The targeted ketogenic diet (TKD) is not so different from the standard ketogenic diet (SKD), with one important difference: when and how you eat carbs.
On standard keto, you don’t worry about carb timing. You just keep carbs low at all times.
On a TKD, you consume your daily allotment of carbs before, during, or after a workout.
Benefits Of A Targeted Ketogenic Diet
If you do the TKD right, you’ll be in ketosis most of the time. That means that the TKD has many of the same benefits of the standard keto diet.
General Keto Benefits
Here’s a brief highlight reel of keto diet benefits, all of which apply — to a slightly lesser extent — to the targeted ketogenic diet:
- Weight loss (more effective than calorie-restricted diets)[*]
- Improved appetite control due to decreased circulating ghrelin (your hunger hormone) and lower neuropeptide Y (an appetite-stimulating brain factor)[*]
- Stable energy throughout the day
- Lower blood sugar levels
- Lower insulin levels
- Enhanced fat burning[*]
- Enhanced cognitive performance in both mice and humans[*][*]
- Cleaner energy production (as in fewer reactive oxygen species (ROS) produced by your mitochondria)[*]
- Decreased systemic inflammation via HDAC inhibition[*]
- Therapeutic potential for certain cancers[*]
- Glycogen enhancement, which means that your body burns less stored glucose[*]
TKD For Exercise Performance
A targeted ketogenic diet has one potential benefit over the standard ketogenic diet: enhanced exercise performance.
Eating a small number of fast-absorbing carbs before, during, or after intense workouts can help fuel your session and top off your glycogen stores.
To get this benefit from the TKD, you need to be:
- Fat adapted: Fat adaptation typically happens several weeks into the keto diet, and allows you to slip in and out of ketosis more easily
- Glycogen depleted: If you eat carbs when muscle glycogen isn’t depleted, the glucose from carbs — instead of being stored in muscle — will stay in your blood. And rising blood sugar will take you out of a ketogenic state.
In short, you won’t benefit from a TKD if you’re not burning through your glycogen stores.
And it’s likely that you’re tapping out your glycogen stores if you’re doing regular hardcore, glycolytic workouts.
That includes Crossfit, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and sprinting. Long bouts of cardio (read: marathons) also deplete muscle glycogen.
When you’re fat-adapted, however, it takes a lot to deplete muscle glycogen.
Who Is The Targeted Keto Diet For?
On the spectrum of keto diets, the targeted ketogenic diet falls somewhere between the standard ketogenic diet and the cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD).
Choosing to embark on the SKD, CKD, or TKD depends on your activity level and exercise goals.
Choosing The Right Keto Diet
Standard Keto Diet
If your daily exercise plan revolves around light exercise — yoga, walking, and easy biking — the SKD is your best bet. These activities are low-intensity and your body fat can fuel them.
Many folks also do well with hard exercise on an SKD. This varies from person to person.
Generally, a standard ketogenic diet is the best option for weight loss, therapeutic ketosis, and other keto benefits. The one possible exception is athletic performance.
Cyclical Keto Diet
At the other end of the spectrum, the CKD is for serious athletes. Cyclical keto means eating a large number of carbs (400 to 500 grams) one or two days per week — and eating super low-carb the rest of the time.
Super active people like marathoners, bodybuilders, and professional athletes are constantly burning glucose and depleting glycogen — so they can do the CKD and get back in ketosis relatively quickly after carb loading.
The CKD is for high-octane performance, not so much weight loss or therapeutic ketone production.
Targeted Keto DIet
Targeted keto is smack in the middle. Like the CKD, the TKD is also designed for athletes, but it can work for anyone — male or female — who perform hard, glycogen-depleting exercises like Crossfit, sprints, high-intensity exercise, or long-distance races.
The extra carbs around the workout help fill glycogen stores, prevent low blood sugar, and stave off exercise fatigue.
You can still lose weight on a TKD, assuming you eat the right carbs, at the right times, while doing the right kinds of workouts.
Finally, the performance-boosting effect of the TKD is highly individual. People naturally have differences in glycogen storage and utilization — as well as differences in fat adaptation and ketone production[*].
Because of this, not everyone performs better — even during hard workouts — on a TKD than on an SKD.
This point is especially true for strength training.
Targeted Keto For Strength Training?
You’re better off with the standard ketogenic diet for strength training and muscle building.
Some folks still trumpet the “you need carbs to build muscle” theory. This theory says that you need insulin — a building hormone and your blood sugar regulator — for muscle growth.
But the latest research says otherwise. In one recent study, resistance-trained young men added more lean mass on a ketogenic diet than on a high-carb western diet[*].
So, it’s time to question the carb theory for muscle gain.
The truth is, you only need two inputs to build muscle:
- Weight training
- Sufficient protein
The ketogenic diet can also help with strength goals. Here’s why:
- Beta hydroxybutyrate (BHB) — your main ketone — actively spares muscle mass
- BHB also interacts with leucine — the muscle building amino acid in protein — to promote muscle synthesis[*]
And so adding carbs — a la TKD or CKD — does little to enhance strength training. In fact, some data on men who strength train showed negligible benefits from carb re-feedings[*].
That’s because, bodybuilding aside, lifting weights won’t deplete much muscle glycogen. But two hours of pickup soccer probably will — and in that case, the extra carbs may help.
What to Eat On a Targeted Keto Diet
Macronutrient-wise, a TKD looks similar to an SKD. By calories: it’s about 60% healthy fats, 30% protein, and 10% carbs[*]. High-fat, low-carb, moderate protein.
Healthy fats include:
- Monounsaturated fats from olive oil, avocados, palm oil, and nuts
- Saturated fats from butter, ghee, animal fat, coconut oil, and MCT oil
- Polyunsaturated fats (in moderation) from nuts and fish
Avoid pro-inflammatory vegetable oils, high in omega-6 linoleic acid, especially for cooking.
Protein is a bit easier. Just be sure to include a complete protein source like whey protein or high-quality pastured meat and wild-caught fish.
Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids to fuel muscle growth and usually come in the form of animal or animal-derived protein.
Finally, carbs. The standard TKD recommendation is to consume 15-50 grams of fast-absorbing carbs before, during, or after your workout. These simple carbs can come in powder form (dextrose), or from real food (glucose).
Your best bets for real food are white potato or white rice. Just a few bites. Quick shots of glucose.
Why dextrose and glucose? Assuming you’re exercising hard enough, these simple sugars will either:
- Get burned during exercise
- Be stored as muscle glycogen
Avoid fructose on a TKD, or any form of ketogenic diet, because fructose travels directly to the liver for storage as liver glycogen.
Which means that MCTs help you stay in ketosis on a TKD.
How The TKD Affects Ketosis
Ketosis is a unique metabolic state. When you’re in ketosis, your cells burn fat to make ketones for energy.
Compared to glucose, ketones are cleaner burning (fewer reactive oxygen species), less inflammatory, and more efficient energy (ATP) producers[*].
You can enter ketosis by:
- Eating a ketogenic diet
But carb restriction is the #1 way to get into ketosis.
Carb restriction, on the other hand, keeps insulin low — and this tells your body to burn fat and make ketones[*].
Will The TKD Kick You Out Of Ketosis?
Eating carbs — in any amount — raises your blood sugar levels and reduces ketone production.
So yes, swallowing a packet of dextrose — even before or after a hard workout — will probably kick you out of ketosis. The goal, then, is to get back into ketosis as swiftly as possible.
Your “back-to-keto time” depends on several factors:
1) Fat Adaptation: Before starting a TKD, you need to be fat-adapted. Once your mitochondria — tiny organelles within your cells — know how to burn fat, it’s easier for them to slip back into fat-burning mode following a departure from ketosis.
2) Type Of Exercise: Intense exercise — sprinting, Crossfit, HIIT, etc. — is called glycolytic because it demands glucose as fuel. So if you eat carbs before sprints, those sprints will use up your blood glucose — and you can shift back to burning fat and making ketones.
But even on a TKD, don’t neglect low-intensity aerobic exercise. These exercises don’t require glucose for fuel, so they’re ideal for fat adaptation and ketone production. Keep your heart rate around 180 minus your age.
3) Insulin Sensitivity: The faster your blood sugar drops, the faster you’ll return to ketosis. This depends, in part, on your insulin sensitivity — or the ability of insulin to rapidly shove glucose into your muscle tissue.
The truth is: unless you set up a well-calibrated TKD, simple starches and simple sugars will spell a swift end to your ketogenic state.
For standard ketogenic dieting, low-glycemic carbs like berries, squash, artichokes, and asparagus are the ticket. Low glycemic, by the way, refers to the food’s impact on your blood sugar. The lower, the better.
Low glycemic foods are low glycemic because they’re high in fiber. The more fiber a carb contains, the less it will spike your blood glucose. Eating fiber also:
- Helps your gut bacteria produce anti-inflammatory, anti-colon-cancer short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs)[*]
- Reduces stroke and cardiovascular disease risk[*][*]
- Supports the immune system
- Helps prevent diabetes[*]
- Keeps the bowels moving, binding to toxins along the way
Best of all, high-fiber carbs limit blood sugar and insulin spikes — helping you stay in ketosis.
But on a TKD, your goals are different. You need those carbs right away for your workout, so you need them to be high-glycemic.
Should I Try TKD?
If you’re new to a standard ketogenic diet, you’ll want to give your body around 4-6 weeks to adapt to fat as fuel.
During this adaptation period, you may experience the keto flu. Low energy, poor sleep, and impaired exercise performance are all commonly reported.
This is normal, and it’s not the time to carb up and try a TKD or CKD. Instead, take electrolytes, add some low-impact exercise, and eat non-starchy vegetables. These carb-withdrawal symptoms will soon dissipate.
Also, consider cutting back on intense, glycolytic exercises during your initial keto foray.
Once you’re fat adapted, you can get back to going hard once in a while. Note how these harder efforts feel.
If they feel great, standard keto is probably for you. After all, the SKD best captures the benefits of low-carb living.
But if your performance is suffering, consider experimenting with the targeted ketogenic diet. The extra carbs can help:
- Replenish muscle glycogen
- Provide glucose to fuel intense workouts
How To Start A TKD: Step by Step
A successful TKD requires thought and consideration. Below are some general guidelines to follow.
#1 Do Standard Keto First
Remember: if you aren’t fat adapted, you can’t easily slip back into ketosis. To do a TKD right, you’ll want at least 4-6 weeks experience with an SKD.
For more info, check out this comprehensive guide on starting a keto diet.
#2 Determine Your Unique Carb Count
Different people can handle different carb intakes on keto. Some can eat over 50 grams carbs and still make ketones. Others can’t.
To determine your unique carb count, you’ll need to measure your ketone levels throughout the day. Ketone test strips are a cheap way to do this.
Start low, under 30 grams net carbs (net carbs = grams carbs – grams fiber). If your ketones are consistently over 0.5 mmol/L, perhaps you can get away with more carbs. Experiment.
When you try the TKD, eat all your carbs before, during, or after your workout. To maximize your time in ketosis: try to stay within your carb count. Ketone test strips will help you gauge the impact of these carbs on your ketone levels.
#3 Minimize Carbs
The goal of the TKD is to eat as few carbs as possible for performance enhancement. Play around, and again: start low. Try 15-30 grams carbs before your workout.
If you need more carbs, you can split them up pre-workout and post-workout to limit your blood sugar spike. To minimize non-keto time, try to stay under 50 grams carbs total.
#4 Eat Carbs Before Or During Exercise
Eating carbs before or during — rather than after — a workout may work best for the TKD. Two reasons why:
- The extra glucose helps fuel glycolytic exercises — potentially improving performance
- Intense exercise burns the extra glucose, so you return to a ketogenic state more swiftly
After your workout, stick to protein and fat to fuel muscle protein synthesis.
#5 Eat Fast-Absorbing Carbs
On an SKD, you should favor low-glycemic, high-fiber carbs like berries, carrots, and squash.
But on a TKD, your goals are different. You need those carbs right away for your workout, so you need them to be high-glycemic.
One option is dextrose powder. If dextrose isn’t your style, try simple starches like white rice or white potatoes. Avoid fructose.
#6 Keep Calories Constant
If weight loss is your goal, you should keep energy intake constant on a TKD. Adding carb calories before your workout? Subtract fat calories from somewhere else.
For reference, a gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories, while a gram of fat contains 9 calories. So if you eat 9 grams extra carbs, subtract 4 grams fat from dinner. Both are 36 calories.
#7 Supplement Wisely
Ketosis can deplete your electrolytes — minerals that keep you hydrated, regulate your PH, and activate muscle and nerve tissue.
If you’re experiencing muscle cramps or exercise fatigue on the TKD, a lack of electrolytes — magnesium, potassium, sodium, chloride, and calcium — may be to blame.
Taking a full-spectrum electrolyte supplement can help.
Other supplements can be useful too. For instance:
- Creatine helps preserve muscle glycogen[*]
- L-Citrulline boosts nitrous oxide production, allowing more oxygen to flow to your muscles[*]
- MCT Oil enhances ketone production and fat burning, even in the presence of carbs[*]
You can try them one at a time, or take them together. Up to you.
Your TKD Commitment
One more thing. The targeted ketogenic diet doesn’t need to be a lifelong commitment.
Try it for a week or two. See how you feel.
Has the TKD improved your exercise? Has it moved your health goals in the right direction?
Remember: the TKD isn’t for everyone, and it might not be for you.
But if you feel your workouts are suffering — even after keto adapting — then consider giving the TKD a shot.