In this episode I dive into my thought on the ketogenic diet for hikers. And I share my opinions on its benefits and practicality in the world of hiking.
Mentioned in the episode:
All right. Hello, hello, ladies and gentlemen. Today, we are talking all about the ketogenic diet. And I'm going to be diving into why I personally don't typically recommend it to my hikers. Now, before I go into this, I want to make one thing really, really, really, really clear. If you already follow keto or ketogenic diet and you enjoy it and it works for you, that is absolutely fine. I have nothing against that. And I fully encourage you to go out and follow what you enjoy. And this podcast episode is not designed to try to dissuade you from that path, to try to change your mind or anything like that. If you already follow this approach and it works for you, go for it. That's not what I'm talking about today.
However, I do know there are a lot of hikers out there who have been recommended to follow this diet for a whole number of reasons. I know there are a lot of people out there who may follow it themselves and they really do love to recommend it to others for again, a whole bunch of other reasons. And I know there is a whole lot of confusion about this in the world of hiking. And what I want to do today is just give my two cents and what I see as a coach over years of helping hikers prepare for their adventures. And the practicalities of this type of diet and the reason why I don't particularly recommend it.
So if you are considering it, you can have sort of a bit of a different perspective. And maybe for the guys who do love to recommend it, maybe it'll just make you think twice before recommending to absolutely everyone. There may be still people who might get some benefits of, but probably not everyone. And it might not be the best first stop recommendation. So I'm going to be diving into all that, so bear with me.
Now, for those who don't know what keto is, and there's fresh into all of this. In a nutshell, really, really simple. And for the keto followers, yes, you can get much more complex, much more specific than this, but I'm keeping things simple. In our natural state, so way if we just walk around, we don't think about our eating, don't think about our exercise, whatever it may be. Carbohydrates are the body's main source of energy while exercising. In our natural state, there is no debate about that. And there is no controversy in that statement, though some people try to make so there is.
However, it is not the only source of energy during exercise, and it's not the only source of potential energy. And while our carbohydrates stores, which we can actually store in our body at one time, are pretty limited in the grand scheme of things. And they do regularly need to be topped up from eating and topping up those energy stores. The body does hold huge amounts of potential energy in our fat stores because the body can burn fat for energy. That is a very, very efficient form of energy if you can burn it, meaning it doesn't have a huge amount of waste products and it can sort of go for go long and long and long and long without being topped up. And there is a lot of potential energy in those fat stores.
But the body isn't particularly amazing at utilizing those fat stores for exercise in our natural state. And the idea behind keto is pretty straightforward again, and this is surface level, I'm not diving into the real sciencey stuff. But surface level, basically, if you dramatically reduce your carbohydrate intake. And when we're talking about carbs, it's things like, bread, rice, pasta, lollies, chocolate, beer, anything that has carbohydrates in it. If you dramatically, dramatically reduce that so there's barely any going into you all day, the body will adapt to rely on fat to fuel you. Meaning you'll get more efficient at using that fat and you won't have to rely on carbohydrates so much. So that's the idea in a nutshell.
And the potential benefits of this type of eating is people do claim it has all types of health and body composition benefits and medical benefits even. But that's not really what we're talking about today, we're talking about hiking. So specifically for hikers, the main thing that people often say about this is number one, it'll reduce the amount of food that you need to sort of carry and eat on a day's worth of hiking or on training because your body's using those fat stores, so you don't have to carry quite as much weight. It'll reduce your ups and downs of energy. So, when we do get hungry, sometimes we'll hit those low spots of energy and keto does a little bit to alleviate that for some people. And ultimately it'll just help people go for longer periods without getting quite as tired and having more energy.
Those are the potential benefits, which does all sound pretty good. Like who wouldn't want more energy? Who wouldn't want to have to eat quite as much? Who wouldn't want to have to slow down or rely on carrying more food or whatever it may be for the trail? It all does sound pretty good. And you will likely come across loads and loads and loads of people out there who absolutely love this way of eating. Loads of people who recommend it, saying it's the best thing they've ever done. And loads of people who really do advocate for it for pretty much everyone. And they'll say, "Keto is the best way of eating. You should go keto, the body doesn't need carbs." And all of that. And you will hear it all the time. And if you follow keto, you probably have said that at one stage or another. And that's fine.
But in all honesty when it comes down to it, even with these potential benefits, I still do not advocate it for my hikers. It's not something I recommend, it's not something I say, "Hey, you should think about this or give it a go." And it's not something that typically goes into my nutrition coaching. Again, if someone all already follows a keto approach, I don't try to dissuade them. But for somebody who doesn't, it is not something I recommend. And why is that? Well, in all honesty, when it comes down to it, it is needlessly hard and difficult to do properly. And I personally believe as a hiker, as a coach, as a professional in this space. I personally believe there is much simpler, less stressful nutrition approaches. Which can have pretty similar benefits for hikers in regards to energy, performance, recovery, and all of that.
And to me, the whole idea of literally cutting one third of all your eating options out and having to cut those out, is an incredible and almost insurmountable challenge for so many people. The fact that if you go out to dinner and you've got to sort of pick out, you can't have all the typical things, you got to worry what goes into sources. If you go to a birthday party, you can't have a piece of cake. If you go out to a bar, you can drink beer or whatever it may be. That is a massive challenge for a lot of people. For some, it may feel easy, but for a lot of people that is big, big challenge, and you constantly need to be alert around it.
And not to mention when you first start following this eating approach, in the first few weeks, you're going to feel terrible. As your body's going through the adaptation process, as it's not used to using fat so well and so optimally, but you're not feeding it those carbs. Oh, you are not going to feel good. Your energy is going to be rock bottom. Your motivation to train is going to be really, really low. Your sessions, your hiking is going to feel really hard. And this is your body adjusting, you will come out that eventually. Some people take a couple of weeks, some people take four weeks, some people take six weeks. There's a bit of different people out there and different timelines, because everyone is a little bit different. And everyone responds to things like this a little bit different. But there will be a period where it's really, really tough. And if you line that up with a tough time in your life, where you're stressed out from work, from family, if something goes wrong, you don't need more stress in your life.
But anyway, one issue with this is that the people who advocate for this type of eating, who advocate for the ketogenic diet, they may not have suffered these issues so much. The ones that I've just mentioned, they may not really struggle for them to cut out these food groups. They may not have gone through a huge low period in their energy. As I said, everyone is different. This may be easy for them to follow in their life. Maybe their social life, their family life. It makes this actually doable. It may not actually cause them a huge amount of stress. Might take a little bit of effort, but not a huge amount of stress. And the mistake I see from people here is while they think it's easy for them and it just may well be easy for them. It may be great for them, it may be the best thing they've ever done. It's not going to be easy for everyone. And that's a distinction people have to remember.
And on top of that, sometimes when we're looking in the past, we forget how hard things are, when we're first starting out. People who have been strength training for years, they'll look at the people just go into the gym and like, "Why are you struggling getting into the gym once a week? I go five times a week." They think it's the easiest thing in the world. And they forget just how hard it was initially. We all do that in every situation in our life. And people further down the line, they forget how difficult it is. So they'll be out there saying it's easy, it's easy, it's easy. But it's not. And you can see me getting worked up about this because I've seen so many people beaten up with this. So many people down trodden because they think it's easy, they've been told it's easy, but they find they struggle with it so much. And it stresses me out talking about it.
And I will tell you again, for the majority of people out there, it's just not easy. And the amount of hikers and mountaineers that I've talked to, over my professional life. Who have tried this evening approach, who've been recommended it. They've read about it, they've been like, "Yes, this is going to be great for me." They've given it a go, but they haven't been able to stick with it. And then they've felt like a failure afterwards is absolutely horrifying. I've had so many conversations and so many people who've held this close to their chest because they just think they're a failure for not being able to stick with this.
On top of this, I've come across so many people as well to take that a step further. They're just stuck in this cycle where they've been recommended it from a friend, coach or a colleague. They've given it a go, they've failed. But then they've been recommended again and they're like, "I have to do this." So they try it again and they fail and they try again and they fail. And they just are stuck in this terrible, terrible cycle of failure. And not only that, is because they keep on dropping out of it. They never get to that point where they have the energy back and they're just low on energy, they feel terrible, they beat themselves up. And I've seen this from so many people. Again, people who follow this approach, they may not be working the professionals space where they see the downside of this and they see the people who've fallen out of it. And it's what do you call it? Survivorship bias where the people who succeed, they think everyone succeeds. But you forget about all the people that drop out and that's who I'm talking to today.
Now you might be listening to this and be like, "All right, Rowan. Yeah, okay. That's your personal experience. Fair enough. You've seen a few people, but that doesn't mean everyone's going to be like that. Where's the science behind it? I've read this study and this study and this study, which says keto is the best." I do have that conversation a few times. And yes, absolutely, there's plenty of studies to go out there, which support keto for a number of different things. But saying that, there's plenty of studies out there which will support a whole bunch of other nutrition approaches, it's not the only one. But when it comes down to this and if we are quoting studies, we are quoting science, if we're going into this.
One study, I absolutely love to quote in this situation, which gets away from the sciencey, the nitty gritty, the really, really detailed stuff. But gives a clear, practical implication of this type of eating. Is one that goes into yeah, some really potential practical difficulties of this. And I've talked about this on the podcast previously, but I'll go into it again. Now this study was essentially designed to explore the effect of bread on weight loss. Which I know, it isn't exactly keto, you're still having other carbs, it's not just bread. But bear with me and it will make sense. Now this study had 104 women completing it and they were split into two groups.
Now, both groups, they were put on a diet with the same amount of calories to restrict their calories or to stimulate weight loss. They were given nutritional education and physical activity guidelines. So both groups were exactly the same on that front. And the only difference between the two groups was one group was allowed to eat absolutely anything they wanted, as long as they stuck to those calorie guidelines. The other group could eat anything in the world they wanted, except they were not allowed to eat bread. And again, they had to stick to those calorie guidelines. That was literally the only restriction they had aside from restricting their calories. They could still eat chocolate, burgers, chips, whatever they wanted, they just couldn't eat bread. I shouldn't say burgers, burgers has bread. But chocolate, chips and anything in the world, but not bread. As long as they stuck to those calorie restrictions. That was the only thing they weren't allowed to eat.
And do you know what happened? In the end, there was no major difference in the weight loss between the two. That's not the interesting part of it, I don't really care about that part. The interesting bit was the dropout rate. For the group that could eat anything, 6.6% of people dropped out of this study over 16 weeks and couldn't complete it all the way to the end for the 16 weeks, 6.6%. Of the group who couldn't eat bread, 21% of people dropped out. That's over three times more people dropped out purely because they couldn't eat bread. They could eat anything else in the world. They just couldn't eat bread. One small thing in their diet, which they were not allowed to eat and that tripled the rate of them dropping out. And you can see just how tough restrictions can be for people. And even one restriction made such a dramatic difference.
And then if you think about that in keto, how hard is it for people to completely cut out carbs in their diet, as opposed to just bread? If they've got to think about every single meal they have, every time they go out to dinner, every time they go to a friend's house, that they have to avoid this. Just think how hard that's going to be. And on top of that, how hard is it for people to do this forever as opposed to just 16 weeks? And I'll tell you what, the dropout rate's going to be way, way, way more than 21% for people trying to do this type of thing.
And when it comes down to it, that is the reason I don't advocate for keto. Not because it cannot work, not because it can't have benefits for people, as I've said. But because it really is just needlessly difficult in the grand scheme of things. So many people out there already have issues with food. So many people are out there already have issues with self worth. And so many people out there already have so many stresses in their life. So I just think this type of approach to eating or any type of super restrictive eating is just making things harder for people than it really needs to be.
And before you say it, like I have had this discussion with people before and they're like, "Well, nothing good is easy. And if you want to sort of optimize your nutrition, keto is the best way to do it." And in all honesty, I personally disagree. I think there are other ways you can optimize your nutrition for performance, for energy and recovery in much simpler, much less stressful ways.
And when it comes down to the world of hiking, the only, only, only population that I would ever advocate this for, aside from those who particularly enjoy it, or they're getting the benefits of it and it's not stressing. A mountaineer or Alpinus who are doing some serious hardcore mountain summits. And they may be doing 12, 16, 20 hour summit days in the snow where they literally cannot eat and they're restricted there. Because it makes sense for people in that situation. Because they may have every single gram, up in 8,000 meters above sea level is going to count. They may need to be able to sustain their exercise for 10 plus hours without eating. That makes sense for them. But even in that situation, I would advocate them for following fat adaptation strategies as opposed to full blown keto. Because we can teach the body to get more effective at using fat as an energy, as a fuel source without going full blown keto. And they're very, very different approaches. And they're the only population I would really advocate for.
So what is the moral of this story? As you can see, I'm getting a little bit worked up, a little bit heated. If you enjoy keto, as I said, and it works for you, that is absolutely, absolutely fine. Go for it, do it, follow it. If it works, that's fantastic and I'm all for that. But just know, it might not be an amazing recommendation to others. Particularly others, which you may not really know about their personal history, their personal situation and issues they may have going on. And if you are considering it, but the idea of restricting your food does stress you out. Just know there are simpler ways to optimize your nutrition for your training, for your hiking.
Now you might asking this, asking yourself here and like, "All right, Rowan. What are these optimal ways? What are you talking about? Give me the information now, you're just poking holes in this thing. Give me some actual helpful advice." And that is fair enough. And I am not going to go into all the details on that, on this particular podcast because it's going to drag on for a while and that's not what I'm talking about today. But I do have a number of podcast episodes where we've gotten dieticians, who are professionals and specialists in working with hikers on this show to talk about.
I'm going to link below one of our earlier episodes, episodes 26, where we had a dietician who talked through some simple nutrition strategies, which I often advocate for hikers. Simple stuff, very, very effective. And essentially to get this optimal situation is you take those strategies, which we talk in this podcast. And you get it personalized to you, so you know exactly how to apply it, so you know how much, what types and when you will need to eat to fuel your performance. And that is where optimization comes from, in my opinion. I think that is a way to go for most hikers out there. So I'll link that episode in the show notes below, you're going to have a little listen on the back of this and sort of have a think about what the difference is.
But as you said, keto, it has its place. Some people enjoy it and this and that. But for me, personally, as a coach, I typically don't recommend it. I'm never going to tell you not to do it if you enjoy doing it, that's not my place and that's not how I go about nutrition stuff. But if you are considering it or you are recommending it to everyone out there, just know it might not be the best thing in the world for you. Have a think about that, have a think about how you deal with the restrictions. And that'll probably give you the answer there.
So thank you very much for listening today, guys. I really do appreciate you logging on listening to my words, listening to get a little bit worked up. Now, if you did have any follow up questions from this episode, I know I've only just scraped the surface on a lot of things. I know we've only just been talking about things in generalities. If anyone has any specific questions on this, come and find me in the training for hiking and tracking Facebook group. Come in there, post up your question, we can answer it. We've got dieticians in the group who can help out and we'll give you a really thorough understanding of what's going on.
Because these episodes, yes, we're going over a certain topic, but I know a lot of people are very, very invested in this type of eating. I know people are very, very confused about nutrition, in general, and I know it can be very tough. So if you want to find out more, dive into this, or maybe just stir me up and say, "Rowan, you don't know what you're talking about." That's fine. Come in the training for hiking and tracking Facebook group. I'll leave a link for that in the show notes below. We're going to have a chat, we can go from there. So thank you very much for listening today, guys. Hope you got about out of it, hope it gave you some insight and hope you've enjoyed it. Aside from that, that's probably enough from me and we'll talk to you soon. Bye.
Want to learn more about training for your hiking adventures?
Join the Training For Hiking And Trekking Facebook Group
Rowan is a personal trainer who specialises in training for hiking, trekkers and mountaineers for their bucket list adventures.
Summit Strength is a personal training for hiking service created specifically to help hikers have the best chance of a safe, enjoyable and successful adventure.