A diet that has gained a lot of popularity over the last several years has been the ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet allows your body to use fat as its main fuel source instead of running on blood glucose and stored glycogen (which is created when you consume carbohydrates). By eliminating carbohydrates almost entirely from your diet, the body is redirected into a state with increased rates of lypolysis (fat breakdown), ketogenesis (making ketones) and gluconeogenesis (making new glucose). This means that fat is the main fuel source for most of the body's needs, and newly synthesized ketones and glucose are prioritized for the brain.
As such, scores of people have seen dramatic changes in their health and well being, including weight-loss, as a result of adhering to a low-carb, high-fat diet.
However, despite the benefits, one potential side effect of a keto diet is that it may alter electrolyte balance within your body.
From a high level, a ketogenic diet's benefits include (but are not limited to):
- Satiation: keto dieters consume a high amount of fats and proteins. The combination of fat and protein allows one to stay fuller for longer
- Energy: fat and ketones - breakdown molecules of fat - provide a steady and efficient source of energy
- Fat burning: the body is forced to burn more fat in the absence of carbohydrates. As a result, fat is broken down into ketones (leading to a state of ketosis) which the body uses for energy.
There are also a few common considerations of the diet that need to be explored and considered before we jump into why electrolyte loss occurs and how you can nutritionally get them back.
Keto Considerations: Performance, Fat and Electrolytes
While there’s a long list of benefits of the keto diet, there are also usually questions to be asked. You can learn more about those questions here, in our article on debunking keto myths.
One of the main questions surrounding keto often circles around health and performance.
"Doesn’t everyone need carbohydrates as a fuel source to function and perform at optimal levels? What if I’m an athlete? Will my workouts suffer?"
The short answer? No. It’s not technically essential to consume carbs. Although there has long been a common perception that athletes must consume carbohydrates to perform at max efficiency, this narrative has been shown to not be true in all cases. Recent studies performed on low-carbohydrate diets among endurance athletes proved that over several weeks, athletes improved body composition and scored stronger in specific measures of performance.
That said, this is still a topic of debate and active research. Some studies have shown that keto either has no clear effect, or a negative effect on performance.
Endurance athletes may particularly benefit from keto as they become fat-adapted.
This means their bodies have learned to tap into the “limitless” fat stores, lowering the chance of bonking that regular athletes experience when they’re carb-depleted.
What about eating all that fat? The ketogenic diet often gets a bad rap for being perceived as consisting strictly of fatty foods such as butter, bacon, and whole eggs. This is a common misconceptions, as several different food sources are / should also be included to create a perfect keto diet.
A list of some keto-friendly foods includes:
- Of course—lots of high-quality fats, like fatty cuts of meat and fish, butter and coconut oil
- Leafy greens for obtaining adequate micronutrients
- Low-carb nuts such as pumpkin seeds and almonds
- A variety of non-meat protein sources including legumes
- Small amounts of low-carb fruit options such as berries
After performance and macronutrient composition, the next question often asked revolves around electrolytes. Regular people have probably heard of electrolytes in passing, and athletes training regularly use electrolyte hydration tablets to top up the losses from sweat. But what exactly are electrolytes and why are they important?
Electrolytes are minerals within your body that aid in cellular and organ function. They’re essential for a number of bodily functions and are necessary for survival.
The most important functions of electrolytes are to maintain hydration and acidity levels in the body as well as help maintain muscle and nerve function.
Some of the most common electrolytes (minerals) found in the body include:
Why Do We Lose Electrolytes on Keto?
Each electrolyte must be kept within a healthy range in order for our bodies to perform at their best, but staying in range can become an issue when you start to follow a ketogenic diet.
Once you start drastically reducing carbohydrate intake, the body begins to process electrolytes differently. On keto, less insulin is released, causing the kidneys to excrete more sodium. As your body begins to lose sodium, this can also impact the balance of other key electrolytes in your body.
This electrolyte imbalance is often linked to symptoms of “keto flu.” As carb intake decreases, electrolytes are increasingly excreted from the body in urine. The keto flu symptoms can be triggered by imbalances of several electrolytes, but the normal culprits are sodium, potassium, and magnesium.
The keto flu isn’t characterized by the same symptoms as the traditional flu, and it’s not just electrolytes to blame. Lack of carbohydrates in people who are carb dependent can lead to even more nasty symptoms. Not to say this is akin to withdrawal from alcohol or drugs, but the body does experience similarities in terms of withdrawal from something to which it has become accustomed (carbohydrates in this case).
The physical and mental dependence on carbohydrates stems from the body habitually relying on glucose as its main energy and fuel source.
When taken away, the body essentially needs to learn how to process fat as a fuel source, and enter a state of ketosis.
Some of the most common keto flu symptoms include:
- Struggles during physical exertion
Since insulin levels remain lower in a keto diet due to lack of carbohydrates, the kidneys may excrete critical electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and more. Therefore, it’s essential for people following the ketogenic diet to increase intake of these electrolytes through diet or other supplementation.
Mineral Supplements to Consider
First up—we should point out that you shouldn’t rely on supplementation as your main source of minerals and micronutrients when following the keto diet. Any type of supplementation on top of your diet should be a last resort; try and use an array of food choices before turning to supplements. Supplements were not created to replace other diet essentials but rather, bump intake up to normal levels if not possible otherwise.
Not all people will exhibit keto flu symptoms when going through the diet transition period. Some are able to switch to a keto diet with little-to-no side effects. However, for a number of people, removing carbs from your diet will have some effect on mineral balance in body, so you need to up your intake.
This is even truer for athletes. Athletes tend to excrete a higher level of electrolytes through sweat, leading to a further loss of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium.
An electrolyte supplement may be the a key ingredient towards maximizing your keto workout. Here are a few to consider.
Most people tend to think of sodium as simple table salt. Truth is, sodium is far from simple; it has widespread functions and plays a vital role in overall health. It’s considered one of the most important electrolytes in the body.
The sodium ion is needed to help the body function properly by playing a role in the activation of muscle contraction machinery.
Most of the body’s sodium is found in the blood and in fluid around the cells. The body loses sodium through sweat and urination, which makes excessive sodium loss a particular risk for athletes. They sweat during exercise, and water and electrolyte intake is often insufficient to replace lost fluids.
Supplementing sodium in your diet protects the function of a myriad of essential physiological processes, including:
- Nerve function
- Regulation of blood volume and blood pressure
- Control of nerve impulses
- Control of water retention
You many think you are getting enough sodium, but consider—have you experienced any of these symptoms? Sweaty endurance athletes especially need to watch out for these signs of falling sodium levels!
Common signs of sodium deficiency are:
- Muscle cramps
- Brain fog
Sodium intake should remain relatively constant over time as drastic fluctuations may lead to negative side effects.
There are a number of ways to combat excessive sodium loss.
Try using more table salt or sodium chloride in everyday foods. Himalayan sea salt is one of the best-tasting, natural salt additives. During training or events, you can eat salty snacks or performance drinks that have a high sodium content.
For years, there was a stigma attached to sodium. People believed high sodium intake was correlated to heart disease or high blood pressure. However, more recent research has forced scientists to reopen the debate about the effects of sodium on health.
Potassium is the mineral we associate with cramps—you’ve probably been told by your mother to have a banana on hand as an anti-cramping superfood. Like sodium, potassium is a key electrolyte for normal function of our bodies, and it’s not just there to keep us cramp free.
Supplementing with potassium helps to protect many processes in the body, including:
- Blood pressure control
- Maintenance of body fluid
- Cellular function
- Decreased risk of hypertension
Many people don’t get the daily recommended amount of potassium in their diets. But just how much is needed?
The World Health Organization recommends ~3,500mg per day of potassium, but most individuals tend to have a daily intake of far less.
The result? Possibly some of these common side effects of potassium deficiency: hypertension, adverse cardiovascular effects, kidney damage or failure, heart palpitations and muscle cramps.
Low-carb or ketogenic diets have the potential to cause a decrease in potassium. If you’re not getting enough potassium as part of your low-carb diet, there are a number of food options available to increase potassium intake:
- Brussel sprouts
These food sources do wonders for upping potassium intake as part of a balanced diet, but a lot of people do not have time to prepare vegetables with their busy schedules. If this is the case with you, potassium supplements may be a viable alternative.
Potassium chloride is one supplement option to help top up these important electrolytes. In a study performed on individuals who took potassium chloride as a potassium supplement, it was found that health problems were mitigated when taken regularly.
Potassium can also significantly lower blood pressure.
If you’re extremely active, chances are your potassium needs may be greater than other subsets of the population.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body. It has a number of functions within the body that make it important for maintaining proper electrolyte balance.
Magnesium is responsible for some of the most important life processes:
- DNA and RNA synthesis
- Protein synthesis
- Muscular contraction
- Controlling blood pressure
- Nerve transmission
- Chronic disease including aiding in prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, Type-2 diabetes, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and cardiovascular disease
- Brain biochemistry
Do you have low levels of magnesium? You’re not alone.
Chances are spotting a deficiency may be a bit more challenging compared to other electrolytes, but still, large numbers of the population are deficient. Having an improper balance of magnesium may result in leg cramps, neuromuscular disorders, or cardiac disorders.
Interestingly, magnesium deficiency has shown to have other effects on personality changes, including depression, anxiety, agitation, confusion and delirium.
The majority of common household foods contain only small amounts of magnesium, but many of them are acceptable as part of the ketogenic diet. Options include:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Dark chocolate
- Swiss chard
- Pine nuts
Unfortunately, some of these items take time to prepare or tend to be expensive. The good news, though: if you are lacking magnesium as part of your diet, there are several supplements on the market that can bring you up to sufficient levels.
One popular choice is magnesium chloride. In recent studies, it has been suggested that magnesium supplements may even be able to help treat depression and improve the overall mood of individuals that take them. For most people, 400mg of magnesium daily will be optimal.
Getting the Most From Your Keto Diet
Whether or not you choose to take mineral supplements is entirely up to you. Everyone may not need them; supplementation use is entirely individual.
But if you’re still experiencing symptoms of the keto flu, you might be more inclined to try supplements than your keto buddy.
While low electrolyte levels and low glucose lead to keto flu symptoms, there is hope (even without carb-binging). Sort out the fluid and electrolyte issues by focusing on your hydration, taking in enough electrolytes and fight the low-glucose slump by using exogenous ketones. Exogenous ketones have been shown to rapidly put you in a deep state of ketosis, while helping curb some of the pain of the keto flu while your body transitions into using fat as fuel.
Peak performance—whether at the office or on the field—is your goal. Never let you diet dictate those results, and make adjustments as necessary to perform your best no matter what.
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