The Ketogenic Diet and its Positive Impact on Muscle Gain

The Ketogenic Diet and its Positive Impact on Muscle Gain

It is surprising how easily the Ketogenic diet, which was meant for managing epileptic seizures, came into popularity as a weight loss and muscle building fad. The ketogenic diet, initially proposed in 1921, by Dr. Henry Geyelin, a renowned endocrinologist. Dr. Geyelin, presented this diet to the American Medical Association, explaining how the ancient Greeks discovered fasting was an efficient way to manage epileptic seizures.

To be precise, the famed Greek physician Hippocrates, an outstanding figure in the history of medicine, wrote about it. Dr. Geyelin, just like Hippocrates, discovered that seizures often returned once an individual resumed regular eating patterns. This begs the question, ‘what is it about fasting that suppresses epileptic seizures?’ Dr. Geyelin, therefore, set out to discover, and well, the resulting discoveries gave birth to the ‘ketogenic diet.’

The principal purpose of a ketogenic diet is to maintain a state of ketosis. Ketosis is where the body’s primary source of energy is not glucose, rather, its ketone bodies.

So, what exactly is ketosis?

Ketosis is a physiological state that presents itself when there is a prolonged deficit of carbohydrates in the body. The liver, to provide energy in the body, is forced to tap into the fatty acids (stored fats) reserves and converts them to ketone bodies. Ketone bodies are namely: β-hydroxybutyrate, acetoacetate, and acetone.

In the blood, normal ketone bodies concentration is very low and is regulated by the hormones insulin and glucagon. During periods of accelerated β- oxidation (fatty acid breakdown) coupled with low carbohydrate intake or hampered cellular carbohydrate use, these levels may peak.

In humans, glucose is the primary source of fuel for most tissues in our bodies, including the brain, which takes 20% more glucose than any other organ. However, with increased ketone bodies concentration in the blood, there is very little glucose to go around. Fortunately, most of our cells can utilize ketone bodies as a fail-safe/alternate energy source. Through gluconeogenesis (glucose production from amino acids or glycerol) the body can achieve its glucose requirements.

How Does Ketogenic Diet Work?

As mentioned, the primary aim of a ketogenic diet is to keep the body in a state of ketosis, and ketone bodies are a by-product of fat metabolism. The traditional ketogenic diet used to treat epileptic fits was sometimes called the 4:1 diet. Meaning, you must have 4 grams of fat for every gram of protein and carbohydrates.

The traditional ketogenic diet, however, isn’t devoid of problems, one being the most obvious: low levels of protein intake. Therefore, using this diet for reasons other than purely clinical may result in serious consequences, like reduced muscle mass. However, the type of ketogenic diet employed today revolves around high-protein variations which vary from 20 to 30% of total recommended daily calorie intakes, with carbohydrate intake set to 50 grams or less daily. Most of the calories come from dietary fat.

The Ketogenic Diet and Weight Loss

To discover more about the ketogenic diet and its impact on weight loss, we must first tackle its most controversial aspect. A ketogenic diet may help you lose weight rapidly that a conventional high carb diet, however, it doesn’t help you lose fat.

We know there is a direct correlation between carbohydrate intake and weight gain, i.e., carbohydrates leads to water retention and stimulates conversion of excess glucose to glycogen for storage, and further conversion to body fat. Therefore, a ketogenic diet may serve as a weight loss guide, but not a fat-loss guide.

Ketogenic Diet and Muscle Mass

If you desire to increase your muscle mass or build muscles fast, then the ketogenic diet may just be what you need. Wide variations of the ketogenic diet have been created, introduced and subsequently marketed for decades. However, these have primarily been for weight loss, with some being more or less rigid than the others, but with the same principles.

In the subsequent years, a more versatile form of ketogenic diets has been introduced. With a focus on muscle mass gaining, but it is not without mixed reviews. Quite some myths, misconceptions, and misinformation float around ketogenic diets that confuse most people adhering to it. Ludicrous ideas like “carbohydrates are critical in building muscles” or “ketogenic diets hamper exercise performance.” However, this is merely an exaggeration by proponents against ketogenic diets.

The conflicting information surrounding these topics tend to discourage adherents to the ketogenic diet by telling them easily they cannot achieve the desired health benefits of a keto diet without sacrificing muscle mass, endurance, and strength. Fortunately for them and us, this isn’t the case.

A more in-depth understanding of our bodies’ physiology and its interaction with carbohydrates relative to ketogenic diet makes it possible to experience the health benefits attributed to keto. This includes an increase in muscle mass and boosting performance during exercise at the same time without the need for carbs. As mentioned earlier, the ketogenic diet significantly helps in managing epilepsy and furthermore causes accelerated fat loss, then, what about the muscles? Aren’t dietary carbohydrates required to maintain, if not build lean mass? Perhaps this is not the case.

The question remains, Are carbs good for building muscle? The answer is a resounding yes, carbohydrate intake promote insulin release which further promotes conversion of glucose to glycogen that is stored in muscles. Thus, with carbs, you gain mass as well, but you also gain fat as insulin promotes fat production and storage from excess glucose.

In humans, the liver cells convert glucose to glycogen and then stores it. Glycogen serves as a secondary energy reservoir with the primary reservoir being fats in the adipose tissues. Glycogen is also transported to the skeletal muscles for storage, and therein, it serves as the primary energy reservoir.

As noted, glycogen is used as a secondary source of energy in the liver where fats are used instead. Therefore, once your body adapts to the ketogenic diet and uses fats as a source of energy (ketosis), then little glycogen (from gluconeogenesis) is needed.


In-Depth Analysis

Burning glucose from ketone bodies creates a hormonal shift in two important metabolic hormones, insulin and glucagon. Insulin levels in the blood decrease subsequently while glucagon levels increase. As you would know, primary insulin function is to regulate blood glucose levels by removing glucose from the blood and depositing it into target tissues as glycogen (the stored form of glucose). Glucagon, on the other hand, is responsible for introducing glucose into the blood by stimulating the breakdown of glycogen (the stored form of glucose). Due to this, insulin is thought of as an anabolic while glucagon is catabolic.

Thus, anabolic processes, like fat, glycogen, and protein synthesis are reduced while catabolic processes like fatty acid mobilization and gluconeogenesis for energy production are stimulated. Additionally, low blood glucose levels also stimulate growth hormone (GH), which is a potent stimulator of protein synthesis and subsequently muscle growth. Furthermore, since insulin levels dictate the rate of protein synthesis, low insulin levels initiate protein biosynthesis.

Despite the fact that anabolic actions are decreased and catabolic activities are increased, the muscle protein breakdown doesn’t happen that rapidly as you may think. People are first embarking on a ketogenic diet usually tend to “feel” like they’re experiencing muscle loss. This shift is simply the result of muscle glycogen deprivation and total body electrolyte content change and not the actual loss of contractile tissue.

Muscle preservation happens through several mechanisms. In general, protein synthesis is a body mechanism that affects repair and muscle growth, and when the body produces more synthesized protein than consumed via catabolic activity, muscle develops. Preservation of muscle mass has been elucidated in various studies that examine the effect of deficient carbohydrate diets, like the ketogenic diet. For instance, low blood glucose levels brought about by ketogenic diets stimulates the secretion of adrenaline from the adrenal cortex, which has been elucidated to inhibit protein breakdown of skeletal muscle directly. In other words, when blood glucose levels fall, the body releases adrenaline, which is an active restrictor of muscle protein catabolism.

Furthermore, protein synthesis leading to muscle growth is called anabolism. In both anaerobic and aerobic exercises, the skeletal muscles will naturally break down, i.e., catabolize.

In general, protein synthesis is a body mechanism that affects repair and muscle growth, and when the body produces more synthesized protein than consumed via catabolic activity, muscle develops. This is also the basis of exercises and workouts, to stimulate the anabolic activity of protein to overweigh catabolic action in order to build the skeletal muscles. As long as there is enough substrate (i.e., fatty acids and ketone bodies) present for oxidation, muscular amino acid oxidation is decreased and therefore, loss of lean mass in general.


Albeit ketones and adrenaline help preserves muscles mass, this doesn’t necessarily imply that you should consume less protein. It is critical that you eat the appropriate amount of protein outlined in the ketogenic diet and most importantly compound proteins like salmon which are also high in fats in order to meet your goals. If unsure, this Keto Calculator can help you out.

Indeed, putting on mass through a ketogenic diet may be slower in essence, but you’ll be putting on lean mass and not the extra fat characterized by carbohydrate consumption.

Combining Ketogenic Diet with Weight Training to Increase Muscle Mass

When a ketogenic diet is combined with resistance training, increase in muscle mass can be achieved in a variety of ways:

  1. Through adrenergic stimulation, where low levels of blood sugar stimulate adrenaline release that subsequently inhibits muscle protein breakdown. Though this doesn’t increase muscle mass, the rate of muscle protein catabolism is reduced, thereby maintaining a protein surplus much needed to maintain lean mass.
  2. Ketone bodies produced by the VLCKD (very-low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet) inhibit muscle breakdown.
  3. Growth hormone, triggered by the low levels of blood sugar, increase in circulation and further trigger muscle gains and also growth hormone stimulate fat loss. Growth hormone could potentially be a major factor in lean mass.
  4. Dietary protein. Protein from the diet can boost, internal muscle anabolism, since after digestion and absorption, the body becomes saturated with amino acids, which have to go somewhere, and that is the muscles. Therefore sports research has concluded that the intake of a diet rich in protein like pork, salmon, and eggs, combined with body workouts and exercises, is the sure way of muscle growth.

As most bodybuilders erroneously believe so and will tell you that carbohydrates are necessary or are effective in building muscle, it is simply not the case as outlined above. A common misconception brought to heel is that protein alone and not carbohydrates are responsible for lean mass. Once the body adapts to ketosis, one can perform high-intensity exercises and lift weights comfortably on a ketogenic diet.

One reason for this school of thought is that people tend to decrease calorie intake spontaneously on a very low-carbohydrate diet. Albeit, this may account for the fat loss, it doesn’t account for lean mass gains. It would evidently seem that a VLCKD could be the key to fat-loss and muscle gains when combined with high intensity or regular resistance training.

Effects on Strength Training and Performance

Does ketogenic diet affect strength training and performance? Well, various misconceptions have arisen concerning a low-carb diet on strength training and progress hindering in the gym, leading to limited overall growth potential. Rest assured these claims are false and your ability to perform better in the gym is entirely dependent on how you carry out your training.

During exercises, there are ways to measure the progress of muscle building. After all, who would want to be exercising if there are no results? One amino acid, Leucine, is the key indicator and is often used in sports science. Ketone bodies have the potential to decrease leucine oxidation, and since amino acid leucine is a key anabolic trigger for muscle protein synthesis, its increase and incorporation into skeletal muscle are synonymous with low carbohydrate diets. The ketogenic diet is ideal for building muscle since the protein intake is relatively high, relative to the protein consumption ratio leaving you unlikely to lose muscle mass. Furthermore, this diet elicits muscle sparing effect via a ketone body called beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) which significantly decrease leucine oxidation and promote protein synthesis.

Additionally, commercial protein supplements for muscle growth which contain leucine can be included in the diet to stimulate the body further to grow muscles.

Ketogenic Diet Basics

To keep carbohydrate levels low, eat mostly carb-free proteins such as pork, beef, chicken, eggs, turkey, salmon and seafood like lobsters. However, it is recommended that they should be organic and naturally prepared and not processed. Since they include additives that are toxic to the body. For the vegetarians, an alternative includes beans and legumes. Soybeans have a history of breast cancer, and their consumption should need the doctor’s approval.

Fiber is also essential as it protects against heart disease and cancer. Since a low-carb will not ensure the recommended 25 grams a day, you should include non-starchy and resistant starch vegetables on your plan. This includes wheat grass, alfalfa sprouts, asparagus, kale, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, mushrooms, lettuce, and onions. Fiber doesn’t affect blood sugar. Therefore it is also beneficial to the pre-diabetic and diabetic patients. Fruits high in fiber, as well as healthy fats, should also be inclusive, e.g., pumpkin, avocados, and olives.

Incorporate healthy fats like coconut oils, olive oils, sunflower oil and butter in your meals and as salad dressings.

The Ketogenic Diet and General Health

Since we now understand the benefits of a ketogenic diet on fat loss and muscle building, it is prudent that we learn its relationship to overall health and wellness. Studies have shown the importance of ketosis on managing and possibly treating epileptic fits; now we have to look at it from another perspective, the health benefits as well.

Ketogenic Diet and Type 2 Diabetes

Type II diabetes is a metabolic disorder usually characterized by high blood glucose levels and insulin resistance. Thus, the nature of the disease automatically emphasizes patients to consume fewer carbohydrates, and the ketogenic diet may work to their advantage by lowering blood glucose levels. Moreover, this diet is also effective in managing the condition.

  1. Ketogenic Diet and Cancer

Subsequent research on insulin’s relationship to cancer has brought to light the possibilities that insulin contributes to growth and proliferation of cancer cells through stimulation of several mechanisms. Most notably is the direct injection of glucose into tumor cells making them metabolize rapidly and further multiply at a rate uncommon to normal cells. Thus, oncologists and nutritionists alike believe that a low-carb diet may be effective and should be included in contemporary cancer therapies, all attributed to the mounting evidence coming to light.

  1. Ketogenic Diet and Acne

Quite recently, numerous studies have been published that link specific food types and acne development. Top of the list, as you might have known are dairy products and high-glycemic carbohydrates.

Also, through observational research, the prevalence of acne is incredibly lower among peoples who follow non-Western traditional diets that are lower in high glycemic carbohydrates, i.e., processed bread, and pasta.

The mechanism associates are relative to the production of various hormones among them, insulin. Insulin has been shown to influence acne growth and employing a ketogenic diet can be effective in managing and to an extent treating acne.

  1. Ketogenic Diet and Neurological Diseases

Studies have shown that a diet low in carbohydrates may possess therapeutic effects in treating other neurological disorders aside from epilepsy. They include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, neurotrauma, migraines, sleep apnea, autism, brain cancer, and multiple sclerosis.

Despite scientists not fully comprehending the mechanism behind this deal, evidence collected from studies imply the ketogenic diet confers neuroprotective effects due to its high fat composition.

Who Should Follow the Ketogenic Diet?

As you have discovered in this article the many benefits accrued from ketogenic dieting, it simply isn’t just for everyone. Particularly if you have type II diabetes, insulin resistance, cancer, metabolic syndrome and neurological diseases, a ketogenic diet may work to your advantage. Most importantly you’ll need to consult with your doctor first before embarking on a ‘keto’ journey.

If you are overweight and have a sedentary lifestyle, reduce the intake of carbohydrates in your diet. A keto diet may have low levels of carbohydrates, but you need even lower levels, no more than 0.5 grams per pound of body weight daily.

Those struggling with acne can also benefit from a ketogenic diet as the elimination of high glycemic carbohydrates, and overall reduction of carbohydrate intake may help.

However, if you are physically active, have optimal insulin sensitivity, looking to lose weight and fat in general, then this diet may not be advised.

Is keto the answer?

In a world where strength and muscular body physique matters, there are hardly any black and white answers to problems outlined. While ketogenic diet is probably not for everyone, more so if you do not have epilepsy, it confers many metabolic benefits as opposed to traditional high-carbs, low-fat diets. Individuals who lead a more sedentary lifestyle such as office work may achieve their desired physique by training intensely on a carbohydrate-controlled ketogenic diet. All in all, the best way to discover if it works for you is to try it and observe the ensuing effects.


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