First – a summary and my results for people who want to know if something is worth a read before spending the time to go any further (like me):
About six weeks ago, frustrated with my typical “calorie and carb cut to get into race weight” approach and concerned about a number of personal health issues with a high carbohydrate diet, I tried something almost entirely different – a low carb, moderate protein, high fat diet. This is generally referred to as a “ketogenic diet.” The nutrition values for me were less than 50g carbs, around 150g protein and the rest as fat per day – or in terms of ratios, 5/25/70%.
If I haven’t lost you yet (believe me, I understand … 70% fat??? where the heck do you get your energy from?) stick with me here. I think my results and the reasoning are very interesting.
Disclaimer #1 – I fully understand the importance of the individual approach to nutrition. This is precisely why I’ve decided to blog about this. There are many sides to this debate – high carb will destroy your health, low carb will destroy your health. I have discovered that low carb works better for me than high carb, yet most of the general nutrition advice I’ve gotten over the years is to preach for high carb. I wish the “experts” I used would at least have shown me the pros/cons of both so I could have decided on my own.
So back to the results – what happened? Here’s 5 major points:
- This has been the EASIEST nutrition change I’ve ever made. I counted calories and measured only to get a baseline and went on auto-pilot – and still got results. This never would have been possible on my previous approaches. In other words, to manage my body fat on the standard carb-centric teaching I have to strictly weigh, measure and live life counting calories every day. No one can do this forever – on the other hand, getting a baseline from time to time and running on auto-pilot is much more sustainable.
- My weight loss was rather small – but my body composition changes were significant. How about an almost even swap of fat (-5lbs) for lean body mass (+5lbs)?
- I experienced quite a few daily health benefits: Much easier to go to sleep (and stay asleep!), no more GI issues like I had on high-carbs, much more even energy levels (no more afternoon crashes), reduced dependence on coffee to get through the day, no more crazy hunger pangs if I am late for a meal, no more brain fog when late for a meal..
- I definitely experienced a rough “adaptation” period as I’ve read about – carb cravings and brain fog that I’d experienced before keto were magnified for about one to two weeks. I found Keto OS (a ketone supplement) powerful tool to get me through this adaptation period.
- I am able to ride longer without any carb fueling – up to 2.5 hours so far – a sure sign of fat-adaptation. However I can tell that my higher intensity efforts are weaker (there is a fix for this!)
If you only intend to get this far, at least think about this one concept – it’s not about calories consumed vs calories burned … it’s about calories stored vs calories burned (credit to the Primal Endurance guys for coining the phrase).
Let that sink in for a moment. Why would my body be storing vs. burning what I eat? Let’s keep going.
What’s next for me?
- While body re-composition is GREAT, as a cyclist who loves/hates climbing tall mountains I am also after a body weight change as well. My experience has taught me that when I went on auto-pilot and used fat in my diet to “eat to satisfaction” I probably went into a calorie surplus. In the future I’ll go back to counting here and there to balance fat loss against retaining the lean body mass. But I cannot emphasize enough how my experience confirmed what I’ve read in multiple sources – it’s not only about the calorie balance, but how your body reacts to those calories. Or put simply, a calorie is not a calorie. Once I got my body into a state (through keto) where I wasn’t having to battle my tendency to store carbs as fat, I could then experience calorie balance on a more even playing field. Testament to that is – despite my significant consumption of fats – I burned more fat and built muscle. Wondering about dismantling the traditional food pyramid yet?
- Having spent weeks on low carb (less than 50g) and focusing on aerobic training to allow myself to become fat adapted, I’m going to add specific types of carbs back in (with proper timing) to about 100g to 150g per day (depending on training) to have proper glycogen stores for higher efforts. I will be keeping an eye on my “carb sensitivities” and will know that if my BF% starts to creep up, it will be because of eating too much carbs or the wrong type. This is where I will transition into a nutrition approach that looks more like Paleo / Primal.
- Checkup on all the important blood levels of xyz etc. What I’ve read has indicated that my metabolic indicators should actually get better. Time to make sure of that.
What are my goals and what do I expect next?
- Since I’m at the doorstep of bumping up training intensity and duration for a number of century charity rides this summer, now my first priority will be on performance. Calorie deficit for weight loss will need to take a back seat for a few months. I’ll be working from the Vespa OFM (Optimized Fat Metabolism) protocol and referencing the Primal Endurance method as I ramp up my training and targeting my carbs as needed. My expectations:
- Ride long without bonking like I have in the past
- Reduce my need for constant on-bike sugar (and thus get away from the sugar gut issues I’ve had)
- The icing on the cake (yes I can still eat cake) would be the ability to set a faster pace on long rides, which would be more evidence of fat adaptation (higher aerobic threshold). We’ll see about that – if I can get #1 and #2 at the same pace as last year I’d be happy. Adaptation to a higher AT builds over months and I’m not expecting anything immediate.
- I’ll need to find my optimal “concoction” for on-bike nutrition other than sugar. The great thing about fat adaptation is that your insulin sensitivity goes up (resistance goes down). In other words when I do need sugar it is used more effectively. So I’ll still carry a GU or something similar for those times when I really need a shot of energy. But overall long-ride fueling needs to be centered around getting my body to burn fat efficiently. I’ve already had a great experience with Keto OS for bike performance, and will be experimenting with Vespa as well. I’ll also be trying Superstarch and/or Exos Carb Fuel for non-insulin spiking carb sources while on the bike.
- I fully expect not to see my BF% climb up next winter like it has in years past. Now that I know what causes my body to store fat I believe I can now manage it much better, by transitioning to keto when my activity levels are low, and Paleo/Primal as I add in training (to be clear, the full Primal Endurance approach does include keto at times but I separate the two for the purposes of speaking about carb levels in this post).
How about some devil’s advocate questions:
I thought a calorie was a calorie. You mention this “calories stored vs. calories burned” idea. But shouldn’t I be able to burn fat as long as I maintain a calorie deficit?
No, and yes but maybe. Confused yet? Here’s a great quote from Dr. Peter Attia:
What you eat (along with other factors, like your genetic makeup, of course) impacts how your body partitions and stores fat.
Here’s his full blog post if you want to get down into the weeds – Do calories matter?
The short of it is that we all react to food differently. Some people turn carbs “efficiently” into energy. Others – like myself – tend to take those carbs and store them as fat. That makes me terribly inefficient (or insensitive – or carb intolerant as many have called it) towards carbs. So I eat more to get more energy but then store more … notice a spiral? There’s plenty more to read in Primal Endurance or the Low Carb books by Phinney/Volek (references below).
Not to belabor the point but this was a concept which truly took awhile to sink in with me – that all foods, all calories are not “the same” and diving into your own nutrition to isolate what stands in between you and fat loss is necessary for the best outcome. Seeing my own results made the concept more concrete in my mind.
I don’t believe that you dropped fat and gained lean body mass simultaneously. Where’s your proof?
If one were to insist I can show scanned copies of my hand scratched records of body weight and body fat as measured (every morning at the same time) by two different methods to reduce error (Navy method – using waist circumference; Accumeasure method using an Iliac crest pinch). Of course there will always be measurement error but at some point one has to agree that these results are beyond a “critical difference.” If I weren’t so lazy I’d go through the trouble of a simple statistic analysis, but – well – I’m lazy.
Here’s the charts (click to zoom):
Each chart shows a red line where I started head first into keto. You can see the month prior as I frustratingly tried to apply my previous approach. (Each data track also shows a 7 day moving average to see the trend).
Looking at the Body Weight chart in isolation is a great example of how the scale will lie to you. Actually, it’s not lying, it’s just telling you all it has to offer. I had a small weight loss over the past number of weeks, but considering normal body weight fluctuations this could be called no weight loss at all.
So keto is a failure right?
Not so fast. The next chart showing Body Weight and Body Fat percentage shows the importance of body composition measurement. In other words, you do yourself a disservice only watching the scale weight. There may be some other things going on that you’re missing, and without the whole picture, one might sabotage an approach that only needs a few tweaks. Notice the orange line trending down? Body fat is dropping while weight is about the same.
The last chart showing Lean Body Mass and Fat is really interesting (at least to me). Just after the red line, there is a drop in LBM. I’ve read in multiple places that this is commonplace when starting keto – carbs are gone, glycogen / blood volume can drop… but then in those same studies LBM climbs back up over time as fat drops. Interesting to see in my own experience as well!
Do I think that I’ve gained muscle? Maybe or maybe not. I’d like to think this is my body re-gaining blood volume as I got a better handle on electrolyte balance following keto, possibly re-filling glycogen stores without carb sources (protein -> gluconeogensis -> glycogen). Also some muscle may be possible as I was still maintaining training volume during this time.
The result to date since starting “keto” has been -5.4lbs fat and +4.6lbs of lean body mass.
Still don’t believe I’ve dropped fat? How about this – my “fat pants” I fell back to in January have been in the closet for a month and now my regular pants are loose again. In other words, abdominal fat (waistline) is still a great indicator and I’ve dropped about an inch.
I don’t believe that you burned fat from carb restriction. I think you ended up with a net calorie restriction and low carb was simply a vehicle for that. Or that you cleaned up your dirty eating habits and ate clean and that’s where you got the results.
Good counterpoints. While I won’t know what I actually ate for the 6 weeks (I purposefully did not track so I could test the “auto-pilot theory”) I would submit that my calories were in surplus the majority of the time for these reasons 1) an indicated fat loss and LBM increase suggests (at least to me) a net calorie surplus and 2) I ate whenever I was hungry, and also whenever I thought I was hungry. Considering the fact that fat is a very calorie dense food, and my natural tendency is to overeat anyway, the odds are very slim that I stayed in a calorie deficit. Or put another way, you wouldn’t believe the amount of grass-fed butter, organic coconut oil and bacon I’ve gone through in 6 weeks.
Speaking of grass fed butter, our household has already been a “clean eating machine” for at least a decade now. High fructose corn syrup and white bread have no place here. We get a weekly CSA vegetable share, exclusively eat (ate) whole grains, get our chicken/beef/pork/dairy from local farms raised in a sustainable fashion … that’s another reason this was so easy to implement. We just cut out grains and bumped up the fats from the sources we already knew. No more egg white omelets, now I use whole eggs with cheese…
Where did you get all this information about the fat adapted diet? It sounds bogus! Aren’t we supposed to eat carbs for energy?
Get that Amazon account ready and just buy the darn books already that I reference below. Or hit up the websites listed.
If not – the short answer is that your brain and body will either run on glucose (from carbs) or ketones (a result of burning fat). Either will provide the energy you need for daily life. How else could humankind have survived without 3 square meals a day (or God forbid what I used to do – eating small meals 6 times a day?)
Fine. Show me some real results from real athletes who train and perform on this diet.
How about the experience of Dr Peter Attia. His blog is a great read, but be ready for some details. My favorite part is how he documented a huge increase in his aerobic threshold heart rate once he was fat adapted (translation – burning less sugar and more fat at a higher heart rate).
Ben Greenfield is another great example of someone who has transitioned from the high carb approach… get ready for some deep reading about his nutrition and performance measures as part of the FASTER study.
Fine still. But the diet sounds yucky. I can’t give up bread and all the grains I love.
First of all, if you’re living healthy on breads and the like and enjoy it, more power to you. Knowing what I know now, I’ve realized I have a number of issues with grains that I’d rather just avoid instead of chowing on bread. That’s not to say I won’t enjoy a good sourdough melt here and there, but grains are not a cornerstone of my diet anymore. Check out what the Primal Endurance guys say about the “beige goop.” It might be eye opening.
Another resource – here’s a list from Dr. Maffetone – things to look for to determine if you’re carb intolerant. I could check off many of these boxes before. Now most are non-issues.
Apart from that I’m having way more fun eating this way than my previous moderate carb / low fat / high lean protein diets. Dropping out the sugars and the fats and gorging on chicken breast all the time – I never looked forward to that time of the year. But bringing fats back allowed some great flavor profiles that weren’t possible before. And if you’ve got to have your sweets (God knows I have to have my sweets) there are some fantastic Keto dessert and ice cream recipes, with all the possible (healthy) sugar substitutes available out there.
Maybe it doesn’t sound so yucky. Tell me more about what you’re actually eating.
Here are some examples from MyFitnesspal when I was tracking on order to “reset” my nutritional compass and get a baseline.
Example 1: Still holding onto a few carbs and not wanting to completely let go… especially of my morning oatmeal habit. Lentils make an appearance for carbs as well. For pure keto this macro profile is definitely too high for carbs but wouldn’t be so bad for strategic carbs depending on the training load (but also depends on if you actually think eating lentils / oatmeal is ok for a carb source).
This was also towards the beginning when I was trying to work out the PUFA oil consumption so if you’re getting into my details please forgive that. I’m sure I’ve said this already but good fat sources are very important.
Example 2: A few days later I get the hang of it and knock out a much better macro profile, getting mono-unsaturated fats in (instead of the polys). Don’t knock me for industrial bacon in the list, this was the most convenient for tracking. Locally sourced bacon doesn’t have a scan label!
I should mention that I’m not including veggies in my tracking. We actually eat so many and as long as I know they’re not strong carb sources I don’t bother and assume they are close to zero for net carbs. That could be a mistake but I’ll adjust for it later if I don’t see results I expect. Also – it’s important to get your veggies if you’re getting into the coconut oil.
Another tip – in the past I’ve been able to implement changes without cookbooks but this time around was such a paradigm shift I found it very useful to find one (a good one!) to help me adjust to the new approach. The Ketogenic Cookbook has been a super resource … and yes you can have desserts, check it out!
In the days since I’ve been implementing butter (grass fed of course – we get ours from Happy Cow), cheese, avocado … using the cookbook (above) has helped learn from examples and then mix up on my own. For example here is today so far:
Breakfast – Coffee with heavy cream and Brain Octane Oil (helps stimulate ketone production). three whole eggs cooked in butter and cheese added
Lunch – Greens salad with olive oil, vinegar, avocado, chicken thigh meat blended with mayo, cheddar cheese. (We’re still getting around to making our own mayo. Even though this was a brand based on an expeller pressed canola – it’s still canola.) I’ve also discovered (wild caught) sardines as a convenient way to top a salad.
Looks like dinner will be protein and veggie based as the morning and lunch have been mostly fat.
As I change-up to more carbs with the training increase I’ll track again and share on my update in a few weeks.
What are all these supplements you are talking about? I’ve never heard of them. Sounds like snake oil.
Let’s take an honest look at the supplement market. Everything out there sounds dubious, if you really think about it. My approach is to first determine if something is safe to consume (the best I can) and if so, try it out. That’s all you really can do with many things – try it out. For example, I used to consume a particular sports drink like crazy when I first started riding because it helped me deal with electrolyte loss and cramps. But then riding even longer I found I had problems with digesting it. So it worked – and it didn’t – for me. Maybe it works all the time for some people and not at all for others. Figuring out what you need and what works just takes trial and error (but hopefully based on some kind of analysis of what you’re looking for vs what a supplement hypothetically can provide).
Keto OS – (full disclosure – liked this stuff so much I signed up to be a Promoter). My experience – this is a great go-to supplement to get through the hard part of keto adaptation. It is a ketone supplement, so while your body is adjusting to produce ketones in the absence of glucose, one can supplement with this to still have “brain fuel” and not deal with the carb withdrawal (speaking from experience). Also – speaking from experience – this has been a super “long burning” energy source for endurance bicycling. My first try of this stuff (which was before I switched to a keto diet) I tried to set myself up for a bonk on a 3 hour ride. No pre-ride snack, low carbs all day beforehand. Instead of limping home I knocked out some rather intense lactate threshold intervals and finished strong. From now on this will be in my water bottles.
Keto OS is relatively new on the market but the idea of “exogenous ketones” has been around for awhile. Dr Peter Attia documents his experience with supplemental ketones here.
Vespa – This is another interesting supplement along the lines of fat adaptation (like Keto OS) but my understanding is that it works in a different way to increase fat utilization. I will be experimenting with this in the near future.
Superstarch and Exos Carb fuel – two carbohydrate sources that are not made from the typical “sugar gut” inducing ingredients. These are meant to bring carb based energy to your body (replenish glycogen) without blood sugar spikes and the subsequent insulin issues (and fat storage of the carbs which you needed for energy!). I will also be experimenting with these for longer rides with intensity sessions.
I also make sure I get enough salt and take Slow-Mag as a magnesium supplement. Again – it’s worth reading into – but going fat based means more kidney function and you’ve got to keep your fluids and thus electrolytes in check when exercising. I’m still experimenting and will also continue with my standard electrolyte supplements for endurance activities.
Okay I’ve had enough. What about all these resources you talk about?
Books I’ve read or in-process:
Disclaimer #2: This information is used for entertainment purposes only – not to be used to diagnose or treat any disease or health condition – I am not a doctor or a nutritionist or a health coach. Just a guy who rides bikes, likes to live healthy and make observations about my experiences.