CHECKING OUT THE KETOGENIC DIET
Both mountain and road cyclists are famous for wanting to trim weight from their bikes. Unfortunately, it can cost thousands of dollars to make bikes even a few pounds lighter. It’s said that riders should do whatever they can to reduce their own weight first. For that reason, we decided to explore one of the most popular ways of doing that today: the ketogenic diet.
The ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat meal plan that causes a person to burn excess body fat. Some people have reported losing as much as 100 pounds in one year by following this meal plan. Much like the Atkins diet, the ketogenic diet is one where participants cut their consumption of carbohydrates and increase their consumption of fat in order to lose weight. “Going keto” is almost the exact opposite of what America’s health authorities have been recommending for the past 30 years, so we recommend that you talk to your doctor before testing the ketogenic diet yourself.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The ketogenic diet was developed in 1923 by Dr. Russel Wilder at the Mayo Clinic as a way to treat epilepsy. It had been known for years that epileptics would stop having seizures for a few months if they fasted—stopped consuming anything besides water—for a day or more. That fact had been written about by a doctor at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York in 1919.
Dr. Wilder, who worked on staff at the Mayo Clinic, suspected that it was the consumption of carbohydrates (such as sugar, bread, cereal, grains, pasta, potatoes, root vegetables, and fruit) that caused epileptics to have seizures.
Dr. Wilder tested his theory with a group of volunteers in the early 1920s. His tests showed that by cutting carbohydrates from their diets, many sufferers of epilepsy would have their seizures stop, sometimes for good, if they followed the ketogenic diet for one to two years or longer.
Thanks to Wilder’s research and the news it generated in the medical community, the ketogenic diet came to be used to treat epilepsy in America from the 1920s into the 1940s.
In the 1940s, however, pharmaceutical companies began to market prescription medicines to treat epilepsy. After companies began offering drugs for the treatment of epilepsy, the ketogenic diet came to be largely forgotten as an option for treating epilepsy.
There was one notable exception to that. The medical staff at Johns Hopkins University continued to use the ketogenic diet to treat epilepsy even after the anti-epileptic drugs had entered the market. The ketogenic diet was found to permanently eliminate seizures in about one-third of the young people who suffered from epilepsy. In addition, it was found to reduce the number of seizures in another third of the sufferers, even after those patients who had been treated with it returned to eating a conventional diet. The drugs, on the other hand, did not offer a permanent cure. It seemed that the ketogenic diet was capable of causing the brains of many epileptics to recover completely from whatever had been wrong before.
The ketogenic diet came back to national attention in the U.S. nearly 50 years later, in 1994. That was when television’s “Dateline NBC” told the story of how Hollywood movie producer Jim Abrahams (the creator of “The Naked Gun” and “Airplane” movies), discovered the ketogenic diet and used it to treat his son’s epilepsy.
Abrahams had started doing his own research on epilepsy while trying to find something that could eliminate the seizures of his 18-month-old son, Charlie. The drugs prescribed for the boy by his doctor did not cure the problem, Mr. Abrahams reported; they would only leave the boy in a drugged stupor.
Abrahams first learned about the ketogenic diet while doing his own research on epilepsy in a library. He liked what he read and found that Johns Hopkins University was still using the ketogenic diet to treat epilepsy. Abrahams met with the medical staff there, then put Charlie on the diet to see if it could help treat the boy’s epilepsy. As Abrahams reported on the “Dateline NBC” episode (which can still be seen on YouTube), after only two days on the ketogenic diet, Charlie went from having close to 100 seizures a day to having none at all.
As it turned out, Abrahams kept his son Charlie on the ketogenic diet for five years. After that, his family put Charlie on a more conventional diet and they found that Charlie’s seizures were apparently gone for good, and Charlie was able to return to eating ordinary foods again. Now, more than 20 years later, Charlie is reportedly still seizure-free, according to his father.
After first sharing Charlie’s story on “Dateline NBC” in 1994, Abrahams later brought the subject to additional attention by producing and directing the1997 television movie, “First Do No Harm,” with Meryl Streep. The film told the story of a boy with epilepsy whose mother (played by Streep) learned of the ketogenic diet through her own research and used the diet to cure her son of epilepsy.
James Abrahams started a non-profit website, charliefoundation.org, to share information on the ketogenic diet so that others could learn about the diet and its ability to treat epilepsy.
The popularity of the ketogenic diet has been growing steadily ever since, with additional benefits of the diet being reported as it comes to be used and studied by more people.
CHRIS FROOME’S KETO-FUELED TOUR DE FRANCE WINS
In the last few years, the ketogenic diet has become the hottest weight-loss diet in America, but there’s more to it than that in the world of sports.
In the last several years, the ketogenic diet has come to be used by a growing number of athletes. British road cyclist Chris Froome reportedly used the ketogenic diet to drop his weight from 167 pounds to 145 pounds and then go on to win four Tour de France titles.
One key advantage of the low-carb high-fat (LCHF) ketogenic diet is said to come in endurance sports where the diet can reportedly make it possible for athletes to burn body fat for extended periods of time without running out of energy.
It’s been said that athletes who are fueled by carbohydrates can only exercise for about two hours before running out of energy and needing to refuell. It’s also been said that when a person consumes carbohydrates, the insulin that is suddenly released into the blood immediately stops the body’s ability to burn body fat for energy. That process of burning body fat to produce energy is known as ketosis. What’s more, until the insulin level returns to its normal level, the body can’t burn any more body fat for energy, the experts say.
This, reportedly, is one of the main reasons that Americans have gained so much weight over the last 30 years, since the standard dietary advice in our nation is to consume the majority of our calories in the form of carbohydrates.
VARIATIONS ON THE DIET
The “classic” ketogenic diet (the variation of the diet that is commonly used to treat epilepsy) requires that 90 percent of a person’s daily calories come from fat, with only 6 percent coming from protein, and 4 percent coming from carbohydrates. Other variations of the ketogenic diet call for anywhere from 60 to 82% of one’s daily calories to come from fat. Whatever the breakdown, the ketogenic diet is one where high-fat foods (such as bacon, eggs, meat, fish, butter, avocados, olive oil, and cheese) are consumed, while high-carb foods (including bread, flour products, corn, rice, cereals, potatoes, soda, fruit, fruit juice, and sugar) are avoided or restricted.
Typically, only about 27 grams of carbohydrates (about one ounce) are allowed per day on a ketogenic diet.
Diabetics should see their health-care professionals before taking up the ketogenic diet. Because of the diet’s effect on blood sugar levels, they may need to reduce their insulin usage on the ketogenic diet. Many diabetics have reported that their blood-sugar problems disappeared while using the ketogenic diet, and they had to stop taking insulin. Because of the potential dangers, or benefits, involved in changing insulin needs and dosages, it’s important that diabetics consult their doctors if they want to try the ketogenic diet.
The ketogenic diet has been claimed by some users to have reversed or reduced the symptoms of heart disease, arthritis, autism, depression, bipolar disorder, acne, Parkinson’s disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and even cancer. There are no controlled studies that we know of that can support these claims, but many of those reported benefits have been mentioned in internet discussions and on the Charlie Foundation website, charliefoundation.org, which we mentioned earlier. The ketogenic diet has also been reported to improve recovery from brain trauma, which could be worth exploring by football players, boxers, motocross racers, and downhill mountain bikers. You can Google those topics and check the Charlie Foundation website to read more about those reported benefits.
It would appear that the ketogenic diet may offer its greatest benefits to the brain and the central nervous system, even though it’s most frequently used today as an aid to causing weight loss. Interestingly, one of the common side effects reported for the ketogenic diet is a sense of euphoria. That suggests that reducing the fat content of the foods we eat may have increased the prevalence of depression in America
It’s worth noting that Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson, PhD, and his daughter, Mikhaila Peterson, have claimed in interviews that an all-meat, “carnivore” diet freed both of them from lifelong depression and inflammation problems. A simple Google search can find interviews with the Petersons where they talk about their experiences.
While a growing number of doctors now endorse the ketogenic diet, many other doctors (who were trained for years to advise patients to cut their fat consumption) will likely oppose it. However, judging from the experience of our testers who have tried it, the ketogenic diet appears to be an easy and effective way to lose weight.
Readers who want to learn more about the benefits and potential risks of the ketogenic diet may want to research it online or through their library. One of the best books we’ve found on the subject is The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, by Yale-, Stanford- and-Oxford-educated author Nina Teicholz, who also has a website called Ninateicholz.com.
Another one of America’s foremost authorities on the ketogenic diet is the Harvard-trained physics graduate and science writer Gary Taubes, who has been researching the benefits of high-fat, low-carb diets for more than 20 years, after reversing his own weight problems by using the Atkins diet (which is similar to the ketogenic diet). Over17 years ago, Taubes made headlines with his groundbreaking New York Times article, “What If It’s All Been a Big, Fat Lie?”, published in July of 2002, in which he questioned the wisdom of low-fat diets. Taubes has since written a number of books on the subject — including, Good Calories, Bad Calories as well as Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It and The Case Against Sugar— and has become one of the best-known nutrition researchers in America.
Another book with a wealth of information on the ketogenic diet is “Keto Clarity: Your Definitive Guide to the Benefits of a Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet,” written by Jimmy Moore with Eric C. Westman, MD.
TESTING THE DIET
To check out the ketogenic diet for its potential benefits for weight loss, we enlisted the aid of some volunteers to try it. In our test, three long-time employees of Hi-Torque Publications (two current employees, one former employee) tried the ketogenic diet. All three testers drastically cut out the carbohydrates in their diets and increased the consumption of eggs, meat, cheese, and fat. All three lost weight quickly and easily on the ketogenic diet. One of our testers dropped 46 pounds in six months, a second dropped 33 pounds, and our third tester dropped 70 pounds in nine months. All three testers reported that they felt very good while following the ketogenic diet and were very happy to have used it to drop their excess weight. One of our three main testers (the author of this article), who is 5’9”, got his weight down to 139 pounds from a high of 172 pounds by following the low-carb, high-fat diet. As his weight dropped below 145 pounds, though, he found that his legs were getting noticeably weaker. It occurred to him that his body might have begun burning its own muscles for fuel as he got thinner, since he was not eating as much protein in the last few weeks of his weight-loss efforts. He decided that he was probably getting too thin, so he started adding more carbs and protein back into his diet — eating pizza, submarine sandwiches, and even pumpkin pie — to gain back a few pounds. His weight shot back up to 146 pounds in just two weeks, at which point he decided he’d better start cutting down on the carbs again.
We’ve since learned from another book—The Salt Fix: Why the Experts Got It All Wrong—and How Eating More Might Save Your Life by Dr. James DiNicolantonio—that people who follow a ketogenic diet often find that their legs will get weaker on the ketogenic diet if they don’t add more salt to their diets. As a result, the author of this article has been adding more salt to his diet and even adding it to drinking water, tea and coffee in order to raise his salt intake. He now keeps his weight around 147 pounds, give or take a couple pounds. Interestingly, his blood pressure has actually come down a few points with the increased salt intake, which fits in well with the research cited by Dr. James DiNicolantonio in The Salt Fix . Note that this is a contradiction to what doctors usually tell us, so consult your doctor before trying this yourself. (We recommend reading that book and discussing it with your doctor if you have concerns about high blood pressure, especially since Dr. DiNicolantonio says that adding more salt to the diet will actually lower most people’s blood pressure rather than raise it. He does say that there are exceptions to that rule, however, and he says it’s important to consult your doctor before raising your salt intake.)
The results of our first three ketogenic diet testers inspired another one of my friends, Steve Barton, the father of long-time MBA test rider Essence Florie Barton, to try the ketogenic diet, too. Steve dropped 55 pounds on the ketogenic diet in one year. He has told us that he also became a much faster cyclist, both on his mountain bike and on his road bike, thanks to the diet. He has told us that he can now beat riders who used to always beat him on climbs. Steve’s waist size dropped from 36 inches to 29 inches, he told us.
While numerous people are now advocating the ketogenic diet (including the author of this article, and our other testers), we have to advise our readers to do their own research into the ketogenic diet before trying it and to consult a physician, too,
By John Ker, Assistant Editor, Mountain Bike Action
Please send your thoughts about this article to [email protected]
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO GET MOUNTAIN BIKE ACTION
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun. Start a subscription by clicking here or calling (800) 767-0345.
Contact us via email at [email protected]