The Skinny on the Ketogenic Diet with the Viking

by Shawn Klosterman 34

May 11th, 2019 News

The Screaming Viking is a former athlete, SwimSwam contributor, and coach who has long advocated the ketogenic diet.  He wrote a 7-part series for SwimSwam several years ago entitled “The Viking Manifesto” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) in which he claimed that the ketogenic diet along with USRPT might cause optimal adaptation for racing. He even went so far as to experiment on himself by returning to the pool after an 18 year hiatus to prove it’s worth. With the recent Gold Medal Mel episode revealing Michael Andrew’s experimentation with the Ketogenic diet, SwimSwam invited the Viking to give readers a brief break-down of exactly what it means to “go Keto” and to address some of the common questions that arise when the diet comes up in discussion.

Since Michael Andrew let the cat out of the bag about his use of the ketogenic diet, you will probably hear “keto” come up a lot more often on the pool deck.  There is a lot of confusion surrounding the ketogenic diet so the SwimSwam staff decided we should take some time to bring people up to speed on the basics.  Keep in mind that this article is not intended to endorse a ketogenic diet.  We just want to make readers aware of both sides of the argument on whether this is a healthy choice or not, and give you some insight into why it can be a controversial topic. Hopefully, this article can serve as a starting point in your research and give you a basic vocabulary to have further conversations.

Please note: Shawn Klosterman is not a medical doctor, nor is anybody at SwimSwam. Do not take this as medical advice. Consult your doctor before starting any new diet.

What is keto?  The ketogenic diet is similar to the Atkins diet in that it is essentially just “low-carb” and is often also called LCHF for “low-carbohydrate, high-fat.”  The idea behind it is that if we lower our supply of glucose from food far enough, our body is capable of flipping the switch toward burning fat as a fuel source to replace it.  It is as simple as that. The ketogenic diet can be quite a controversial topic though, as food can often be tied to our belief systems and people tend to take a stance on the “right” or “wrong” way to eat. The advice keto proponents suggest often flies in the face of conventional wisdom, national nutrition guidelines, and most likely even the advice of your family doctor. Even more controversial is that there are so many anecdotal claims of healing from all sorts of chronic diseases with a ketogenic diet, yet very little scientific data to back up those claims. It doesn’t help that there is also a lot of conflicting science out there when you start down the rabbit hole looking for answers. Nutrition studies are difficult and expensive, which can open the door to manipulation. Once you take an interest in searching for the truth on what to eat, you will start to realize that nutrition science has some issues that need to be worked out and that a lot more avenues need to be explored through high quality research.  

What can one eat and what must one avoid in a ketogenic diet?  Essentially, someone following a ketogenic diet is trying to avoid blood glucose spikes and the insulin surge that follows them. That means that sugar, and all of the carbohydrate foods that eventually become glucose in the bloodstream, are forbidden. Some sources recommend staying below 50 grams of carbohydrate per day, while others recommend as low as 20 grams, which can prove quite difficult to do.  There is evidence that the more active you are, the more carbohydrate you can allow without interfering with ketone production. The furthest ends of the keto spectrum are the “zero-carb” or “carnivore” lifestyle that allows only foods from the animal kingdom and the “vegan keto” lifestyle that excludes animal products entirely. In standard keto:

  • Meat is typically encouraged, but since there are people out there who follow a vegan keto plan, animal products are certainly not required.  Some keto advocates suggest limiting protein while others feel this is unnecessary.  Standard keto advice is “low carb, moderate protein, high fat.”
  • Dairy is allowed, but many would warn against any reduced fat dairy products as they tend to add sugar as a replacement. Hard cheeses are preferred and heavy cream is often encouraged as a replacement for milk.
  • Generally all low carb veggies are fair game, and the more fibrous they are the better as this blunts the rapid glucose spike significantly.  Many don’t even count fiber as a carbohydrate when counting their macronutrients. Some keto proponents even encourage dark chocolate at 80% cacao or above due to the high fiber content.  Starches and grains are typically forbidden.
  • Fruits are generally frowned upon in keto, but many allow berries and other lower carb fruits as long as they are in small quantities.
  • Many people allow limited sweets as long as they fit their macronutrient allowance for the day or week.  Some people even follow a Cyclic Ketogenic Diet, which allows one “cheat day” of high-carb eating per week while maintaining strict macros the rest of the time.
  • Those who follow keto for health reasons beyond just weight loss are often more careful to focus on eating saturated fats, mostly from animal sources, as they believe that vegetable oils (or more specifically industrial seed oils like canola oil that are so often found in processed foods,) are as much or more of a contributor to the poor health of the masses as sugar.

Common questions and the controversy surrounding them:

  • Isn’t there research showing that the ketogenic diet has terrible side effects?  Yes, actually there is.  Studies were done long ago on children with epilepsy who were being treated with a ketogenic diet, and these are often brought up in conversation.  Low carb advocates are quick to argue against many of those studies being presented as valid evidence due to the diet they were fed not being representative of what the average keto dieter would actually eat, among other confounding factors.
  • Ketoacidosis is a dangerous condition– aren’t elevated ketone levels inherently dangerous then?  Part of the controversy surrounding the ketogenic diet is that often people can confuse or fail to differentiate between Nutritional Ketosis and Diabetic Ketoacidosis.  While elevated ketones are present in both, there is a big difference between the two. In a healthy metabolism ketones elevate in the absence of glucose.  In a diabetic metabolism, ketones can elevate because glucose uptake is impaired, even in the presence of high glucose in the bloodstream. This is a highly controversial concept simply because the dietary guidelines for diabetics are heavily disputed.  
  • Isn’t the keto diet heavy in meat, and wouldn’t that be inherently unhealthy?  This is controversial because there are a lot of studies that associate meat with poor health outcomes.  Low carb advocates tend to scoff at this, claiming that most of the studies showing poor associations with meat are epidemiological studies, which by nature can only show correlation rather than causation, and other potential correlations are not effectively ruled out.  Often online you will find conflicting data regarding the health of animal products and study design is typically at the heart of the discussion.
  • I hear “Keto-flu” can be awful and that electrolytes can be an issue with the ketogenic diet. This can be a problem with a low carb diet. Because water bonds to glucose, much of the weight initially lost when we restrict carbohydrate intake is water weight because without the glycogen stores we tend to retain less water.  When we lose that water, we often lose electrolytes with it. Most sources that advocate a ketogenic diet make recommendations to help manage and adapt to this.
  • But the brain requires glucose! Don’t we NEED carbohydrate?  We do need glucose, but that doesn’t mean we need to eat carbohydrates to get it.  Our biology allows for us to create glycogen from proteins and fats through a process called gluconeogenesis.  The part that makes this controversial is that some believe this is inherently unhealthy and that relying on this much slower and arguably more taxing process for the glucose we need might not be adequate, especially for someone as physically active as a swimmer.
  • Won’t my cholesterol go up if I go keto?  This does often happen, and again this is a very controversial topic.  Many low carb advocates have argued for years that we should not fear dietary cholesterol, and also should not fear elevated LDL (the “bad” cholesterol.) This has caused a large number of researchers to go back to pick through data from past studies and pursue new research to question the status quo.  It has been accepted for decades that we should avoid saturated fats and keep our cholesterol levels low, but there is a lot of evidence lately questioning whether the context of a low carb diet might cause this recommendation to be reversed.
  • Can keto really improve athletic performance?  There are actually many studies showing performance impairment when restricting carbohydrate.  Low carb advocates have long claimed that this doesn’t match up to anecdotes and that there is a reason for it.  They argue that there is a required adaptation period before athletic benefit can be impacted positively and have demanded that studies that don’t allow for this shouldn’t be considered as legitimate evidence.  More recent studies have shown more positive results for LCHF, especially in low intensity endurance activities, but mixed results for more intense exercise, which of course leads to more questions that demand more studies.   Studies have recently shown that people can adapt to burning fat at higher intensities than previously believed, and there is evidence that LCHF is “glycogen sparing” which would benefit swimmers if proved true. While more research is being done recently there has been nothing definitive enough to cause a complete paradigm shift in athletics for endurance or sprint based racing. One controversial figure in the diet wars is Dr Tim Noakes, author of Lore of Running.  He was one of the first researchers to bring the concept “carb-loading” for athletics to the mainstream and has since taken a lot of heat for his complete reversal of opinion on the subject.

No matter your take on whether keto is a good option for the general population, or more specifically for swimmers, we are sure this is a topic that will be discussed as more athletes and coaches seek every advantage they can gain in training.  We here at SwimSwam look forward to seeing how it works out for Michael, and also hope that more research is done so that we can make the most informed decisions possible regarding optimal health and training. We welcome (civil) questions and discussion in the comment section below.

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Ol' Longhorn
2 years ago

In between carb loading and keto there’s something called… a healthy diet.

The Screaming Viking!
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
2 years ago

actually, I can make a pretty compelling argument that the middle of the spectrum is actually the problem.

200 SIDESTROKE B CUT
Reply to  The Screaming Viking!
2 years ago

Others may not find it so compelling.

The Screaming Viking!
Reply to  200 SIDESTROKE B CUT
2 years ago

LOL. Trust me, I know. You might be surprised about my personal opinion on the “diseases of civilization.”

Swimmomtoo
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
2 years ago

If keto diet lets young swimmers and their families to eat healthy: more good fats such as evoo, coconut oil, avocado, dry roasted nuts, green leafy vegetables, grass-fed beef, non-hormone/antibiotics treated meat/diary products; less donuts/sugar-loaded energy drinks, then keto diet is a great thing.
The worst scandals generated by food companies and medical community in the past fifty years have been the promotion of “low-fat” diet and the association of blood cholesterol level with CVDs.

MMM
2 years ago

Questions : I thought fat max was around 60% VO2 max (?) and after this the rate of fat oxidation is not sufficient to maintain high intensity exercise (?)

The Screaming Viking!
Reply to  MMM
2 years ago

that’s what everyone thought until recently. the issue with that is that no research had ever really been effectively done with fat adapted athletes until recently. the numbers change in the context of low carb.

Troy
2 years ago

This article seems biased towards not doing the diet. I think it should be presented with the pros and cons, not just the controversial “negatives.” He is not the first athlete to use “Keto.” Alot of Keto athletes I have talked to say the fats they eat, act as their carbs, it does basically the same thing, storing and using the energy. However, the fats IE avocados, oils, nuts, work better and and are healthier. This is another side of the argument .

NorthernFrijole
Reply to  Troy
2 years ago

Doesn’t read as biased to me. Most likely, you’re a “keto bro,” which means that your default setting is “the world is biased against me.” Seems to present both sides fairly to me – just because you want the negatives ignored, doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

The Screaming Viking!
Reply to  NorthernFrijole
2 years ago

well actually, a lot of the “negatives” are proving to be untrue as more research is done. No one should trust me on this… I don’t want to sway anyone toward keto– I want to sway people to do their research. Read between the lines when looking at studies. A perfect example was a recent headline about a study that claimed a high fat diet will shorten your life. If you actually read the study, they basically fed Crisco to get the result they wanted to promote a low fat diet through misinformation. This happens all over the place and it is disgusting.

The Screaming Viking!
Reply to  Troy
2 years ago

I was asked to write an unbiased article. If you read my Manifesto it is pretty clear where my bias lies. In the comments I don’t plan to hold back my opinions. 🙂

My 5 Swim
2 years ago

I’ve found success losing weight on keto and other than initial “keto flu” haven’t had issues with it. I don’t particularly enjoy the foods on it–love meat but hate vegetables. My husband, on the other hand, loves it and has also had success with it (and he’s never had the keto flu–not everyone gets it). He really believes in the health benefits and some of our kids wanted to do it with us, not to lose weight or for performance benefits, but for the health benefits my husband is always talking about. The research I did on it (simple google searches) led me to believe this would not be beneficial to them and would make training more difficult and harder… Read more »

The Screaming Viking!
Reply to  My 5 Swim
2 years ago

My opinion: skip the veggies. Eat the meat. People will think I am crazy saying it, but to keep optimal simple: eat once a day, only meat, drink only water.

Jane Don't
Reply to  The Screaming Viking!
2 years ago

Gross. Where’s the fun in that?

Togger
2 years ago

What’s the keto view on how to fuel endurance events? 10k, 25k, Ironman type stuff?

Obviously conventional thinking is to complex carb load and then use bars and gels to get you through on the day. Would keto be able to keep you going on the day without refuelling, favour fuelling on the go with oils and butters or just have refined carbs during the race as an exception to the diet?

I always wonder how much the post gel energy rush is psychological, but I don’t feel brave enough to just keep going deep into a ‘bonk’ hoping eventually fats will kick in.

Fulldraw
Reply to  Togger
2 years ago

Ultramarathon record holders use keto so they don’t bonk when they use up their glycogen stores. Ketones are very neuro protective which is why it treats children with seizures

The Screaming Viking!
Reply to  Togger
2 years ago

actually, there are some triathletes who have had success with training low carb and competing high carb. In my opinion, no matter what you are competing in, the best route seems to be to have glycogen stores full on race day, but to do it without insulin interfering with fat oxidation. This is why products like Generation UCANN are sold. It is a way to refuel glycogen without the insulin surge that halts the ability to burn fat.

ABC def
2 years ago

He’s not fast because of the ketogenic diet. Or because of kaatsu. Or even USRPT. (USRPT is effective. But he’d be fast if he trained with Dressel too.) If he adopted other approaches instead of these would he still be fast? I think so. What’s important is that he thinks these will make him fast, and when he thinks they will make him fast then it will have an actual effect. Like a placebo.

The Screaming Viking!
Reply to  ABC def
2 years ago

I would like to encourage you to read the manifesto. 🙂

anonymous
2 years ago

I want to know why MA takes the exogenous ketones. What do experts say about the age limits on who can safely experiment with a keto diet? Is the benefit of a keto diet that the glycogen stores are not depleted during training and racing thereby enabling recovery in between training sessions and in between racing. How much does a keto diet stress the kidneys?

The Screaming Viking!
Reply to  anonymous
2 years ago

1. exogenous ketones are just a way to elevate ketones before the body actually demands them. It is potentially a way to reduce the glycolytic demand from the start of a race.
2. your second question depends on who you consider an expert. I don’t think age is much of a factor. Activity level might be more relevant. The ketogenic diet obviously needs to be studied more, but historically there is a pretty good case that there have been cultures who would have eaten near zero carbohydrate with no issues.
3. third question is really interesting and you are on the right track somewhat. Keto being glycogen sparing is one benefit although there is much more to it… Read more »

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  The Screaming Viking!
2 years ago

Not a lot of glycolytic demand in 50’s.

DrSwammer
2 years ago

Considering the controversy among professional researchers and the medical profession about this topic, I doubt having some articles on a sports news website it going to come to any major breakthroughs. This site, and sports in general, is continuously filling with people overstepping their expertise and oversimplifying rather complex scientific topics. A number of the ‘cutting edge’ exercises, diets, supplements, etc are dangerous and require more than a few google searches to educate yourself about. If you or your athletes are considering making a drastic change to their diet, lifestyle, or training, someone with the correct expertise and knowledge should be consulted in the best interest of the athlete. People so desperately want that shortcut to success or advantage over… Read more »

coacherik
Reply to  DrSwammer
2 years ago

Don’t see anywhere that SV claimed to be an expert, your post feels like an implication of irresponsibility. He does say to consult your doctor and do your own research…

The Screaming Viking!
Reply to  DrSwammer
2 years ago

I am pretty certain the Andrew family has gone to experts. If I remember correctly, they have even met personally with Dr Noakes in South Africa.