A Ketogenic diet, Keto diet for short, is a severely carb-restricted diet that puts your body into a state of ketosis. Your body typically uses glucose, a derivative of carbohydrates, as its primary fuel source so by limiting your carbohydrate intake your body requires other energy supplies. By reducing carbs and increasing fat, your liver will begin converting fat into ketones which are then utilized as the bodies primary fuel source.
Advocates of the Keto diet claim that ketones are superior to glucose as a metabolic fuel. This metabolic superiority has several advantages including appetite reduction, weight loss, and improved cognitive function.
I decided to put these claims to the test after listening to Dom D’Agostino and Layne Norton debate the benefits and drawbacks of a ketogenic diet during their latest appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience. Before getting started, I measured my strength, blood markers, body composition, and productivity to see whether or not my experience matched Dom or Layne’s claims. I just finished three weeks of the diet lives up to these expectations.
During their discussion, Dom tells Joe that urine strips are a pretty accurate way to measure whether or not you are in Ketosis. I used these urine strips to measure my ketone levels, and by the fourth day, they showed that I had low to moderate Ketone levels which I sustained throughout the remaining three weeks.
Dom claims that a primary benefit of a Keto diet is that it naturally restricts your appetite, which leads to weight loss. He says “appetite regulation is influenced positively by nutritional ketosis in ways that we are just starting to learn now.”
Joe agrees with this, saying, “well you can certainly feel it, it’s one of the weirder things about the ketogenic diet. When your in that state all of a sudden you’re just not hungry the same. There’s not an overwhelming need for food.”
If true, this reduction in appetite would mean that one advantage of the diet is that you don’t need to track your calories and macronutrients to lose weight. With a reduced appetite, you would naturally consume less. Dom continues by saying that “with low-carb and with a Ketogenic diet, that becomes a practical strategy to create a sustainable calorie deficit.”
But this is something that Layne disagrees with. He argues against the appetite reduction, saying, “that is not always going to work, some people don’t feel that satiated on a ketogenic diet. There are some people who feel hungrier on that.”
I limited myself to 20 grams of net carbs per day to maintain ketosis, but otherwise, I ate as much protein and fat as my body desired. I tracked my food and ended up eating around 3800 calories per day with about 70% of the calories coming from fat and less than 2% from carbs.
3800 calories might sound like a lot, but it is important to remember that I had no limits on how much I could eat, as long as I didn’t eat more than 20 grams of carbs. If I were to eat as much as I wanted, including carbs, I would be surprised if my natural appetite allowed me to eat anything less than 5000 calories per day.
Dom believes that “the ketogenic diet shines in a calorie deficit.” It’s hard to know whether or not I was in a caloric deficit because even though I dropped 2lbs, I lost 3 lbs of lean mass but managed to gain .5% body fat.
Layne claims that there was a study showing “that in ketogenic vs. non-ketogenic diet, in people who were lifting weights, trying to get bigger, there was slightly less muscle mass using the ketogenic diet.
The fact that I lost lean mass does not necessarily mean that I lost muscle. I used a DEXA scan to measure my weight and body composition. Despite this being the most accurate measurement of body composition it still includes water weight in lean mass. In my case, the reduction in lean mass from water weight would make more sense because the diet did not have a negative impact on my strength.
Joe wonders what effect the diet would have on physical performance, asking “overall, is the ketogenic diet a good strategy for someone that’s involved in some sort of a brutal athletic pursuit?” Dom responds saying “It can be absolutely, and it will be dependent upon being Keto adapted over time. I did not feel myself for about 3 to four months.”
In my experience, this adaptation took way less time. Over the three weeks of the diet, my combined one rep max increased by 12 lbs. But my question here was ‘if I lost weight then how did I gain strength?’ This might be explained in my blood levels.
During the diet, my testosterone increased by 6.5% from 22.8 to 24.3 nmol/L, and my vitamin B12 levels rose to 933 pmol/L. Although these changes are positive, they are not the most significant difference that I saw. In just three weeks, my LDL cholesterol rose 184% from 1.82 to 5.17 mmol/L.
There is debate over whether high saturated fat consumption and blood cholesterol are as bad as we once thought. But, according to Layne, “the research data that I’ve seen, in my opinion, shows that saturated fat absolutely was demonized, it's not as bad we thought, but if you eat too much of it, it's not great either.”
Since I don’t know enough about cholesterol to go against conventional wisdom, I would have a hard time recommending this to someone concerned with heart disease. But being naïve and in my 20’s, preventing an end of life illness is a much lower priority than increasing my mental performance and productivity.
Joe says to Dom “you were specifically mentioning hormonal changes due to the ketogenic diet that were beneficial.” These to me were the changes that I was most looking forward to from a Keto diet.
Dom responds, saying “Ketones, sort of by definition, have a metabolic superiority as a fuel source. They readily cross the blood-brain barrier, they can largely replace glucose as the primary energy source in your brain under periods of fasting or the ketogenic diet." He credits this superiority for the success he was able to achieve in academia, saying “That for me had tremendous practical applications that allowed me, I feel, to excel through academia. I was able to do a lot more work.”
An increase in productivity is usually completely subjective, but I did my best to measure it as objectively as possible.
I plan my life in three-week cycles called sprints. In each sprint, there are a series of tasks to get done, and each task has a score based on its complexity, value, and time requirement.
At the end of a sprint, I count the score of every task that I completed to compare the total with previous sprints and measure when I was most productive. During a Keto diet, my sprint speed, or productivity, increased by almost 48%, rising from 93 to 138 points.
So this brings me to the question of whether I recommend a Keto diet? That’s hard to say because like Layne says “Low carb is better, compared to what? What’s the cost on performance or any of these other things?”
And what are your goals? If you want to improve your cognitive performance, then it seems to be better than higher carbs. But if you are looking for lower cholesterol, then a higher carb diet is certainly better. It might be a good way to naturally restrict your appetite but only if you are disciplined enough to stay away from carbs.
Every diet is going to be better than others at one variable but worse at another. That is why it is essential to know your priorities before choosing a diet.
It is also why I am now testing a higher carb, flexible diet to see how these two diets compare. In the meantime, I am working on a video to compare my results on a ketogenic and carnivore diet.
If you want to see the results of all of these diets to make an informed decision on what is best for your goals, then follow along, and I will keep you posted.