The Ketogenic Diet and Muay Thai | How I Gave Up the Carb and Saved My Mind
The Keto Diet, ketogenesis: The keto diet features very low carb (- 20 g), moderate protein, and high fats, designed to switch the body from sugar-burning to ketone-burning, with suggested benefits of mental clarity, recovery and anti-inflammation, and weight loss (for those that need it), making use of hormone and metabolic responses evolved in humans through long periods of fasting or lean eating. What follows is not an expert telling, you can Google about and find more on all the things I bring up, but it is my telling. The full article, including a vlog discussion of how I’m appreciating the diet is found on my Patreon here.
One of my favorite feelings in the world is one that I’ve only experienced in early morning, while camping in the desert or on long road trips, looking out the window of the car at the crispness of light and just feeling… awake. That clarity, for lack of another word, is so precious and rare that I can attribute it to distinct moments in my life. Always camping or driving. It’s a bit odd. But three days into my “keto experiment,” begun a few months ago, I felt this kind of clarity. Like a fog had lifted or a weight had dissipated, a mental alertness and, yes, a crispness to everything around me. It wasn’t all the time and I can’t summon it, but to have experienced it through something intentional felt like I’d caused an epiphany or something.
When I run in the mornings, I listen to podcasts because it keeps my mind busier than music does. One of the podcasts I listen to is Joe Rogan, albeit selectively, and his guest was an Ultra Runner who eats Keto. This was interesting to me because the guy is an Ultra Runner, the way he eats was actually not even interesting enough to register in my mind when I downloaded it. I just like Ultra Runners. They’re intense people and, generally speaking, because there’s almost nothing written about fighting by fighters, the closest I’ve found is what’s written by endurance runners. It’s a similar mindset, I think, especially the way I fight. So I’m running, a 10k morning run, which is probably the equivalent to the first 30 minutes of this guy’s runs, and he’s talking about how he’s been staying in ketosis for x number of years and how this or that kicks him out, but that or this gets him back in. I didn’t know what ketosis was, so I was not super keyed into those details, but he did talk about how the shift over from a high carb diet – which is the norm for endurance athletes – to a low carb/ high fat diet had made his performance as an athlete much better. Not his times, necessarily, which is the part that anyone and everyone talks about – just what times you can print on paper – but rather how he feels when he performs as an athlete. That distinction alone was enough to get my brain lighting up.
So I told Kevin about it when I got home and in the podcast they’d mentioned a movie that was on Netflix on the podcast, so Kevin found it for us to watch. It’s not a good documentary at all, really, but it’s called “The Magic Pill,” and I guess if you rely on tons of medicines to live your daily life, it’s quite radical to think that food could be your medicine. It follows, in part, a couple of kids with Autism who try staying in ketosis for all the benefits it offers the brain (the diet was developed to treat – and successfully does treat – epilepsy) and they have pretty incredible results. Near the end of the documentary, when Kevin and I were debating whether or not to turn it off, there’s a 60-year-old former nurse with serious diabetes, who was able to get off her insulin entirely within something like 6 weeks. I’m not diabetic and I’ve never been diagnosed as being on the spectrum (although Kevin suspects I’m somewhere on there), but the fact that these people saw results – drastic results – in as little as 6 weeks filled me with resolve. I decided I’d give it a try for 6 weeks, as an experiment. Kevin didn’t even seem interested in the movie at all, but seeing my motivation he got right on board (he’s the best).
I’m not going to launch into a “how to” or “what to eat” kind of thing on ketosis, for two reasons: 1) I’m not an expert and there is literally a world of information at your fingertips; if you’re able to read this post, you’re able to Google. And 2) you really do need to go down the Rabbit Hole yourself. Ketosis is no half-assed attempt; you’re either in or you’re out and if you’re not willing to do the work to read up on it and do it right, you’re sure as shit not willing to go through with it. What I learned pretty early on is that the traditional, text-book Keto plan is 20 grams (total, not “net” – net carbs are a thing you’ll run into that’s borrowed from Atkins) of carbs per day. A number that low means you are not intentionally eating any carbs at all. You don’t “budget them in,” but rather there are incidental carbs that quickly add up to 20. It’s not a “low carb” diet, it’s a high fat diet, in so far as where you need to focus your attention. Eat fat. Eat tons and tons of fat (less total calories if you are trying to lose weight, but still way more than you think would be normal), moderate protein, and avoid carbs as much as you think is possible. Additionally, because of what your body does when you enter nutritional ketosis, you need to pay attention to supplementing your electrolytes: salt, potassium, magnesium, calcium and if you are not in sunlight much, vitamin D. Because I’m a full-time, high-intensity training athlete, I have been very serious about replenishing my salt, potassium and magnesium. This dietary approach is heavy on self-research, self-monitoring, and careful supplementation. It’s not an instinctual “eat how you feel” diet, you treat food as medicine, then reflect on how it is affecting you.
What I Learned About Potassium – A Detour
In February of 2018 I got Dengue Fever. It was terrible. I’ve never been so tired in my life, I literally couldn’t stay awake for more than 10 minutes if I was at home and sitting at the hospital for hours every day to get my blood tested was a Hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. I became so weak that I passed out in the hospital and split my chin open on the reception desk as I collapsed – 5 stitches, thanks to Dengue. In my recovery from that, Kevin did some research online and that’s when he discovered the importance of potassium and magnesium, which I suspect nearly everyone who casually eats an average diet may be deficient in. So, we knew how important potassium was (especially) from my recovery after Dengue, but in researching Keto we decided to bite our thumbs at the paltry recommended daily allowance and bumped my daily intake to a minimum of 4700 mg (recommended is 1600-2000 mg). Unless you’re downing spinach, avocado, broccoli and bananas like a “juicing” infomercial, you’re not even coming close to the amount of potassium you actually need. This of course comes with a warning that “too much” potassium can cause heart failure, but the studies that prove that limit pretty much don’t exist in a scientific sense, they’re anecdotal; however people died. For this reason you will not find any substantive potassium supplement (for fear people will over use them), and almost all recommendations to potassium supplementation carry strong warnings. So, use your Google finger and decide for yourself what’s safe. I’ve done this, I’m good – In the Patreon version of this article I share what it is that I make for myself. I found the importance of potassium as a mood regulator can be nothing short of incredible, insofar as it is something that is seldom thought about as one. Further, due to the importance of potassium in balancing out sodium (see below, the pair create a basic “pump” for cells), I do believe that a better understanding of potassium could be a potential life-saver in fighters who are using dehydration to cut weight, especially in lightly supervised, or unsupervised circumstances. This is something you do not want to get very low on.
It’s enough to say, I approached the Keto diet coming off an awakened awareness of the importance of potassium as I recovered from Dengue Fever. My bout with Dengue Fever made me realize that while I was grinding away for more than 6 years in twice a day training in high heat here in Thailand, I very likely have been doing so potassium deficient. I have always eaten pretty healthy with good proteins and veggies, aside from a wicked sugar binge at times, drank my electrolyte drinks,, etc, so I was really surprised that when I added up my usual potassium intake I was still pretty short of even the low-estimate recommended levels. And this was not even counting all the potassium (and other minerals) I was sweating away, beyond what an average person needed. One of the interesting things about the Keto Diet is that because some minerals and vitamins are not easily gained from food sources you can end up becoming much more aware of, and directed towards making sure you have all you need. Looking at the symptoms above, I could see many of these showing up in small and sometimes large quantities. Note: for everyone concerned about Overtraining – and I wrote about that here in my much discussed piece The Myth of Overtraining some of the listed symptoms of potassium deficiency map onto those who might suspect they were overtraining, in particular interest to me, fatigue and depression.
I’ve just assumed that “being tired” as a constant state is a natural result of training incredibly hard, for 6 years now, out-training anyone in any gym I’ve been in. I’ve fought over 200 times in Thailand and I’ve taken pretty much zero breaks in training. Like I said, I’m an Ultra Runner of Muay Thai. I’ve been banging out 2 or 3 sessions a day for years, and being fatigued is something you just acclimate yourself to, just like being constantly in pain due to injuries large and small. You learn to live in it. Fatigue becomes your secret power. I used to half-joke that the Hulk’s secret is that he’s “always angry,” mine is that I’m always tired. It really was what made me very difficult to fight. Tired is my normal.
This is a real thing, while The Hulk is always angry, the Muay Khao fighter also lives in a state few can manage, it’s a skill, learning to live and even thrive in states of fatigue. My secret has been: I’m always tired.
But it was really starting to add up somehow in the last year. Not just fatigue, but brain fogginess, and depression. Telling myself that I’m always tired, and training mental toughness through fatigue, and caused me to miss additional things that were building up. This is what eventually lead me to the Keto Diet, and several other changes as well. My husband and I really first took note of this deeper level of fatigue when I took on the 12 week mental training course offered by Niyi Sobo. The mental strain of the important things the course was asking of me was wrecking me, both physically and mentally. I was exploring my psychological blind spots, but my body just could not handle the stress of it somehow, coupled with everything else I was piling on in my regular efforts. The strain was so intense I got hit by two cases of shingles in that time. Two. It was an incredible course and I certainly recommend it, I came out of it a much stronger, better prepared athlete and person with skills I now count on in my process, but in my state of depletion it was a tipping point – from that time on my year was also filled with acute fatigue and depressive feelings. Was this the “overtraining” that everyone so worried about? I really didn’t think so, not even close. I don’t believe in overtraining as most everyone uses it, but I do believe in under-resting, and under-recovery. What was it? What rest or restorative things was I missing?
Just like Dengue Fever would alert me to potassium issues, my Depression and Fatigue that year was alerting me as well. As I look back, as I was grinding through the heat, and had been for some time, as I mentioned I was probably significantly potassium under-nourished for long stretches. I gained a great deal of mental toughness and resilience pushing through all those sessions, and learning how to manage negative thoughts with Niyi’s aid and lots of mental training work I was doing, but something was not right. Taking on more rigorous potassium supplementation (what I do is shared later in the Patreon article) started having powerful effects on my mood and my sense of fatigue. Training just as hard and regularly, this was on the right track.
So why am I going on this long story about potassium, in an article on the keto diet? This isn’t diet advice, it’s a personal story. This is about how the body and mind work together, and my own discovery of experiences through incredibly hard training, an unheard of fight rate – possibly fighting more frequently than any person on the planet over the last 6 years – while retaining heavy content responsibilities related to my Muay Thai Library project, and my commitment to my readers. In Muay Thai, in Thailand’s Muay Thai, balance is everything. Physical and mental. It’s the art of doing something incredibly intense, often quite dangerous, and finding balance in the intensity. Where is the balance? I think turned to the Keto Diet.
The Mental Dimension – Keto helped me immediately
There are thoughts that I call “Gutter Balls.” Generally, they’re negative thoughts that I’ve thought a billion times before – almost on schedule – and I cannot get them out of my head, even if I consciously can argue against them and know I don’t want to be thinking them and feeling the things they make me feel. In bowling, when you throw the ball and it goes wayward into the “gutter” on the side of the lane, there’s no getting that ball back out. You don’t knock over any pins, it’s basically like “scratching” in pool. Not being able to get my brain out of those thought ruts, those are throwing “Gutter Balls.” For kids and beginners, bowling alleys sometimes offer “bumpers,” which are foam tubes that you slide into the gutter of the lane and then when the ball goes awry it bounces off the bumper and stays at least enough on the lane that it will reach the end. Even if you don’t knock over any pins, you can’t throw any Gutter Balls. What surprised me was that within the first three days of eating for nutritional ketosis – and I suspect I got into ketosis pretty quickly – I felt like bumpers had been put on my mental grooves. I still thought those same terrible, unhelpful and depressive thoughts, but the ball didn’t get stuck in those gutters. I could kind of bounce back out, or at least keep moving rather than being locked into those grooves. I’ve done a lot of mental work to try to get exactly this effect, and here it was occurring simply by how I was feeding myself. What this taught me, very quickly, was that all the work I’d been putting in was being hampered by the chemical states I was putting my brain in through my food. Like, you’ve gone to all these AA meetings but you’re still drinking; then you stop drinking, sober up, and all of a sudden the really hard work you’ve been doing actually works without as much effort. Or like you’ve been driving with the handbrake on. The car moves, but when you take the handbrake off everything is so much smoother.
What’s crazy is that Kevin can actually just watch me and see whether I’m in my best ketosis zone or not. That sounds like a bunch of infomercial hooey, but it’s true. A couple of weeks into the experiment, after training (ketones are low after intense exercise, as your body has been eating them for energy) we were sitting at a restaurant waiting for our breakfast. I was in a kind of detached mood, which is my most common mood and isn’t pleasant for Kevin, drinking some “bulletproof coffee” to help me get into ketosis while we waited for our food. Kevin said he saw a shift in my face, my persona, right in front of him. Like if someone’s face is tense and angry and then it just relaxes – like in that movie Memento, when he’s panicked and stressed and then just forgets what he’s panicked about and there’s this calm that washes over him. Apparently that happens to me. I didn’t feel it, it’s not distinct like that for me, but Kevin literally watched it happen.
And I think that more or less sums up what has made me choose this as a way of life, ultimately turning a 6 week “experiment” into a permanent effort. The thing about “diets” is that you’re always waiting for them to be over, because there’s some end goal. Somewhere north of 90% of the results people want is weight loss, which is meaningful and reasonable enough, plus it’s easy to track. Because my goal isn’t weight loss – and I’m not losing any weight – the things I am tracking are less tangible. It’s the same thing that drew me into the podcast with that Ultra Runner: the fact that this is how he eats because of how it makes him feel in his runs. Not numbers on paper, actually how one feels. And not every day is the same. I still throw Gutter Balls, but more often than ever before I can bumper myself back onto the lane much faster than I could in the past. I’m still tired pretty much every day, but my life isn’t one that would make anyone well rested – and as a result of all the research we’ve done in order to understand and do keto properly, Kevin and I have also made rest, and specifically sleep, a huge priority. If you are serious about this, read this book: Why We Sleep. So results from that will take a while to be able to report on and even to know for myself but it’s very likely to creating significant changes. I push hard, I aim far and big, and I don’t stop. So, how I feel when pushing like that makes a big difference, and how I feel when staying in nutritional ketosis is more focused and brighter than I feel when running on glucose.
If you’d like to read the rest of this article which includes a 40 minute video interview of me by my husband Kevin on the subject, talking about the mental benefits and my energy levels on the diet, as well as my own ketogenic approach, the things I eat and supplement, and specifically how I’ve experienced my energy in fights and in deep training. My Patreon will be a home for continued articles on my experiments with the ketogenic diet, as a fighter.
a few minutes of my 40 minute interview that can be seen in the full post on Patreon.
A good Thailand keto diet source
If you are in Thailand and experimenting with the ketogenic diet I seriously you check out the Healtholcious website, and their Bangkok store. It’s not easy to get many of the supplementary elements of the diet, but they are passionate about the lifestyle approach (run by a very nice couple I met – no, they are not a sponsor), and deliver quickly all over the country.
You can use this promo code for 10% off for a first time order:
10% discount on their first order (min. order value 2000 THB)