Nutrition & Metabolism | Full text | Ketogenic diets and physical performance
Impaired physical performance is a common but not obligate result of a low carbohydrate diet. Lessons from traditional Inuit culture indicate that time for adaptation, optimized sodium and potassium nutriture, and constraint of protein to 15–25 % of daily energy expenditure allow unimpaired endurance performance despite nutritional ketosis.
In the opinion of most physicians and nutrition scientists, carbohydrate must constitute a major component of one's daily energy intake if optimum physical performance is to be maintained . This consensus view is based upon a long list of published studies performed over the last century that links muscle glycogen stores to high intensity exercise. It has also been reinforced by the clinical experience of many physicians, whose patients following low carbohydrate formula or food diets frequently complain of lightheadedness, weakness, and ease of fatigue.
During the time that this consensus view of the necessity of carbohydrate for vigorous exercise was forming, the last pure hunting cultures among the peoples of North America finally lost out in competition with expanding European cultural influences. Between 1850 and 1930, the routine consumption of carbohydrates spread north from the U.S. Plains States through central Canada, where the indigenous peoples had heretofore made at most seasonal use of this nutrient class. However the last of these groups to practice their traditional diet, the Inuit people of the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic regions, were luckily observed by modern scientists before their traditional dietary practices were substantially altered. The reports of these early scientists imply that the Inuit people were physically unhampered despite consuming a diet that was essentially free of identifiable carbohydrate.
Given this juxtaposition of clinical research results favoring carbohydrate against observed functional well-being in traditional cultures consuming none, it is an interesting challenge to understand how these opposing perspectives can be explained. This paper will review the observations of early explorer scientists among the Inuit, track the controversy that they stimulated among nutritionists in the last century, and utilize some of the forgotten lessons from the Inuit culture to explain how well-being and physical performance can be maintained in the absence of significant dietary carbohydrate.
The origins of carbohydrate supremacy
Until the development of agriculture over last few millennia, our human ancestors' consumption of dietary carbohydrate was opportunistic. As some groups adapted to hunting and fishing for their sustenance, they were able to move into temperate and then arctic regions, where limited access to wild grain, nuts, and fruit dictated sustained dependence upon fat and protein as primary sources of dietary energy.
With the development of agriculture came the ability to grow and store grain, allowing societies to remain in a stable physical location, build permanent dwellings, and potentially stimulating the development of written language (those early stone tablets would have been difficult to transport from camp to camp on a dog sled). Starting from locations in the Middle East and Asia, cultures based upon agricultural wheat and rice spread over 5 millennia to dominate Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
With its ability to support a non-nomadic life style, greater population density, and permanent communities; there were clear advantages of agriculture-based societies over those based upon hunting and fishing, particularly as agricultural communities built the infrastructure to support trade and transport. Given its success in this competition of cultures (and by implication, the competition of their diets), it is an easy assumption that a grain-based diet is functionally superior to one based upon the meat and fish (fat and protein) of the hunting societies that they superseded.
As the science of nutrition developed in the early 20th Century, numerous comparative studies were undertaken to assess differences between diets. Although there were some advocates of low carbohydrate diets (eg, the Banting diet of the 19th Century, promoted for weight loss and diabetes control), the prevailing premise for these studies was that carbohydrate was a necessary nutrient for optimum human health and function. Among studies confirming this view, a classic was the 1939 study by two Danish scientists, Christensen and Hansen . They did a crossover study of low carbohydrate, moderate carbohydrate, and high carbohydrate diets, each lasting one week. At the end of each diet, the subjects' endurance time to exhaustion on a stationary bicycle was assessed. Compared to the mean endurance time on the low carb diet of 81 minutes, the subjects were able to ride for 206 minutes after the high carb diet.
During the Second World War, another oft-cited study was performed, this time examining the practicality of pemmican (a mixture of dried meat and fat) as a light-weight emergency ration for soldiers. This experiment by Kark et al  involved abruptly switching soldiers in winter training in the Canadian Arctic from standard carbohydrate-containing rations to pemmican. This study only lasted 3 days, as the soldiers rapidly became unable to complete their assigned tasks, which included pulling loaded sleds 25-miles per day through deep snow.
With the resurgence of biomedical science in the 1960's came development of the percutaneous needle biopsy, facilitating assessment of intra-muscular fuel stores and metabolism. This led to the concept of muscle glycogen as the limiting fuel for high intensity exercise  and to the nutritional strategy of carbohydrate loading . The clear consensus that developed from this research was that fat had limited utility as a fuel for vigorous exercise, and that humans are physically impaired if given a low carbohydrate diet.
The hunter's counterpoint – practical observations on ketogenic diets
Although high-carbohydrate diets might be more effective in short-term tests of high-intensity exercise, there are multiple clues in the published literature that the debilitating effects of ketogenic diets are overstated. Not only is there the demographic evidence that whole populations of people lived for millennia as hunters, but there are many reports of Europeans crossing over to live within the cultures of these hunting societies without apparent impediment.
One of the earliest documented demonstrations of physical stamina during a ketogenic diet was the Schwatka 1878–80 expedition in search of the lost Royal Navy Franklin expedition. The Schwatka expedition, sponsored by the New York Herald and the American Geographical Society, departed from the west coast of Hudson's Bay in April of 1879 with 4 Caucasians, 3 families of Inuits, and 3 heavily laden dog sleds. Totaling 18 people, they started out with a month's supply of food (mostly walrus blubber) and a prodigious supply of ammunition for their hunting rifles. After covering over 3000 miles on foot over ice, snow and tundra, all 18 members of the original party plus their 44 dogs returned to Hudson's Bay in March of 1880. Once their initial provisions were depleted, the expedition's only source of additional food was hunting and fishing, as there were no other sources of supply along their route.
The leader of this expedition, Lt. Frederick Schwatka, was a graduate of both West Point and Bellevue Hospital Medical College. His summary of the expedition was published as a news article in the New York Herald in the Fall of 1880, but his written diary was lost for 85 years until its discovery and publication by the Marine Historical Association of Mystic CT in 1965 . This fascinating 117-page saga describes how Schwatka, a frontiersman and U.S. Army surgeon, collaborated with his Inuit guides to accomplish a remarkable feat of physical endurance.
In one notation, Schwatka provides an interesting insight into his weaning from their initial supply of carbohydrate-containing food.
"When first thrown wholly upon a diet of reindeer meat, it seems inadequate to properly nourish the system, and there is an apparent weakness and inability to perform severe exertive fatiguing journeys. But this soon passes away in the course of two or three weeks."
This observation, written a century before the current author first came to grips with the issue of "keto-adaptation", offers an early clue to resolve the dichotomy between impaired performance with low carbohydrate diets in the laboratory and their lack of debilitating effects when taken among people practiced in their use. That Schwatka was not impaired by his prolonged experience eating meat and fat is evidenced by his diary entry for the period 12–14 March 1880, during which he and an Inuit companion walked the last 65 miles in less than 48 hours to make a scheduled rendezvous with a whaling ship and complete his journey home.