Is Paleo Ketogenic and Is That a Good Idea?

Is a low-carb or ketogenic diet a good idea for an athlete? Is the version of paleo you are eating considered ketogenic? Find out the pros and cons of eating low carb when it comes to performance.

With the popularity of high protein diets such as the paleo diet in recent days it’s important to delineate advantages and disadvantages to eating this way. From a health perspective it’s hard to beat a common sense approach like eating organic vegetables and lean, organic meats along with water for each meal of the day. In fact, any nutritionist or non-nutritionist alike can benefit from taking that approach. It’s not rocket science. Unless you have special diet needs, I’ll say it again: lean meats and veggies. You can’t go wrong if that makes up most of your diet. But what does it mean to be ketogenic?

A diet is “ketogenic” when it is very low or absent in carbohydrates. There is a lot of chemistry behind the term, but the bottom line is that when you’re burning fat as a source of fuel all day long, you will go into a state called “ketosis.” Basically this means you aren’t using sugar for fuel, and that your breath is bad. The latter is a tip for those losing a lot of weight. Ketosis makes your breath rancid. You have been warned.

In a study published last month in Nutrition & Metabolism, researchers looked at just over 19,000 people on a protein and micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) only diet – an extreme ketogenic diet. Weight loss was the major result. In fact, after 25 days on this diet, those studied lost an average of 22 lbs., mostly fat and water. In this study, no detrimental effects were noted.

Now let’s be honest, most of us will never drink one protein shake, take a multivitamin, and call it a day. But by the above definition, a paleo diet is often also ketogenic. From their macronutrient profile, those on a paleo protocol might not be far off from those in the study. If you’re new to the diet, you might notice some significant weight loss as a result. If you have some extra padding, not only will you be improving your health but you will also notice the abs looking a little sharper as time goes on. And it’s worth noting again that there weren’t any notable detrimental effects reported in the study.

So why wouldn’t every athlete eat this way as well? One big problem people experience when eating strictly paleo is the energy drain from low carbohydrates. Unless you focus on eating a lot of fruits and root vegetables, getting adequate carbs to maintain high effort energy levels can be challenging, especially for those without a big appetite.

If you are focused on endurance events like running long distance, you may do well in ketosis anyway. In fact, some people I’ve worked with, myself included, experience a boost in running performance on a very low carb diet, likely a result of greater aerobic enzyme activity. On the other hand, if you are looking to develop strength or musculature, you may want to either consider some non-paleo foods that are dense in carbs or make sure that you focus on high carb paleo foods or your performance may suffer.


1. Gianfranco Cappello, et. al., “Ketogenic enteral nutrition as a treatment for obesity: short term and long term results from 19,000 patients,” Nutrition and Metabolism, 9,96 (2012)

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