead of fat. I see this happen all the time. The problem is that excess protein intake can lead to gluconeogenesis, which is the conversion of amino acids to glucose. This is not what we want on a ketogenic diet- on the contrary, we need to keep glucose levels low and encourage the production of ketone bodies from fatty acids.
Many people are surprised when they start weighing their food according to my meal plans and realize how little protein they actually need to eat on a ketogenic diet! But fat is protein sparing, which means that your need for protein decreases with a high fat intake.
Mistake #3: Carbs Creeping In
This seems very obvious! But it actually isn’t as simple as you think because carbohydrates can very quickly add up, especially if you’re keen to get your veggies, herbs and spices in. They’re also in products you’d never think contain carbs.
Good examples are any processed foods (we’ll talk about them later), shop bought salad dressings, milk substitutes (many coconut and almond milks have added sugar), tomato sauce, some meats like duck confit, starchy vegetables and even herbal tea, to name just a few. Eating out can be a challenge because many restaurants like to use sauces, dressings and dips that have added honey or other sources of sugar. It tastes nice but is not keto-friendly!
Having solid, reliable information is key to carbohydrate restriction, especially in the initial stages when metabolic changes happen.
Mistake #4: Giving Up Too Early
The quicker you go into nutritional ketosis, the more side effects you might suffer from initially. The metabolic changes can be dramatic because every single cell in the body needs to do the switch from glucose to fat metabolism. Insulin is impacted: Levels go down because of reduced consumption of carbohydrates, which has an effect on the kidneys. Insulin tells the kidneys to hold on to sodium. If insulin is at a consistently lower level, the body starts getting rid of excess sodium and also water.
This is why it’s so important to ensure you add sufficient sodium to your diet and keep well hydrated, especially in the first few days of starting to reduce carbohydrates. This will make sure you don’t suffer from any of the symptoms of the dreaded “keto flu”: shivers, foggy brain, headaches or nausea are some of the possible symptoms. It’s probably more appropriate to call them “carbohydrate withdrawal symptoms” because of the effects on hormonal and electrolyte balance.
Things that help to get over these initial obstacles are strong bone broth with good quality salt, lots of rest, no intense exercise and plenty of mineral-rich water, e.g. San Pellegrino. However, the best advice I can give is to take things slowly and not to give up when you’re feeling a bit off in the initial stages- provided you’ve done all the suggested blood tests to exclude any underlying health issues prior to starting a ketogenic diet.
Mistake #5. Being Scared Of New Foods And Eating The Same Meals Over and Over Again
Many people feel overwhelmed in the initial stages of implementing a low carb and ketogenic diet. And because they have very little experience with certain new foods, they keep eating the same “safe” low-carb stuff. For instance bacon and eggs for breakfast and nuts for snacks!
Of course this means that you are eating low carb but as a nutritionist guiding athletes through the diet, my first priority is always to improve their health. And this is only possible with a nutritious, varied and individualized approach. Eating the same things over again isn’t only boring, it may also set you up for having nutrient deficiencies and developing food intolerances. This happens quite often especially if you’re a little stressed, your gut function isn’t optimal or if you’re on medication.
Food intolerances can have an impact not only on your gut health by causing bloating, cramps, diarrhea, constipation or other symptoms, but also on your immune system. My best advice is to keep experimenting with new foods, even if they seem utterly strange to you, like (for instance) chicken liver, which is way easier to find and prepare than you'd think. There’s a nice recipe for every single food (and in just a moment, you're going to get 5 good ones to get your creative wheels churning).
Mistake #6. Eating Processed Foods
This is especially common for people who have read about the Atkins diet and seen the products that are sold online and in stores. Yes, they keep you within the carbohydrate limits that you choose and may make life a lot easier but they are also full of artificial flavours, colouring, polydextrose, sucralose and other artificial sweeteners that can mess with your mental and physical health.
My rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t be able to bake or cook a meal based on the ingredients list (because you don’t recognize half of them or wouldn’t know where to buy them), you should stay away from it. Hopefully, with an increasing amount of research to confirm the benefits of low carb and ketogenic diets for various health conditions, there will be plenty of incentives for companies to produce snacks based on real foods.
Mistake #7. Lack Of Planning (And Obsessing Too Much).
Both lack of planning and obsessing too much can be stumbling stones. If you don’t plan you’re much more likely to “fail” and give up on your lifestyle changes. You see, the problem is that when you realize you haven’t got all of the ingredients you need for a low carb recipe, you might not find them in your corner shop.
Some of the products that are staples on a low carb or ketogenic diet like coconut oil, olives, oily fish or ghee can only be bought in health shops or online. More and more supermarkets start to stock them but this really depends where you live. If you plan a bit ahead and know that you need certain things to follow the meal plans in my eBook, for instance, you won’t get stressed because you already have them in your cupboard. Planning also makes it easier to cook in bulk and therefore save time and money.
On the other hand, I often work with clients who start obsessing too much and plan every single bite they eat during the day. Obviously, it’s a slightly different story for somebody following a ketogenic diet for medical reasons, for instance in the case of epilepsy, where they diet has to be well calculated and no mistakes can be made without a serious consequence. But sometimes people tell me they’re so stressed out about dietary changes that they wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. They worry what their next meal would look like, how they could further increase ketones or what to eat on a holiday! In this case, it’s time to take a (big) step back, relax, try some recipes without weighing and counting and maybe give it another go after a few weeks with lots of support and preparation. Stressing about food can cancel out all the positive effects of good nutrition!
Mistake #8. Ignoring Your Body's Warning Signs
Athletes who obsess over dietary changes can get caught up in measuring blood glucose and ketones, weighing their food all the time, creating exact meal plans and they can get really scared of eating out where things are out of their control. In my experience, they are also likely candidates to ignore their body’s warning signs.
I used to be an “expert” in this: even though I sometimes didn’t feel like doing another high intensity training, I went ahead and did it because it was on my training plan. And there were foods I couldn’t stand because they tended to bloat me but I still ate them because I read somewhere that they’re really good for triathletes!
Please don’t forget that you know your body best and that no meal or training plan can beat your innate knowledge and intuition. Take warning signs seriously and don’t override them because you have it in your head to stick to a particular regime.
Low carb and ketogenic diets aren’t for everyone and if you feel worse than before- even after getting over the initial symptoms I talked about earlier- then it’s probably time to stop and reconsider.
Mistake #9. Social Pressure
This is a big one and can’t be underestimated! The amount of times I’m at a party and have to listen to “Oh come on, surely one piece of cake won’t hurt you, don’t be so extreme!”… and the last thing I want to do is going into a scientific monologue and talk about metabolism at a party. Even 3 years into following a ketogenic diet I still get comments from family and even close friends- although they all know how miraculous the diet has been for my health.
But ketogenic diets are still very poorly understood even by the medical profession. People don’t understand that you can’t follow the famous 80/20 rule where some treats are allowed in moderate amounts. You’re either in ketosis or you’re not. It’s pretty black or white, actually!
And, trust me, once you’ve been keto adapted for a while and you eat a piece of cake, you will feel pretty shoddy and not remotely in party mood afterwards…
Mistake #10. Poor Timing
And finally, let me talk about when to start lowering your carbs or attempting to go into ketosis. Please don’t do it a week before your most important competition of the season or during a time when you’re super busy at work.
In my experience, the best time of the year to make major changes to diet and lifestyle is when you’re “off season”. During my competitive years, I always took a good break in November from intensive training or competitions and focused on relaxation and restoration. Another good time is to start is before some preparatory competitions to build towards your most important race. That’s when you see how your body responds to higher intensity and if the diet doesn’t suit you, you still have plenty of time to make changes.
And, if you’re still not convinced that low carb food can actually taste absolutely delicious, try some of the recipes below (I’m sure this will change your mind)!
Keto Meal 1: Breakfast Buns
These buns are amazing and really good for anybody who misses bread, burger buns or something to scoop up sauces! They are delicious with some butter or ghee on each half, topped with 2 slices of Parma ham.
|1.5 cups Macadamia nuts, unsalted||196.5|
|3 Eggs, organic||150|
|1 tsp Cider Vinegar||3.8|
|1/4 cup coconut milk (Tetra Pak)||63|
|60g + 12 tbsp Butter (1 tbsp for each half)||237.6|
|1/3 cup Almond flour||33|
|1/3 cup Coconut flour||40|
|1 tsp Bicarbonate of Soda (Baking Soda)||4|
|1 tsp Rock Salt pink||5|
Makes 6 buns
- Preheat the oven to 160C/325F.
- Grind the macadamia nuts to a coarse flour in a strong food processor.
- Add eggs, vinegar, milk and butter. Process until you have a smooth paste.
- Put all the dry ingredients into a bowl and stir well. Add wet to dry and mix until you have a wet dough.
- Form 6 buns and bake for 25 minutes. Spread 1 tbsp of butter onto each half. Eat on the same day or freeze.
Keto Meal 2: Almond Coconut Pancakes
|1 tsp ground Cinnamon||2.3|
|1/2 cup desiccated Coconut||42.5|
|1 1/2 cup ground blanched Almonds||150|
|1/2 tsp Baking soda/ Bicarbonate of soda||2|
|1/4 tsp Sea Salt||2|
|1 cup Coconut milk canned||250|
|3 large Eggs organic or free range||171|
|2 tbsp (solid) Coconut oil||45|
- Sift dry ingredients and mix together.
- In a separate bowl, whisk coconut milk and eggs together.
- Add dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.
- Heat coconut oil in a pan, pour in batter and cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side.
Keto Meal 3: Rainbow Salad
|2 cups chopped Butterhead Lettuce||104|
|1 small young Carrot, grated||60|
|4 sticks Celery, sliced||240|
|8 tbsp grated Celeriac, raw||64|
|2 tbsp Shelled Hemp Seeds||18|
|4 tsp Pumpkin Seeds||16|
|12 tbsp raw Alfalfa sprouts||36|
|240g Smoked or Grilled Trout||240|
|1/2 cup Avocado oil||112|
|2 tsp Cider Vinegar||15.2|
|2 tsp Mustard Dijon smooth||16|
|Salt and Black Pepper to taste|
|80g Cheese, e.g. Gruyere||80|
- Toss the vegetables, hemp/pumpkin seeds, sprouts and trout into a bowl and mix with the butterhead leaves.
- Mix the avocado oil, apple cider vinegar, mustard and seasoning and pour over the salad. Grate some fresh Gruyère over it. This one really pops with color!
Keto Meal 4: Bacon Brussels Sprouts
|3 tbsp Coconut oil||81|
|5 Bacon rashers, diced||100|
|1 clove Garlic, crushed||3|
|500g Brussels sprouts, shredded||500|
|1 Leek, thinly sliced||130|
|Salt and Black Pepper||4|
|3/4 cup Chicken Stock, homemade||188|
- Cook the bacon in coconut oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until crisp.
- Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside. Add the shredded Brussels sprouts, leek and garlic to the pan and sauté in the remaining oil for 5 minutes.
- Add the chicken broth, salt and pepper. Cover and steam for 5-10 minutes. Mix in the bacon.
Keto Meal 5: Liver Mousse
One of my missions is to get my clients to incorporate more fat-vitamin-rich, hormone-nourishing organ meat into their diet! I know…it’s not an easy goal. This recipe is inspired by Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley.
|200g organic Chicken liver, raw||81|
|100g Butter, at room temperature||3|
|2 organic Eggs||500|
|1/2 Small Onion||130|
|1/2 tsp ground Allspice||4|
|1 tsp Rock Salt and 1/2 tsp Black Pepper||188|
- Preheat the oven to 130C/250F.
- Put all ingredients into a strong blender and pulse until you have a smooth paste.
- Fill into a muffin tin and bake for 20-25 minutes.
So there you have it. Pancakes and liver mousse. Knock yourself out.
Ketogenic diets can be complex, but if you do them the right way – and more importantly, if you pay attention to people like Patricia who have actually spent the time in the trenches combining high levels of activity with ketosis – there can be some significant endurance enhancing benefits.
Do you have questions, comments or feedback about ketogenic diets for active people? Leave your thoughts below and either Patricia or I will reply! Also, be sure to grab Patricia's brand new book “Practical Keto Meal Plans For Endurance Athletes: Tips, Tricks And How To's For Optimizing Performance Using A High Fat, Low Carb Meal Plan.“