Keto Lore: The Pioneers of the Diet & Their Secrets: A History of Keto Bodybuilding Legends - Old School Labs
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Home » OSL Blog » Keto Lore: The Pioneers of the Diet & Their Secrets

Keto Lore: The Pioneers of the Diet & Their Secrets

July 10, 2019

The Golden Era of bodybuilding has seen its fair share of fads. Diets like the keto diet are one of them. Some people are huge proponents while others aren’t. 

If you’ve been following along with our keto diet series, you’ve probably decided if it’s right for you. We thought we’d end this series with some keto lore and history, to see how it’s evolved over time.

The ketogenic diet has been in the form we know it today for almost 100 years. As the obesity epidemic (and subsequent health issues) has gained traction, so has the popularity of this way of eating.

Obese person
One of the ways to counteract obesity is the keto diet.

Obesity is attributed to as many as 2.8 million deaths per year. This includes underlying health conditions:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease

An unhealthy lifestyle and bad eating habits are largely the reasons for the epidemic. The keto diet is one that has seen promising results on weight loss and improved physical activity. The jury is still out on long-term effects of the diet, with most participants less than two years in. As more people embrace this way of eating for the long-term, more studies will be done for those effects.

Golden Era Bodybuilders

Today, we’ve picked a few Golden Era bodybuilders and gurus to see what their thoughts were on the diet. Let’s see who recommends it, who doesn’t, and why. 

But first, we’ll get started with a pre-Golden Era bodybuilder. His unorthodox and questionable ways created the path for the keto diet we know today. Some of the best revelations in medical history have started by accident, and the ketogenic diet is no exception.

Bernarr Macfadden

While his name may not be familiar, Bernarr “Body Love” Macfadden (1868-1955) certainly made his mark on the ketogenic diet. He was hailed both crazy and a genius of his time and helped create today’s version of the keto diet.

Most famous for his “Cure to Fix Everything,” Macfadden was one who believed it. His cure for everything? Fasting.

Bernarr Macfadden
Macfadden believed fasting was the cure to all health related problems.

And not just the type of fasting that is caused when the body’s ketones mimic fasting in the keto diet. But actual, no food or drink, fasting. Macfadden himself was a bodybuilder and had an impressive physique that he attributed to fasting.

A Focus on Fasting

Fasting was commonly used in the 1800’s into the early 1900s for various illnesses, especially for epilepsy in children. A connection was hard to make, but reasoning applied that toxins were removed during the fast. Once lymphatic toxins were eliminated, many children saw their seizures and other symptoms disappear or greatly reduced.

In the 1920s, the ketogenic diet as we know it today was made part of history. The low-carb, high-fat diet was created to make the body believe it was fasting, to reap the benefits. Of course today, we see it mostly used as a weight loss and diabetic diet.

However, Macfadden was a true believer that fasting and the original ketogenic diet was the answer. Too bad for Macfadden though because, when he grew ill at the age of 87, he turned again to fasting. Ultimately, he was too sick once he was found sometime later and died in hospital.

The life and death of Bernarr Macfadden were fascinating to many. He helped revolutionize a way of eating that has today, helped various people with different ailments. Without his work and others like him, the ketogenic diet may not have met its demise long ago.

Vince Gironda

Dubbed the Iron Guru, Vince Gironda is a household name when it comes to the Golden Era of bodybuilding. He dreamed to aspire as a stunt man like his dad after they moved to Hollywood. He knew the only way he’d be able to make it was to build up his physique.

Vince Gironda
Vince Gironda’s physique was the talk of the down during the Golden Era.

Once he started working out, it became his lifestyle of choice and his stuntman career took a back seat. In 1948, he opened Vince’s Gym and it quickly became the go-to gym for celebrities and bodybuilders.

Vince Gironda
Vince Gironda training at his gym.

Vince was all business in the gym and expected everything from his clients. It was his high intensity exercise routines and unorthodox diet programs that helped clients excel. He trained Larry Scott to win the first Mr. Olympia in 1965. 

1. The Iron Guru on Nutrition

When it comes to nutrition, Vince knew that it was 85 percent of what makes up your body composition. Training without thought to what you were eating was a recipe for disaster and he’d have no part in it.

So, what did he think of the keto diet and its lore? He embraced it. He was a man before his time in respects on bodybuilding and nutrition. His knowledge of nutrition and ketogenic history led him to create a similar diet plan, still being used today.

eggs & chicken
Vince was an advocate of a low carb diet, with a bias towards steak & eggs regularly.

Vince was a huge advocate for high-protein, high-fat, and low-carb diets for himself and his clients. He created the Maximum Definition Diet, also known as the Steak and Eggs Diet, which consists of:

  • Steak and eggs, cooked however you life, twice a day for five days in a row
    • Use whatever seasoning you want so you don’t get bored
    • Always use butter to cook your food
  • No carbs except on your designated carb-loading day
  • Eat whatever you want on the sixth day, preference to carb-loading on this day only

2. The Iron Guru on Supplements

Vince was also a huge proponent of supplements, which were not very widely used back in the Golden Era. Of course, there were not nearly as many options back then as there are now. But, Vince once again showed that his knowledge and outlook far exceeded his time.

Anyone who worked out under Vince and followed his nutrition advice was guaranteed results. You’d be hard pressed to find any information out there of someone who was unsuccessful and worked with Vince.

We feel strongly that the Iron Guru would be proud of our new Real Keto product line. The products are geared specifically to fit with the keto diet lifestyle. They would also work well with anyone following the Maximum Definition diet.

Real keto
OSL’s Real Keto line is designed to boost performance & results on a keto diet.

While not exactly the same as the keto diet, Vince’s nutrition education led him down a very similar path. Those who want to follow the keto lifestyle could easily transition to Vince’s diet for comparison.

If you are in a slump with your keto diet or not getting the gains you’d like, consider Vince’s variation.

Rheo Blair

Rheo H. Blair was born Irvin Johnson in the 1920s. He turned his hobby of bodybuilding and nutrition into a successful career in the ‘50s and ’60s. His move to Los Angeles in the late ‘50s caused his name change and decision to open a gym.  

His nutrition education led him to also create a very successful line of protein powder. He was a huge advocate for a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet. Vince Gironda believed in Blair’s product so much, he marketed it to his clients with great success. Perry Rader, the owner of the original IronMan Magazine, also sang the praises of Blair’s Protein each month in this magazine.  

vince & blair
Vince & Blair seen in Blair’s supplement launch.

Blair’s idea of the ketogenic diet made history, much like his protein powder supplements. In a time when people thought little of nutrition and exercise, he stood out from the crowd much like Gironda. He advised everyone in the bodybuilding world to eat:

  • Eggs
  • Meat
  • Full-fat milk
  • Full-fat cream
  • Protein at every meal
  • Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day
  • Get your carbs from vegetables and a little bit of fruit
  • Say no to 
    • Sugar
    • Bread
    • Pasta
    • Grains
    • Potatoes
    • Rice
  • Take supplements
    • Amino acids
    • Protein powder
    • Multivitamin
For Blair, carbohydrates were a big no when it comes to dieting.

Those who worked with Blair and used his diet plan and/or supplements were able to succeed in bodybuilding. Along with Gironda, he worked with Larry Scott, Peary Rader, Don Howorth, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane. These Golden Era successes weren’t paid endorsers, they just believed in the product he was selling.

Nutritionists like Blair have helped the ketogenic diet keep its lore for decades. Including the diet with needed supplements to replace any deficiencies helped many bodybuilders win titles and fame.

Clarence Bass

A name not often spoken in the world of bodybuilding, Clarence Bass aka “Mr. Ripped” has lived a quiet life. A bodybuilder back in the Golden Era, he has since become an author and lawyer. He maintains a website where he discusses fitness and nutrition and was an early adopter of Tabata intervals.

At the age of 81, his physique is still impressive and seems almost impossible to some. What does Bass say is his secret?

Clarence Bass
Clarence Bass maintained his defined physique even at the age of 81.

He works out with high intensity once a week and chooses 60 minutes of brisk walking the other days. That, along with a healthy whole foods based diet, has allowed his physique to stand the test of time.

His diet is and has been a mix of the following:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Moderate amounts of protein
  • Healthy Fats
grains & vegetables
Clarence’s diet relied on grains, vegetables, fruits, & moderate amounts of protein & fats.

What does he think about the lore of the ketogenic diet and its history? “A low-carb diet—especially one emphasizing vegetable fats and fish over animal fats—is an acceptable alternative for weight control, particularly for sedentary people. It’s not a wise choice for hard training athletes, however.

He reasons and agrees with Chris Carmichael, author of Food for Fitness, that bonking or hitting the wall isn’t sustainable. The brain and central nervous system need glucose to function, which it lacks when eating a keto diet. Ketones alone are not enough for sustained athletic performance.

His Take on How Athletes Should Eat

Bass himself tried a low-carb diet that he says he would never try again. In the same post, he states his reasoning that low-carb is a no go for athletes. “High-intensity exercise is impossible without adequate carbohydrates; fat simply cannot supply energy fast enough to support maximum performance.”

vegetables & grains
Clarence believed athletes should focus on unrefined high fiber carbohydrates.

What type of carbs does Bass suggest for the athlete or bodybuilder in training? Unrefined carbs which are rich in fiber and minimally processed. He eats:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Beans
  • Oats
  • Brown rice
  • Corn

These foods do not cause insulin overreaction, so you reap the benefits of sustained energy when working out without accumulating more body fat.

He agrees with Harvard professor Dr. Walter C. Willett, author of Eat Drink and Be Healthy. The food pyramid should be updated to:

  • Lowest tier – whole grains and healthy fats from plants
  • Second tier – fruits and vegetables
  • Top tier – red meat and butter
calorie counting
Calorie counting is an industry standard, but Clarence didn’t believe it was necessary.

Regardless of his feelings on the keto diet and its lore, he does agree that calorie counting isn’t needed. If you are eating the right foods, then you should eat until you’re full. Don’t rely too much on the scale, but instead: 

  • Worry more about how you feel 
  • The way you look
  • Body fat percentage

Serge Nubret

Serge was considered one of the best bodybuilders in history, especially in regards to his aesthetic and muscular physique. A native of Guadeloupe but raised in France, he got his start in bodybuilding in the late 1950s. An artist at heart, he considered his body an art form and worked hard to perfect it.

Nubret trained himself brutally when competing, opting for the tried and true high reps with moderate weight. He punished his body as much as eight hours a day and napped in between sets.

Serge Nubret
Nubret strongly believed in today’s version of intuitive eating or listening to the body.

What were his thoughts on nutrition and the history and lore of the keto diet? He preferred a high-protein, low-carb diet just like the ketogenic diet. It makes sense now that he’d have to nap in between sets, to keep his energy up.

Serge’s Diet Philosophy

Serge’s philosophy was to never diet, but instead to listen to your body and fuel it how it wants. Bodybuilders especially tend to be in tune with their bodies and have the ability to find what works. 

Serge was no exception, choosing to eat lots of horse meat early on and switching to beef in later years. In his training plans, he advocated for three grams of protein per pound of body weight and lesser carbs.

He spent a lot of time in online bodybuilding forums, offering help on techniques and diets. When pointedly asked if he advocates for the keto diet, he didn’t respond. However, his way of eating is very similar to the keto diet we’ve been discussing.

He didn’t eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, opting instead for multivitamins and supplements. Serge never drank alcohol, and only drank coffee when needing the boost before competitions. He was also known to eat pizza whenever his body craved it.

Samir Bannout

Samir “The Lion” Bannout is another legend of the Golden Era and also happens to be an OSL Ambassador. He made lots of mistakes in his career, especially around food, and credits other greats for helping him win big. 

Samir trained himself too hard in the beginning, resulting in failed attempts in competitions. Frustrated and needing a change, he took much-needed advice from the likes of Bill Pearl and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The result? He ended up in the best shape of his life and won the 1983 Mr. Olympia.

Samir Bannout
Samir Bannout, winner of the 1983 Olympia, believed in listening to the body.

What advice did he take?

  • Listen to your body – Samir’s failures were a direct result of not listening to his body when it needed food and rest. He powered through hunger and ate the wrong things. He tried various diets that all affected his mind, determination, and physique. Once he started being more in tune with his body, he reaped the results.
  • Nutrition is the cornerstone of bodybuilding – without proper nutrition, Samir would never compete with his idols. He overate and stressed himself out. When he fueled his body properly, trained correctly, and eliminated his stress, he won Mr. Olympia.

What does Samir think about the lore and history of the ketogenic diet? It’s not for him. The rigidity of the diet derailed his progress. He was able to stick with low-carb, but not with the high-fat part of the diet. He couldn’t shake the keto fatigue either.

Thoughts on Diet and Training

His tips for the bodybuilders of today?

  • Eat five or fewer meals a day – these foods will make sure you don’t have belly fat
    • Baked potatoes
    • Salads
    • Vegetables
    • Meats
  • Never take insulin (except diabetics)
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Train hard
Steak and potatoes
Steak & baked potatoes was a go to dish according to Samir Bannout.

Great tips, but some of Samir’s ideas may not be the best for some. Prior to competitions, he would eat only chicken or fish in the weeks leading up to the comp. A few days prior, he would live off liver tablets and amino acids.

Ironically, he felt that the keto diet was not for him. Yet, some consider the diet of “meat and water” prior to competition to be part of the ketogenic diet. 

Frank Zane

One of the true legends of the Golden Era of Bodybuilding, Frank Zane developed one of the most symmetrical and perfect physiques in the history of the sport. In his career, Zane was one who didn’t rely so much on what other people thought, but how his body felt.

In preparation for his competitions, he would take photos posing in the sun at the same time of day. He would critique his form and muscles, opting to change up his diet and lifting schedule as needed.

For him, this was the best way to get competition ready. It served him well considering he went on to win three Mr. Olympia championships.

Frank Zane
Zane was believed in trial & error as everyone has a different body & needs.

His thoughts on keto lore and history? It didn’t work for his body composition. As a teacher by profession, Zane would use his notes and photos to determine how to eat. He found that a mid-carb, mid-fat, high-protein diet worked well in his younger years.

Getting older, he found that he needed to reduce his fat more to maintain his physique. Like many seasoned bodybuilders who have seen fads and diets come and go, one size does not fit all. For some, they can handle high-fats if they have the metabolism for it. 

According to Zane, you have to balance macronutrients to avoid getting fat in this industry. “ “You get fat from too much of any of the three macronutrients (proteins, carbs or fats).” ” 

balanced diet
According to Zane, a balanced diet is key.

Finding the right balance for your body type is the only way to create muscle mass and place in comps. Too much of any one can cause you to pack on the pounds and not get the gains you’re after.

The Bottom Line

Whether or not you agree with the Golden Era bodybuilders and gurus featured today, ketogenic history has its place. The lifestyle can be perfect for some while detrimental to others. 

At the end of the day, you have to do what is right for your body, genetic makeup, and fitness goals. If you’ve tried keto and it’s worked well, that’s great. If you tried it and hate it, that’s fine too. 

And of course, many will have to try different ways of eating until they find something that works for me. Every person is an individual, so it makes sense that we all will eat differently as well.

The beauty of bodybuilding in today’s world is that there are so many options available. You can eat however you want and have a supplement that can help with any deficiencies. 

If you’ve learned anything today, we hope it’s that bodybuilding is mostly proper nutrition, then weights. Figure out the way your body needs to be fueled, and then crush your gains at the gym.

So, what are your thoughts on ketogenic lore and history? Do you agree with this way of eating, or prefer a different way? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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