Is the Ketogenic Diet a Good Idea for Volleyball Players?

Today’s post is a guest post written by Nicole Springle. Nicole is a Registered Dietitian, and the Lead of Sport Nutrition at the Canadian Sport Institute of Ontario. She is the dietitian for the Canadian National Beach Volleyball team, and worked with me leading into the Rio Olympics. We continue to work together today.

Nicole’s post is all about one of the big diet trends happening right now….. the Ketogenic Diet. It is a very interesting discussion to have, and the type of diet that an athlete ascribes to is critical to their performance. I hope you learn a lot from what she has to say, especially if you are a high-intensity athlete. Thank you so much, Nicole!!

xo, Sarah


Is the Ketogenic Diet a Good Idea for Volleyball Players?

With the emerging interest in high-fat low-carbohydrate diets and the popularity of gluten-free and paleo eating styles, I have noticed a shift towards an increase in the intake of fats at the expense of carbohydrates in the diets of many athletes. I thought it would be worth exploring the impact of this change on the diets of beach volleyball athletes.

Of recent interest in the media, and even in the scientific community, has been the potential benefits of adopting a ketogenic diet.  This involves a severe carbohydrate restriction to less than 20g per day (the amount of carbohydrate in one apple, to put this in perspective) accompanied by a VERY high fat intake of 85% and moderate protein intake of 15 % of total calories. Proponents of this diet will cite literature that indicates that longer-term adherence to these diets will promote greater increases in fat oxidation (the body’s ability to break down fat and use it as a fuel source in place of carbohydrate). While this seems like a dream come true, in actual fact, it’s not quite as good as it sounds…

Research has shown that those following a ketogenic diet were able change their body’s ability to burn more fat during moderate-intensity exercise instead of carbohydrate as a primary fuel source, but in doing so, they sacrificed the ability to generate peak power during high-intensity exercise. As an athlete (not a recreational exerciser), performance is a key goal when considering dietary choices, and in a sport like beach volleyball where high-intensity bursts require glycogen (stored carbohydrate) as a fuel source, limiting your body’s ability to use glycogen could have MAJOR impacts on your performance.

Even in studies that switched from high-fat, low-carb diets (not necessarily ketogenic diets) in training to a high-carb diet before competition, it was seen that the effects lasted and athletes on this diet were not able to generate the same power as athletes following a consistently moderate to high-carb diet. So it’s not just about what you eat before you compete, but limiting carbohydrate consistently over the course of a week can impact your ability to perform as well. Key indicators for me that athletes are restricting carbs too strictly are reports that by the end of the week they feel fatigued, their arms and legs feel heavy or they can’t seem to get any height out of the sand. Another clue is when an athlete reports that he or she is getting constant cravings for sugar, chips or other carbohydrate-rich foods. When the body doesn’t get enough of what it needs, it has a way of getting it’s point across one way or another!

As a sport dietitian, I have watched trends come and go, but the trend towards high fat diets has not been all bad. The inclusion of more nutrient-dense whole food sources of healthy fats such as salmon, avocados, nuts and seeds without the previous “fat-phobia” that accompanied these foods a decade ago is a welcome change. However, like the old saying goes…too much of a good thing can still be…well, too much! At 9 calories per gram of fat (versus 4 calories for a gram of protein or carbohydrates) large portions of even healthy fats can add up quickly if you’re not following a strict ketogenic or very low carbohydrate diet.

In the end, if your goal is to get on the sand and generate as much power as possible to maximize jump height, agility, and speed, make sure to include enough carbohydrate to fuel your performance and enjoy whole foods with healthy fats in moderate amounts. So, if you’re an athlete you may want to cut back a little on the tablespoons of coconut oil and make room for a serving of whole grains on your plate!


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