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The ketogenic diet is all the rage right now.
According to many, it’s the single best diet for losing fat, staying lean, and improving health and longevity.
It’s not, of course, because there’s no single diet that’s best for accomplishing all of that in everyone all of the time, but the ketogenic diet can work well as a weight loss diet for some people some of the time.
That’s how it has mostly been promoted, as well—as an effective way to lose weight rapidly—but recently, more and more people have been talking about the ketogenic diet’s superiority for building muscle as well.
They’re calling this approach “ketogaining” and the story is that it’s a healthier, more effective way to gain muscle and not fat than the traditional high-carb diet popular amongst most bodybuilders and weightlifters.
Poke around online and you’ll find some freaky big and lean people promoting ketogaining as well as a few studies that seem to validate their claims, and so understandably, it’s starting to catch on.
How legitimate is ketogaining, though?
Can you really have great workouts and gain just as much muscle but less fat by eating less than 50 grams of carbs and over 100 grams of fat per day?
To help answer these questions, I invited Eric Helms back on the show.
In case you’re not familiar with him, Eric’s one of the premier natural bodybuilding coaches in the game and is himself a professional natural bodybuilder and strength athlete, as well as an author and credentialed scientist with several peer-reviewed publications under his belt.
In this interview, Eric breaks down the research currently available on ketogaining and explains . . .
- The basic theory of ketogaining (why it’s a thing)
- What studies have shown and what questions still remain
- How the ketogenic diet is likely to impact your training performance
- How much fat you can expect to gain following a ketogenic diet vs a high-carb diet
- Eric’s personal recommendation for carbohydrate intake for maximizing muscle gain
- And more
Click the player below to listen:
9:41 – Does the ketogenic diet work for someone who wants to gain muscle and strength?
12:32 – Why does the ketogenic diet make you feel satiated?
24:34 – Why do you think that the performance was maintained?
30:51 – Does your body get more efficient with the glycogen it uses once you switch to a high fat, low carb diet?
35:02 – Does increasing carbs improve performance?
45:11 – Where can people find you and your work?
Mentioned on the Show
Thinner Leaner Stronger by Mike Matthews
The Definitive Guide to the Ketogenic Diet
Efficacy of ketogenic diet on body composition during resistance training in trained men: a randomized controlled trial.
Ketogenic diet benefits body composition and well-being but not performance in a pilot case study of New Zealand endurance athletes.
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
Mike : [00:02:29] If I sound a bit funny, it’s because I’ve had a cold for a few days, but I’m finally better and I’m here recording this intro. I also had a randomly good workout this morning. I was expecting it to be pretty shit because I wasn’t feeling too good over the weekend, but I felt strong today and I even went up in reps on a couple exercises. So I must’ve needed some rest. Anyway, today’s episode is going to be about the ketogenic diet, which is all the rage right now.
According to many people, this is the single best diet for losing fat, staying lean, and improving every aspect of your health and well-being and longevity, and the reality is, it is not, of course, because there is no single diet that’s best for accomplishing all of that in everyone all the time. But I will throw the ketogenic diet a bone and say that it can work well as a weight loss diet for some people some of the time. And that’s mostly how it has been promoted.
It’s mostly been promoted as an effective way to lose weight rapidly and healthily. And sure, it can accomplish that. But recently, more and more people, especially in the body composition space, have been talking about the ketogenic diets, superiority for building muscle as well. Now they’re calling this approach “keto gaining,” and the story is that it is a healthier, more effective way to gain muscle and not fat than following the traditional high carb diet popular amongst most bodybuilders and weightlifters.
If you poke around online, you will find some pretty freaky big and freaky lean people promoting keto gaining, as well as a few studies that seem to validate their claims. And so, understandably, it is starting to catch on. I am starting to get asked about it more and more frequently. How legitimate is keto gaining, though? Can you really have great workouts and gain just as much muscle but less fat by eating less than 50 grams of carbs and over 100 grams of fat per day?
Well, to help answer this question, I invited the one and only Eric Helms back on the show. And in case you are not familiar with him, Eric is one of the premier natural bodybuilding coaches in the game and is himself also a professional, natural bodybuilder and strength athlete, as well as an author and credentialed scientist with several peer-reviewed publications under his belt. He’s also super cool, super down-to-earth guy, so he’s always fun to talk to.
And in this interview, Eric breaks down the research currently available on keto gaining and explains the basic theory behind it. So why is it a thing, what studies have shown and what questions still remain, how the ketogenic diet is likely to impact your training performance, how much fat you can expect to gain following a ketogenic diet when you are lean bulking versus a high carb diet. He also shares his personal recommendation for carbohydrate intake for maximizing muscle gain and more.
Mike : [00:07:48] Mr. Eric Helms is back. It’s been a while. We’ve done a couple interviews and those have been some of the most popular, actually, that I’ve done in a long time. I was looking over those numbers, that’s why I told one of the guys that work with me, “we need to get the one and only Dr. Helms back on because he’s a cool dude and people always like his stuff.”
Eric : [00:08:07] Well, I am honored to be back on and I’m just tickled pink that people like my episodes a lot, so ..
Mike : [00:08:16] [Laughing] All right, so the topic is going to be keto gaining, which I also thought was a great timely thing to talk about, because if I had no integrity, I would be going keto crazy right now. It’s actually astounding, I mean, I’m looking at it more on the book side of things, because a lot of my life is in the publishing world and the amount of keto-related books, you know, cookbooks, and just diet books, and health books that are selling right now is astounding.
It’s actually absurd. It reminds me of back when paleo first really took off. Like at this point, if you can produce anything halfway decent with keto and you know how to gain Amazon’s search algorithm, you’re going to make a lot of money.
Eric : [00:09:01] Wow. So, I mean, yeah, it’s definitely a pretty hot topic at the moment. It’s definitely buzzing. Keto is one that comes in cycles. You know like, if we were to recall back to the 90s when the Atkins diet came out, that was huge and there were tons of diet books as well, all written about it. So I think it is intriguing because – I wouldn’t describe it as a fad because it’s been around for a long time, but it’s definitely hot right now.
Mike : [00:09:26] Has it been around and has it been known, though, as the ketogenic diet because the Atkins diet was a thing on its own, right? And it was just considered a low carb, higher fat, but was it associated with ketogenic dieting? Because this is the first time – you’ve been in the space probably longer than I have, it’s been six years or so for me, and in that time, I haven’t seen people specifically jumping up and down for the ketogenic diet, just some form of low carb.
Eric : [00:09:56] Yeah, I mean, I think there’s plenty of low carb diets that are more promoted than the past all the way going back to like Banting, we’re talking like nineteen hundreds, that did produce a state of ketosis. I think this is probably the first time that the term itself ketogenic has become as popular as it has in the, just the kind of the primary name. I don’t see it as much different than the low carb craze of the 90s or, you know, restricted carbohydrate diets had been a thing for a long time, that’s for sure.
Mike : [00:10:28] You said “manting,” or “Banting”?
Eric : [00:10:29] Banting, B.
Mike : [00:10:31] What is that? I’ve never heard of that.
Eric : [00:10:32] That was a gentleman, I’m not great on my history on this one, who lost a whole lot of weight using a ketogenic diet and I believe his last name was Banting. That became the term like, “doing a Banting diet.” It was pretty old school, I think, man, that might have been – my history is not great off the top of my head, but the Banting diet was like, I think one of the very first times that the ketogenic diet took the mainstream.
And I’m sure someone out there who’s better with history will be like, “no, you got it all wrong.” But it’s definitely probably one of the first times it appeared in the mainstream as an approach that was kind of counter to the norm for weight loss and combating obesity and for health.
Mike : [00:11:13] Interesting. I wrote a longer form article on the ketogenic diet a couple years ago. I never came across that in the research that I did. Where I kind of started was just when it became something that was used to help people who have epileptic seizures.
Eric : [00:11:28] Yeah, this was definitely pre-research. I think, it was a gentleman named William Banting and he used to be obese. I think this was in the 1800s and he limited his intake of carbs primarily and lost a ton of weight. And then that was promoted after that because of his success.
Mike : [00:11:48] It’s like pre-science, just intuition. He just had an idea and it worked.
Eric : [00:11:51] Well it wasn’t pre-science per se in the 1800s, it wasn’t like …
Mike : [00:11:56] I mean, the science of ketogenic dieting, there was no …
Eric : [00:11:58] Sure.
Mike : [00:11:59] Or just dieting, in general. I’m sure that there wasn’t that much known at that time.
[00:12:03] Definitely there wasn’t PubMed at the time that’s for sure. [Laughing]
Mike : [00:13:27] All right, so what we want to talk about today and the research we’re going to be going over is – it’s a bit more specific part of the body composition space, because most people who find their way, at least in the mainstream, who find a way to the ketogenic diet, are wanting to lose weight, which is another discussion, but of course, it can work fine if it means that you are in a calorie deficit and you can stick to it and you don’t hate your life on it.
But if you are someone who’s wanting to gain muscle and strength, is the ketogenic diet viable? Now, of course, you can gain muscle and strength on it, but that’s where I’m just going to kind of pass it over to you because anybody out there that poke around on the internet, you’ll find there’s a debate going on where some people say it’s awful, you’re not gonna make any gains on the keto diet, other people on the complete other end of the spectrum saying, it’s actually better, low carb and high fat ketogenic dieting is better than just a balanced higher carbohydrate diet, and then, of course, you have people in the middle that say, oh, well, it depends.
Eric : [00:14:26] Yeah. Yeah, definitely. It’s a crowded space as far as opinions. Anytime you see a lot of people discussing something, even pseudoscientifically and there seems to be a lot of disagreement, it’s typically because there’s not a lot of research on something. And I would say that is the case, although that is changing with the ketogenic diet in terms of the available evidence.
There’s not a whole lot on low-carb diets in athletes or resistance-trained individuals trying to put on muscle mass. There’s a fair amount in the obesity realm and diabetes management and that type of thing in health. But yeah, if you were to sit down and try to do a research review of all the studies on, let’s say, resistance-trained or strength training athletes, compare ketogenic diet to normal diets, you’d have a handful of studies.
But on balance, they didn’t look too great for at least the goal of putting on muscle mass. There’s been a number of ones have been published recently, so Vargas Sandoval 2018, this was a study where they compared two groups, one following and more “traditional diet”, another group following a ketogenic diet with the goal, to put them on a slight surplus, have them weight train to get bigger. And the ketogenic diet group actually lost body fat and on average lost a nonsignificant amount of body weight and had no change in muscle mass. Now, that’s interesting because it’s not all bad.
And this kind of goes hand-in-hand with some other research on the ketogenic diet where we’ve seen that independent of protein intake, although the protein intake is probably a big part of it as well, people tend to reduce their energy intake when they start on a ketogenic diet and this can last for around a month or so. I think this is part of the reason why you get a lot of anecdotal reports of success with the ketogenic diet, is that it typically, one, you’re cutting out one of the three major macronutrients.
So both your fat and protein typically go up, so you’re going to see better muscle retention compared to a poor diet where you’re trying to lose weight or you just starve yourself and do a lot of cardio. So on top of having higher protein and probably greater lean body mass retention compared to what someone had done in the past, they’re also getting a suppression of hunger from that higher protein intake and just the fact that it’s a ketogenic diet. There’s something about the ketogenic diet that initially does seem to consistently suppress hunger, above and beyond just having a higher protein intake, so it kind of feels like that it’s easier.
Mike : [00:16:50] Do you think that’s because in some people, and you can correct me if I’m wrong here but this is my understanding that, in some people, fat can be very satiating. Now we know if you mix fat into a mixed meal, it increases satiety, but just in and of itself, some people just feel fuller with higher fat foods and just a higher fat intake in general than carbs.
Eric : [00:17:10] You know, the satiety comparisons don’t really fare well for fat, so I think, like, if you actually look at it on a gram per gram or calorie per calorie basis, more often than not, carbohydrate actually tends to be a little more satiating or it has more to do with the volume of the food or the fiber content. Like one of the most satiating foods out there is potatoes, you know. So, it probably has to do with the palatability as well.
Mike : [00:17:34] Yeah. Just to clarify, that’s one thing I write in my books and I’ve written about in articles and talked about all the time, that generally speaking people are going to be fuller on carbs and fats. But again, I may just be wrong. I don’t remember the exact research I’ve off the top of my head, there was some evidence that I came across that, how I understood is that although in some people, for some reasons, that’s not necessarily the case and sure, you always have the random one-offs, but that’s a bit more than just random one-offs, but again, I could be wrong.
Eric : [00:18:02] Yeah. So what I was going to say was that, you know, fat is still satiating just because it’s not necessarily satiating on a gram per gram or calorie comparison to fat doesn’t tell us the whole picture. You know, fat does result in the release of cholecystokinin, it does provide more mouthfeel and it can result in more satisfaction after finishing a meal. So it does have an impact on satiety certainly. More just a question of per calorie because the energy density of fat, is it more satiating and it will result in ad libitum or free feeding of less or more calories compared to a carbohydrate meal, and typically carbohydrate wins out.
Mike : [00:18:38] Right, right.
Eric : [00:18:38] However, I think the reason why, if I had to speculate as why ketogenic diet provides this initial satiety effect is probably because of some of the changes physiologically as you’re kind of retooling the body to focus on fats as a fuel source more. It kind of seems to coincide with the “diet fatigue” people experience that can also last a few weeks and sometimes up to a month, “keto flu”.
So if I had to guess that those might be part and parcel to one another, that during that period satiety is suppressed a bit as things are being switched over, if you will. It could also be something that is completely non-physiological, just that when you’re initially adopting a ketogenic diet or any new diet, you’re trying to figure out what you’re allowed to eat, you’re just not as familiar with the food choices. It may be that if you had someone who coached you up on what foods you can’t eat and can eat, that you have more options.
But I think just the fact that you’re cutting out an entire, you know, actually, if you go to the grocery store, like two-thirds of the grocery store from what you can buy, then you end up eating less just because you’re kind of scratching your head sometimes. So there’s a number of factors that could go into why there is this lag period initially where people report less hunger or habitually eat less calories.
Mike : [00:19:53] I mean, it could also be that they’re now not able to eat the types of foods that they tend to overeat and then instead they have to eat stuff they generally don’t eat in and maybe in some cases don’t like all that much but are willing to do it to get results.
Eric : [00:20:09] That’s actually a really good point. Some of the most highly palatable foods, the foods that drive additional hunger intake, the food that you could say make you hungrier are typically combinations of carbohydrates and fat. They’re combinations of sweet and savory. So it may not be that ketogenic diets or more satiating is that you’re removing foods that are more stimulating of hunger, that’s a really good point, actually.
Mike : [00:20:32] Do you know the book Sugar, Salt, Fat, I believe? It’s those three. I think it’s that order, Michael Moss, investigative …
Eric : [00:20:38] Not familiar with it, but go ahead.
Mike : [00:20:40] Well, I had him on the podcast and it’s just a deep dive really into food science and it’s not surprising when you think about it, but at first, it’s a bit surprising to learn just how much time and money and effort the big food companies put into finding these what they call “bliss points”, the just the exact right amount of sugar, salt, and fat and just the right mouthfeel. They kind of break down the experience of eating their foodstuff into all the little constituent parts and just maximizing every little point so it makes these foods hyper-palatable. It doesn’t happen by chance, it happens by a lot of work.
Eric : [00:21:17] Absolutely. And that’s why I think, well sometimes, I think we in the evidence-based community will attack someone if they talk about, you know, process or sub-processed foods. And I think it’s one of those cases where the person might be technically wrong for the reason they’re stating, but it’s still good advice. Like, even if there’s nothing physiologically wrong with eating some processed foods in the context of having a balanced diet, on average, like you said, if you eat a lot of processed foods, your satiety is going to be lower.
So there’s definitely something to focusing on more single-ingredient food items just because it makes a diet easier to follow. You’re not eating foods that have been engineered to make you eat as much of them as possible. You know, no one had one piece of broccoli and said, “man, I can never just have one broccoli!” That’s not a thing.
Mike : [00:22:06] [Laughing] Once you get there, you’ve transcended.
Eric : [00:22:08] You are the king of orthorexia if you feel that way about broccoli. King or queen. So getting back to what this means in the context of keto gaining, is that it makes it a little harder. If you’re following a diet that suppresses your ability to eat more and you need to be in a surplus to gain mass effectively, that can get in the way. It also confounds a lot of studies like the study I’m referring to by
[00:22:33] Vargas was only eight weeks. So if some of these people are experiencing four to five weeks of hunger suppression, that’s really basically looking at maybe a three-week period where they got in a surplus. So on average, when you look at this study, you look at the numbers and you’re like, “oh, on average, these guys are actually in a deficit.”
Mike : [00:22:50] Right, because you mentioned I mean, they lost weight, they lost fat. You can’t do that in a surplus. If it’s statistically significant if the amount matters.
Eric : [00:22:58] Yep. So there are probably a few people who weren’t in a deficit, but the majority were, just by the numbers. If you look at it.
Mike : [00:23:06] Out of curiosity, I’m sure you get this, did you look at the individual results to find some people who did not lose fat or weight, who gained some?
Eric : [00:23:14] Yeah, I mean, it’s really nice when studies report all the individual data. That’s not completely common, and if I recall correctly, I don’t think Vargas reported all of the individual data. I could contact the authors, but, you know, ain’t nobody got time for that.
Mike : [00:23:33] [Laughing] Who knows, maybe this could be the next study. You’re already conducting a lean bulking study.
Eric : [00:23:37] This is true, and actually, you know, we did a study, what’s called a case series, which is somewhere between an observational group study and a case study of one person, it’s like a handful of people who you track. So a master student of mine, Simon Chatterton led this and did a great job with it. He looked at five strength athletes, a mixture of Olympic lifters and powerlifters following a, not quite ketogenic, but definitely a low carb, high-fat diet, where they were capped at one gram per kg of carbohydrate. So, for example, a 200-pound male wouldn’t be able to go over 90 grams of carbs, so pretty low.
Mike : [00:24:11] Yeah. I mean, you can get there with just some fruit and vegetables.
Eric : [00:24:14] Absolutely. That’s like, you know, a banana and an apple, and then vegetables rest a day and you’re out of carbs. Similar thing happened, there was this initial suppression of hunger, loss of body fat and we had the individual data on this, and it happened in four out of five people, so about 80 percent of them. There was one person who didn’t reduce the calorie intake and didn’t lose much body fat to speak of.
So it’s certainly not a universal effect, but it does seem to affect the majority of people. So, yeah, individual data is really important here because there are definite differences among individuals, which is another reason why anecdotes are limited in their ability to help you. You can find people ranting and raving about the ketogenic diet because it was really a useful tool for them compared to what they’d done previously, and others it might not ever fit well.
So, yeah, it’s an important point. This study by Vargas, it doesn’t really tell us what we want to know. It tells us that it’s difficult to get into a surplus while following a ketogenic diet, unless it’s maybe more supervised by the researchers or more encouraged. Maybe that could have had a little more contact with the participants, but it doesn’t tell us whether or not an equal surplus of ketogenic diet compared to a traditional diet would be as effective.
But it does tell us the practical things like if you adopt this and try to do a bulking phase, it might be difficult. Fortunately, there is other research out there that allows us to make some conclusions about whether or not the ketogenic diet is appropriate for putting on muscle mass. So there was another study that also came out last year in 2018 by Capehart and colleagues, and it’s called The Three Month Effects of a Ketogenic Diet on Body Composition, Blood Parameters, and Performance Metrics in Crossfit Trainees and they found that, interestingly enough, performance wasn’t that negatively affected by going on a ketogenic diet, but there were decreases in lean mass in certain areas, and this isn’t just no gain, this is actually a loss of lean mass.
This is also a longer study, we’re looking at three months now. And you could look at that and say, “oh, that could be an aberrant finding.” But there was also another study that came out just recently …
Mike : [00:26:20] And I’m assuming you can also dismiss it saying, “oh, well, it’s lower carb, so there’s just less water and glycogen in the muscles, that was registering as lean mass”.
Eric : [00:26:28] Yeah. So it all depends on what the method is and whether they account for that. So this was I believe they used DEXA in Cephart if I remember correctly. That should, if you’re doing it in the same conditions, it should correct for that. But I can’t guarantee you that the practitioners and the participants were on board with doing it at the same time of day and maintaining some similar levels of hydration and all that, but it’s possible. One could try to dismiss all of the data that I’m about to bring up as to why it’s probably not a good idea and ascribe it just to, like you said, systematic measurement error.
Mike : [00:27:03] Or just superficial things.
Eric : [00:27:05] Yeah, absolutely. Some kind of, “lean mass” loss that is not actually muscle mass. Especially when you’re seeing performance, not necessarily decrease or maintain. But if your goal is putting on muscle mass, I think you would probably want to be cautious based on this because there was also a recent study where they looked at powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters, basically, it’s similar to what I did with Simon Chatterton, but with a much bigger cohort and more investigation and they found that they lost body mass and they didn’t lose performance, and the authors said, “hey, this might be a useful way to make weight instead of more harmful, like hardcore dehydration,” which I agree with.
There was also a loss of lean mass around like two kilograms, which is a little – like that’s not good. You know, it’s good it didn’t affect their performance, but the fact that we’ve seen in Crossfit trainee’s and powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, loss of lean body mass. In this study that I did with Chatterton, we didn’t see any gain in ultrasound muscle thickness over eight weeks and, you know, these are trained lifters, so not expecting huge gains in eight weeks, but we didn’t see any gains. So across the four studies that I’ve referenced to always talk, we’ve either seen a plateau or no change in muscle mass or a decrease in muscle mass.
So I would say on balance right now, it’s not looking too good if your goal is to put on muscle mass, you probably want to have some level of carbohydrate in your diet. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a high carbohydrate diet, because it’s not like you’re running marathons, if you’re a powerlifter or an Olympic lifter or a bodybuilder, but you probably want to be somewhere around, you know, at least a gram per pound would be kind of my low-end recommendation.
Mike : [00:28:43] Makes sense. And out of curiosity, why do you think that the performance was maintained?
Eric : [00:28:50] You know, this is a funny thing. I think in the evidence-based community corner, we have full of a lot of people who like to lift weights and like to read PubMed. We’ve become very anti low carb and I think we need to just be a little more balanced.
Mike : [00:29:05] I’m not you, I’m not a scientist. But, you know, I’m that guy as well. For however much I have my foot in the same pool that you’re in, that’s been my position for some time. I wouldn’t have been rabidly anti-low carb. I’ve just said like, “why?” I mean, if you really enjoy it then that’s why, but if you don’t really enjoy it and you’d rather just eat a more balanced diet, you’re not missing out or anything. Whether you want to lose fat or gain muscle or just feel good.
Eric : [00:29:34] Yeah, and that’s my main beef too, is that it’s potentially unnecessarily restrictive. But that said, we still need to do more work into who does it work for, why does it work for them, who sticks with it long term? I have a colleague here at AUT who’s doing his PHD looking at low carb diets and one thing that he’s been investigating in one of the studies is how people approach diets. And there’s some research on this from a different angle, looking at flexible versus non flexible dietary restraint, rigid, flexible restraint, but he looked at it specifically as people who ascribe the description to themselves of either being moderators or abstainers. So it may be that some people just find it much more natural and easy to abstain from certain things from a diet. And they really like having specific rules to follow. Like, I’m going to eat this list of foods and not this list.
Mike : [00:30:28] I’ve come across a number of people over the years, I mean I’ve emailed – between email and social media I’ve interacted, I mean, I don’t know, my inbox is 115,000 emails probably sent and received. So just speaking from that experience, I’ve definitely come across people who just seem to do better, this is just weight loss mostly, seem to do better with a more restrictive approach, mostly because they found that it just was hard for them to control their intake if they couldn’t just eat 50 grams of chocolate or something, the chances of that turning into the whole bar were too high.
But you see that in others of life, too, right? Where you find that some people, they’ve learned that about themselves, whether it’s TV or video games or porn or whatever, potentially “addictive” type things are out there. Some people have found that, I mean, I’d say in the case of porn, it’s better to just abstain, there’s nothing good can come of that. But let’s take TV video games or, you know, sugar or highly palatable foods and stuff, some people have found that they just know themselves well enough where they go, “yeah, no I just need to not do that at all. At least for a while, I’m going to go down the dwindling spiral quickly.”
Eric : [00:31:40] Mmhmm. Yeah, I’m certainly not a psychologist or a neuroscience guy, but I do know that we see rules differently from, “oh, I need to be mindful of this,” you know, so I can say objectively that if someone is a moderator and they take an approach and a mindset of moderation to nutrition, that’s probably healthier psychologically and physiologically in the long term. But if that simply turns into this cascade of failure and then, you know, self-recrimination, and weight gain, and then not being able to follow the diet, then that’s not the right option.
And I think some people are better suited to being on a more rigid, if you will, or maybe more rule-based plan, I think is a better way to put it. Like if it fits your macros is simply intimidating to someone who doesn’t have the nutritional literacy and who also happens to kind of have that natural predilection towards liking hard lines in the sand is the way they operate mentally.
Now, that doesn’t mean that they can’t change the rules over time and I think that’s the way I would approach it as a clinician is, “all right, we have this list of foods, we removed some trigger foods, we’ve included a lot of good, healthy foods and you’re going to follow these rules,” and then as they’ve gotten used to that, we can change the rules a little more and make them a little more inclusive, flex them out, maybe change the time restrictions, so on weekends, you’re allowed to have X, Y, and Z and then just see how that goes.
But to get back to the main point, whether or not a ketogenic diet is effective depends on a lot of things for someone. And it’s not simply, “hey, carbs are what fuel exercise and if you cut out carbs, everything’s going to go to shit and it’s an overly restrictive diet so it’s bad.” I think there are some problems and that’s why we’ve kind of had this lashed back against them in our community.
But we also have to recognize that weight lifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, they’re on the extreme low end of energy expenditure for sports. And if I had to guess out of team sports, or endurance sports, or power and strength sports, who would be the most negatively affected by a low-carb diet? It would not be strength athletes, they’re probably the least likely to be negatively affected because there’s so little energy expenditure.
You have to do a pretty high volume program before you’re actually negatively affected by a low carb intake. And that’s why you see so many strength athletes and bodybuilders who do fine on a relatively low carbohydrate diet. I will say that you’re going to find very few bodybuilders who do ketogenic diets, that’s kind of the rare exception. But you’ll run into a lot of high-level bodybuilders who do moderate-carb diets even in the off-season.
And we’ve got data to back that, you know, people are going, “but hold on,” you know, “bodybuilding relies on glycogen, it’s primarily anaerobic, I don’t get it.” But it’s interesting when you switch to a higher fat, lower carb diet, it doesn’t deplete glycogen as much as you think. Glycogen is preserved to some degree. And also, your training doesn’t deplete glycogen as much as you might think.
You do like a really high volume body part specific, like 20 sets for an individual body part. It might only deplete glycogen about 40 percent. And even on a moderate carbohydrate diet within 24 hours, that will come back. And so unless you’re doing high volume, same muscle group every day, which is just a bad way to train, it probably wouldn’t run into any issue, you know.
Mike : [00:35:00] And doesn’t your body get more efficient in the glycogen that it does use if there’s less available?
Eric : [00:35:06] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you are physiologically limited to how much you can pull in other substrates to do heavy, high and aerobic threshold work. When you’re weight training, you are going to be burning some fat. Like we have studies showing a reduction in intramuscular triglycerides stores after heavy weight training session, but that’s probably being burned between sets to help you reset the size of ATP.
But if you get really good at that, that means that you don’t have to rely on other fuel sources. So, yeah, you get more and more efficient with how much glycogen you’re using. But just to give kind of a real practical example, there was a study, I believe, in the late 90s by Mitchell, where they had folks do five sets of 15 RM to failure on squat, leg press, and leg extension. So think about how crazy that workout is. Five sets to failure in high reps for squats, then leg press, then leg extension.
Mike : [00:36:01] At 15 reps too. That’s terrible.
Eric : [00:36:04] Yeah. Yeah. So that seventy-five reps of squats, leg press, and leg extension, so your quads …
Mike : [00:36:09] That’s a workout you don’t ever want to come back to.
Eric : [00:36:12] No. Yeah.
Mike : [00:36:15] It’s like your first time doing the ten by ten, where you’re like, “that was the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
Eric : [00:36:19] Absolutely. Absolutely, and if you think about it, that’s only 100 reps, this is I think 225 reps in total. [Laughing] It’s wacky, right? So the people who did this, there was two groups, one consumed, either a 65 percent carbohydrate diet, where the other one consumed a 40 percent carbohydrate diet for the two days prior. And I think the authors hypothesized that the lower carbohydrate group would have poor performance, but they didn’t.
So it just goes to show you that you just can’t compare resistance training to the kind of energy expenditure that you see in someone like a marathon runner. Even the most crazy bodybuilding being filmed that “I need to go all out and puke three times” kind of workouts pale in comparison to what happens if you do soccer practice or if you go run a few miles, not a few miles, obviously, a lot of miles, but real athletes.
Mike : [00:37:13] Anybody that has done like that knows, you know, I played ice hockey when I was growing up and I remember even when I was, you know, an invincible teenager, how tired I would be after a hockey game, that there’s no comparison between that and how I’ll feel even after a “hard” weightlifting workout, like [after] a hard weightlifting workout I’ll feel good, I’ll feel energized, I’m ready to go for the day. I mean, after a hard hockey game at 16 years old, I was, like, ready to go to sleep.
Eric : [00:37:40] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah so, I mean, you could definitely make a hard leg day feel hard, but that doesn’t necessarily correlate to how much energy you’re expending. So the point is, is that you can certainly get away with moderate and moderately low carbohydrate intakes in the offseason, probably be fine to fuel your training, and so long as you can get in a surplus I see no reason why that would get in the way, but there might be something about being so low in carbohydrate that you’re ketogenic that actually interferes with the muscle-building process.
And it might be just insulin levels are too chronically low, it could interfere with some things on a cellular level but I can’t speak too confidently. But it would be interesting to see more research in this area because we’ve now seen consistently three studies in 2018 that I’m aware of, we’ve seen either decrement or no gain and muscle mass when there was an intended surplus.
Mike : [00:38:29] So that’s a good, simple, practical takeaway. Question for you. So if you have somebody, let’s say they’re eating a moderately carb diet, somewhere around a gram per pound per day, and their protein is around the same, and the remaining calories from fat, and they need to increase their calories, or let’s say it’s somebody who – you know I come across guys here and there who genuinely just need to eat a shit load of food to gain weight consistently, whether it’s because they’re active outside of the gym or that’s just the way it is.
I mean, 260-pound guys need to eat upward of 4,000 calories a day to consistently gain fat. One of them works with me so I see them every day. So let’s say to a person like that, now they have an option, let’s say they need to get another 500 calories a day or whatever it is, what are your thoughts on how they do that? The reason I ask is my standard recommendation to people like that is: work your carbs up to a point where you don’t have to go absurd and there is a point where it’s just not even practical to eat more carbs and it makes more sense maybe to eat more protein.
I’m just curious as to your thoughts. Do you think there is really a big benefit performance-wise or muscle-building-wise, from going, let’s say, from one gram per pound per day to one and a half or maybe even two, as opposed to using those calories otherwise, more fat, more protein?
Eric : [00:39:51] I think there can be, but on average, there probably won’t be. So if I was to make a statement based on the research, I would say it probably doesn’t matter. I would just say calories and protein and up calories. When I’m in a coaching position it’s definitely worth trying upping carbs first to see if that does improve performance because upping fat probably won’t, it can have some peripheral effects where it might result in a slightly more beneficial hormonal environment if you’re on a pretty low-fat diet, but …
Mike : [00:40:21] Which you probably wouldn’t be, right? I mean, if you’re lean bulking you’re probably getting plenty of fat.
Eric : [00:40:25] Yeah, probably not. You would have to be doing that intentionally. And I only bring that up because I know it’s been popular in some circles to do like, low fat, high carb bulking as a way to try to minimize fat gain. And I think that can have some negative side effects. There’s some research showing that like, if your fat’s down around like 15 percent of calories, that can result in a lower testosterone level, whether or not that would actually translate to better muscle mass gains, these are pretty modest differences in the research and how much that affects testosterone.
So probably not much. Yeah, so in a realistic scenario, that won’t be that low like you said, I would probably first try to add in some more carbohydrates and see if that had a beneficial effect on an individual basis. There’s a good chance it wouldn’t, but it might and I’ve definitely been in this situation as a coach where I have seen that and you get to find something out about that person like, “they do really well in the higher carb diet and they respond well to it.” An example would be my colleague, Alberto Nunez. He notices a very distinct difference when he goes moderate carb, even high carb and the low carb is really a no go for him and you can see the effects in his training and his physique very quickly.
Mike : [00:41:31] I’m one of those people, too. I don’t know if it has anything to do with it. I remember I took a DNA fit test a while ago and one of the little takeaways or whatever, is that my body deals with carbohydrate very well, very high on the carbohydrate sensitivity spectrum, so might have something to do with that, might not. I didn’t put too much stock in that, anyway.
Eric : [00:41:51] Sure. Yeah and the evidence for this has been weakened with some of the most recent studies. But on balance, I would say that overall there is data to suggest that different people handle carbohydrates differently. And maybe based on predicted by your lipid profile, maybe predicted by your “insulin sensitivity” or some combination thereof, we’re still kind of investigating that. But there are individual differences, I think there’s no question to that.
It’s just a question of how do we gain the sensitivity of analysis to be able to predict that. We don’t have it yet, but the practical take home for coaches and for individuals working with their own nutrition is to, I would say, give a month or so on a, say 40 percent fat diet with similar calories and similar protein, similar training, just to kind of keep it like a nice observational scientific investigation of yourself and then flip it around and go to like 20 percent fat and see with obviously higher carbohydrate to keep calories the same and see if you notice differences in performance.
See if you noticed differences in just how you feel energy levels, and then do it one more time each. And if you consistently noticed that both times you did better on either the 40 percent fat of 20 percent fat diet, then that’s something you’ve learned about yourself that you might do better on either a moderate or a higher carbohydrate intake.
Mike : [00:43:09] That’s great. You know, it makes me think of another guy who works with me. I believe the diet part of it was from your colleague, Greg Nuckols, I know the training was. So he did – I mean, it was insane, it was a two-day program I think he did it for close to two months, maybe about six weeks, insane volume and the diet was a thousand grams of carbs a day and he did it with like 60 to 70 grams of fat.
He was eating like a Rottweiler, basically, you know just a lot of oatmeal, a lot of bread, a lot of pasta with low-fat pasta sauce, and I believe the protein intake was fairly high as well. I know the training side came from Greg, the diet, does that sound familiar to you or is that something he just came up with, the guy I’m working with? I believe, though, the diet was part of it. Like Greg was just like, “this is all in, most ridiculous bulk you can do,” basically.
Eric : [00:44:07] It’s possible, I will say, that all of my partnerships with Greg are more around just MASS and sharing information and thinking and having him be smarter than me rather than the actual coaching side of it. So I can’t speak to that, I don’t know.
Mike : [00:44:21] OK, you might want to check it out, you might find it interesting. And if I remember the logic was, at least on that diet is, was just to keep fat low-ish to minimize fat gain over the period and get a ton of calories, I actually don’t remember exactly, again, I wasn’t the one doing it, I was just laughing at watching him eat a loaf of bread every day. There was some reasoning behind the absurd amount of carbs and the also relatively high amount of protein and I don’t remember exactly, but it might’ve been around one and a half grams, like a bit higher than what you’d normally think it’s necessary.
Eric : [00:44:52] And, you know, it makes sense from a not necessarily the extreme amount, but it does make sense for some physiological reasons why you might want to have a very high carb diet or a carb dominant diet, I should say, when trying to put on muscle mass,
Mike : [00:45:06] And consider the training was crazy. Like the training – you will cringe. Again, two-a-days, my buddy was in the gym three hours a day just hard, hard training.
Eric : [00:45:16] Sounds fun.
Mike : [00:45:19] [Laughing] Do it.
Eric : [00:45:21] I’m a masochist, so I have to hold myself back to make progress, not push myself harder, so. If there is a potential rate-limiting effect from being too low in carbohydrates and there’s a potential benefit from having like, as high glycogen levels as possible, then why not. Right?
Mike : [00:45:35] Right.
Eric : [00:45:36] Especially if things are not working out the way you’d wanted on a moderate or low carb diet like the scenario you gave me. Someone’s not progressing their current at like a gram per pound, what would you do? Yeah, I think probably one of the first things you should do is try a higher carbohydrate approach and if it doesn’t net you any benefits and you just start to gain body fat quicker, then you learn something and the approach should then be something else looking at, you know, sleep or recovery or the training program or something of that nature.
Mike : [00:46:05] Makes sense. And just as a little epilogue to the insane bulk. So he’s a solid – in six weeks, no drugs, he’s a solid five pounds heavier now, like he gained a bit of body fat and then he cut back down to the same waist and caliper measurements as where he started and he’s just five to six pounds heavier now and gained a significant amount of strength as well, so the results were there. It worked, there’s no question. He’s also 23 or 24, so he’s invincible. I was encouraging and he was asking me like, “what do you think?” I mean, he’s a smart dude and he knows a bit more about training program than you and I know, but he was like, “what do you think?” And I was like, “yeah, you’re invincible, dude. Now. Now is the time. Do it.”
Eric : [00:46:45] Yes. I literally could not do some of the things I did when I was in that same age now. So more power to you people in your 20s?
Mike : [00:46:52] Yep. Yep. All right. Well, I think it’s about everything for the keto gaining, at least for now, right?
Eric : [00:46:59] Yeah. I think, you know, the take-home is that we probably shouldn’t be so blindly against ketogenic diets. Some people’s mentality, they can work for more so if you struggle with things like tracking and moderation is hard for you and you want to follow a, you know, a high protein, low-fat diet that primarily consists of protein, fats, a little bit of fruit, and some vegetables, there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re following a moderate or low volume strength training program. However, if your goal is to put on muscle mass, then you probably want to be getting at least a moderate carbohydrate diet if not it’s going to be making it harder on yourself.
Mike : [00:47:35] Awesome. So let’s wrap up with – I just want to tell everybody about MASS first, which is an acronym for Monthly Applications in Strength Sport and I’ll say that I have a pretty autistic schedule that I follow in general. I have all my time blocked out and I spend time reading, studying things every day and I have a rotation. And for my health and fitness, MASS is always at the top. So if there’s a new issue that I haven’t gone through, that’s what I put my health and fitness research slash reading time into before anything else because what you guys are doing is awesome.
It’s my favorite source of evidence-based health and fitness knowledge out there. And that’s really why I like to have you on to go over research in it for everybody listening, we don’t have any under-the-table deal. I’m not getting paid for this, I just genuinely, really like what you guys are doing. So I just want to say that and tell everybody that if you like this type of discussion, if you like what Eric’s talking about and you like getting into a bit of the science.
But what I like is you guys do a great job sharing the technical information without making it so obscure that only another scientist would be able to really understand what you’re saying, which is helpful even for me, because my scientific literacy is okay but, you know, I’m not you. Let’s start with just jargon like, you know, I’m still in the dictionary frequently as I’m going through, you know, even your reviews of studies, because sometimes there are new terms I haven’t heard and sometimes they just don’t stick. So what I like, though, is it’s very practical, it’s very easy to understand, so that’s my personal endorsement of it and if there’s anything you want to add to that, please do and then just let people know where they can go to check it out.
Eric : [00:49:24] Well, first, I just want to say thank you. It’s really encouraging to hear that what we’re intending to do is actually coming across, and that is to, you know, put out relevant research to people that are interested in body composition, change, strength performance, and to make it accessible and also to hopefully improve our readership, scientific literacy.
That’s why we don’t just give a bullet point list of what happened in the study, we also want people to understand some of the nuance without making it too dense, so it sounds like we’re doing a decent job at that, we’ll keep trying to get better. And the other thing I’d add is we have, you know, audio roundtables for each written article. So if you prefer to listen while you drive or if, you know, listening is easier than reading.
And we also have two videos each month if you prefer video content. So we’ve got something for everybody. And yeah, just Mike, thanks for having me on and thanks so much for the personal endorsement, lets us know we’re doing it right. And if you want to check us out at strongerbyscience.com/mass, that’s where you can get a subscription.
Mike : [00:50:23] Great. And you guys, are you still offering an issue for free so people can just get an idea before they sign up?
Eric : [00:50:29] Yeah, we’ve actually got our like best of 2018 issue that you can get if you go to that website and you can enter your name for more information and we’ll email you that so you can feel us out and see if it’s your bag or not.
Mike : [00:50:42] That sounds nasty. [Laughing] All right, great man. Thanks again. Thanks as always. Great discussion. I look forward to the next one.
Eric : [00:50:49] My pleasure, man thanks for having me.