Keto for the Athletic Teenager

Is this diet safe for young athletes?

Keto for the Athletic Teenager

Author: Pearle Nerenberg, MSc RD

Pearle is a professional sports dietitian who translates the research and her experience working with elite athletes to give her athletes a quicker path to their best performance yet. She was trained by Cornell University, McGill University, and the IOC's leading sports nutrition researchers. Pearle resides in Montreal, Quebec Canada with her hockey loving husband and 2 kids. Pearle is the author of Eat This for Performance in Hockey, an Athlete's Cookbook, and she has guided hundreds of athletes on how to eat for performance with her performance enhancing online sports nutrition course. You can check it out here.

Athletes and amateur athletes have come to me to be guided on the Ketogenic diet. Specifically they want to know about keto for the athletic teenager. Here is what I tell them. 

You came to the right place for a guide, and I will give you THE GUIDE TO EATING A KETO DIET both in general and keto for the athletic teenager as well. It is like no other guide to keto because I tell you how to eat for performance in this guide. I reserve this guide for my SUPER ELITE EATERS because I know they will understand the information in this eating keto guide. So now if you are ready let's get going on step 1. Step 1 is a test of readiness as you are asked to start by learning. This little test allows you to know if the keto diet is even right for you. Here is the first part of the information I ask my athletes to know…

STEP 1 in understanding keto for the athletic teenager:

Appreciate how your muscles use two fuels.

FUEL 1 Carbohydrates (on the Performance Foods List we call them ENERGIZERS)

FUEL 2 Fats (on the Performance Foods List we call the best sources of fats, SUPERFOODS)

So what do you need to know about keto for the athletic teenager?

THERE IS A CHALLENGE: When you sprint, the majority of the energy you need comes from FUEL 1 carbohydrates. (many, many, many studies do a nice job proving this)

STEP 2 in understanding keto for the athletic teenager:

Understand what the keto diet really is.

What is keto & Why is sprinting and eating keto a challenge?

The ketogenic diet (a.k.a keto) is a diet in which the daily carbohydrate intake is below 30 grams to 100 grams depending on which keto diet is being followed. This means you need to be limiting your intake of carrots as a source of energy – just that idea alone seems counterproductive. The big idea with the keto diet is that the category of foods that give you energy (refer to our performance foods list) is extremely limited to a few bites a day.

Here is what is interesting – The science is VERY VERY clear that for all sports the keto diet does NOT improve performance. Some ultra-endurance athletes argue there is some research to support the use of their but there are no other athletes that can use science to argue that. The study that made waves in the keto-athlete community changed it all. In 2017 top sports nutrition researcher, Louise Burke, came out with a study that we in the sports science community can all agree is gold. To sum it up in 1 sentence, she proved that all athletes need to focus on getting good at using carbohydrates as fuel in practice if they want to be good at using that fuel during their sport. You can read her study here.

Carbohydrate fuel can be turned into energy without the use of oxygen from breathing and is the most effective at making you speedy in a sprint. Most sports will involve a sprint at some point so being carb-free will hurt most who are looking for a top performance. When you move for longer than about 4 minutes things change… Your oxygen system starts producing the majority of the energy you need. Every breath you breathe can help get oxygen to your muscles where the oxygen system uses a combination of carbs again and fat. Fat is only able to be used in the oxygen system. But there is something cooler about carbs that makes them a bit of a better fuel than fat: Carbs are a preferred fuel over fat when oxygen is in short supply. Carbs give you more “bang for your oxygen buck”. So you should be looking for strategies that keep you full of carbs for longer during an endurance event when you could conceivably run out of carbs. 

Well meaning coaches and trainers will be seduced by this diet because of its effect on weight loss.  So let’s clear up how the weight loss part of this diet works.

When you eliminate carbs 2 things happen:

One, you drop almost ½ pound of body weight that was your stored carbs and 2 you drop about 4 pounds of water that was attached to those carbs (happily hydrating your muscle). On the scale you lost almost 5 pounds without moving a muscle – bravo, maybe? Not really, because the hard reality is that you are in ketosis. A not so magical state of being that has your body using ketone bodies as a source of energy instead of sugar. The best analogy I can think of is this:

Imagine you owned a motorcycle (don’t tell your parents) and you let your motorcycle run out of gas. You can imagine that once your motorcycle runs out of gas it will be lighter to push around. But YOU will need to push it around to get it to go anywhere. YOU are a much less efficient source of energy and you will really struggle to make your motorcycle go fast!

Ketosis produces some severe symptoms at first – poor concentration, low energy, and the best one, extremely bad breath. If you “survive” this and feel amazing enough to work out you are training your body to be good at your sport using a poor fuel. The result is that your body is not getting the most out of your training sessions – and your body is not learning to function on the fuel that will make it function best during a game.

Our advice is to train how you want to play – train with energy to play with energy.

Ultimately there can be a time and a place for a low carb diet. When you are working closely with a sports dietitian that is when you get to delve into the benefits and pitfalls of diets and make a decision about which approach will be best for you. For instance, you might experiment with moving around how much energizer carbs you eat on a given day or at a pre-training meal in the summer months in the same way as you are experimenting with how much energy and time you spend on your workouts.

What's Next?

This post is to help you to start to have a truth-based conversation about the keto diet with others.  Specifically, how you should view keto for the athletic teenager. I hope this explanation helps you understand how the ENERGIZER category of the 4P Foods List fits into the keto diet.

Get your FREE 4P Foods List now.  

What do you think about the keto for the athletic teenager?

Share them in the comments. 


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