Can I Build Muscle on a Keto Diet?
In the bodybuilding world a lot of people are very adamant about their carbs. “You can’t build muscles without carbs” they’ll yell into the air, bread crumbs flying from their mouths. Ok, maybe it’s not that dramatic, but there are a lot of people extremely passionate about their carbohydrate intake which can make things a bit confusing for people on keto who want to build muscle. Let’s have a look at how keto works and whether or not it impairs your ability to build muscle!
1. WHAT IS KETO?
The ketogenic diet has actually been around for nearly a hundred years as an effective way to treat drug-resistant epilepsy. It was then popularized in the 1970’s by Dr. Atkins as an effective weight loss solution. It’s popularity hasn’t really waned too much since those days because, at the end of the day, keto works. The ketogenic dieting style relies on minimal carbohydrate intake. By severely restricting your carbohydrate intake, your body is forced to use fat cells for energy. Under normal circumstances a person would consume higher levels of carbohydrates which are then converted to glucose. Your cells love to gobble up that glucose to do their biddings. When restricting your carbohydrates there isn’t enough cell food available so your body converts fat cells to ketones which circulate in the blood stream and take the place of glucose for feeding your hungry little cells. Generally it takes about 4 days of eating 20-50g of carbs a day for a body to enter ketosis. However, this can vary significantly person to person.
2. IS KETO HEALTHY?
While many people have trouble sticking with a keto diet in the long run, science does support that a ketogenic diet can be a healthy choice. It is especially advantageous for obese people who need to lose weight to reduce risk of obesity related diseases. Low carb diets are especially effective at reducing visceral abdominal fat which packs itself around your inner organs and is associated with a host of health problems including type 2 diabetes. For people who already have type 2 diabetes, a ketogenic diet has been shown to improve blood sugar control which can have important benefits to overall health. There is some evidence that a ketogenic diet may improve cholesterol levels over time by reducing blood triglycerides. Finally, based on the positive effects of a ketogenic diet on epilepsy, it is now being studied for other diseases of the brain including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Now that we’ve covered the benefits, we also need to touch on the risks. A ketogenic diet can be stressful for kidneys and may increase your risk of kidney stones and gout. It is generally advised that anyone with kidney problems not use a keto diet. Keto diets may put people, especially diabetics, at risk for episodes of hypoglycaemia, which is dangerously low blood sugar. Another common problem with a keto diet is constipation and digestion issues as many people find it difficult to get adequate fibre intake and also a lot of people increase their intake of sugar substitutes which can wreak havoc on your digestive system. There are other risks associated with a person’s choice of fats, but these can be avoided by choosing to incorporate healthy fats in your keto diet and not relying primarily on processed meats and saturated fats. The final risk associated with keto is muscle loss. This is where it gets it’s bad reputation in the bodybuilding community. Some research has shown that keto diets are associated with muscle loss, especially in the legs, but there still isn’t a full consensus on this topic as research is ongoing. We'll dive deeper into this topic in a bit.
2. WHY IS KETO POPULAR
Keto remains a popular choice for people wanting to lose weight because it works. It’s one of the most effective ways to quickly lose body fat and one of the side effects of being keto-adapted is that you lose your appetite and cravings for unhealthy foods. Many people also find benefits such as improved skin, mental clarity, and ability to overcome previous food anxieties and addictions. Once again, these benefits may not be long-term as it can be a very difficult diet for many people to stick with. However, there are many people out there who have sworn off carbs forever and preach the benefits of their low-carb lifestyle.
4. CAN I BUILD MUSCLE ON A KETO DIET?
Based on current research, keto many not be the ideal diet if you are an already lean person looking to increase muscle size, but may be a great choice if you have body fat you want to lose and want to maintain strength or gain muscle at an average pace. It is important to remember that while on a keto diet your muscles will never be as plump as when eating carbs since your glycogen stores are depleted. What about maximizing my performance? Well, results on current research on using a ketogenic diet when you are trying to maximize performance are a bit mixed. Studies on crossfit athletes and olympic lifters using a ketogenic diet demonstrated that a ketogenic diet did indeed result in some loss of muscle mass, particularly in legs and thickness of triceps, compared to athletes using higher carb diets. However, the ketogenic diet group lost more fat mass and there was no difference in strength performance compared to high carbohydrate participants. A case study on olympic lifters using a ketogenic diet found that two out of five increased their strength, two remained the same, and one lost some strength. Based on current research, it’s reasonable to believe that if your goal is to lose fat and gain or maintain strength, a ketogenic diet might be a great choice, however, there may be significant variability among individuals so you likely have to try it to find out. On another note, an area that deserves some attention is protein intake with a keto diet. While in ketosis your body uses gluconeogenesis to convert protein to glucose. Many keto diets are in the low to moderate range for protein intake, so it seems reasonable that if a person using the ketogenic diet were to increase their protein intake they may be able to spare any muscle wasting and even make muscle gains while shedding fat.
Overall, human beings are diverse and there is never a one size fits all solution for dieting. Based on the research we have, it’s clear that a ketogenic diet can be very advantageous for someone who needs to lose body fat. It is an especially useful diet for people who struggle with controlling their cravings. As for whether you can build muscle on keto, the science isn’t straightforward but for the average person looking to lose weight and gain muscle it can be an excellent option. At the end of the day, having less body fat makes our muscles look more pronounced anyways. If your goal is big plump muscles because you want to get up on a stage or flex at your ex, you may need to up your carbs a bit. At the end of the day, you should always choose what is best for your own personal goals and most of us don’t have to worry about maximizing lifting performance or muscle growth so a diet that cuts fat, reduces hunger, and allows you to gain muscle at an average pace seems like an excellent choice for many people.