High protein high fat

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The Truth About the Low-Carb High-Fat Diet

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For years, we were told to fear fat. Filling your plate with the F word was seen as an express ticket to heart disease. The low-carb high-fat diet (or LCHF diet for short), which can also go by the Atkins diet brand name, is ridiculed for causing high cholesterol by giving people license to gorge on damaging red meats and full-fat cheeses. Meanwhile, carb-loading became a religion to endurance athletes hoping to avoid the feared hitting-of-the-wall.

Then, trends began to change. The common criticism of the Atkins diet was debunked: Popular science suggested that a low-carb diet that’s high in fat diet actually improved HDL, or “good” cholesterol, and didn’t worsen LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. And in the ’80s, Stephen Phinney-a MIT medical researcher-noticed that the carb-loading math just didn’t add up. Our bodies only have a limited store of glycogen, or the fuel in your muscles, about 2,500 calories of carbs in reserve at all times-and this can be quickly depleted on long runs. But our bodies have about 50,000 calories of fat stored-a much deeper pool to pull from. Phinney wondered if athletes could train their bodies to burn fat instead of carbs. Your body naturally burns carbs to keep your muscles moving-and carbs are the quickest form of fuel to convert into energy. But “think of glycogen as the gas in the tank of the car,” says Pam Bede, R.D., sports dietitian for Abbott’s EAS Sports Nutrition. When that gas is low, you need to refuel, which is where gels and GUs come in. If your body could burn fat, Phinney thought, you could go a heck of a lot longer before refueling. (Try these 6 All-Natural, Energizing Foods for Endurance Training.)

So Phinney put a small group of elite male cyclists on a low-carb diet to test it out-forcing their bodies to tap into the fat stores. While plenty of studies show that a LCHF diet results in lower peak power and VO2 max-meaning it more or less makes you slower-he found that cyclists indeed performed just as well on a two and a half hour ride when they ate a diet low in carbs and high in fat as when they ate their traditional training diet. (Check out these 31 Biking Tips from Elite Female Cyclists.)

Out of this, the low-carb high-fat diet was born. What is it? With an ideal meal plan, you’re taking in roughly 50 percent of your calories from healthy fats, 25 from carbs, and 25 from protein, explains Bede. (The current government recommendation, for comparison, is 30 percent of calories from fat, 50 to 60 percent from carbs, and 10 to 20 from protein.)

The problem? Phinney’s model was imperfect: When he tested cyclist’s sprinting capabilities on the LCHF diet, he noticed fat-fueled athletes clocked in at a slower time than normal. Fast forward some 40 years, though, and medal-winning-triathletes like Simon Whitfield and Ben Greenfield have renounced the church of carbs in favor of a high-fat diet instead. Kim Kardashian famously followed the Atkins diet to shed her baby weight. Melissa McCarthy attributed her impressive 45-pound weight loss to a similar eating plan. (Check out 10 Unforgettable Celeb Diets Through the Years.)

But with mixed research and confusing star-studded testimonials-does the diet work? And, furthermore, is it healthy?

Can It Improve Your Fitness?

The effect of a low-carb, high-fat diet on athletic performance has only been looked at in a handful of studies since Phinney’s original experiment. And when it comes to high speeds, Bede says it makes sense why LCHF would slow you down: “Carbs are a fairly efficient way to burn fuel, so if you’re running at high speeds and need that energy immediately, carbohydrates are going to be a better source of fuel,” Bede explains. Because it takes longer for your body to access the energy in fat, you won’t be able to perform as quickly.

If you’re focused on distance and not speed, though, don’t write off LCHF so soon. It actually helps with that moment every runner dreads: hitting the wall. “In endurance athletes, adapting as much as possible to use fat can help those who struggle with bonking. It can help delay that significant onset of fatigue, which is favorable because it enables an athlete to rely less on carbohydrate gels or fluid carbohydrates-and to go faster for longer,” says Georgie Fear, R.D., author of Lean Habits For Lifelong Weight Loss. Another added bonus: You’ll avoid the all-too-common side effect of gastric distress from race gels and GUs. (Gross! Avoid these 20 Foods that Can Ruin Your Workout too.)

But like much of the LCHF research, the scientific evidence is mixed-it’s still a vastly under-researched area. The most promising study to date is expected to come out later this year from Jeff Volek, Ph.D., R.D., at the Ohio State University, the second most prolific researcher on the topic next to Phinney.

Beyond the research, there’s also a growing wave of triathletes and ultra-runners who attribute their success to jumping on the fat-fueling bandwagon. Fitness coach Ben Greenfield finished the 2013 Ironman Canada in under 10 hours while consuming almost no carbs, while ultra-runner Timothy Olson set a record for fastest completion of the Western States 100-mile course on a LCHF diet. “Athletes I work with say that once they got used to the diet, they feel better than they ever have before, their performance is potentially better-but certainly no worse-and they don’t have sugar cravings or mood swings like when they were trying to fuel with carbs,” Bede says. (Sound familiar? Until you begin a low-carb high-fat diet plan, try these 6 Foods to Fix Your Mood.)

Whether or not it improves performance, teaching your body to pull from your fat reserves-which you can do by simply switching to the diet-does offer better blood sugar stability, Fear adds. This helps prevent hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar (which is the reason Hyvon Ngetich collapsed and had to-now famously-crawl across the finish at this year’s Austin Marathon).

LCHF also helped strength athletes lose fat without compromising their strength or power, found a new study in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. That means that while people may not have seen performance gains, performance didn’t suffer-plus they lost weight, Bede explains.

But Can the Atkins Diet Really Help You Lose Weight?

While the now-popular weight loss angle has gotten slightly more scientific attention thanks to interested nutrition researchers, there is yet to be overwhelming evidence in either direction. But most of the limited research on weight loss and the low-carb high-fat diet has been in favor of it.

In theory, it makes sense that you’d lose weight: “Carbohydrates attract water, so part of the initial weight loss is shedding of water stores,” says Bede. “More importantly, though, fat is very satiating. While it does have more calories per gram than a carbohydrate, you can only eat so much before you are full-similar to protein.” With carbs, you can finish that whole bag of pretzels without meaning to. If you’re avoiding refined carbs, you’re also avoiding the cravings for more unhealthy foods that research has shown they cause.

A study last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine made one of the most convincing cases yet: Researchers found that men and women who switched to a low-carb diet lost 14 pounds after one year-eight pounds more than those who limited their fat intake instead. The high-fat group also maintained more muscle, trimmed more body fat, and increased their protein intake more than their carb-heavy counterparts. These results are promising not only because researchers looked at the diet long-term, but also because they didn’t limit how many calories the participants could eat, debunking the idea that a LCHF diet only works as well as any other calorie-capped diet. (Find out more in When More Calories Is Better.)

Should You Try the Diet?

No one agrees that LCHF is perfect for everyone-or ideal for anyone for that matter. But whether you should even try it is up for debate among our experts. Fear, for example, isn’t crazy about LCHF as a sustainable diet dogma. “I’ve just seen too many people end up sick, burned out, and feeling awful,” she explains.

On the other hand, Bede has seen it work for many of her athlete clients. And the science agrees that there is little harm-other than to your speed-to trying it out. It probably will help you lose weight, and there is still a chance it’ll help your distance or power performance.

And if your first instinct on hearing “restrict your carbs” is “yeah right,” you don’t actually have to be quite so rigid: The high-fat group in the Annals of Internal Medicine study made all of their weight-loss gains despite the fact that they never actually kept their carb goals as low as the study guidelines.

Plus, at its roots, the Atkins diet or any low-carb high-fat diet is all about healthy eating, which everyone can benefit from. “You’re eating mostly fruits, vegetables, heart-healthy oils, with some full-fat dairy and a touch of whole grains-all of which are a recipe for optimal health,” Bede says. And this brings up the point: “The benefit of the diet could potentially be in ditching the junk and loading up on the whole foods more than the actual fat itself.” (See: Carbs Without Cause: 8 Foods Worse than White Bread.)

Just know that you have to give your body at least two weeks to learn how to use fat as fuel-a phase known as fat adaptation, Bede advises. “If you’re continuously feeling fatigued during your run from a LCHF diet after that, you may not be responding well to it.” Ideally, you’d try the diet before training starts so the adjustment period doesn’t affect your mileage or time goals, she adds.

How to Achieve 50 Percent Fat, 25 Percent Carbs, 25 Percent Protein

Just like how you should skip refined carbs for whole grains in traditional diets, your fats on a LCHF diet should come from healthy sources as well: full-fat dairy, nuts, and oils. And while saturated fats, like those in cheese, have gotten the biggest reputation makeover, there is still a place for unsaturated fats in your diet as well. (Find out just how much in Ask the Diet Doctor: Importance of Polyunsaturated Fat.) The few carbs you do eat will ideally come from produce. (Like these 10 Healthy Pasta Alternatives.) And, most importantly, you need to still be eating enough protein.

And if the idea of ramping up your fat and lowering your carbohydrates sounds intense, know that Bede’s ideal day doesn’t veer that far off the typical healthy track. Check it out!

  • Breakfast: 2 cups fresh spinach sautéed in 2 tbsp olive oil, served with one egg and 1/2 cup mixed berries
  • Snack: 1/4 cup mixed, dry roasted nuts
  • Lunch: 2 cups romaine lettuce with oil and vinegar dressing (2 tbsp each olive oil and balsamic) and 3 oz grilled chicken breast (Or switch out the dressing for one of these 8 Healthy Fats to Add to Your Salad.)
  • Post-Workout: A smoothie made with one scoop whey protein powder (Bede recommends EAS 100%), 1 cup water (to taste), 1/2 cup mixed berries, 1/2 cup chopped kale, and crushed ice.
  • Dinner: 3 oz of a high-fat fish like salmon, brushed with 2 tbsp olive oil and grilled. Side of 1 cup steamed vegetables tossed with 1 tbsp butter.
  • By Rachael Schultz @_RSchultz

When you first embark on a low-carbohydrate diet, it feels like freaking EVERYTHING has carbs—leading to a lot of Regina George-level questions. (Don’t worry: Butter is not a carb.)

Yes, it can be super confusing. But, in general, when building a high-protein, low-carbohydrate meal, fill half of your plate with non-starchy veggies (like leafy greens), a fourth with lean protein, and a fourth with whole grains or beans with healthy fats (like avocado or nuts), says Lauren Harris-Pincus, RDN and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.

“Add a few fruit servings per day, and your diet will be appropriately balanced and lower in carbs than the typical American diet,” she says.

Choosing the right types of carbs for your high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet is key. “If going low-carb is important to you, make sure to use your carb grams wisely and pack in plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and low-fat dairy,” she says. That way, you’ll still get a balanced amount of nutrients.

And when it comes to what qualifies as high-protein, low-carb, “there isn’t really a cut off, but it depends on the goal of the eater,” says Sonya Angelone, RD. If you’re following a keto diet, for example, you may not eat more than 20 to 50 grams of carbs per day. But, for other low-carb dieters, “I just recommend that the protein be more than the carbs for most items,” says Angelone.

So which high-protein, low-carb foods should you stock up on? Here’s what nutritionists stock up on:

1. Snacking Cheese

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String cheese and Mini Babybel are Harris-Pincus’ go-to snacks. “Mini Babybel offers 100 percent real-cheese snacks in a convenient and fun little package. One creamy cheese round provides at least four grams of protein and zero grams of carbs for 70 calories or less,” she says.

Per cheese stick: 50 calories, 2.5 g fat (1.5 g sat), 1 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 160 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 4g protein

2. Pistachios

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“Pistachios make an excellent snack, with 30 nuts providing only 100 calories and five grams of carbs,” says Harris-Pincus. These little nuts can also help aid weight-loss efforts.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 172 cal, 14 g fat (2 g sat), 8 g carbs (5 g net), 2.3 g sugar, 0 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 6 g protein

3. Salmon

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If you’re on a high-protein, low-carb diet, fish is your best friend. “Fish is a brain-healthy lean protein, and fatty fish in particular helps you get the essential omega-3 fatty acids that are important for healthy arteries, reduced inflammation, and a healthy brain,” says Maggie Moon, RDN, and author of The MIND Diet. And each serving generally has 15 to 20 grams of protein (depending on the fish), with zero carbs.

Per 3-oz serving (salmon): 177 cal, 11 g fat (3 g sat), 0 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 50 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 17 g protein

Try these lemon herb salmon kebabs:

4. Greek Yogurt

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There are many lower-sugar Greek yogurts on the market now, some with just a touch of sugar and others sweetened with Stevia or monkfruit to keep the carb content down without use of artificial sweeteners, says Harris-Pincus. “On average, these yogurts range from 90 to 120 calories with 12 to 15 grams of protein, 11 to 15 grams of carbs, and some with higher fiber counts as well. Look for varieties containing nine grams of sugar or less, and add in nuts or berries for added fiber,” she says.

Per one 7-oz container (plain, low-fat): 146 cal, 4 g fat (3 g sat), 8 g carbs, 7 g sugar, 68 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 20 g protein

5. Ricotta

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Per the USDA, a half-cup serving of low-fat ricotta has 14 grams of protein and six grams of carbs, making it a great low-carbohydrate, high-protein food.

If you don’t eat dairy, though, don’t fret. Plant-based cheeses are a unique way to add protein and healthy fats to the day. “Ricotta made from almond milk, using traditional cheese-making methods, has nine grams of plant protein per three ounces, and is completely plant-based, and therefore cholesterol-free,” says Moon.

Per 1/2-cup serving (part-skim): 171 cal, 10 g fat (3 g sat), 6 g carbs, 0.4 g sugar, 123 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 14 g protein

6. Eggs

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One large egg is enough to provide a good source of hard-to-get vitamin D, which can improve bone and tooth health, says Moon. “It also provides an excellent source of choline (20 percent daily value), an under-recognized nutrient important for memory,” she says. Try making eggs for a high-protein, low-carbohydrate breakfast.

Per one whole, large egg: 72 cal, 5 g fat (2 g sat), 0.4 g carbs, 0.2 g sugar, 71 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 7 g protein

7. Avocado

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“Avocado is a nutrition powerhouse,” says Harris-Pincus, thanks to its high amount of fiber and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. “For a low-carb snack, roll up a slice of avocado in a piece of deli turkey,” she says.

Per avocado: 322 cal, 29 g fat (4 g sat), 17 g carbs (3 g net), 1 g sugar, 14 mg sodium, 14 g fiber, 4 g protein

8. Cow’s Milk

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Good old-fashioned cow’s milk is a protein powerhouse. Plus, in addition to the high amount of protein you get per cup, “cow’s milk provides potassium, calcium, riboflavin, vitamin A, and vitamin B12,” says Elizabeth Shaw, RDN, and author of Fertility Foods.

Per 1-cup serving (low-fat): 101 cal, 3 g fat (1 g sat), 12 g carbs, 12 g sugar, 106 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 8 g protein

9. Seitan

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If you’re vegetarian and looking to try a low-carb, high-protein diet, seitan is your answer. “Made from wheat, seitan is the gluten protein that remains after wheat flour has been ‘washed,'” says Shaw. “You can use this in stir-fry, sandwiches and really, any meat-based recipe that you’re looking to turn vegetarian.” It does tend to be high in sodium, so be mindful of adding tons of extra salt or seasonings like soy sauce to it. And of course, if you have Celiac’s, steer clear.

Per 2.5-oz serving: 90 cal, 1 g fat (0 g sat), 4 g carbs (3 g net), 2 g sugar, 340 mg sodium, 1 g fiber, 17 g protein

10. Edamame

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“There’s a reason this crunchy high-protein, low-carbohydrate snack is appearing all over the snack food aisle,” says Shaw. It’s packed with vegetarian protein and iron. You can easily toss this into a salad, stir-fry, or soup. “Brands like Seapoint Farms have even taken to packaging dry roasted edamame for a high-protein, convenient snack on the go,” she adds.

Per 1-cup serving: 188 cal, 8 g fat (1 g sat), 14 g carbs (6 g net), 3 g sugar, 9 mg sodium, 8 g fiber, 18 g protein

11. Mozzarella Cheese

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With tomato and basil, who can resist this high-protein, low-carbohydrate snack? “A one-ounce serving of mozzarella provides eight ounces of high-quality protein with only one gram of carbohydrates,” says Shaw.

Per 1-oz serving (part-skim): 72 cal, 5 g fat (3 g sat), 1 g carbs, 0.3 g sugar, 175 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 7 g protein

12. Almonds

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Along with pistachios, almonds make a great high-protein, low-carb snack. “Research suggests that eating nuts like almonds is linked to longer lifespan, less belly fat, improved brain health, and more,” says Moon. Here for allll of that.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 207 cal, 18 g fat (1 g sat), 8 g carbs (2 g net), 2 g sugar, 0 mg sodium, 5 g fiber, 8 g protein

13. Deli Turkey Meat

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“Deli turkey makes an easy lunch or fast snack,” says Harris-Pincus. “Spread on one tablespoon of hummus and create roll-ups for an additional 25 calories, one gram protein, two grams of carbs, and one gram fiber,” she says. You can also try these deli turkey kebabs for lunch.

Per 2-oz serving: 62 cal, 0.5 g fat (0.1 g sat), 2 g carbs (1.7 g net), 2 g sugar, 440 mg sodium, 0.3 g fiber, 12 g protein

14. Chia Seeds

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“Chia seeds are a secret weapon on any diet plan. They absorb about 10 times their weight in water, helping to keep you full,” says Harris-Pincus. What’s more, the high-protein food is also rich in healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower inflammation. “Add them to smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, cereal, and much more,” she says.

Per 1-oz serving: 138 cal, 9 g fat (0.1 g sat), 12 g carbs (2 g net), 2 g sugar, 5 mg sodium, 10 g fiber, 5 g protein

15. Peanut Butter

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Here’s more reason to open up a jar of peanut butter for a low-carb, high-protein snack or pre-workout fuel. “Peanuts have the highest protein content among nuts,” says Harris-Pincus. And if you’re concerned about calories, try powdered peanut butter—which has comparable protein with way fewer calories.

Per 2-Tbsp. serving: 187 cal, 12 g fat (2 g sat), 13 g carbs (11 g net), 3 g sugar, 194 mg sodium, 2 g fiber, 10 g protein

16. Pumpkin Seeds

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“Pumpkin seeds are fantastic with yogurt, cottage cheese, smoothie bowls, soups, and salads,” says Harris-Pincus. They are also a rich plant-based source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, too, much like those chia seeds.

Per 1-oz serving (roasted): 163 cal, 14 g fat (2 g sat), 4 g carbs (2 g net), 0.4 g sugar, 5 mg sodium, 2 g fiber, 8 g protein

17. Jerky

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“Jerky is back as a portable snack with many trendy, flavored varieties on store shelves,” says Harris-Pincus—but not all are created equal. “The nutritional content varies widely depending on the brand and the flavor. Some are much higher in carbs and sugar than others,” says Harris-Pincus.

But if you find one that isn’t heavily sweetened (so, no teriyaki flavor!), you’ve got yourself a low-carb and high-protein snack.

Per 1-oz serving (beef): 116 cal, 7 g fat (3 g sat), 3 g carbs (2.5 g net), 3 g sugar, 506 mg sodium, 0.5 g fiber, 9 g protein

18. Cottage Cheese

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“Cottage cheese is such a great way to boost your protein intake with very few carbs,” says Brooke Zigler, RDN. You can use it instead of yogurt as a topper for berries and granola, and you’ll have an easy, filling breakfast. “Cottage cheese is also a great swap for mozzarella cheese on homemade pizzas. By swapping for cottage cheese, you’re boosting the protein content and making it an even more filling meal,” she says.

Per 4. oz serving (low-fat, 2% milkfat): 92 cal, 3 g fat (1g sat), 5 g carbs (5 g net), 5 g sugar, 348 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 12 g protein

19. Tofu

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Tofu is an inexpensive source of protein that is extremely versatile and can be a great alternative to meat. “It also has a longer shelf life, so it can be a great option to keep in the refrigerator for when you want a quick and easy protein for your meal,” says Zigler. Add to smoothies for additional protein, or use instead of eggs in a quick scramble.

Per ½ cup serving: 181 cal, 11g fat (2g sat), 4g carbs (1g net), 0g sugar, 18mg sodium, 3g fiber, 22g protein

20. Chicken

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“Skinless chicken breast is one of my favorite sources of lean protein,” says Zigler. “It’s low in saturated fat compared with other meats, which can help someone maintain a healthy weight,” Add to salads and sandwiches, or eat plain or with some veggies as a meal or snack.

Per serving of 3 oz. chicken breast: 140 cal, 3 g fat (0.9 g sat), 0 g carbs (0 g net), 0 g sugar, 63 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 26 g protein

21. Artichokes

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“Not only are artichokes loaded with the highest amounts of fiber of any vegetable, they also have four grams of protein per serving, making this a super filling vegetable,” says Zigler. Roast them with some oil and lemon or add to salads to boost satiety.

Per medium artichoke: 60 cal, 0 g fat, 13 g carbs (6 g net), 1.3 g sugar, 120 mg sodium, 7 g fiber, 4 g protein

22. Hemp Seeds

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“Technically a nut, hemp seeds are small but mighty when it comes to nutrition and protein,” says Maggie Michalczyk, RD, and author of Once Upon a Pumpkin. “More than 25 percent of their total calories come from protein, and they’re a great addition to baked goods, salads, yogurt bowls, and more.” Hemp seeds are also a good source of phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, and iron, and they add a nice nutty, crunchy texture.

Per ¼ cup serving: 170 cal, 120 g fat (1.5 g sat), 3 g carbs (0 g net), less than 1 g sugar, 0 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 10g protein

23. Grass-Fed Beef

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“A great source of protein, grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3s fatty acids, and lower in total fat compared to other types of meat,” says Michalczyk. Opting for higher quality red meat, when available, is best. Pair it with nutrient-dense foods, like veggies.

Per 4 oz. serving: 157 cal, 7 g fat (3.1 g sat), 0 g carbs (0 g net), 0 g sugar, 72 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 24 g protein

24. Broccoli

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This cruciferous veggie will definitely fill you up. “Believe it or not, broccoli ranks high on the protein list in terms of vegetables,” says Michalczyk. “Packed with antioxidants and fiber to boot, it’s definitely a powerhouse veggie you should aim to include a few times a week in dishes like stir fry or on the side of fish.”

Per 1 cup serving: 30 cal, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 5.8 g carbs (3.8g net), 1 g sugar, 30 mg sodium, 2 g fiber, 2.4 g protein

25. Green Peas

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“Peas are a good source of many vitamins and minerals as well as fiber and protein,” says Michalczyk. “While they do contain carbohydrates, they still rank high in terms of vegetables that contain protein.” If you’re trying to decrease carbs even further, simply lower the serving size and pair with another high-protein food.

Per ½ cup serving: 59 cal, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 10.5 g carbs (7 g net), 4 g sugar, 0 mg sodium, 3.5 g fiber, 4 g protein

26. Asparagus

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“These vibrant green spears boast a long list of nutrients like vitamin K, antioxidants, and protein. Another higher-protein vegetable, asparagus is a great green to put on your weekly rotation more than just in the spring,” says Michalczyk. Grill them with some olive oil or cheese, or add to a stir-fry with meat or tofu.

Per ½ cup serving: 27 cal, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 5 g carbs (2.2 g net), 2.5 g sugar, 3 mg sodium, 2.8 g fiber, 3 g protein

27. Canned Sardines

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“I like to recommend canned sardines,” says Angelone. “I find people don’t usually eat them because they think they are the same as anchovies which are fishy and salty, but sardines are convenient, high in omega-3 fatty acids, and are not very fishy.” To make them the most palatable, Angelone buys a variety without bones, drains off the little olive oil, then tosses them with eggs, tops a salad, or combine them with crackers.

Per can: 151 cal, 10 g fat (1 g sat), 0 g carbs (0 g net), 0 g sugar, 370 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 16 g protein

28. Cashew Butter

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There’s more to life than just peanut butter (yes, gasp!) “Most people know about peanut butter but not as many people try other nut butters,” says Angelone. One of her fave varieties: cashew butter. This creamy treat is packed with protein, and you can use it anywhere you’d use peanut butter. Angelone loves adding a scoop or two to her day for an extra boost of protein.

Per 2 tbsp: 94 cal, 8 g fat (1.6 g sat), 4.4 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 65 mg sodium, 0g fiber, 3 g protein

29. Sunflower Seeds

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Nutrient-rich seeds are another great way to fit your high-protein, low-carb needs. Angelone is a big fan of sunflower seeds—eat a scoop for a snack, sprinkle them on your salads, or grind them into a pesto.

Pr 1/4 cup: 190 cal, 15 g fat (1.6 g sat), 7 g carbs, 2 g sugar, 360 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 6 g protein

30. Collagen Powder

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Okay, so this isn’t exactly a “food” but Angelone highly recommends collagen powder as a way to up your protein intake. “It dissolves in both hot and cold water and has no taste or texture,” she notes. Add it to your soups, smoothies, or morning coffee for a boost of protein.

Isadora Baum Isadora Baum is a freelance writer, certified health coach, and author of 5-Minute Energy.

Pitting Fat Against Protein

At issue is a two-phase study involving 57 men and women — all obese, all between ages 40 to 60. In addition, they had high levels of insulin in their blood — a sign of prediabetes.

They were divided into two low-carb groups; each assigned the same number of calories:

All 57 volunteers completed the study’s first 12 weeks; 19 of the dieters in each group continued their dietary regimen until a full year had passed. Their weight and various other health factors were tracked the entire time.

At week 16:

  • Dieters in both low-carb groups had lost about 10% of their weight.
  • All dieters’ blood sugar and insulin levels improved, as would be expected with weight loss.
  • The high-protein group felt less hunger than the high-fat group did; the high-protein group also burned a few more calories after each meal.
  • Metabolism at rest decreased in both groups — dieting without exercise commonly decreases metabolism.

At week 52:

  • Weight loss was the same in both groups — 5% to 8% — possibly caused by a decrease in calorie intake.
  • Blood pressure, blood sugar, insulin, and cholesterol levels were the same across both groups.

Statistically speaking, the weight loss differences were close enough to call it a draw, says researcher Natalie Luscombe, with the University of Adelaide. Also, dieters in both groups reported having difficulty following their diet program, she notes.

Carb controversy: Why low-carb diets have got it all wrong.

Ask almost anyone what they need to do to lose a few pounds, and they’ll probably say: “Cut back on the carbs.” As a nutrition coach, I’ve heard it hundreds of times.

While the low carb movement has waxed and waned in popularity since the Atkins revival of the late 90s and early 2000s, most folks now assume that carbohydrates are inherently fattening.

Health-conscious diners order bunless hamburgers, skip the baked potato side dish, and send the bread basket back to the kitchen. (Or don’t, and feel guilty about it.)

In the past few years, I’ll bet you’ve heard (or thought) at least one of the following:

  • Carbs spike your blood sugar and insulin, which slathers on the body fat.
  • Carbs, especially sugar and grains, cause inflammation.
  • Carbs are not an essential part of the diet like fat and protein.

Seems simple and logical. Which is the problem.

These simplistic statements about “good foods” and “bad foods” ignore biological complexity and the bigger picture.

Let’s look closer.

Do carbs increase insulin levels?

Yes, they do.

Does increased insulin after meals lead to fat gain?

No.

(Insulin’s actually a satiety hormone — in other words, it makes you feel full — so the idea that on its own it leads to fat gain doesn’t make sense.)

Are carbs really inflammatory?

That depends. Are we talking about processed corn syrup? Probably.

But if we’re talking about whole grains, not really.

Are carbs less important than protein, fat, and the many micronutrients that contribute to our health?

Well, if you’re talking about processed carbs, the answer is a resounding yes.

But if you’re talking about whole, minimally processed carbs, that’s a different story.

Can a low-carb diet work to help people lose weight?

Of course it can.

Is it because it is low in carbs?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Can eating an appropriate amount of carbs actually help you look, feel and perform your best?

You bet it can.

The problem with not eating carbs

As a weight loss strategy, cutting carbs (while reducing the total number of calories) clearly works pretty well for some people. If it didn’t, then Atkins would have never been popular in the first place.

Here’s the thing, though: Carb reduction costs us.

You see, most of us require some level of carbohydrates to function at our best over the long term.

Sure, we can cut carbs temporarily if we need to lose weight quickly. But for most of us, keeping carbs too low for too long can have disastrous consequences.

This is especially true for those of us who work out.

If you’re sedentary, your carb needs are lower. So you might be able to get away with more restriction.

But if you like to exercise regularly and enthusiastically, restricting your carb intake too drastically can lead to:

  • decreased thyroid output
  • increased cortisol output
  • decreased testosterone
  • impaired mood and cognitive function
  • muscle catabolism
  • suppressed immune function.

In other words: Your metabolism might slow, your stress hormones go up and your muscle-building hormones go down.

You feel lousy, spaced-out, sluggish, cranky… and maybe even sick.

Most vexing of all: You probably don’t even lose that much weight in the long term.

If you’re interested in the details and some research, read on. If you just want to know what to do, skip to the end.

Decreased thyroid

In order to function properly and to maintain an appropriate metabolism, our body produces an important hormone called T3. T3 is the most active thyroid hormone and is incredibly important for blood glucose management and proper metabolic function.

Low T3 levels can lead to a condition called euthyroid sick syndrome, in which people are constantly cold and sluggish. (Imagine your metabolic “body motor” idling at a slower speed.)

A landmark study, known as the Vermont Study, found that T3 is very sensitive to calorie and carbohydrate intake. When calories and carbs are too low, your T3 levels drop.

In addition, the Vermont Study found that another hormone, reverse T3 (rT3), is also sensitive to calorie and carbohydrate intake. Reverse T3, as the name implies, inhibits T3.

Getting enough carbs can lower reverse T3. Not eating enough carbs will increase it, thus blocking the important work of T3.

The Vermont Study is far from alone. Other research confirms that ketogenic (ultra-low carb) diets reduce T3 levels as rapidly as starvation.

Additional studies show that when calories are held constant (in this case at 2100 calories), reducing carbohydrates from 409 g to 202 g and then to 104 g significantly reduced serum T3 levels (from 91 to 86 to 69 ng/dL respectively).

Finally, French researchers examined four calorically equal diets (2800 calories in this case), lasting 1 week each. Two of these diets contained 250 grams of carbs, which is a fairly typical proportion. The low-carb diet included 71 grams of carbs, and the high-carb diet included 533 grams of carbs.

T3 levels were equal on the normal and high carb diets (ranging from 163.3 to 169.5 ng/100 mL). However, on the low carb diet they fell to 148.6 ng/100 mL on average. And of course, rT3 correspondingly rose on the low carb diet, but not on the standard or high carb diets.

Thyroid hormones are important for more than just weight loss; they also have profound effects on our overall health and energy levels.

Thus, when you don’t eat enough, and/or eat enough carbs while training:

  • T3 goes down
  • Reverse T3 goes up, further blocking T3
  • You feel like crap, and eventually your training sucks

If you’re active, you need adequate energy and carb intakes for a healthy thyroid.

Cortisol up; testosterone down

Research consistently shows that people who exercise regularly need to eat enough carbs or their testosterone will fall while their cortisol levels rise. This is a sure-fire recipe for losing muscle and gaining fat.

Incidentally, it’s also a marker for excessive training stress.

In a study in Life Sciences, men who ate a high carbohydrate versus a low carbohydrate diet for 10 days had higher levels of testosterone and sex hormone binding globulin, and lower levels of cortisol.

A few years later, another study took this research a step further. This time the subjects included men and women who exercised regularly. And in addition to considering the effect of their diet on hormones, researchers put them through some performance tests.

Once again, when the subjects ate a low carb diet, their testosterone (and other anabolic hormones) went down, while their cortisol went up.

And, after following a low carb diet for just three days, only two of the six participants were able to complete the cycling test! Meanwhile, when following the higher carb diet for three days, all six participants were able to complete the test.

In 2010, researchers reconsidered the same question — this time in relation to intense exercise. In this particular study, subjects eating the low carb diet (where 30% of their calories came from carbs) saw a drop of 43% in their testosterone to cortisol ratio. Not good. Meanwhile, the control group (who got 60% of their calories from carbs) saw no change in their testosterone/ cortisol ratios.

Thus:

  • inadequate carbohydrate intake can decrease testosterone (which no one wants); and
  • increase cortisol (which no one wants); while
  • negatively affecting performance (which no one wants).

Carbohydrates and women’s hormones

We now know that eating too low-carb for too long can cause significant disruptions to many hormones.

This seems especially true for women, whose bodies may be more sensitive than men’s to low energy or carbohydrate availability (perhaps because of the evolutionary importance of having enough body fat and nutrients to sustain a pregnancy).

While organs like our gonads or thyroid make hormones, Mission Control of our hormone production system is the central nervous system (CNS), i.e. the brain.

Our hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which sit in the brain, are exquisitely sensitive to things like energy availability and stress (which can include life stress and exercise stress).

The hypothalamus and pituitary work together with other glands such as the adrenal glands. This partnership is often known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis.

Thus, when women don’t eat enough calories or carbohydrate — or even when women eat enough calories but not enough carbohydrate — they face hypothalamic amenorrhea.

This means disrupted hormones and stopped — or irregular — periods because of the HPA’s response to perceived starvation and stress.

In hypothalamic amenorrhea, hormone levels plummet, and the cascade is felt throughout the system. You end up with low levels of luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.

In addition, we’ve already seen that not eating enough carbohydrate tends to increase cortisol levels. When cortisol rises, it signals your HPA axis to further decrease pituitary activity. Not good.

Your HPA axis regulates functions such as stress response, mood, digestion, immune system, libido, metabolism and energy levels.

And your pituitary in particular is responsible for synthesizing and secreting growth hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone, prolactin, LH, FSH and other incredibly important hormones.

With all this said, here’s the takeaway message: Many women try to eat low-carb, wanting to be healthier.

Yet because low-carb diets can significantly disrupt hormone production, women with too-low carb intakes — especially active women — can face:

  • a stopped or irregular menstrual cycle;
  • lowered fertility;
  • hypoglycemia and blood sugar swings;
  • more body fat (especially around the middle);
  • loss of bone density;
  • anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues;
  • chronic inflammation and worse chronic pain;
  • chronic fatigue and disrupted sleep; and
  • a host of other chronic problems…

…ironically, this is the exact opposite of what they wanted in the first place.

Muscle loss

When we think about building muscle, we usually think of protein. But research shows that lowering carb intake can affect your muscle mass even if protein remained constant.

In other words, even if you’re guzzling protein shakes or eating steak 5 times a day, you could be losing muscle if you aren’t getting enough carbs.

A recent study from the Netherlands compared three diets:

  • a high carb diet (85% carbs);
  • a medium carb diet (44% carbs); and
  • a low carb diet (2% carbs).

All diets had the same total calories and the same amount of protein — 15%. (Yes, a little low, but more or less adequate.)

The result? For starters, pretty consistent with other research.

  • T3 levels and reverse T3 levels stayed the same with high and moderate carbohydrate intake.
  • T3 levels and reverse T3 went down on the low-carb diet.

But here’s the interesting wrinkle. In this study, the researchers also measured urinary nitrogen excretion to see how the diets affected protein breakdown.

In this case, the low carb diet increased muscle breakdown, because severely low carbs lowered insulin levels.

Again, you’d assume that protein intake would determine muscle breakdown. And you might assume — based on what you’ve heard — that having higher insulin is always “bad”.

In fact, insulin is crucial for building muscle.

When you get enough carbs to meet your needs, you replenish muscle glycogen and create an anabolic (building-up) hormonal environment. You get strong and buff. That’s good.

Conversely, when you don’t eat enough carbohydrate, muscle glycogen is depleted and a catabolic (breaking-down) hormonal environment is created, which means more protein breakdown and less protein synthesis. This means slower muscle growth — or even muscle loss.

Putting it all together

The bottom line? Not eating enough carbohydrates can lower T3 levels, disrupt cortisol to testosterone ratios, interfere with a woman’s delicate hormone balance, contribute to muscle loss, and prevent muscle gains.

Definitely not what most of us want!

But wait a minute.

Even if all of this is true, aren’t low carb diets better for fat loss?

And aren’t fat-adapted athletes performing just as well as athletes who eat a lot of carbs?

Low carbs are not better for fat loss

The logic seems so clear and appealing: High carbs lead to insulin which leads to fat storage. Low carbs keep insulin low, which should get you effortlessly lean while you enjoy chicken wings, salmon, eggs, and butter.

Indeed, many people who try low-carb dieting are initially pleased by an immediate weight loss… which is mostly water and glycogen. So, in the short term, it seems like low-carb diets are superior.

But does long-term evidence support low-carb dieting?

Research says no. Over the long haul, any differences between low-carb and other diets even out.

Protein: The hidden success factor

Most studies that suggest low-carb diets are superior suffer from a common methodological flaw: They usually don’t match protein intake between groups. This means that the low carb group often ends up consuming significantly more protein.

We know that getting plenty of protein has many advantages:

  • protein has a higher thermic effect — our bodies have to “rev up” to digest it (you’ll know this if you’ve ever gotten the “meat sweats” after a big steak);
  • protein makes people feel fuller, longer; and
  • protein helps people retain lean mass.

In other words, the big “secret” might be a high protein diet rather than a low carb diet.

So let’s play fair and look at a study where protein was matched. In this study, subjects who ate a moderate carb diet (40% calories from carbs) reported significantly better mood, and lost about the same amount of weight as those on a ketogenic low-carb diet (5% calories from carbs).

Actually, the group who ate a moderate amount of carbs showed a small (though not statistically significant) tendency to lose more body fat as compared to those on a low carb diet (5.5 kg vs 3.4 kg in 6 weeks).

Both diets improved insulin sensitivity. However, the ketogenic diet also increased LDL cholesterol and inflammatory markers and subjects who were on it felt less energetic.

Thus, in this study:

  • moderate carb eaters felt better
  • moderate carb eaters lost about the same amount of weight, maybe even a little more
  • both types of eaters improved insulin sensitivity
  • the low carb dieters ended up with worse blood work and inflammation

Makes you wonder why low carb gets so much hype, doesn’t it?

Especially considering that a recent review of long-term low carb versus low fat diets — the largest of its kind so far — found that both low carb and low fat diets reduced people’s weight and improved their metabolic risk factors.

In this review, both diets had about the same weight loss, changes in waist circumference, and measurements of several metabolic risk factors (blood pressure, blood glucose, insulin).

Still, it would be great to understand more about what makes low carb diets “work” at all. One recent study asked: Do low carb diets work because they restrict carbs or because they tend to increase protein?

Over the course of one year, the researchers compared four different conditions:

  1. normal protein, normal carbohydrate
  2. normal protein, low carbohydrate
  3. high protein, low carbohydrate
  4. high protein, normal carbohydrate.

Interestingly, the two groups eating the high protein lost the most weight.

And the real kicker? Varying the levels of fats and carbs seemed to make no difference to body composition.

Who needs carbs? Who doesn’t?

As our name implies, at Precision Nutrition we don’t believe in one-size-fits-all dietary recommendations.

Like most things, carbohydrate requirements fall on a bell curve.

Most people do best with some carbs.

  • About 70% of you will do really well with PN’s standard hand-size portion guidelines. (See our Calorie Control Guide for more.)
  • Around 25% of you will do really well increasing or reducing your carb servings by just a little bit. This is what we call eating for your body type, and we outline our recommendations here.

A few people do best with high carbs.

  • About 2.5% of the population — people who are ultra-endurance athletes, and a few other outliers — will thrive when eating incredibly high amounts of carbs. (We’re talking ≥ 70% of their total calories).

A few people do best with low carbs.

  • In fact, ketogenic diets are actually prescribed for people with epilepsy, as they seem to reduce their symptoms and cut down on seizure frequency. There is also preliminary evidence that ketogenic diets benefit other neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Very sedentary people, as well as people who are extremely metabolically dysregulated (e.g. metabolic syndrome, diabetes), may benefit from a lower-carb diet for a while as part of an overall transition towards more activity and healthier metabolism.

A unique specimen: The low-carb athlete

You might have been wondering about that remaining 2.5% of successful low-carbers.

While rare, these ultra-low-carb people do exist. Even in athlete trials, where the vast majority of participants do better on high carb diets versus low carb diets, you’ll almost always find a few who perform better on a low carb regime.

This study on competitive cyclists offers a perfect example. While the authors concluded that endurance wasn’t generally affected by a high-fat, low-carb intake — at least after athletes became adapted to it — individual responses to this diet did vary enormously.

Two of the five participants got tired sooner when eating low-carb (taking 48 and 51 minutes to conk out, respectively). But one participant actually got better by 84 minutes on the low carb diet.

The data are clear: Each athlete — each person — is unique when it comes to carbohydrate requirements.

While on average the performance of the cyclists did not vary whether they were eating high carb or high fat diets, there was one interesting difference, highlighted by the study authors in a review study done twenty-one years later.

After a week of adaptation to the low-carb diet, most cyclists felt that they could more or less perform normally… except for their sprint capacity, which never seemed to recover while restricting carbs.

If you are a high-performing athlete, this might be especially important to keep in mind. Even in extreme endurance sports, sprint capability can be vitally important. Especially as you’re nearing that finish line.

But before we get too carried away in the opposite direction and start carb loading, let’s remember this basic truth: Most of us are not elite athletes.

So while studies will show that on average athletes tend to perform better with higher carb intakes, this is not a universal rule. There is always individual variability.

What this means for you

Sometimes, we get so caught up in fad diets that we forget to look at the evidence. But fad diets are mostly bad diets.

For many years, we thought the secret to maintaining our weight was to eat lots of carbs and reduce our fat intake. Just think of the old Food Guide Pyramid with grains at the bottom and oils at the top.

Low-fat, high-carb didn’t work for most of us. People felt deprived and hungry; they “cheated” with “fat-free”, high-sugar treats; and they ended up eating a lot of rice cakes.

Then the pendulum swung, people hopped on the low carb, high fat bandwagon, and it was party time with almond butter, bacon, and heavy cream.

Unfortunately for most of us, low carb doesn’t work so well, either.

Strict diets aren’t the answer

If your eating plan isn’t working for you, it’s tempting to make it more restrictive. You might assume that if you aren’t losing fat going kinda low-carb, you should go full ketogenic.

But more restriction almost never works.

Don’t take your nutrition to extremes — unless you have extreme goals.

Strategic moderation, as unsexy as that sounds, is the only sustainable method.

Most of us need some carbs

Most of us will look, feel, and perform our best when we balance a reasonable amount of lean protein, quality carbs, and healthy fats.

Our standard portion size recommendations aren’t just what we think is best. They’re what we know is best, based on careful research and our experience with 20,000 clients to date.

Portions for women

Portions for men

Experiment & have fun

Our recommendations let you be flexible, enjoy the high-quality foods you love, and adjust your intake to your own experience, goals, and unique needs.

Don’t like rice? Fine. Try another carb source.

Don’t like beef for your lean protein? How about eggs?

Need more carbs to support your athletic performance? Cool. Add another few servings and see how it goes.

Curious about balancing your blood sugar by dialing back the carbs just a little bit? Great — give it a go, monitor your glucose levels, and see how you feel.

YOU are unique. Your body is unique.

Your individual carb requirements depend on your:

  • goals (fat loss, muscle gain, maintenance)
  • genetics (different body types, medical conditions)
  • carb source (refined versus minimally processed)
  • activity level (sedentary, weight-training, endurance athlete).

Keep it simple

Don’t overly restrict; don’t over-think it; don’t waste time with “carb math”.

Enjoy a wide variety of minimally processed, whole and fresh foods.

Observe how you look, feel, and perform.

Decide what to do based on the data you collect about yourself, not on what you think you “should” do.

The only “rules” come from your body and your experience. Don’t follow a dietary prescription for anyone else’s body.

And above all, for most active people, carbs are your friend!

Passionate about nutrition and health?

If so, and you’d like to learn more about it, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification. Our next group kicks off shortly.

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The targeted ketogenic diet (TKD) is not so different from the standard ketogenic diet (SKD), with one important difference: when and how you eat carbs.

On standard keto, you don’t worry about carb timing. You just keep carbs low at all times.

On a TKD, you consume your daily allotment of carbs before, during, or after a workout.

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Are there benefits to the targeted ketogenic diet? Can the TKD kick you out of ketosis? And is targeted keto right for you? Let’s find out.

Benefits Of A Targeted Ketogenic Diet

If you do the TKD right, you’ll be in ketosis most of the time. That means that the TKD has many of the same benefits of the standard keto diet.

General Keto Benefits

Here’s a brief highlight reel of keto diet benefits, all of which apply — to a slightly lesser extent — to the targeted ketogenic diet:

  • Weight loss (more effective than calorie-restricted diets)
  • Improved appetite control due to decreased circulating ghrelin (your hunger hormone) and lower neuropeptide Y (an appetite-stimulating brain factor)
  • Stable energy throughout the day
  • Lower blood sugar levels
  • Lower insulin levels
  • Enhanced fat burning
  • Enhanced cognitive performance in both mice and humans
  • Cleaner energy production (as in fewer reactive oxygen species (ROS) produced by your mitochondria)
  • Decreased systemic inflammation via HDAC inhibition
  • Therapeutic potential for certain cancers
  • Glycogen enhancement, which means that your body burns less stored glucose

TKD For Exercise Performance

A targeted ketogenic diet has one potential benefit over the standard ketogenic diet: enhanced exercise performance.

Eating a small number of fast-absorbing carbs before, during, or after intense workouts can help fuel your session and top off your glycogen stores.

To get this benefit from the TKD, you need to be:

  1. Fat adapted: Fat adaptation typically happens several weeks into the keto diet, and allows you to slip in and out of ketosis more easily
  2. Glycogen depleted: If you eat carbs when muscle glycogen isn’t depleted, the glucose from carbs — instead of being stored in muscle — will stay in your blood. And rising blood sugar will take you out of a ketogenic state.

In short, you won’t benefit from a TKD if you’re not burning through your glycogen stores.

And it’s likely that you’re tapping out your glycogen stores if you’re doing regular hardcore, glycolytic workouts.

That includes Crossfit, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and sprinting. Long bouts of cardio (read: marathons) also deplete muscle glycogen.

When you’re fat-adapted, however, it takes a lot to deplete muscle glycogen.

Because of this, the targeted ketogenic diet may only benefit certain keto dieters.

Who Is The Targeted Keto Diet For?

On the spectrum of keto diets, the targeted ketogenic diet falls somewhere between the standard ketogenic diet and the cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD).

Choosing to embark on the SKD, CKD, or TKD depends on your activity level and exercise goals.

Choosing The Right Keto Diet

Standard Keto Diet

If your daily exercise plan revolves around light exercise — yoga, walking, and easy biking — the SKD is your best bet. These activities are low-intensity and your body fat can fuel them.

Many folks also do well with hard exercise on an SKD. This varies from person to person.

Generally, a standard ketogenic diet is the best option for weight loss, therapeutic ketosis, and other keto benefits. The one possible exception is athletic performance.

Cyclical Keto Diet

At the other end of the spectrum, the CKD is for serious athletes. Cyclical keto means eating a large number of carbs (400 to 500 grams) one or two days per week — and eating super low-carb the rest of the time.

Super active people like marathoners, bodybuilders, and professional athletes are constantly burning glucose and depleting glycogen — so they can do the CKD and get back in ketosis relatively quickly after carb loading.

The CKD is for high-octane performance, not so much weight loss or therapeutic ketone production.

Targeted Keto DIet

Targeted keto is smack in the middle. Like the CKD, the TKD is also designed for athletes, but it can work for anyone — male or female — who perform hard, glycogen-depleting exercises like Crossfit, sprints, high-intensity exercise, or long-distance races.

The extra carbs around the workout help fill glycogen stores, prevent low blood sugar, and stave off exercise fatigue.

You can still lose weight on a TKD, assuming you eat the right carbs, at the right times, while doing the right kinds of workouts.

Finally, the performance-boosting effect of the TKD is highly individual. People naturally have differences in glycogen storage and utilization — as well as differences in fat adaptation and ketone production.

Because of this, not everyone performs better — even during hard workouts — on a TKD than on an SKD.

This point is especially true for strength training.

Targeted Keto For Strength Training?

You’re better off with the standard ketogenic diet for strength training and muscle building.

Some folks still trumpet the “you need carbs to build muscle” theory. This theory says that you need insulin — a building hormone and your blood sugar regulator — for muscle growth.

But the latest research says otherwise. In one recent study, resistance-trained young men added more lean mass on a ketogenic diet than on a high-carb western diet.

So, it’s time to question the carb theory for muscle gain.

The truth is, you only need two inputs to build muscle:

  1. Weight training
  2. Sufficient protein

The ketogenic diet can also help with strength goals. Here’s why:

  1. Beta hydroxybutyrate (BHB) — your main ketone — actively spares muscle mass
  2. BHB also interacts with leucine — the muscle building amino acid in protein — to promote muscle synthesis

And so adding carbs — a la TKD or CKD — does little to enhance strength training. In fact, some data on men who strength train showed negligible benefits from carb re-feedings.

That’s because, bodybuilding aside, lifting weights won’t deplete much muscle glycogen. But two hours of pickup soccer probably will — and in that case, the extra carbs may help.

And yes, the type of carbs matter.

What to Eat On a Targeted Keto Diet

Healthy fats include:

  • Monounsaturated fats from olive oil, avocados, palm oil, and nuts
  • Saturated fats from butter, ghee, animal fat, coconut oil, and MCT oil
  • Polyunsaturated fats (in moderation) from nuts and fish

Avoid pro-inflammatory vegetable oils, high in omega-6 linoleic acid, especially for cooking.

Protein is a bit easier. Just be sure to include a complete protein source like whey protein or high-quality pastured meat and wild-caught fish.

Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids to fuel muscle growth and usually come in the form of animal or animal-derived protein.

Finally, carbs. The standard TKD recommendation is to consume 15-50 grams of fast-absorbing carbs before, during, or after your workout. These simple carbs can come in powder form (dextrose), or from real food (glucose).

Your best bets for real food are white potato or white rice. Just a few bites. Quick shots of glucose.

Why dextrose and glucose? Assuming you’re exercising hard enough, these simple sugars will either:

  1. Get burned during exercise
  2. Be stored as muscle glycogen

Avoid fructose on a TKD, or any form of ketogenic diet, because fructose travels directly to the liver for storage as liver glycogen.

Because of this, fructose won’t improve exercise performance. Plus, high fructose diets have been shown to cause insulin resistance, obesity, and liver disease.

Finally, consider adding a high-quality MCT oil to your TKD regimen. MCTs are quickly absorbed, travel to the liver, and convert to ketone bodies — regardless of carb intake.

Which means that MCTs help you stay in ketosis on a TKD.

More on that topic now.

How The TKD Affects Ketosis

Ketosis is a unique metabolic state. When you’re in ketosis, your cells burn fat to make ketones for energy.

Compared to glucose, ketones are cleaner burning (fewer reactive oxygen species), less inflammatory, and more efficient energy (ATP) producers.

You can enter ketosis by:

  • Eating a ketogenic diet
  • Fasting
  • Exercising

But carb restriction is the #1 way to get into ketosis.

Carb restriction, on the other hand, keeps insulin low — and this tells your body to burn fat and make ketones.

Will The TKD Kick You Out Of Ketosis?

Eating carbs — in any amount — raises your blood sugar levels and reduces ketone production.

So yes, swallowing a packet of dextrose — even before or after a hard workout — will probably kick you out of ketosis. The goal, then, is to get back into ketosis as swiftly as possible.

Your “back-to-keto time” depends on several factors:

1) Fat Adaptation: Before starting a TKD, you need to be fat-adapted. Once your mitochondria — tiny organelles within your cells — know how to burn fat, it’s easier for them to slip back into fat-burning mode following a departure from ketosis.

2) Type Of Exercise: Intense exercise — sprinting, Crossfit, HIIT, etc. — is called glycolytic because it demands glucose as fuel. So if you eat carbs before sprints, those sprints will use up your blood glucose — and you can shift back to burning fat and making ketones.

But even on a TKD, don’t neglect low-intensity aerobic exercise. These exercises don’t require glucose for fuel, so they’re ideal for fat adaptation and ketone production. Keep your heart rate around 180 minus your age.

3) Insulin Sensitivity: The faster your blood sugar drops, the faster you’ll return to ketosis. This depends, in part, on your insulin sensitivity — or the ability of insulin to rapidly shove glucose into your muscle tissue.

Keto-Friendly Carbs

The truth is: unless you set up a well-calibrated TKD, simple starches and simple sugars will spell a swift end to your ketogenic state.

For standard ketogenic dieting, low-glycemic carbs like berries, squash, artichokes, and asparagus are the ticket. Low glycemic, by the way, refers to the food’s impact on your blood sugar. The lower, the better.

Low glycemic foods are low glycemic because they’re high in fiber. The more fiber a carb contains, the less it will spike your blood glucose. Eating fiber also:

  • Helps your gut bacteria produce anti-inflammatory, anti-colon-cancer short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs)
  • Reduces stroke and cardiovascular disease risk
  • Supports the immune system
  • Helps prevent diabetes
  • Keeps the bowels moving, binding to toxins along the way

Best of all, high-fiber carbs limit blood sugar and insulin spikes — helping you stay in ketosis.

But on a TKD, your goals are different. You need those carbs right away for your workout, so you need them to be high-glycemic.

One option is dextrose powder. If dextrose isn’t your style, try simple starches like white rice or white potatoes. Avoid fructose.

Should I Try TKD?

If you’re new to a standard ketogenic diet, you’ll want to give your body around 4-6 weeks to adapt to fat as fuel.

During this adaptation period, you may experience the keto flu. Low energy, poor sleep, and impaired exercise performance are all commonly reported.

This is normal, and it’s not the time to carb up and try a TKD or CKD. Instead, take electrolytes, add some low-impact exercise, and eat non-starchy vegetables. These carb-withdrawal symptoms will soon dissipate.

Also, consider cutting back on intense, glycolytic exercises during your initial keto foray.

Once you’re fat adapted, you can get back to going hard once in a while. Note how these harder efforts feel.

If they feel great, standard keto is probably for you. After all, the SKD best captures the benefits of low-carb living.

But if your performance is suffering, consider experimenting with the targeted ketogenic diet. The extra carbs can help:

  • Replenish muscle glycogen
  • Provide glucose to fuel intense workouts

If the TKD sounds like a strategy you’d like to try, keep reading. You’re about to get a step-by-step plan you can apply immediately.

How To Start A TKD: Step by Step

A successful TKD requires thought and consideration. Below are some general guidelines to follow.

#1 Do Standard Keto First

Remember: if you aren’t fat adapted, you can’t easily slip back into ketosis. To do a TKD right, you’ll want at least 4-6 weeks experience with an SKD.

For more info, check out this comprehensive guide on starting a keto diet.

#2 Determine Your Unique Carb Count

Different people can handle different carb intakes on keto. Some can eat over 50 grams carbs and still make ketones. Others can’t.

To determine your unique carb count, you’ll need to measure your ketone levels throughout the day. Ketone test strips are a cheap way to do this.

Start low, under 30 grams net carbs (net carbs = grams carbs – grams fiber). If your ketones are consistently over 0.5 mmol/L, perhaps you can get away with more carbs. Experiment.

When you try the TKD, eat all your carbs before, during, or after your workout. To maximize your time in ketosis: try to stay within your carb count. Ketone test strips will help you gauge the impact of these carbs on your ketone levels.

#3 Minimize Carbs

The goal of the TKD is to eat as few carbs as possible for performance enhancement. Play around, and again: start low. Try 15-30 grams carbs before your workout.

If you need more carbs, you can split them up pre-workout and post-workout to limit your blood sugar spike. To minimize non-keto time, try to stay under 50 grams carbs total.

#4 Eat Carbs Before Or During Exercise

Eating carbs before or during — rather than after — a workout may work best for the TKD. Two reasons why:

  1. The extra glucose helps fuel glycolytic exercises — potentially improving performance
  2. Intense exercise burns the extra glucose, so you return to a ketogenic state more swiftly

After your workout, stick to protein and fat to fuel muscle protein synthesis.

#5 Eat Fast-Absorbing Carbs

On an SKD, you should favor low-glycemic, high-fiber carbs like berries, carrots, and squash.

But on a TKD, your goals are different. You need those carbs right away for your workout, so you need them to be high-glycemic.

One option is dextrose powder. If dextrose isn’t your style, try simple starches like white rice or white potatoes. Avoid fructose.

#6 Keep Calories Constant

If weight loss is your goal, you should keep energy intake constant on a TKD. Adding carb calories before your workout? Subtract fat calories from somewhere else.
For reference, a gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories, while a gram of fat contains 9 calories. So if you eat 9 grams extra carbs, subtract 4 grams fat from dinner. Both are 36 calories.

#7 Supplement Wisely

Ketosis can deplete your electrolytes — minerals that keep you hydrated, regulate your PH, and activate muscle and nerve tissue.

If you’re experiencing muscle cramps or exercise fatigue on the TKD, a lack of electrolytes — magnesium, potassium, sodium, chloride, and calcium — may be to blame.

Taking a full-spectrum electrolyte supplement can help.

Other supplements can be useful too. For instance:

  • Creatine helps preserve muscle glycogen
  • L-Citrulline boosts nitrous oxide production, allowing more oxygen to flow to your muscles
  • MCT Oil enhances ketone production and fat burning, even in the presence of carbs

You can try them one at a time, or take them together. Up to you.

Your TKD Commitment

One more thing. The targeted ketogenic diet doesn’t need to be a lifelong commitment.

Try it for a week or two. See how you feel.

Has the TKD improved your exercise? Has it moved your health goals in the right direction?

Remember: the TKD isn’t for everyone, and it might not be for you.

But if you feel your workouts are suffering — even after keto adapting — then consider giving the TKD a shot.

You’ve probably heard all about the ketogenic diet by now, where carbs are limited to roughly 50 grams a day, and fats make up about 80% of your daily’s worth of calories. Yet the keto diet can be too restrictive on the carb count for some, and that’s where a variation of the diet might come in handy.

The targeted keto diet allows for a little wiggle room, where you can eat extra carbs around your workouts. It’s a great move for those who find traditional keto to be too challenging or not helpful for their goals.

How does the targeted keto diet work?

“Targeted Ketogenic Diet, or TKD, is a way to transition to incorporating more carbohydrates in your diet after you have been in strict ketosis for a while. It is important to know that you should be strict keto for at least 60 days before transitioning to TKD because your body needs to become fat adapted first,” says Drew Manning, keto and fitness expert and author of The Complete Keto.

By going on it after you’ve been on regimented keto, your body knows how to use glucose quickly but still produce ketones, which allows you to maintain a level of ketosis, he explains. As you’re adding in carbs relative to workouts, you’ll eat about 20 grams of carbs an hour before a workout and immediately following a workout, he says.

“The idea here is that you may protect the body from burning its own muscle for fuel because you have enough glucose floating around in the blood stream for your body to use as energy and yet still stay in ketosis after the workout,” explains Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Because you’re consuming those added carbs to boost your performance and repair muscle damage, you might be able to build more muscle, she says.

Still, the type of carbs do matter, so don’t grab a donut for a pre-workout snack and finish off with a slice of pizza. “I recommend eating healthier sources of carbs like potatoes, sweet potatoes, fruit, or even some rice. Remember, even though you are incorporating carbs the quality of the food does play a part in your overall health,” says Manning.

“Having carbs from sugary cereals, bread, or treats can cause you to be kicked out of ketosis or cause digestion distress after being strict keto for so long,” he adds.

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Should you try targeted keto?

“To understand if this is right for you, definitely meet with a physician, dietitian and trainer who can help target the diet for your unique needs as an athlete,” says Hultin. If you need to be on the keto diet for health reasons, it’s best to stick with the classic. “If you are on a prescribed, medical ketogenic diet, this might not be appropriate for you as there’s a chance it could move your body out of ketosis,” she advises.

If you are an athlete who could benefit, it might be worthwhile, Manning says. “Following TKD can be a great way to get your body accustomed to using dual fuel sources, both glucose and ketones. This way you have more energy for your workouts, especially if you are an endurance athlete.”

It can be very effective for endurance athletes, weight trainers, and CrossFit athletes in giving them more energy for their long and intense workouts.

“Anyone who may be wanting to transition to eating more carbs can benefit from TKD, just be sure to test your blood ketones to see if it is right for you and your body,” Manning says. If you aren’t in ketosis enough on it, it may be less effective for you.

Isadora Baum Isadora Baum is a freelance writer, certified health coach, and author of 5-Minute Energy.

What Are the Different Types of the Ketogenic Diet, and Which Is Right for You?

Some ketogenic (or “keto”) diet devotees stay true to the diet 100 percent of the time, while others have found they need a little more carbohydrates or protein. That’s inspired some to tweak the low-carb, high-fat diet to meet their needs. As a result, several spins on the keto diet have emerged.

Kristen Kizer, RD, a registered clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, says that all of these diets have one thing in common. “A keto diet to me would be any diet that gets a body into ketosis,” she says.

Ketosis occurs when the body turns to fat as its main source of energy instead of carbohydrates, says Amy Shapiro, RD, the New York City–based founder of Real Nutrition. Keeping the body in ketosis for extended periods of time may lead to weight loss, according to a study published in Experimental & Critical Cardiology. Ketosis is a natural metabolic state in which the body burns fat rather than carbs.

RELATED: The Top Foods to Eat and Avoid on the Ketogenic Diet

That’s what motivates most people to go keto. “It’s popular because in most cases it can produce very easy and effective weight loss — that’s the primary reason why people start it,” says Los Angeles–based Franziska Spritzler, RD, the founder of Low Carb Dietitian. There are some other researched benefits beyond weight loss, including possibly acting as a mood stabilizer in those with bipolar disorder (per a very small study in Neurocase) and lessening epileptic seizures (according to a study published in May 2016 in Epilepsy & Behavior).

But not everyone’s a fan. “For most people, going keto means jumping on the diet of the moment bandwagon,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, a culinary nutritionist in New York City and the author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. “For most, it’s a fad diet that will offer temporary results.” That runs counter to Newgent’s usual advice to find an eating plan you can follow for a lifetime. She also worries that reducing carbs as much as the original keto diet calls for will cut out nutrient-rich foods, like whole grains, certain veggies, and fruits.

If you’re already trying a keto diet or are interested in starting one, you may be wondering which version is for you. That depends on a few factors, including your goals, activity level, and health history.

RELATED: What Are the Risks and Benefits of the Keto Diet?

Here, dive into six of the most popular types of the ketogenic diet. Kizer says to keep in mind that while there are many studies involving ketosis, these variations of the diet have not yet been researched.

What Is the Strict Keto Diet and Who Uses It?

How It Works When people say they’re on the strict version of keto, they’re likely referring to the one that’s been shown to help treat epilepsy. Sometimes called the “therapeutic keto diet,” this is the original version of keto, which was created in the 1920s to help treat seizures, according to a study published in Current Treatment Options in Neurology. “Strict ketosis was traditionally for those using ketosis as part of treatment for who were nonresponsive to medication,” Kizer says.

The original study found that sticking to the keto diet for one year led to improvements for 44 percent of study participants, with another 12 percent becoming seizure-free, per a study published in June 2016 in Practical Neurology.

This version of the diet allows for the lowest amount of carbs (hence being the strictest). According to the Practical Neurology study, 90 percent of daily calories come from fat, 6 percent from protein, and just 4 percent from carbs.

It’s Best for People Who … are trying the keto diet to treat epilepsy.

Risks to Note The most common side effects among children who followed the diet were constipation, weight loss, and growth problems or anorexia, found the Practical Neurology study. The growth problems among children may be the result of limited protein intake, Spritzler says.

There’s also a risk for developing hypercalciuria (high calcium levels in urine), kidney stones, and low blood sugar. Even though the bulk of research has been on children, adults may experience the same issues — plus possibly high cholesterol, though levels should drop once you quit the diet and start eating normally again.

Unsurprisingly, this strict version of keto also seems to be the toughest one to stick to: Research shows that the modified versions of the diet have lower drop-out rates.

RELATED: 10 Quick and Easy Grab-and-Go Keto Snacks

What Does the Standard Keto Diet Involve?

How It Works This is the most common approach to keto and involves sourcing 75 percent of calories from fat, 20 percent from protein, and 5 percent from carbs. That means limiting carb intake to about 20 to 30 grams (g) of carbs per day, Shapiro says. It’s important to note that while this is the keto diet that most people follow, it’s not the original, or therapeutic, version of keto that an article in Canadian Family Physician shows can help children with epilepsy. That diet consists of slightly different percentages: 80 percent of calories from fat, 15 percent from protein, and 5 percent from carbs.

It’s Best for People Who … are looking to accelerate their weight loss and tap into the other reported health benefits.

Risks to Note Kizer says there are a few groups who should not follow the standard version of keto (or any other version either): pregnant women, people with diabetes (at least not before discussing it with a physician), and those with a history of kidney stones. She notes that ketosis may result in bad breath, dizziness, constipation, and low energy levels (commonly called the “keto flu”) for the first few weeks. More concerning, drastic weight changes, from keto or otherwise, can increase your risk of mortality, says Kizer. Weight cycling, also called yo-yo dieting, may put particular strain on the heart, suggests a study published in February 2015 in Obesity Reviews.

RELATED: Does the Ketogenic Diet Work for Type 2 Diabetes?

What Is a Targeted Keto Diet and Is It for You?

How It Works You’ll follow the keto diet as usual until 30 to 45 minutes before exercise — then it’s time to eat about 25 g of carbs, says Daniela Torchia, PhD, a registered dietitian based in Loma Linda, California. The idea is that you’ll have just enough carbs to fuel your workout and still be able to return to ketosis easily after you cool down. Choose carbs that are easy to digest (for instance, white bread or white rice) and be sure not to add calories to your daily total — simply redistribute them, Dr. Torchia says.

It’s Best for People Who … frequently engage in intense, muscle-building workouts, according to Torchia. We’re talking high-intensity exercise like running, swimming, or playing tennis for hours on end, Torchia says. Hitting the gym at a moderate pace a couple of times a week likely won’t cut it.

Risks to Note Torchia says not to try targeted keto until you’ve been following a standard keto diet for a month or two. “This idea is called ‘keto adaptive,’ and once your body is used to using fat as fuel, it can go back and forth more readily with moderate carbs,” she says. She warns not to try this (or any version of keto) before talking with a physician if you have diabetes and are insulin dependent, as it could lead to a too-low blood sugar level.

What Goes Into Doing a High-Protein Keto Diet?

How It Works This version of keto calls for upping the protein intake just a bit. Protein should make up about 30 percent of calories, with the other 65 percent coming from fat and 5 percent from carbs, Spritzler says. Aim to source your protein from both animals (meat, fish, and dairy) and plants (nuts and seeds), Spritzler suggests.

It’s Best for People Who … need protein to help protect muscle mass, like bodybuilders and older people who need to prevent muscle breakdown, Spritzler says. It’s also a good option for those who show signs of a protein deficiency. Those signs include a loss of muscle or thinning hair, according to the subcommittee on the 10th edition of the federal recommended dietary allowances.

Risks to Note Those with kidney issues need to be careful not to increase their protein intake too much, says Lisa Koche, MD, a Tampa, Florida–based senior medical adviser for Kegenix, a company that creates keto meal replacements and other keto-friendly products. People with kidney disease may experience waste buildup in the blood if they have too much protein, according to the National Kidney Foundation. High-protein keto may not be right for you if you’re following the diet for therapeutic reasons. “The reason protein is limited at all is because the goal in therapeutic keto is to treat epilepsy and to have high ketone levels,” Spritzler says. “Protein will not kick you out of ketosis if you have a lot, but it will definitely lower the amount of ketones in your blood.” Since slightly more protein shouldn’t affect your body’s ability to stay in ketosis, this version of the diet delivers the same weight loss benefits as standard keto, Spritzler says.

RELATED: 10 Popular Low-Carb Diets, and Their Pros and Cons

What Does a Cyclical Keto Diet (or ‘Keto Cycling’) Mean?

How It Works On cyclical keto, also called keto cycling, you’ll cycle in and out of keto — usually on the diet for five days, followed by one or two days with more carbs. “The point of keto cycling is to make it easier for someone to follow,” Kizer says. “Every five to six days they can have the carbohydrates they’ve been entirely restricting.” There’s no set protocol of what your carb days should look like, but Kizer warns not to go overboard because that will make it more difficult for the body to return to ketosis.

It’s Best for People Who … have a tough time sticking to keto. “It can be helpful if someone wants to take a break and have carbs,” says Koche. That may not be easy for everyone. Kizer worries this approach may promote carb binging. You may have heard keto cycling recommended for athletes, who use the extra carbohydrates to fuel their workouts or competitions. But no existing published science backs this up, though studies, including an April 2018 study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, have shown that the keto diet does hinder exercise performance.

Risks to Note Koche says to hold off until you’ve adapted to keto, which means your body is used to turning to fat for fuel, before adding these high-carb days, as it can slow down the possible benefits and results of being in ketosis. Kizer notes that keto cycling can cause fluctuations in body water, which can lead to dizziness. “It can also be hard on the heart for those with some cardiac conditions,” she adds.

RELATED: A Detailed Guide to Ordering Fast Food on the Keto Diet

What Does It Mean to Be on a Lazy Keto Diet?

How It Works The purpose of the so-called “lazy keto” diet is to make keto easier to follow. Counting calories, fat, and protein intake — for some people, that’s all too complicated. “All you track is carbs in lazy keto,” Kizer says.

You should still see results that are similar to regular keto, so long as you keep your carb intake low enough and don’t go overboard in the protein department, Kizer says. “As long as carbs stay low enough, which will vary by person but is usually below 50 g a day, one will stay in ketosis,” Kizer says. As a result, you’ll be able to see the effects associated with being in the metabolic state.

It’s Best for People Who … are interested in ketosis but don’t want to be bothered with tracking calories, protein, and fat.

Risks to Note The same people who experts say should stay away from keto apply here, such as pregnant women, people with diabetes who are using insulin or taking hypoglycemic medications, and people with type 1 diabetes who are at risk for ketoacidosis, Kizer says.

Lazy keto can also be dangerous if you take it to mean that you sometimes follow a keto diet and sometimes don’t. “Ketosis is all or nothing — you’re either in ketosis or you’re not,” Kizer says. “What concerns me is when people say they’re following a keto diet but not all the way or something along those lines. This could lead to weight gain and increased blood lipid values if someone just starts eating a high-fat diet and borrowing concepts from ketosis.”

RELATED: What’s the Difference Between Keto and Atkins?

A Final Word on How to Pick the Right Type of Keto Diet for You

It’s a good idea to meet with your doctor or a registered dietitian any time you switch up your diet — whether you’re on keto or another eating plan. And above all, Torchia says to listen to your body and assess your energy level and how you’re feeling on the diet. “You will be your best teacher,” she says.

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