The New York Times recently reported on a new trend among serious athletes looking to enhance performance: Eating a diet extremely high in fat, which induces a state called ketosis. One of the side effects of the ketosis diet is weight loss. But can relying on mostly fat for fuel help your average exerciser lose weight?
At this point in diet history we're all pretty familiar with the low-carb diet, which had droves of people avoiding bagels and reaching for the bacon in hopes of leaning out without feeling deprived. That diet was really more of a weight loss plan for the average Joe. But recently, some researchers, scientists, and competitive athletes have taken things a step further and to focus on a diet made up of around 85 percent fat, rounding out the last few percentages with mostly protein and almost no carbohydrates.
When we think dietary energy, we usually think carbs. It's always been the norm for anyone staring down the barrel of a marathon to load up on pasta and potatoes the night before. Known as "carb-loading," the athletes would eat an excess of carbohydrates before a high-intensity endurance performance to provide their bodies with adequate energy to make it through whatever grueling workout they'd embarked on.
But a review article recently published in The European Journal of Sport Sciences reevaluates the role fat and carbs play in energy production. To simplify it as much as possible, fat is such a plentiful source of energy in everyone's body that it could, theoretically, provide you with enough juice to exercise all day, every day. But fat is not as readily available for an energy source as carbohydrates are. When your body needs energy it uses up carbohydrates quickly and immediately. Fat has to go through a longer process to be used. In an effort to make that all that fat fuel a more readily available source of long-lasting, powerful energy, some athletes are putting their bodies in a state called ketosis by eating almost entirely fat.
The New York Times says that according to Dr. Jeff Volek, one of the authors of the review article, during ketosis "the body creates molecules called ketones that result from the breakdown of fat into fatty acids. The body and brain will burn ketones as fuel when the blood does not contain much sugar. Ketones also are believed to aid in the reduction of inflammation throughout the body."
The Times continues, "So, theoretically, ketones and fatty acids would fuel even the most prolonged and strenuous exercise in people following a very high-fat diet and aid in their recovery from that exercise by reducing inflammation and muscle damage." Additionally, "High-fat diets often also result in weight loss, Dr. Volek said, which can improve performance by itself."
The review article was written with professional and serious endurance athletes in mind, like ultra-marathoners. But how does this translate to someone who exercises casually and just wants to seriously slim down?
The Skinny on FAT
I had some burning questions for Andrew DeWitt, a comedian and host of the podcast, The Andrew DeWitt Show. DeWitt has been a devoted follower of the ketosis diet for three months now and has lost 30 lbs from his starting weight of 275 lbs. "Like every fat guy, I've tried everything. And ketosis is the only thing that allows me to feel good while I'm losing weight," says DeWitt. As a well-informed dieter, he had some success with a low-carb diet in his early 20s but stopped when relatives and friends feared for his heart health. After trying and failing on a low-calorie, low-fat diet, he recently came upon the idea of ketosis for weight loss on the internet. The idea of "low-carb, high-fat extreme" clicked right away with him.
A Day In The Life
"On a typical day, I'll have butter coffee with coconut oil, egg yolk omelets, macadamia nuts, bacon, various meats, veggies cooked in tons of butter and topped with mayo, and [even though it has made others around him livid] melted butter in a coffee mug to sip on in between meals. There's not a lot of chewing...and there's a lot of fucking butter." DeWitt says that taking the pleasure equation out of eating keeps him from bingeing. "I'm so full and grossed out that I almost hate food," he says. DeWitt also takes a lot of vitamin supplements to try and replace all the nutrients he's missing from fruits, veggies, legumes, etc.
And what about energy to exercise? Does all that fat make butt loads of fuel? DeWitt says that's not really happening. "So, every Sunday I eat carbs so I can have enough energy to lift weights that day. The idea is I'm building muscle, losing weight, and keeping my muscle gains." DeWitt says that if he tried to lift weights without cycling in the carbs one day a week he would probably max out immediately. "Oh yeah, there'd be no glycogen in my muscles. I'd curl one rep and be out," he sighed.
Fats 4-EVA or Forget It?
So, if you're looking to lose 10-15 lbs, is this something you should try?* Although he's no dietician, DeWitt advises against it. "I don't think ketosis is for everyone. I think you should only try this diet if you're morbidly obese or looking to lose 60 or more lbs." DeWitt also doesn't plan on sticking to the diet for long. "This isn't a lifestyle, it's a tool. I don't think the ketosis diet is sustainable long-term. My plan is to stay on it for about a year to get to a healthy weight and then slowly add back in fruit and veggies." DeWitt paused for a moment and then said, "I look forward to a time when I can stop eating all this butter."
I'm no dietician either, and to each his own, but after reading the research on the ketosis diet, I think I'll leave the mug o' butter to Mr. DeWitt and the professional athletes and stick to a balanced, whole foods diet with plenty of exercise sprinkled in for good measure.
*Always speak to your primary care physician before embarking on any diet or food restriction plan, especially if you have any pre-existing medical conditions.
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Image: Butter Photo from Shutterstock