The Fascinating History of the Keto Diet

The Keto diet was not always as popular as it is now in the modern day.

The Ketogenic diet has grown exponentially in popularity in recent years especially among the lifting population. In layman’s terms, the Ketogenic diet is a high fat, low carbohydrate diet plan based on the concept of using ketones for energy. Whereas carbohydrate consuming individuals run primarily off the glucose derived from carbohydrates, Keto adapted individuals use ketones, which are produced in the absence of carbohydrates, for energy.

Sensing that I am massively out of my wheelhouse, I willll happily point readers over to Barbend’s detailed, and decidedly more scientific, evaluation of Keto, found here.

keto meal

Moving back to matters of history, it is notable that numerous lifters, sprinters, and athletes of various disciplines have appeared to have dabbled in Keto from one time to another. The past decade, in particular, has witnessed a remarkable increase in the diet’s popularity. Scroll online and you’ll read seemingly miraculous weight loss stories based on the Keto diet. You’ll hear of increased caloric intakes with no ramifications and you’ll come across a variety of Keto based supplements.

Keto, like vegetarianism and, more recently veganism, has become a trendy way of eating. However, this was not always the case. In fact for many decades, a Keto diet was only associated with the fringes of the lifting community, only indulged in for brief periods of time and for extreme circumstances. It was not the lifestyle it has become today.

With this in mind, today’s article looks at the history of the Keto diet, from its early origins in the nineteenth century to the Joe Rogan fueled times of today. Before delving into today’s post, a few qualifications are in order. In its strictest sense, Keto diets, as used in the medical setting, are defined as high fat, moderate protein and low carbohydrate eating plans. In this setting the macronutrient spread greatly important and typically split between 65-70% of calories set aside for fat, 5-10% for carbohydrates and the remainder for protein (1).

When dealing with Keto in the bodybuilding and lifting community, more leeway is usually found in eating plans, so long as carbohydrate intake is kept low. We’ll be focusing on the decidedly less scientific world of Keto as found in the gymnasium and training facility.

The Ketogenic diet, as we understand it, came about first through medical texts, but we’ll be exploring popular understandings of Keto as found in the fitness community. As will become clear, the Keto diet, or at least the habits inspired by it, have been popularized at several points over the past century.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

William Banting and the Original Keto Diet

Strangely, given its later medical importance for those suffering from epilepsy, one of the original low carb diets originates with an English undertaker named William Banting. Weighing over two hundred pounds in 1862, Banting was, by his own admission, at a complete loss about how to improve his health. Later writing on the impact being overweight had on his frame, Banting recalled that;

I could not stoop to tie my shoes, so to speak, nor to attend to the little offices humanity requires without considerable pain and difficulty which only the corpulent can understand. I have been compelled to go downstairs slowly backward to save the jar of increased weight on the knee and ankle joints and have been obliged to puff and blow over every slight exertion, particularly that of going upstairs …(2)

A complete overhaul was needed and that’s what Dr. William Harvey suggested when he met Banting in August 1862. An ear, nose, and throat doctor by speciality, Harvey suggested a low carbohydrate diet focused on fatty meats alongside small amounts of fruit and the occasional piece of toast. It wasn’t the high fat, avocado infused diets of 2019, but it was among the first times that a low carbohydrate diet was prescribed for weight loss. Banting’s subsequent account of his weight loss, which approached fifty pounds, became an international best seller (3). Such was Banting’s influence that in some countries the term ‘banting’ still refers to low carb diets. Thus, low carb diets for weight loss had begun.

The Birth of Ketogenic Diets

The early 1900s witnessed the birth of bodybuilding and lifting culture as we understand it. As detailed on Barbend, this was a time period when ‘physical culture’ emerged as an acceptable form of exercise. Understood to mean activities related to dumbbells, barbells, gymnastics and calisthenics, physical culturists were the bodybuilders and nutritional coaches of the age.

Despite their ingenuity when it came to training — just check out George Hackenschmidt’s exercises physical culturists tended to be quite reserved when it came to nutrition advice for lifters. The great Eugen Sandow, shown below, claimed that everything was permissible, including alcohol and cigars, so long as one did not overindulge (4).

Others, like Eustace Miles, prescribed a strict vegetarian diet, while the Saxon Brothers were notorious for drinking copious amounts of beer during their workouts. These men helped establish our modern lifting communities (5). Despite this, their dietary advice was either conservative i.e. proteins and vegetables or questionable i.e. beer during sets. The ‘science’ of weightlifting was evolving, but food was still seen as a secondary concern. Where we get glimpses of a Ketogenic diet of sorts being promoted by physical culturists was in the fasting regimens promoted by men like Bernarr MacFadden.

One of America’s most popular physical culturists, MacFadden’s enthusiasm went unmatched by many of his contemporaries. Responsible for the first American bodybuilding competition, introducing Charles Atlas to the masses and popularizing exercise for thousands, MacFadden’s dietary protocols were of utmost importance.

From 1901 MacFadden began to advocate the importance of fasting for budding physical culturists (6). Done first through his own magazine, Physical Culture, and later through a series of books, MacFadden’s fasting regimen relied on the body’s capacity to produce ketones for energy. It was a ketogenic diet without the fat.

Strangely given MacFadden’s hostile relationship with the medical profession, a number of doctors agreed with his assessment that fasting had therapeutic properties. In his article on the history of the Ketogenic diet, J.W. Wheless traced the history of the Ketogenic diet to the early 1910s, when trained physicians, like MacFadden, began using fasting to treat illnesses.

By 1921, the concept of using a high fat, low carbohydrate diet to treat epilepsy was born. Wheless credited it to Dr. Woodyatt and Dr. Wilder who both conducted independent studies on the effectiveness of a Keto style diet in the medical setting (8). The next decade saw Keto diets used for a variety of illnesses before the development of new drugs slowed the diet’s momentum. The idea that fat could be successfully used for energy  and medicinal reasons did not immediately infiltrate the lifting community, but it added a credibility for future users.

Keto in the Golden Age

As bodybuilding became a respectable and popular pursuit during the 1930s and 1940s, lifters began to experiment with their diets to lean out for competitions. In general, lifters tended to be faced with a simple choice. Looking to bulk up? Eat heartily of the three macronutrients. Want to lose bodyfat? Cut the carbs (‘starches’) and switch over to low weight/high reps (9). Simple though it was, this advice largely underpinned much of the bodybuilding scene of the mid-twentieth century. It was not until the late 1950s and early 1960s that Keto or Keto style diets became popular with lifters.

Two important figures in this regard were Vince Gironda and Rheo H. Blair. Gironda, or the ‘Iron Guru’ as he was known, was one of the most innovative trainers of the twentieth century. Responsible for popularizing a series of exercises, including the preacher curl, Gironda’s dietary advice spanned numerous eating approaches from vegetarianism to steak and eggs. It was the latter diet which arguably introduced Keto to the lifting masses. For bodybuilders preparing for competition, Gironda used what we would now call a cyclical Keto diet whereby lifters went low carb for three days and then introduced a small carb meal to replenish glycogen in the muscles (10).

Famous for the overwhelming supplement stacks he generally recommended, Gironda’s Keto diet was simplicity at its finest. Eat meat and eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and on the third to fifth day of this regimen, have one small carbohydrate meal. While some versions of the diet allowed for a small salad with dinner, Gironda’s ‘maximum definition’ diet was nicknamed the steak and eggs diet for a reason!

While Gironda’s approach was perhaps the most influential, his contemporary Rheo H. Blair was also known for his unorthodox diets. Best known for his protein powders, which were a cornerstone of his meal plans, Blair spent a brief period during the 1960s and 70s advocating a ‘meat and water’ diet for bodybuilding clients seeking to ‘firm up’ before a competition or photo shoot (11). This diet, as suggested by its name, was a proto-Carnivore diet, whereby one ate nothing but meat. Unlike the modern carnivore diet, however, Blair’s diet was only ever used for short periods of time — typically three days at most. Gironda and Blair’s zero carb diets were seen as the most effective weight loss programs among lifters, but they were not the only approaches available.

Further supporting the Ketogenic diet was Balik’s client, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose 1985 Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding had a section on ketosis as a weight loss method.

The 1960s, generally, were a period in which Ketogenic diets were popularized in American society. In 1962, Robert Cameron began publicizing his own ‘steak and martini’ diet, which has been viewed by many as a precursor to the modern Keto diet found in the general populace. Cameron’s highly appetizing approach was followed nine years later by Dr. Robert Atkins, whose ‘Atkins Diet’ first came to public attention in 1972 (12). These longer term approaches had a clear impact on the bodybuilding community. One of the most prolific fitness writers of the 1970s, who also acted as a nutritionist to Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Balik made this clear in his 1979 pamphlet, Total Muscularity.

Balik’s approach, said by the author to be common among bodybuilders, was based on several phases whereby one’s carbohydrate intake began at zero and moved upwards eventually to 50 or 60 grams carbohydrate a day depending on tolerance levels. A moderate to high amount of fat was consumed on Balik’s diet for energy (13). Further supporting the Ketogenic diet was Balik’s client, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose 1985 Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding had a section on ketosis as a weight loss method. Arnold’s book also included the use of Ketostix to test one’s ketosis level, which in itself, was a subtle indication that the lifting community’s relationship with Keto was more sophisticated.(14)

Keto Before Y2K

Schwarzenegger’s inclusion of Ketostix hinted at a turn in the use of Keto among bodybuilders. Whereas previously individuals were told to simply limit their starch intake, men like Balik and Schwarzenegger were prescribing specific carbohydrate ranges and testing one’s ketosis levels. This is not to say that the Keto lifestyle was popular among bodybuilders, but rather that people knew of its existence.

The Ketogenic diet was still niche in the 1980s and early 1990s owing to the well publicized ‘low-fat mania’ rampant in American society during these decades. The diet would soon thrive among lifters thanks to three influential texts:

  • Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale’s Anabolic Diet (1995)
  • Dan Duchaine’s Bodyopus Diet (1996)
  • Lyle MacDonald’s The Ketogenic Diet (1998).

Published in the mid 1990s, Di Pasquale’s Anabolic Diet was the precursor to the modern interest in Keto. Coming three years after Dr. Atkin’s re-published his Atkins’ diet (‘Dr Atkins’ New Diet Revolution’), Di Pasquale’s work was written exclusively for lifters. Prior to this time, Di Pasquale was known for his powerlifting feats, his medical credentials, and his work in bodybuilding. Stemming from his own dietary experiences and his connection with the short lived World Bodybuilding Federation run by WWE’s Vince McMahon, Di Pasquale’s work was Keto with a twist (15).

Unlike your standard Atkins’ diet, Di Pasquale advocated a cyclical Ketogenic approach whereby lifters consumed low carb/high fat for five days before doing two high carb days on the weekend. Di Pasquale’s work was a turning point for Keto diets. Whereas those before, and indeed after, Di Pasquale used Keto to lose weight, Di Pasquale argued that lifters could bulk and cut using the Keto approach. It was Ketogains before we had the term.

Di Pasquale argued that lifters could bulk and cut using the Keto approach.

Following Di Pasquale was Dan Duchaine, the steroid guru of the 1990s. Known primarily for his Underground Steroid Handbooks published during the 1980s, Duchaine’s career is worthy of a movie in and of itself. Of relevance for today was his BodyOpus diet, which was one of the most spoken about and strictest bodybuilding competition diets of the 1990s (16). Similar to Di Pasquale, Duchaine recommended a cyclical carbohydrate intake with the caveat that his approach was used for losing bodyfat right before competition and not for bulking.

Without going into the specifics of his approach, Ducahine’s diet was remarkably detailed and scientific. In this way, it mimicked Lyle MacDonald’s 1998 work on the Ketogenic diet, which proved a highly scientific but accessible read into low carb/high fat approaches (17). Make no mistake, these men and their diets were far from mainstream, as their ideas went against common nutritional knowledge. They were however highly respected among those who used their approaches. The Keto diet for lifters, was fast approaching the mainstream.

New Millennium? New Meal Plan!

Di Pasquale, Duchaine, and MacDonald soon found their way into the broader remit of sport more generally. Sport sciences had begun to experiment with Keto diets during the 1980s and 1990s, as evidenced by studies conducted by Dr. Stephen Phinney and others (18). What changed in the late 1990s and early 2000s was the increasing societal acceptance that fat played a role in human diets.

Approaches like the Mediterranean Diet normalized a certain kind of fat as ‘good fat’ and the demonization of trans fats. In sport, Phinney and others, most notably Jeff Volek, began to provide evidence that a Keto approach had some tangible benefits. This idea was further strengthened by books like Slow Burn by Katherine Callan and Stu Mittleman, which promoted high fat diets for athletes.

By 2010, the Keto diet was on the cusp of widespread popularity. Peter Attia, Nina Teicholz and Gary Taubes arguably brought it more to the mainstream’s attention. In 2007, Taubes published The Diet Delusion, a scathing attack on low fat diets which he argued were leading to unhelpful health outcomes. His book, which sold widely, was followed by his 2010 publication Why We Get Fat. Both books, highly influential, promoted a low carb/high fat diet and captured the public imagination (19).

Tapping into the newfound importance of social media, Peter Attia gave an impassioned TED talk on the Keto diet in 2013, which largely echoed Taubes’ praise for the high fat lifestyle. Attia’s TED talk remains one of the most watched and shared videos since TED’s inception (20). In a new world of media consumption, Attia’s talk took the health and lifting communities by storm. Finally, Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surprise, published in 2014, encouraged readers to be skeptical about the traditional idea that fat was bad and should be avoided. Through meticulous research, Teicholz debunked several of the claims underpinning the low fat community’s premise. In effect, Teicholz encouraged people to add butter to their bacon (21).

For lifters, online communities and podcasts kickstarted a revolution. Aside from the fact that bodybuilding forums had dedicated Keto sections from the early 2000s, many of whom promoted Di Pasquale, Duchaine or MacDonald’s diets, a ‘Ketogains’ group began to gain momentum from 2010 onward. Like Di Pasquale, the Ketogains philosophy was unique in that Keto diets were promoted for lifters seeking to gain muscle and weight rather than lose body fat. The internet, but more specifically, forums and social media, have been pivotal in this regard.

Finally, it is very strange to have to cite podcasts, but two modern speakers in particular helped popularize the Keto diet, namely Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan. Ferriss had already discussed the Keto diet in his 2007 book, The Four Hour Work Week. Ferriss’ 2015 podcast with Dom D’Agostino, a research scientist, helped sensationalize the Keto diet for the broader public (22).

Rogan, on the other hand, helped popularise the diet through interviews with Dave Asprey, the inventor of BulletProof Coffee. Asprey’s love of Keto was, and continually is, reiterated by Rogan and many of his guests (23). Since then, the diet’s popularity in the lifting community has gone from strength to strength. In my opinion, William Banting, the nineteenth century undertaker who arguably kickstarted the Keto lifestyle, would be proud.

References

  1. Paoli, Antonio, Antonino Bianco, and Keith A. Grimaldi. “The ketogenic diet and sport: a possible marriage?.” Exercise and sport sciences reviews 43.3 (2015): 153-162.
  2. Banting, William. Letter on Corpulence, addressed to the public… with addenda. Harrison, 1869, 6.
  3. Ibid., xi.
  4. Roach, Randy, ‘Splendid Specimens: The History of Nutrition in Bodybuilding’, Weston Price. Available at: https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/splendid-specimens-the-history-of-nutrition-in-bodybuilding/.
  5. Ibid.
  6. This is covered in Hunt, William R. Body love: The amazing career of Bernarr MacFadden. Popular Press, 1989.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Wheless, James W. “History of the ketogenic diet.” Epilepsia49 (2008): 3-5.
  9. Heffernan, Conor, ‘Old School Weightloss Principles’, Physical Culture Study. Available at: https://physicalculturestudy.com/2015/11/03/old-school-weightloss-principles/.
  10. Gironda, Vince , Secrets of Definition (1973).
  11. Lurie, Dan and Robson, David, Heart of Steel: The Dan Lurie Story, Authorhouse, 2009, 147.
  12. Farnham, Alan, ‘The Drinking Man’s Diet’, Forbes Magazine. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/2004/04/21/cz_af_0421feat.html#77535559285b.
  13. Balik, John, Total Muscularity: Superstar Nutrition (Santa Monica, 1979).
  14. Schwarzenegger, Arnold, and Bill Dobbins. The new encyclopedia of modern bodybuilding. Pelham, 1985.
  15. Heffernan, Conor, ‘Revisiting the Anabolic Diet’, Physical Culture Study. Available at: https://physicalculturestudy.com/2016/03/02/revisiting-the-anabolic-diet/.
  16. Montana, Nelson, ‘Return of Dan Duchaine’, T-Nation. Available at: https://www.t-nation.com/pharma/return-of-dan-duchaine.
  17. McDonald, Lyle. “The ketogenic diet.” Austin, Texas: Lyle McDonald (1998).
  18. The back references can be found in Phinney, Stephen D. “Ketogenic diets and physical performance.” Nutrition & metabolism 1.1 (2004).
  19. Belluz, Julia, ‘We’ve long blamed carbs for making us fat. What if that’s wrong?’, Vox. Available at: https://www.vox.com/2018/2/21/17036004/do-low-carb-diets-work.
  20. O’Connor, Anahad, ‘Blaming the Patient, Then Asking Forgiveness’, The New York Times. Available at: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/12/blaming-the-patient-then-asking-forgiveness/?mtrref=www.google.com&gwh=E3C7BFA0F00040DBC5CD702790E19BF5&gwt=pay.
  21. Teicholz, Nina. The big fat surprise: why butter, meat and cheese belong in a healthy diet. Simon and Schuster, 2014.
  22. Easter, Michael, ‘Inside the Rise of Keto: How an Extreme Diet Went Mainstream’, Men’s Health. Available at: https://www.menshealth.com/nutrition/a25775330/keto-diet-history/.
  23. Ibid.
Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan is Assistant Professor of Physical Culture and Sport Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. When not in the gym or in the library he likes to try his hand at writing, often with mixed results. He divides his time between his research and his website, which is dedicated to the history of fitness and exercise — read all about it at Physical Culture Study.

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