Low-Carb, Healthy-Fat – Failure to Fire

Boston marathon/Triple T training has been going fairly well. Long runs continue to get longer, swimming has become fun, and I’ve managed to leverage my Wahoo Kickr to add on 20+ watts to my FTP. I even upped my ambition and goals a bit for Boston. Originally the plan was to go soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the day. wellesleyWhile I still plan to do that, I hope to run fast enough to perhaps re-qualify for next year. After all, the number one qualifying race for Boston is . . . Boston. I’ve laid out my run training accordingly using a goal marathon pace of 7:53. To date, I’ve nailed all my planned workouts. So what could possibly happen to derail these efforts? Ooh. I know. Maybe I could completely change the way I eat and think about food less than two month before Boston.

The idea hatched slowly. I was listening to an interview on the IMTalk podcast with Prof. Grant Schofield. He is a co-author of the books “What the Fat?” and “What the Fat? Sports Performance: Leaner, Fitter, Faster on Low-Carb Healthy Fat”. My first reaction while listening to the podcast was . . “Oh please. Spare me another pro-fat diatribe”. But the more I listened the more intrigued I became. The Kindle version of both books is all that is available in the US and the cost is only $7.99 & $6.99 respectively. I purchased and downloaded “What the Fat?” and read it cover to cover in a couple days. It was the first book of this nature that I have read that was both interesting and understandable. Well, understandable to a point. I had to go Google what a courgette and capsicum was. That is New Zealand-speak for zucchini and pepper if you were wondering.  There were several other Kiwi terms for veggies I had to research too but that was the most research the book required to understand.

grilled-zucchini-pepper-thyme
Courgette and capsicum (aka zucchini and peppers)

“What the Fat?” is an eye opener to say the least. It turns out the traditional food pyramid and the idea that things like saturated fats are bad for you doesn’t have a whole lot of real science behind it. In fact the “science” is no more than anecdotal cause and effect. “Our bodies are fat. It must be from eating fat”. This is akin to saying “My kitchen floor is flat so the world must be flat”. Sorry B.o.B but that is weak science too. It turns out that sugar is the main cause for obesity, heart disease, and bad cholesterol. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Humans eat enormous quantities of sugar despite our early ancestor never having a ready availability of anything other than a few naturally occurring sugars. It seems we have been hood-winked by the food pyramid that has been shoved down our throats (pun partially intended) and the food industry that has made a fortune producing lots of expensive, easily prepared sugar-ridden “foods”.food-pyramid-big

I think the main concept described in the book for me is what exactly happens in your body when you consume sugar (including any/all carbohydrates). Your body produces insulin, stops burning fat, and prevents you from knowing whether or not you are “full”. It also turns out while your body can and does burn carbohydrates (sugar) if they are available and can make great use of them during times of really high-intensity. In fact, the body prefers to have them available during extremely intense moments of exercise. Carbs become like nitrous oxide injection for the body. Otherwise, by nature, the body prefers to use fat as fuel and does much better as a whole using fat as fuel both physically and mentally. This was the super-high-level summary of “What the Fat?”. I’d really suggest reading it for yourself.

After reading about all the horrible things that happen when there is too much insulin running through my veins, I suddenly lost my taste for chocolate and candy. But I was even more intrigued by the idea of running or riding for miles and miles with my body burning the nearly unlimited supply of fat in my body. (Don’t be a wise-ass. We all have plenty of fat.)  I immediately purchased book #2,”What the Fat? Sports Performance: Leaner, Fitter, Faster on Low-Carb Healthy Fat” and began reading. I wanted to know how this applies to endurance sports and how to accomplish being metabolically flexible and able to burn fat for fuel. (Or fat adapted.)

Book #2 quickly cuts to the chase only lightly touching on much of what was covered in “What the Fat?” and both the authors and I suggest reading “What the Fat?” first. That said, enough of the low-carb healthy fats concepts are covered in book #2 that you could read it and get started by itself.

Step 1 in either case is teaching your body to become “fat adapted” or “metabolically flexible”. You don’t have to take a class, and it isn’t a difficult trick. Your body knows what to do. It evolved to burn fat as fuel but we’ve been stuffing carbohydrates of all forms down our gullets for so long it only vaguely remembers what it is like to be in it’s happy place of burning fat. The general idea is you simply cut carbs out as much as you can stand until your body says “Oh. Okay. We aren’t going to run on donuts and insulin anymore. Good! I’m happy about that”.

Woah Nellie!

I began working on this blog post about halfway through my attempt to become fat adapted. I had gotten my carbs down to about 60-70 grams per day which, as it turns out, is not easy. Those things are sneaky and they are everywhere. I updated our shopping list to include full-fat milk, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, avacados, etc. I was using real cream in my coffee, and carefully monitoring daily intake attempting to derive the energy from my daily workouts from healthy fats instead of carbohydrates. I was feeling good about my efforts but not feeling good overall. I was lethargic, and tired and not getting energy from my workouts like I usually do.

But that was okay and to be expected. The book and Prof. Schofield emphasized that this would be the case during the fat adaptation process. Once adapted, most folks feel better than ever before and some achieve the ability to take on long distance endurance events with little or no fueling required. I stayed the course.

At least until my Mom showed up. What? Yes, Mom has in fact been gone for quite a few years. It seems that she may have left me a little gem in the form of her inability to deal with fat. As she aged, Mom had gall bladder and other abdominal issues related to eating fat. I found myself getting nauseous, and having all sorts of other stomach and digestive issues better left not detailed. At first I thought maybe it was just part of the adaptation process. I had not regularly eaten anything high in fat for many years. I soldiered on with the process.

Then one early afternoon during an easy lunchtime run I found myself nearly vomiting after a breakfast of full-fat Greek yogurt, raspberries, and walnuts. To this day, I have NEVER puked during even a hard workout. I’d even be okay with losing my lunch at the finish line after an all out race effort but this was a slowish, easy run and my stomach was turning inside out. Perhaps I had picked up a little stomach bug. I kept with the plan.

Over the next couple days I found myself unable to get through a workout without feeling queasy. I also notice my stomach rebelling after meals including the healthy fats I was supposed to be eating. Things were not good.

I scoured the LCHF pages trying to find out if what I was experiencing was normal during the adaptation phase but found no evidence supporting that. I did find a lot of evidence of genetic issues with gall bladder disease and it’s symptoms. Mom dealt with some pretty crippling gall bladder and other fat-related digestive issues as she aged. Hmmm. Time for an experiment. Back off the fats.gallbladder

Within a day my gut improved with no more nausea or cramping. While that was good, I was still keeping the carbs to a minimum. In looking at a few days on MyFitnessPal I realized I was not doing a low-carb, low-fat diet. Not only was I not getting enough energy to support my daily workout regimen, I was also not getting enough iron, and not nearly enough fiber. It was time to punt.

Even if it turns out the low-carb, healthy-fat diet is not for me, I learned a lot of valuable information from “What the Fat?”.

  • Understanding the body’s insulin response to sugar
  • Insulin Sensitive vs. Insulin Resistant
  • The importance of healthy, whole-foods
  • The importance of watching nutrients

The good news is, based on my own anecdotal evidence in my experiment of n=1, I am fortunate in that I am Insulin Sensitive meaning following the traditional food pyramid works for me to a degree. Keeping calories down and making traditionally healthy choices has allowed me to take off and keep off 60+ lbs I don’t need to carry around. Armed with that evidence and the solid knowledge that eating a lot of fat (even healthy fat) does not work for me I will return to what has always worked with a few exceptions. I’ve let a lot of non-value food creep in to my day. While I will allow myself to indulge occasionally, I want to go back to measuring the value of the food the passes my lips by asking the question “Is this helping me to live healthier or race faster”?

Despite the fact that low-carb, healthy-fat did not work for me, I would highly recommend reading “What the Fat?” and if you are an active person  “What the Fat? Sports Performance: Leaner, Fitter, Faster on Low-Carb Healthy Fat”. Both are quick reads and written so that the reader does not need a doctorate in nutrition to understand the content. As suggested in the books, if you find the concepts appealing, make your own experiment of n=1 and see how it works for you.

Click here to learn more about “What the Fat?”

Click here to learn more about Prof. Grant Schofield

Click here to learn more about Caryn Zinn

Find Chef Craig Rodger on Facebook

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