The Ketogenic Diet: How to improving your health, function, and performance

We, as a society, have become increasingly health-conscious over the last couple of decades, in which we have seen a huge spike in the availability of health (and more specifically, diet) related information.

This, for the most part, is quite a good thing.

But there has been some associated downfalls – namely the huge increase in dietary misinformation readily available on the internet. As a result, many people find themselves unsure in what they believe, overloaded with excessive and conflicting pieces of information, and wondering where and how they could even start to make healthy dietary changes.

Which is honestly something that I have experienced first-hand.

Despite being a fitness professional who had previously helped hundreds of people achieve their performance and physique based goals, I often struggled with diet.

Now, I didn’t necessarily struggle with trying to eat ‘healthy’ – in fact, if I were to resign myself to a specific way of eating, I could force myself to stick to it without a second thought – but the ways in which I ate never left me feeling good, in either a physical or mental sense.

I often felt bloated and lethargic, frequently struggled to concentrate, and rarely felt like I had enough energy to get me through the day – even despite following my ‘diet’ down to a tee.

And it wasn’t until a few years ago when a close friend of mine showed me some early research around this concept of the Ketogenic Diet that I actually found an answer…

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Since this point in time, I have implemented the Ketogenic Diet into my own life with great success. Long gone are the digestive issues that I previously suffered on a daily basis, and I can safely report that I am feeling mentally and physically better than ever.

With this in mind, many of my clients have had the same successes – losing fat, increasing performance, and feeling better on a day to day basis – after they had been introduced to this specific way of eating.

Through the smart and effective implementation of the ketogenic diet (both in myself and in the hundreds of people I have had the pleasure to train), I have gained knowledge and experience that I believe can help anyone looking to improve their health and wellbeing through a change in diet.

Taking this into consideration, the ketogenic diet is one of the few ways of eating that have been shown to not only promote weight loss but also improve various markers of health, while also increasing both mental and physical function.

In this book, I will outline the science behind the ketogenic diet, and why it is so effective. This will be followed by some information around how you can implement this way of eating into your lifestyle easily and effectively.

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The Ketogenic Diet

Understanding the three primary macro-nutrients and their impact on the body

Before we delve into the intricate details of the ketogenic diet and its various benefits on both our health and our body composition, it is first essential to gain an understanding of what our food is actually made up of, and how it affects the body.

Food can essentially be split into three primary macronutrients: Proteins, Fats, and Carbohydrates.

It is important to note that while some foods predominantly consist of one macro-nutrient, they do often contain trace amounts of at least one other. I should also state that these trace amounts typically become less with whole foods as opposed to heavily processed foods – although I will elaborate a little more on this later.

Protein

Protein is arguably the most important macro-nutrient that we consume, which is why it is often described as the building blocks of the human body.

Once consumed, protein is broken down in the gut and digestive system into small compounds known as Amino Acids.

These Amino Acids are an essential nutrient that, once digested, are shuttled around the body where they proceed to play an integral role in various physiological and mechanical processes.

These processes include the repair and development of both muscle and connective tissue (which is why maintaining an adequate protein intake is essential to promoting muscle growth and recovering from exercise), the development of various enzymes and hormones, while also being used in the production of cells.

So yeah, they are pretty important…

To elaborate on the importance of dietary proteins a little further, there are actually 20 different types of Amino Acids, of which nine are considered essential as they cannot be made in the human body – and therefore must be obtained through the food we eat.

So with this in mind, there are two different types of proteins that can be obtained from the food we eat: complete and incomplete proteins.

Complete proteins

Complete proteins are found in poultry, red meat, eggs, and dairy sources. These proteins are considered complete because they contain all nine essential amino acids, and as such, is essential to maintaining the optimal function of the human body.

It is also important to note that these Amino acids, in particular, play specific roles in the development of new muscle and connective tissue, and therefore hold high importance for those individuals who exercise regularly.

Incomplete Proteins

Incomplete proteins, on the other hand, are found in nuts and seeds, legumes, grains, and vegetables. It may seem obvious once discussing ‘complete proteins’, but these are considered incomplete because they do not contain all of the nine essential amino acids.

I should state that although on their own these foods do not contain all of the essential amino acids alone, they can be combined in a way that will provide us with the full array of essential amino acids.

Fat

It’s incredibly interesting how research can change the landscape of the dietary world in as a little as a decade…

Fats were once considered the cause to all our health and weight-related problems, with low-fat diets often being recommended to promote both weight loss and improve cardiovascular and metabolic health.

Fortunately for us, there has been a host of recent research demonstrating that this is not, in fact, the case [4] – and as a result, there has been a large shift in mindset over the last few years, where the consumption of fat is now considered essential to health.

You see, fat molecules are used to build the walls of our cells, play an important role in the production of various hormones (testosterone anyone?), and can even aid the function of our nervous system.

Taking this into consideration, limiting our intake of fats can actually lead to a number of negative health effects, a lack of energy and feelings of lethargy, weight gain, and even hormone imbalances (which is where we start to see the merit in the Ketogenic Diet).

With this, there are three different types of fats found within the food we eat, each of which is important to maintaining optimal health and function.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are found in red meat, butter, and dairy products. These types of fats have traditionally received a bad rap within the health industry because a single study (performed in the 1970’s I might add!) suggested that those individuals who had a high intake of saturated fats had an increased risk of developing heart disease.

A notion that has fortunately been rendered completely incorrect by recent research.

I say, fortunately, because saturated fat has essential to the production of our sex hormones, which can have a host of benefits with respect to body composition and health.

Additionally, those foods that contain naturally occurring saturated fats also tend to be very nutrient-dense. This means that they are full of vitamins and minerals essential to maintaining the healthy function of the human body.

Monounsaturated Fats

Monounsaturated fats are found in avocados (and other high-fat fruits), nuts, and olive oil, and are often recognized as ‘healthy fats’ within the health industry.

The consumption of these fats has been shown to reduce the levels of LDL cholesterol (also known as bad’ cholesterol) in the blood, while simultaneously increasing our blood levels of HDL cholesterol (or ‘good’ cholesterol).

This change in blood cholesterol ratio has been shown to cause reductions in blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health, combined with a reduced risk of metabolic disease.

Polyunsaturated Fats

And finally, we have polyunsaturated fats.

These fats are found in seafood, fish oil, various nuts and seeds, and soy – and like monounsaturated fats – they have shown to have a positive effect on our blood cholesterol ratio.

In addition to this, polyunsaturated fats are also full of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. These are known as essential fatty acids (or EFA’s for short), as they cannot be manufactured in our bodies, and as such must be ingested through food sources or supplementation.

This means that the inclusion of polyunsaturated fats into our diets is genuinely important for maintaining the optimal health and function of the human body.

A note on fat and energy production

In combination with their various roles within the human body, fats are also one of the body’s primary sources of fuel, meaning that they can be broken down and used for energy.

Fat molecules are broken down into fatty acids, which are then metabolized and used to produce energy at a cellular level.

With this in mind, as our fat stores are virtually infinite, they provide the optimal fuel source for the body during exercise, while also providing energy to maintain all the physiological processes essential to living.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are chains of individual glucose molecules ‘stuck’ together, and are typically found in grains, fruits, cereals, and virtually anything else that comes in a packet.

Carbohydrates were once thought to provide us with a healthy alternative to fats, where they were said to give the body with energy without raising blood cholesterol levels.

Interestingly, since societies dietary shift towards the modern western diet (which is typified by a high carbohydrate intake), we have seen both the rate of both obesity and disease skyrocket.

Once consumed, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose molecules (which is ultimately the purest form of sugar) and absorbed into the bloodstream. This causes a rapid spike in the hormone insulin, which promotes the storage of the glucose in both the liver and muscle tissue, where it can then be used for energy at a later date.

Unfortunately, as our capacity to store glucose is finite, and additional glucose found in the blood is converted into fat – which can lead to weight gain as a result.

With this in mind, high levels of blood glucose have been shown to lead to hormonal dysfunction (primarily through resistance to insulin), metabolic diseases such as type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even reductions in cognitive function.

A note on fiber

While we are discussing carbohydrates, I should also make a point to discuss fiber and its role within the diet. Fiber is a specific type of carbohydrate that can’t cannot be broken down and digested by the human digestive system.

This is because we, as humans, actually lack the digestive enzymes required to break it down. As a result, after consumption, fiber passes through the digestive system completely unchanged from its original form.

Fiber is found mostly in plant-based foods such as vegetables, nuts, and seeds, and its consumption has shown strong associations with the maintenance of both gut and digestive health.

Recommended Book: Keto Meal Prep: Easy Ketogenic Diet Recipes for Beginners (Kindle & Paperback Edition)

Measuring ketones. How we know, we are in a state of ketosis

So we now know that the primary goal of the ketogenic diet is to get the body into a consistent state of ketosis and that maintaining this state can have some extremely positive effects on both our mental and physical performance, our ability to lose weight, and of course our physical and mental health.

But how do we actually know if we are truly in a state of ketosis?

Well, the answer may seem a little obvious, but we need to measure the amount of ketones in our blood – and fortunately for us, there is a couple of very simple way to do this.

Blood ketone meter

The first way to measure the amount of ketones in the blood is directly through a blood ketone meter.

A blood ketone meter is a specific tool (that can be easily purchased online) that directly measures the amount of ketones found in our blood. With this tool, we simply need to give out finger a very small prick and then place a small amount of blood on a measuring ‘strip’. This strip is then placed in the ketone meter, which provides us with a direct measure of our blood ketone levels.

These tools are quite an affordable option, with a kit normally setting you back about 40 dollars, and each testing strip setting you back about 5 dollars. With this in mind, I would be inclined to take a test every week or so to ensure you are maintaining a constant state of ketosis – there should not be any need to test yourself every day assuming your diet is fairly consistent.

Breath testing

For those of us who don’t really want to measure our blood (and for those of us who don’t really like needles…), we can measure our ketone levels through a ketone breath analyzer.

These tools can also be purchased online for a one off cost (as there are no strips associated, there is no ongoing testing cost) of approximately 150 dollars.

It is important to note that these machines are slightly less accurate than measuring our ketones directly through a blood measure, as they can be affected by things like water and alcohol intake.

Despite this, these tools offer an extremely easy and non-invasive way to measure your blood ketone levels.

Urine Ketone Strips

The final way to measure blood ketones is through our urine.

Urine Ketone Strips are arguably the most cost-effective (and therefore common) means of measuring ketones, in which you can by 150 strips for approximately 10 dollars.

These strips are incredibly simple to use, in which we just urinate on them and wait for the color to change (different brands have different colors to describe ketotic state).

I should state that these are arguably the least accurate of our three measuring methods, in which hydration can greatly affect their results. As such, I recommend that these tests should be performed at the same time every day to get a clear picture of how your ketone levels are changing on a daily or weekly basis.

What ketone measure indicates ketosis?

Each of these tests, when used correctly, will give us a clear indication as to whether we are in a state of ketosis or not.

Considering this, I should mention that blood ketones are measured in ‘mmol’ (millimole, or a 1000th of a mol) per liter of blood – in which it is written as mmol/L (or millimole per liter).

A single ‘mol’ is a unit of measurement that is used to describe the specific amount of a chemical substance – which in this case, is ketones.

With this, it is commonly accepted that a ketone measurement of 0.5 – 3 mmol/L is considered indicative of a state of ketosis.

For those just starting the ketogenic diet, I would recommend testing your ketone levels every couple of days until your levels stabilize within this range. Once they reach a stable (and relatively consistent) measure on a weekly basis, you can safely assume you are in a solid-state of ketosis.

Are there any negatives of the ketogenic diet?

Considering all the positives associated with the ketogenic style of eating, it is important to note that there can be some small side effects associated with those implementing it into their lifestyle for the first time.

The Keto Flu

And the first of these we need to touch on is the ‘keto flu’.

The keto flu describes the withdrawal-like symptoms that some people experience when they first exclude carbohydrates from the diet. This occurs during the transition phase of the ketogenic diet, where the body is yet to adapt to a state of ketosis (and is therefore not particularly efficient at using fats and ketones for energy) but doesn’t have any carbohydrates available for energy production.

This transition period rarely lasts more than a week and can result in a number of different symptoms, including feelings of lethargy, mental fuzziness and an inability to concentrate, occasional headaches, muscle cramping, and slight mental and physical fatigue.

It is also essential to distinguish that these symptoms vary significantly from individual to individual, where some (rather lucky) people will not experience a single symptom, and others may get all of them.

Although these side effects can in some cases become quite uncomfortable, there are actually two critical things we can do when commencing a ketogenic diet to reduce both their likelihood of occurring, and their severity (if they do happen to occur).

The first thing to do is drink a lot (and when I say a lot, I mean A LOT) of water, while simultaneously consuming a fairly large amount of both salt and magnesium. In doing so, we can ensure that we will maintain well hydrated, even despite the large reduction of glucose from our body (I should note that glucose is typically stored with water).

Secondly, we need to eat A LOT of fats.

While this in itself is obviously a pretty essential component of the Ketogenic Diet, rapidly increasing your fat intake is a very easy way to speed up the adaption process that is essential to getting the body up and running using both fats and ketones for energy.

In doing so, we can thoroughly ‘flush’ the body with ketones, greatly increasing their production, and therefore the amount found within the blood. This will essentially force the body to adapt to them, significantly reducing the side effects associated with the keto flu.

So in short, to reduce the likelihood of suffering from the keto flu, we simply need to drink a lot of water and eat a heap of fats – doesn’t really sound too bad now that I think about it.

Social implications and adherence

The second real negative associated with the ketogenic diet is more strongly related to our ability to maintain it over a long period of time – essentially ensuring it becomes a lifestyle habit rather than another dietary fad (so to speak).

Because the ketogenic diet can actually be somewhat restrictive (taking into consideration the specific foods you can and can’t eat), it can at times make eating out and maintaining a decent social life quite difficult.

While there is no clear way to get around this, there are a few tips that I recommend to make the transition as easy as possible.

Firstly, make sure you let people in your social circle aware that you are undertaking a ketogenic diet, while also letting them know why you are implanting it and explaining to them what it actually is.

This will make it much easier for them to understand why you might want to eat at one restaurant (that offers some excellent no-carb options) as opposed to another.

I personally find that most people are very understanding if they have an understanding of what you are doing and why, and are therefore very happy to accommodate if they can – and if they are not happy to help, then maybe they shouldn’t be in your social circle!

Secondly, don’t be afraid to order off the menu.

Most bars and restaurants will be more than happy to make up a simple salad with some meat attached. This is a great way to maintain your diet closely in a social setting, without affecting anyone else in any manner.

Optimizing exercise on the ketogenic diet

It quickly becomes glaringly obvious that the ketogenic diet has some absolutely enormous positives associated, with no real negatives (especially once we have adapted to the diet completely).

We have also discussed how the ketogenic can improve our physical performance and our body composition in a big way – but we haven’t touched on is how we should exercise if we want to achieve a specific goal.

I am aware that many of you are not only health-conscious from a dietary perspective but also an exercise perspective. As such, I want to briefly touch on the best ways to exercise while following the ketogenic diet if you have a specific goal in mind.

Exercising for fat loss on the ketogenic diet

We have already spent some time discussing how they ketogenic is unquestionably the optimal way of eating when fat loss is our primary goal, but it is essential to realize that exercising while on the ketogenic diet can further facilitate this – resulting in more rapid and far more efficient fat loss.

While following the ketogenic diet, the body basically becomes a fat-burning machine – in which it breakdown fat for energy both efficiently and effectively.

Which is why the addition of lower intensity cardiovascular exercise will be a fantastic option if we want to further enhance our current rate of fat loss.

This essentially means undertaking some form of cardiovascular exercise (it doesn’t matter if it is rowing, cycling, swimming, or running) at a moderate intensity, 2-3 times per week, for 30-60 minutes per session. By moderate, I mean that it should be performed at a pace that gets your heart rate up between 60 and 80 percent of your heart rate max.

In doing so, we increase the amount of energy we are burned by a massive amount – and considering that this energy is coming entirely from fats, it will lead to a significantly larger amount of fat loss, in a shorter amount of time than if we were to use diet alone.

With this recommendation in mind, heart rate max can be calculated using the following equation: 208 – (0.7 x age in years).

So, for example, if we have a 35-year-old individual, their max heart rate will be the following:

208 – (0.7 x 35) = 183.5

With this, we would want them working between 110 (183 x 0.6) and 146 (183 x 0.8) beats per minute for their moderate cardiovascular exercise sessions.

Exercising for muscle growth and muscle strength

Now, although we have briefly discussed the capacity to build muscle on the ketogenic diet, we haven’t discussed the best type of exercise to facilitate this.

So taking this into consideration, there are two styles of resistance training that will get us the best results if our main priority is muscle growth – and these are training for muscle strength, and muscle hypertrophy.

Muscular strength training revolves around lifting heavy loads for lower repetitions (1-6 reps) and has a host of benefits if our goal is to increase the size of our muscle tissue.

Firstly, training for muscular strength requires heavy input from the nervous system to recruit the maximal amount of muscle fibers possible. In doing so, we can get maximal muscular contractions, which tells the body that we need this muscle tissue around.

Secondly, working with these heavier loads places the muscle tissue under vast amounts of mechanical stress. The body then needs to adapt (by increasing the size and number of its muscle fibres) to become more competentat lifting these heavy loads. This results in a subsequent increase in muscle size.

Once we have performed our muscular strength-based exercises, it is time to shift towards our muscular hypertrophy based training.

Muscular hypertrophy training revolves around lifting moderately heavy weights for moderate repetitions (8-12 reps).

Performing this type of training is the perfect supplement to heavier strength-based training as it places a high degree of metabolic stress on the muscle tissue, which stimulates an increased rate of muscle growth.

The following table provides an example workout that you can follow to maximize muscle growth while following the ketogenic diet. This particular training session can be completed 2-3 times per week, with ideally two days between each session.

Full Body Workout (Muscle Growth)
Exercise Sets Reps Rest between sets
Back Squat 4 4 120 seconds
Bench Press 4 4 120 seconds
Chin Up 4 6 120 seconds
Split Squat 3 8 90 seconds
Overhead press 3 8 90 seconds
Seated row 3 8 90 seconds
Romanian deadlift 3 12 75 seconds
Push Up 3 12 75 seconds
Inverted row 3 12 75 seconds

While this example is quite simple, it provides a beautiful clear demonstration of how we can structure a full-body training session to facilitate muscle growth. In this scenario, we gradually move from muscular strength driven training towards muscular hypertrophy rep ranges – this allows us to get the best of both worlds and maximize muscular development.

With this goal in mind, I should remind everyone that on training days we need to be eating in a slight caloric surplus and consuming an abundance of protein – this will make it much easier to build new muscle tissue while following the ketogenic diet.

The complete ketogenic diet food list

Although I have certainly touched on the types of foods, we can be eating on the ketogenic diet, and I thought I should go one step further and provide you with a little bit more information. The following chapter provides you with a comprehensive list of foods that you can eat until your heart’s content and those foods that you should avoid like the plague.

Foods you can eat without a second thought

These foods should make up the vast majority of your diet, and as such, should be a key component of almost every meal.

Animal Sources

These include beef, lamb, goat, venison, pork, and poultry, as well as fish and other seafood’s. I should note that grass-fed meat should be our first point of call (assuming we don’t have any financial barriers to purchasing).

With our primary meat sources, eggs, gelatin, butter, and organ meats (liver, kidneys, offal, etc.) also offer fantastic food options while on the ketogenic diet.

It is also worth mentioning that meat-based products that come either crumbed or are highly processed (think hot dogs and sausages) should probably be avoided due to their higher carbohydrates content.

In conjunction with this, we can also consume some small dairy products in small amounts. These include full-fat cheese and Greek yogurt.

Healthy sources of fat

Healthy fats are a key component of the ketogenic diet. With this in mind, our best options are fish and seafood, avocadoes, olive oil, coconut oil, and low carbohydrate nuts such as macadamias.

Cooking fats should primarily come from saturated sources, such as tallow, chicken fat, duck fat, butter, coconut oil, ghee, and duck fat.

Non Starchy Vegetables

Vegetables are an essential component of any diet, as they contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals that are essential to maintaining healthy function of the human body. Yet some vegetables are quite high in carbohydrate content, which is why it is imperative that we limit our consumption to non-starchy vegetables.

These include any leafy green vegetables (think chard, bok choy, spinach, lettuce, chives, etc.), some cruciferous vegetables (namely kale and radishes), as well as celery, asparagus, cucumber, summer squash (also known as cucumber), and bamboo shoots.

With this, some vegetables are Ok to consume in small amounts. These include cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, spring onion, and mushrooms.

Drinks and condiments

Now in conjunction with the food we eat, we should also pay attention to what we drink, as these can often maintain hidden carbohydrates that can completely ruin our state of ketosis. With this in mind, water, black coffee, black or herbal tea, are beautiful for consumption.

In a similar vein of thought, condiments (although an excellent tasting addition to the food we eat) can often contain hidden ingredients that we need to be cautious of.

Despite this, we are free to consume mayonnaise, mustard, pesto, and fermented foods (such as sauerkraut and kimchi). With this, all herbs and spices, as well the rind and juice of citrus fruits (think lemons and limes), are perfectly fine to use for seasoning.

Foods we should avoid at all costs

These are the foods that basically go against the entire premise of the ketogenic diet, and as such, should be eliminated from our diet in their entirety.

Grains and starchy vegetables

This means avoiding whole grains such as wheat, rye, oats, corn, barley, millet, rice, and buckwheat completely, as well as grain-based products (think pasta, bread, cookies, crackers, pizza, etc.).

In conjunction with this, we should also avoid all starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrot, and pumpkin.

Processed foods

This essentially means avoiding anything that comes in a packet, such as junk food, sugary products, sweets. This also includes dried fruits, whey protein bars, and almond milk products.

This also means avoiding soft drinks or sugary fruit juices, as well as sweet alcoholic beverages (such as wine, cocktails, and beer).

Tropical fruits

While fruits are a relatively natural product, many are very high in sugar content (with that sugar being fructose), and as such should be avoided if possible. This means avoiding mango, banana, pineapple, as well as tangerines, mandarins, grapes, peaches, oranges, plums, apricots, apples, pears, berries, and melons.

Milk and dairy

Although milk isn’t necessarily ‘high carb,’ it does contain an abundance of lactase (which is a carbohydrate) and is also quite challenging to digest. With this in mind, dairy milk should be avoided if possible.

Within this same vein of thought, we should also avoid yogurt, sour cream, cream, and cream cheese.

Recommended Book: Keto Meal Prep: Easy Ketogenic Diet Recipes for Beginners (Kindle & Paperback Edition)

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