Keto Diet Plan for Athletes

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Written by Brenda Peralta, Registered Dietitian and medically reviewed by Abby Courtenay

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Nutrition is vital for athletes. Without adequate food intake, performance and recovery can be highly affected. Carbs are the primary energy source used in high-intensity sports, which is why most athletes follow a high-carb diet. But what about a ketogenic diet for athletes? Can athletes benefit from going keto?

In this article, you will learn everything related to the keto diet plan for athletes. Some of the topics this article explores are how athletes can modify a ketogenic diet, the benefits and drawbacks for different types of athletes, and which foods to increase, reduce, and eliminate. You’ll also see a real example of a low-carb meal plan for active athletes.


What is keto for athletes?

The keto diet plan for athletes is a low-carb, moderate-high protein, and high-fat eating plan. It might vary from the percentages used in a regular keto plan.

  • Carbs: 5-10%
  • Protein: 20-30%
  • Fats: 60-70%

There is a special consideration when dealing with athletes and their macro intake. The most important is protein intake. Although you can see it as a percentage, in sports nutrition, you give the protein intake by grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Hence, the standard recommendation for protein is 1.4-2 g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.

The ketogenic plan may not be ideal for all types of sports or all kinds of people. Intense exercises like Crossfit, sprints, and tennis rely on carbohydrates as their primary energy fuel. Thus, a diet that is low in carbs may negatively affect the performance of some people.

On the other hand, endurance sports like long-distance running, triathlons, and rowing use fats as their primary energy source. Following a keto lifestyle can be more appropriate for these types of sports.


Benefits of a keto diet for athletes

There are several benefits of following a ketogenic plan, especially if you are an athlete. First, you get all of the commonly known benefits of a keto lifestyle:

  • Weight loss
  • Reduced food cravings
  • Improvement in insulin sensitivity
  • Reduced risk of certain health conditions

For combat sports with specific weight categories, such as boxing, wrestling, and martial arts, having reduced cravings may provide benefits for controlling weight loss. You might find keto more appealing since it may not be as restrictive as other eating patterns when in cutting season.

There are also more potential benefits you can get from following a ketogenic eating plan if you are an athlete:

  • Improved athletic performance
  • Enhanced recovery
  • Higher energy levels during the day
  • Less lactate accumulation after exercise
  • Reduced gastrointestinal issues

It must be noted that most of the studies done where benefits are achieved following a low-carb diet are in endurance sports.


Drawbacks of a keto diet plan for athletes

The main drawback for an athlete following this meal plan is the adaptation process. When the keto flu kicks in during the first few weeks, you might feel sluggish and notice decreased performance. If you decide to follow a ketogenic lifestyle, make sure you start it during the off-season and not before any significant events or competitions.

People that do high-intensity exercise might experience a reduction in athletic performance. During your training, you may experience an increased heart rate and lower power.

If you are an athlete who is looking to gain some weight, the ketogenic plan might not be the best choice. Although it is possible to gain muscle on keto, its high satiating effect could make it harder to achieve a calorie surplus.

Finally, if you are not careful, this type of eating could lack some essential vitamins and minerals an athlete needs. Electrolytes need to be replenished after a training session, so it is important to consume foods with sufficient potassium, magnesium, and sodium.


How to start a keto diet for endurance athletes

Before you begin the ketogenic plan, it is crucial to be honest with yourself and consider specific questions to see if this is the correct type of lifestyle for you.

  • Can you see it as a sustainable lifestyle?
  • Are you willing to monitor your ketones?
  • Are you able to cut back down on high-carb foods?
  • Do you like high-fat foods?
  • Can you take sport-friendly snacks?

If you believe that following a keto plan may be for you, it is time to speak with your doctor so they can determine if it can be a healthy option for you.

Once you get approval from a medical professional, here is a list of steps for you to begin your keto journey:

  1. Talk to your sports nutritionist. They will guide you better according to the sport you practice.
  2. Calculate your calories.
    • Weight loss. If you are off-season and want to lose some weight, it may be appropriate to reduce calories.
    • Weight gain. If you are in training and want to gain some weight, you might find it appropriate to have a calorie surplus to increase muscle mass.
    • Pre-competition. You might want to have the exact calories for their weight, height, age, and activity levels. This means having a calorie intake adequate for maintenance.
  3. Which type of keto do you want to follow?
    • Standard ketogenic diet for consistent low-carb eating.
    • Cyclical ketogenic. Here you have 1-2 days high in carbs according to your training.
  4. Calculate your macros. Once you have the number of calories in mind, you need to calculate your macros.
    • Carbs: 5-10%
    • Protein: 1.4-2 g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight
    • Fats: 60-70%
  5. Prepare your food. Plan your meals according to your daily life, training sessions, and any special events.




What do athletes eat on a keto diet?

Now that we have the calories and the macros that we need to eat daily, we need to translate that into real foods. Starting a new lifestyle regarding your eating choices can be overwhelming. Here is a simple guide of which foods to eat and which to avoid.

Fats are going to be your primary energy source. Thus, they must be added in large quantities. Include some of the following products.

  • Avocado
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Olives
  • Olive oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Coconut milk
  • Coconut oil
  • Ghee or butter

Include a large variety of vegetables. Every color has a different nutrient, so make sure to eat the rainbow. Your plate should look colorful! Add zucchini, carrots, tomato, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower… The list is endless regarding the veggies you get to add. The best ones are low in carbs and high in fiber.

Protein is vital for maintaining lean mass, which is very important in athletes. Add a source of protein every 2 to 3 hours to maintain your muscle mass. Some of the most common protein sources to include are the following.

  • Eggs
  • Chicken
  • Red meat
  • Pork
  • Plain Greek yogurt
  • Tofu

Be careful with high-carb foods since they might kick you out of ketosis. Highly processed foods that are not only high in sugars but lack nutrients are recommended to be avoided. This includes bread, pastries, cakes, cookies, sugar, ice cream, and candy.

Some carbs you can include as long as you are careful with the portion size. You can have small quantities of nutritious carb-containing foods, such as fruits, beans, lentils, chickpeas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn. Just make sure that you count them in your total carb intake.

An athlete might require ergogenic help. You can add supplements like protein powders, creatine, electrolytes, salt tablets. Gels and other forms of carb source might be used during a prolonged competition where you require fast-acting energy.


Shopping list for athletes on keto

Preparation is vital when starting a new eating pattern, especially if you are an athlete. Now that you know which foods to add and which to avoid, here is a shopping list to make your life easier when you go grocery shopping.

First, we’ll start with your primary energy source — fats.

  • Avocado and avocado oil
  • Olives and olive oil
  • Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
  • Nut butter
  • Chia seeds
  • Cashews, almonds, peanuts, and walnuts
  • Coconut milk or cream

Proteins are important to maintain a good muscle mass. Ideally, you have a protein source every 2-3 hours.

  • Chicken
  • Red meat
  • Ground beef
  • Pork
  • Organ meats
  • Fish and seafood
  • Plain Greek yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Tofu

Now, let’s go into our sources of vitamins and minerals.

  • Berries
  • Eggplant
  • Zucchini
  • Leafy greens
  • Celery
  • Tomato
  • Carrots
  • Mushrooms

And, last but not least, sport aids.

  • Sports drinks without added sugars
  • Salt tablets (runners)
  • Sport gels (for emergency fuel)


1-day sample of ketogenic meals for athletes

Now that we know which foods to eat and which to avoid, you might wonder what a day on the diet would look like. Here is 1 day’s worth of meals to follow.

  • Breakfast: Cheese omelet with veggies and a side of blueberries
  • Morning snack: Gouda cheese with avocado
  • Lunch: Hamburger with portobello bun
  • Evening snack: Greek yogurt with almond butter
  • Dinner: Chicken kebabs

Calories: 2,237 | Macros: 57.7 g net carbs – 153 g protein – 147.5 g fat.

BREAKFAST Ingredients Serving Size Calories Net Carbs(g) Protein(g) Fat(g)
Cheese omelet with veggies and a side of blueberries Eggs 3 units 215 1.1 18.9 14.2
  Mushrooms 50 g 15 3.8 1.7 0.2
  Cheddar cheese 1 slice (1 oz) 115 0.6 6.8 9.5
  Broccoli 1/4 cup 7 0.5 0.5 0
  Blueberries 1 cup 84 18 1.1 0.5
Calories Net Carbs Protein Fat            
436 24 g 29 g 24.4 g            
MORNING SNACK Ingredients Serving Size Calories Net Carbs(g) Protein(g) Fat(g)
Gouda cheese with avocado Gouda cheese 2 units 202 1.3 14.1 15.5
  Avocado 1/2 unit 183 3.4 3.4 15.4
Calories Net Carbs Protein Fat            
385 4.7 g 17.5 g 30.9 g            
LUNCH Ingredients Serving Size Calories Net Carbs(g) Protein(g) Fat(g)
Hamburger with portobello bun Portobello mushrooms 2 units 37 4.3 3.4 0.5
  Ground beef 4 oz 137 0 24.9 3.4
  Garlic powder 1/2 teaspoon 5 1 0.2 0
  Onion powder 1/2 teaspoon 4 0.8 0.1 0
  Bacon 2 slices 63 0.2 5.2 4.6
  Mustard 1 teaspoon 4 0.1 0.2 0.2
  Avocado 1/2 unit 183 3.4 3.4 15.4
  Olive oil 1 tablespoon 120 0 0 13.6
Calories Net Carbs Protein Fat            
553 9.8 g 37.4 g 37.7 g            
EVENING SNACK Ingredients Serving Size Calories Net Carbs(g) Protein(g) Fat(g)
Greek yogurt with almond butter Plain Greek yogurt 7 oz 146 7.9 19.9 3.8
  Almond butter 1/8 cup 193 2.6 6.5 17.3
Calories Net Carbs Protein Fat            
339 10.5 g 26.4 g 21.1 g            
DINNER Ingredients Serving Size Calories Net Carbs(g) Protein(g) Fat(g)
Chicken kebabs Chicken 1 unit 287 0 40 12.8
  Garlic powder 1/2 teaspoon 5 1 0.2 0
  Onion powder 1/2 teaspoon 4 0.8 0.1 0
  Zucchini 1 cup (185 g) 94 5.3 2 7
  Cherry tomatoes 1/2 cup 14 1.6 0.4 0
  Olive oil 1 tablespoon 120 0 0 13.6
Calories Net Carbs Protein Fat            
524 8.7 g 42.7 g 33.4 g            
DAILY TOTALS   2,237 cal 57.7 g net carbs 153 g protein 147.5 g fat




FAQ about athletes on keto

Are you still wondering about the keto diet and athletes? Here we answer the most frequently asked questions people have that are related to this topic.

Yes, you can lift weights when you are on a ketogenic diet.

However, when you are starting the first couple of weeks, you need to take it slow. Once your body is accustomed to using ketones as your primary energy source, you can train the way you used to.

If you are mindful about reaching the number of calories you need per day, keto can be used for muscle growth.

However, since this way of eating can reduce hunger, some people might find it hard to eat enough calories to gain muscle mass.

Yes, you can do carb cycling if you are an athlete.

Runners could benefit from this type of eating plan. A cyclical ketogenic plan means that you have 1-2 days that are higher on carbs. Reserve these days for your harder training sessions.

Runners could benefit from following a low-carb diet. In several studies it has shown a reduction in fat mass while maintaining lean mass.

However, in most cases, performance is not improved, and it could even be reduced.

Exercise can help enter ketosis faster by using up the glucose you have available.

Since endurance sports primarily use fats as their energy source, this type of exercise can also help speed up ketosis.

For some people, there could be a decrease in athletic performance. It’s important to give your body time to adapt to using fat for energy, so it’s a good idea to decrease the intensity of your training when you first begin the diet. Otherwise, you may experience muscle weakness, hypoglycemia, and a reduction in performance.


More ketogenic plans you can try