Nutrition for athletes is essential. Keto diet and sport may seem like a not-too-convincing combination, but recent studies show how this type of diet can have interesting applications in sports.
However, it is necessary to precise that a proper and healthy diet for those who play sports is essential because it can influence both the quality and the level of performance.
What is a keto diet?
Keto diet is a food regimen characterized by a reduced intake of carbohydrates, a normal protein intake and a significant increase in fat consumption. Adopting such a diet causes some important changes in the use of energy substrates.
Here is how the keto diet works:
- Eating less carbohydrates and therefore reducing their availability forces the body to deplete its glycogen reserves to start using fatty acids and ketone bodies produced in the liver.
- The body needs a short period of adaptation to respond effectively to this diet, which varies from subject to subject and generally ranges from 2 to 4 weeks. In this first phase, there is no significant weight loss.
- After 3-4 weeks of a keto diet, fatty acids become the preferred substrate in the muscles, while ketone bodies are responsible for meeting the energy requirements of the central nervous system. This leads to a series of adaptations involving various organs and tissues, but there is no loss of muscle mass due to the continuous well-calibrated protein intake.
A keto diet determines a series of adaptations at the level of the various organs and tissues that, basically, predispose the body to the use of lipids as a source of preferential energy. At the same time, if the protein intake is well-calibrated, there is no loss of muscle mass, which unfortunately is very frequent in other diet models.
Combination between keto diet and sport
Keto diet and sport may appear antithetical, given the large demand for substrates that occurs during physical activity. However, ketosis can encourage the use of other energy substrates at the muscle level.
A long and intense physical work determines an increase in the use of fatty acids at the level of the muscle and an appreciable increase in the concentration of ketone bodies, an indication that ketosis is a real response to situations of "energy crisis".
The high availability of ketone bodies during a ketogenic diet can encourage the use of these molecules and fatty acids at the level of the mitochondria, the cellular organelles that produce the energy needed for exercise, with savings of available glycogen stocks, necessary for better performance.
Fatty acids and ketone bodies are also very energy efficient substrates and can guarantee more muscle work with the same oxygen consumed compared to glucose or pyruvate, allowing to increase the duration of the performance even at high intensities.
The keto diet for a sportsman is obviously designed to provide the proteins necessary for muscle recovery after performance. However, it induces a state very similar compared to that which occurs during fasting, with significant modifications to several important cellular metabolic pathways. During a keto diet, as in intermittent fasting, some important molecules are activated, which in a series of cascade reactions determine the transcription of genes that encode proteins that are involved in the transport of fatty acids, in their oxidation and ATP production processes. This is obviously an advantageous situation for those who practice endurance sports that benefit significantly from the increased availability of substrates for muscle work.
At the same time a state of ketosis determines inhibition of another important metabolic pathway, that mediated by IGF-1, AKT and mTOR, a decisive way for the repair and growth of the muscle that follows the metabolic and mechanical stresses determined by the sports activity. It is therefore difficult to achieve muscle growth during a diet of this type: those looking for hypertrophy at all costs must necessarily turn to other types of diet.
The keto diet does not involve a loss of strength. When there is an adequate protein intake there are no appreciable drops in strength and power and the muscle mass of the athlete is preserved thanks to the saving effect in the use of proteins that is observed during ketosis. Ketone bodies and fatty acids are produced and used in quantities with reduced protein catabolism for energy purposes but, at the same time, the consumption of a good amount of protein should maintain sufficient stimulation of the pathway that belongs to mTOR, a factor that makes it possible to retain muscle mass despite diet.
Keto diet and sport: some useful tips
Keto diet and sport can get along well, as long as the objectives the athlete wants to achieve are clear. The two main applications of the keto diet in sports are related to:
- improvement of body composition, with reduction of fat mass without an appreciable decrease in muscle mass;
- improvement of the ability to use substrates at the muscle level, in particular increased efficiency in the use of fatty acids.
In addition, the keto diet can help keep the athlete focused, attentive and responsive, without causing loss of the ability to focus and worsening mood, annoying consequences that often accompany other regimens with reduced energy intake.
Keto diet is very far from the Mediterranean diet or other balanced and healthy diets because it must be carefully studied to meet the nutritional needs of the individual and avoid possible side effects. This is why a DIY keto diet is absolutely not recommended.
Do you want to know more nutritional information about the keto diet? Book your free nutritional consultation with our knowledgeable nutritionists.