Do you really need carbs to build muscle? This is a common misconception, but one that is not actually true.
It is believed that following a keto diet will help you to build muscle mass without consuming carbohydrates.
Please continue reading to see how this diet works, and whether it is an effective method to help build muscle with minimum fat gains.
What is the Keto Diet?
The keto diet is a high-fat, adequate-protein and low-carbohydrate diet that forces your body to burn fat rather than carbohydrates for energy.
Usually, when you consume carbs in your diet it will be converted into glucose, which is then transported around your body. This is important for fuelling brain function.
With this diet, very little carbs remain, therefore your body or rather your liver is forced to convert fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies.
It is these ketones that pass into your brain, essentially replacing glucose as an energy source.
Typically this diet would involve cutting your carb intake to less than 50 grams daily.
Around 70-80% of your daily calories will be from fat, 20% will come from protein, with your carb intake as little as 5%.
Although the keto diet was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, where it is was used to treat those with epilepsy, it became less popular due to the introduction of various drugs.
It wasn’t until the 1990s when this diet became popular again after receiving national exposure in the US when featured on the NBC Dateline programme.
During an episode that aired in October 1994, Charlie Abrahams, the 2-year old son of Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams was shown to use this diet to help control his own epilepsy.
Nowadays, the keto diet is incredibly popular and has many variants, including the less-restrictive Atkins diet.
Benefits of the Keto Diet
While there are many health benefits to the keto diet, we are going to look more at the bodybuilding benefits you can potentially experience. After all, this is what this website is about:
#1: Keto Helps to Burn Fat
As you are consuming fewer carbs while on this diet, you are able to avoid potential fat gain from excess carb/insulin intake.
These lower insulin levels will enable your body to burn fat for energy.
#2: Keto Helps Prevent Muscle Protein Breakdown
Research has found that keto can help prevent the breakdown of muscle while dieting/cutting .
The research looked at 3 diets, with each diet containing identical calories and protein intake, but with differing amounts of carbs.
It was shown that the diet with the fewest carbs saw the greatest fat loss, with the least amount of lean muscle mass loss too.
Another study found that levels of BCAAs in the blood remained higher in those undergoing the keto diet .
A possible reason for this is that structurally BCAAs are similar to the ketones produced in ketosis. Rather than your body burning the BCAAs, the ketones are burnt instead.
#3: Keto Activates mTOR
mTOR stands for Mammalian Target of Rapamycin and is arguably the most important cell signalling complex for muscle growth.
It helps to control protein synthesis within your cells, and there is a direct relationship between muscle growth and mTOR activation.
Exogenous ketones, such as those produced during this diet have been shown to boost protein synthesis by activating mTOR .
Potential Dangers of the Keto Diet
While there are benefits to be gained from this type of diet, there are also potential dangers that you need to be aware of too:
#1: Muscle Loss
In a 2018 study it was shown that while the body fat percentage loss of those undergoing a keto diet and a normal diet were comparable, those that took part in the ketogenic diet saw the greater reduction in muscle mass .
The more muscle mass you have the higher your metabolism. Therefore it makes sense that in the long-term a loss of muscle mass will lower your metabolism and potentially cause weight gain.
#2: It Can Put Stress on Your Kidneys
Increasing your intake of animal protein can potentially cause your urine to become more acidic. It can also increase calcium and uric acid levels that can leave you more susceptible to developing kidney stones.
A study found that 13 out of 195 children who had been treated for epilepsy with the keto diet had developed kidney stones .
#3: Low Blood Sugar
As carbs help to control your blood sugar levels, it makes sense that a diet that cuts carbs will have an effect on these levels.
A May 2018 study found that a keto diet could lead to hypoglycaemia, which is a dangerous drop in blood sugar .
Low blood sugar can be of particular concern for those with type 2 diabetes, therefore if you suffer from this condition it is worth talking to your doctor before undertaking this diet.
#4: It May Lead to Yo-Yo Dieting
The more difficult a diet is the harder it is to stick to.
As the keto diet is incredibly restrictive you may find yourself lapsing back into your previous eating habits.
While this diet may cause impressive results if you start to eat as you did before the weight or fat loss will quickly return.
This can be a major issue as this yo-yo dieting will increase the risk of abdominal fat accumulation and diabetes.
#5: Dehydration and a Loss of Electrolytes
Your brain’s favourite fuel is glucose, which is mostly found in carbohydrates. A lack of carbs will also cause an overall reduction in total body water.
The side effect of this is known as keto flu, which can be diagnosed by the following symptoms:
Most of these symptoms will alleviate after a few days or weeks, but drinking plenty of water will also help.
If you suffer these symptoms for a prolonged period of time then you should speak to your doctor.
#6: Nutrient Deficiencies
Reducing the number of carbs you consume will likely lead to a reduction in fibre too. Mainly due to a reduction in fruit, whole grains and starchy vegetables from your diet.
Potassium is another nutrient that you will likely be lacking in. Again due to the lack of fruit and starchy veggies.
To ensure you are not lacking in these nutrients I would recommend increasing your intake of lower-carb sources such as spinach and avocado, which will help increase your potassium intake, and chia and flax seeds to boost your fibre intake.
A lack of fibre in your diet can lead to constipation, with a long-term study in 2005 showing this was a common side effect of this diet .
Sources of fibre that you can consume during the keto diet, that is both high in fibre while being low in carbs include:
- Non-starchy vegetables; broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus
- Chia seeds
#8: Bad Breath
A common side effect of keto is bad breath or rather fruity breath.
The reason for this is that acetone is a by-product of ketosis and once it is eliminated in your lungs it is released through your breath .
#9: Your Period May Stop
This may not be a side effect of this diet, but rather a side effect of the sudden weight loss.
Regardless, your periods may become irregular or may stop entirely.
This is because of a drop in gonadotropin-releasing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinising hormone, oestrogen, and progesterone.
Irregular periods can have a negative impact on your overall health, as it can lead to an increased risk of:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Sexual dysfunction
#10: Reduced Blood Sodium Levels
Due to the reduction of insulin, you will see an increased loss of sodium and other electrolytes in your urine.
If you do not replenish this lost sodium, which is incredibly difficult if you exercise and sweat often, then you may suffer issues such as lethargy or confusion.
#11: High Cholesterol and an Increased Risk of Heart Disease
The keto diet does not restrict your intake of saturated or trans fats, the two types of fat shown to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol while lowering HDL (good) cholesterol.
This increase in bad cholesterol will increase the risk of developing heart disease.
To reduce the risk I would avoid saturated and trans fats, but to focus on good unsaturated fats like those found in nuts, olive oil and avocado.
It is these good fats that help protect your heart.
What to Eat on the Keto Diet?
On the keto diet, there are things you should eat and things you should avoid. This is typical for most diets.
Let's look at what you can and can’t eat while on this diet:
Good Keto Foods
Meat: The keto diet is not a high protein diet, but protein is important for muscle growth so is an essential part of your diet.
Aim to consume unprocessed meat as it is typically low carb and keto-friendly. If possible buy grass-fed varieties too as they are healthier.
Fish and Seafood: Choose fatty fish, such as salmon. And avoid the breaded varieties as this adds carbs.
Eggs: There are many different ways to prepare eggs; boiled, fried, scrambled and eaten as omelettes.
Organic varieties are the healthiest option for you.
High-Fat Oils/Butter: When cooking you should use those with high-fat content such as coconut oil and olive oil. They can also be added to your salads too.
Vegetables Grown Above Ground: Vegetables that are grown above ground typically contain fewer carbs than those grown underground.
Cauliflower, cabbage, avocado, broccoli and zucchini are all good options. They help to add variety, colour and flavour to your meals.
High-Fat Dairy: Butter and high-fat cheese are good for keto. You should avoid milk and low-fat yoghurts, however, as they contain high amounts of sugar.
Nuts: These can be consumed in moderation, and can be the perfect snack food. You should try and avoid cashew nuts as they are high-carb.
Berries: A moderate amount can be used while on keto. They can be added to your keto desserts.
Water: This should be your go-to drink. It is essential to avoid suffering keto flu, so make sure you stay hydrated.
Bad Keto Foods
Sugar: Soft drinks, fruit juice, sports drinks are best avoided, as well as junk food like sweets, cakes and biscuits.
It is also advisable to read any food labels for hidden sugars. Many foods such as sauces, condiments and dressings have many hidden sugars.
Starch: Bread, pasta, rice and potatoes should be avoided as they are rich in carbs. You will find that there are “keto” versions available.
Wholegrain products are best avoided too, as well as certain beans and lentils.
Beer: Full of sugar and rapidly absorbed carbs. Although there are low-carb beers available if you look.
Fruit: They are full of natural sugars, and while they can be eaten occasionally they should be used as a treat.
In conclusion, it is best that you focus your attention on foods that are of good quality and that have been minimally processed. In other words, you should try to “eat real food”.
Tips for Building Muscle on the Keto Diet
There are some general tips you should follow if you wish to see the greatest muscle gains during keto:
#1: Make Sure You Eat Enough Protein
Protein is essential for muscle growth, and will also aid your fat loss efforts too, therefore it makes sense that you ensure you are consuming enough in your diet.
#2: Spread Out Your Protein Intake
While the amount of protein you consume daily is more important, you still need to ensure you are spreading your protein intake evenly throughout the day.
Not only because it will make your life so much easier (no one wants to be consuming 100 grams of protein in one sitting), but it will also ensure your ketone levels remain high too.
Protein timing is important when it comes to exercise too. I would suggest consuming a high protein meal 2-3 hours before exercise and again 2-3 hours after exercise.
Supplementing with whey protein is also recommended, we are a fan of the whey protein sold by Battle Ready Fuel.
#3: Eat Enough Calories to Meet Your Goals
Are you eating enough calories to meet your goals?
Firstly you need to work out how many calories you should consume to maintain your current weight.
You can do that using the following formula (Harris-Benedict equation ):
BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5
Once your maintenance calories have been figured out you will need to look at what you are currently consuming. Do you need to reduce the number of calories, or increase them?
For muscle gains I would suggest the following:
- To increase bodyweight and muscle you should aim to increase your daily calorie intake by 250-500 calories
- These extra calories should come from fat, not protein or carbs
- Aim to maintain protein intake of 1 gram per pound in bodyweight
For fat loss, the following will help:
- Cut calories by 250-500 calories
- Aim to lose 0.5 pounds a week, if you are losing more than this then you have cut your calorie intake too drastically
- Cut fat, not protein or carbs
- Maintain protein intake (1 gram per pound in body weight)
#4: Train Correctly
If you are not working out with enough intensity, or perhaps with not enough weight then you are not going to see the best possible results.
Of course, you should always aim to lift within your means. Lifting weights that exceed your strength will likely lead to injury. Probably from poor form, which will be no good for your long terms aims.
Typically the following range of reps will be used depending on your goals:
- 12+ Reps = Endurance
- 6-12 Reps = Hypertrophy (bigger muscles)
- 1-5 Reps = Strength
I would focus on compound exercises such as the bench press, overhead press and deadlift. The reason for this is that they work multiple muscle groups.
If you have any muscle that is lacking then you can add in certain isolation exercises too.
If you are trying to build muscle and strength then cardio should be limited, however, if you are trying to lose fat then steady state cardio or HIIT will help.
#5: Get Adequate Rest
Whether you are undergoing the keto diet or not, adequate rest is incredibly important for recovery.
If you are training intensely then you need to give your body time to rest. Your muscles grow during rest, not during exercise!
I would not recommend training 7 days a week, especially using heavy weights. Perhaps 5-6 days of training weekly.
The final day does not necessarily need to be a “rest day”, whereby you do nothing at all. Active rest is always encouraged. So you are not doing nothing, but are active, perhaps with some sort of activity.
Sleep is also important, so try and get a minimum of 7 hours of good quality sleep each night.
Dehydration will have a negative impact on your training performance, leaving you fatigued with your cognitive function impaired also.
As indicated previously, the keto diet may cause a reduction in water weight.
I would recommend aiming to consume between 2.7-3.7 litres of water daily, depending on whether you are female or male.
Keto Diet FAQs
Here are some commonly asked questions about the keto diet, submitted by our readers:
Is the Keto Diet Good for High Cholesterol?
Ketogenic diets can help to increase heart-healthy HDL cholesterol. This increase in good cholesterol and reduction in bad cholesterol will reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
Can the Keto Diet Damage Kidneys?
This is a common myth, but research has shown that it is unlikely.
Ketosis is a normal metabolic state, however, if you are diabetic you will need to be careful about this diet due to the lack of insulin you produce.
Is the Keto Diet Bad for Your Heart?
Any diet that helps improve cholesterol has got to be good for your heart health.
Is the Keto Diet Gluten-Free?
Typically the keto diet is very low in gluten, so should not be too difficult to go completely gluten-free.
Can the Keto Diet Cause Hair Loss?
While this is not a common side effect, it has been reported among some users.
This hair loss may not be a result of ketosis, however, and is likely due to a number of other factors, which may include:
- Drastic weight loss
- Nutrient deficiencies
- A lack of protein
If you follow the tips laid out in this article you should not experience any hair loss.
Can the Keto Diet Cause Kidney Stones?
Yes, this is a potential risk and is caused by an increase in calcium and uric acid levels.
Can the Keto Diet Cause Low Blood Sugar?
Yes, this is a possible side effect of this diet. It is of particular concern among diabetics.
Can the Keto Diet Cause Acne?
To answer this question you will need to look at your own skin type and the types of foods you eat while on this diet.
Nuts, eggs, seafood and leafy greens are commonly consumed on the keto diet and they are actually beneficial for overall skin health due to the vitamins and various antioxidants they contain.
Cutting sugar from your diet is also beneficial, as it can help reduce skin inflammation and therefore will help prevent acne breakouts.
However, if you are consuming lots of dairy then you may find yourself encountering more breakouts than normal. It has been suggested that this may be because of the sugars in the milk or the hormones from the lactating animals.
If you have any questions of your own then you can submit them using the comment form found at the bottom of this article.
Is it Possible to Build Muscle on Keto?
It is certainly possible to build muscle while on keto, however, it is not suitable for everyone. Especially those who struggle with restrictive diets.
If you do choose this diet then there are a few things you need to remember:
- You need to train hard enough to stimulate your muscles
- Are you consuming enough protein?
- Make sure you consume enough calories for your goals
- Drink plenty of water
- Get plenty of rest
- Supplement if you need to
Please leave a comment below if you have tried this diet. We would love to hear your thoughts, and any tips you have.