How adopting (and adapting) a Keto-based lifestyle has changed my life – Ten Month Update

I realize there are many people who would read this nutritional approach and chalk it up to utter nonsense, with the assertion that a high carbohydrate low-fat lifestyle is the proper means towards healthy living. To those people, know that I am happy that your approach is working for you, wishing you continued success and hope that your body never “rebels” against your nutrition. My message is for those who are not thriving under the “standard dietary advice” – that maybe my experience can help those like me who are at a dead-end with the high carb diet and want to try something different.

Also understand that I’m not a nutritionist, but a regular guy who is accustomed to research and problem solving in my day job, leading me to an “n=1” study on my own person, in an attempt to correct my own health.

With that disclaimer behind us, below is an account of the results from my last 10 months, experiencing the life-changing effects of a keto-adapted lifestyle.


Summary:

  • My sanity is back. In fact, I had no idea I had lost my sanity until I realized what it was like to drop the stressful lifestyle of constant cardio and calorie counting…
  • My weight / body composition have been stable. For the first time in what seems like forever, I can maintain my weight by eating to my hunger, without depriving myself, and without being a slave to constant exercise and calorie counting
  • My metabolic risk factors have all improved
  • My hunger is not constant – I don’t have to eat every few hours like before
  • My bicycling performance has been transformed – I need much less food on bike rides, my recovery is quicker, and I’m just as fast as last year with less training.
  • My well-being is just better overall! I have more even energy, less brain fog and headaches, less sugar cravings, less GI discomfort, sleep better…

That leads me to what some have called the “great irony of keto-adaptation.” After the carb-restriction and adaptation period, one has changed to insulin-sensitive and can re-introduce carbs to their diet as-needed, knowing that carbs will be converted to energy much more effectively than before.

And I bet some out there thought I don’t eat any carbs anymore!


Just after the start of the New Year of 2016, I once again put myself through my normal “off-season” routine – cut the pounds to achieve a better “race weight” through strict diet management with calorie reduction and focused training.

As I started back down this path, I reflected that every year, I’d do the same thing. Weight goes up, fight to bring it back down.  Repeat.  Always trying to break the cycle of fat gain, thinking it only had to do with counting calories. Yet I couldn’t explain the paradox of adding inches to my waist the more I bumped up my activity.  Everyone is used to the weight gain during the holidays, but what was up with gaining weight through the summers of plenty of long bike rides?

The more I thought about what I was doing, the more I realized that I wasn’t grasping the whole picture. The idea of sustainability came to mind.  How is it that many people can clearly maintain themselves without being attached at the hip to MyFitnessPal?

I arrived at the conclusion that I should not merely survive on a nutrition approach, but rather I should thrive. Something I was doing was not ideal for my body.

This conclusion led me down the path of searching – yet again – for a nutritional approach that would work for me, which I documented in this post at the 6 week mark.


What did I learn?  That the high-carb “mainstream” approach to fueling for endurance athletes was all wrong for me.  My body was in a state of insulin resistance (as in showing signs of Type 2 Diabetes!) and it couldn’t use all of the carbs I was feeding it.  Even worse, those carbs were being stored as fat.  I needed to correct what was going on with all these complex hormones which regulate carb and fat metabolism.

What have been my results over the past months?

  1. Weight management is not calorie counting insanity anymore!
  2. After strictly following the fat-adaptation period, I can actually enjoy carbs now (in moderation)
  3. My health and all my metabolic risk factors have improved
  4. I no longer have constant hunger
  5. My “need to feed” on bike rides has dropped about 75%
  6. Recovery from exercise and inflammation has significantly improved
  7. Speed on the bike is at least the same as last yet (or maybe slightly better!) with almost half the training load!

What am I doing next?

  1. Make a push for fat loss in the “off season” – for the first time ever I’m finishing the summer lighter than when I started. Let’s work on next year’s climbing weight right now!
    1. Hypothesis – being “fat-adapted,” experiment with reducing dietary fat, maintaining protein for muscle repair and workout in a calorie deficit to improve body composition.
  2. When I do get bike time in these shorter days, keep a good balance between base and intensity to keep my fat burning endurance going strong.
  3. Enjoy this new approach to life!


 

Want more details? Keep reading…

I was able to drop off MyFitnessPal for months and still maintain my weight and my sanity

I know this must resonate with more than a few people. You know who you are, and I once was there – you just look at something sweet and the pounds add on. To keep your weight down, counting calories was central, and you were chained to some sort of method to keep track of everything – which meant weighing and measuring your food to keep a running diary EVERY _ SINGLE _ DAY. Once you set aside the diary, weight creeps back up.

Instead, this is the first summer that I ended lighter than I started. As I noted in my previous post about my experience, I was around 193 lbs at the end of the 6 week “test.” Fast forward to this week, and I weighed in just about 191 lbs. This is without touching MFP the entire time, and with having a few family trips in the mix (i.e. eating out and “bad eating” certainly happened).

I cannot express how liberating this feels. Now I can absorb “life” and account for periods of lower training volume without a worry. For the first time ever, we took a family vacation together and I wasn’t stressed about getting enough exercise or counting calories from restaurant menus.

How did I beat the weight creep? I pointed to a few resources explaining this in my previous post, but in short – a calorie is not a calorie. The way our body should work is that our hunger is proportional to our energy needs and we can eat accordingly without ballooning up. But if something is wrong “inside” – in my case insulin resistance – things can go all wrong hormonally and you may be eating past your energy needs while your body can’t process everything you’re taking in. Put simply, in an insulin resistance scenario, carbohydrates don’t all go to energy, some get stored as fat. What makes it worse is that in this scenario your body only “knows” how to burn carbs and can’t access the fat stores as easily, so the downward spiral of fat gain continues.

If this goes unchecked, the situation will eventually worsen into Type 2 Diabetes.

The good news is this can be corrected with nutrition.  This is exactly what I did – moved to a low carb, high fat diet to correct my fat storing tendencies, my inability to extract energy from carbs, and my inability to burn fat as well.

Here’s a great article describing the phenomenon in more detail and pointing to the use of high fructose corn syrup as a major player in the US obesity epidemic. Quote:

“As long as you keep eating fructose and grains, you’re programming your body to create and store fat.”

http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/04/30/fructose-and-protein-related-to-obesity.aspx

 

I can actually eat carbs now (in moderation) – with a caveat

When I first started on a keto-based approach, I strictly followed the plan to make sure I could get through the adaptation period and correct my metabolism. The good news is that what I read about the “after” period was true for me – once you’ve corrected things, you may re-introduce carbs and test the waters to see how you respond. This has made social events much more enjoyable. I’ll generally stay keto in day to day life, saving my carb indulgences for gatherings where I know there will be some excellent homemade bread or dessert I’d like to try. I also have brought back some carbs for longer / more intense bike rides (covered later).

I must mention that this “carb re-introduction” is a highly individualized subject. Whether or not to add carbs back to your diet and to what level is highly dependent on your desired health goals / improvements and personal tolerances. Some people stay in pure keto because it’s what they need for optimum health. I found that adding back “better” carbs like sweet potatoes helped me get enough fuel for high intensity exercise.

Regardless, the amount of carbs I eat now is a fraction of what I once consumed. Now I have a general “feel” for when I eat too much as it brings back some of the “fog” or other reactions. I rarely eat wheat and most grains now as I’ve found that avoiding them has helped my digestive system; I am a sucker for tortilla chips (especially salty ones!) but keep it at a lower level; and I still enjoy sweets but “need” much less to satisfy (e.g. a piece of true dark chocolate and I’m done).

Finally, it cannot be overstated that without the adaptation period, cycling in and out of carbs wouldn’t be possible. First the foundation must be corrected, and that cannot be done without prolonged carb restriction to reset the metabolism.

 

My overall health and metabolic risk factors have improved!

One of the repeating questions I would get from people interested in what I was doing was “what are your lab results?” I understood the concern as we have had this message beat into us from the industry that “fat is bad.” I once thought this as well, but it’s only half-true. There is plenty of evidence to show that high fat with high refined carbs is a terrible way to eat and will do serious damage to your risk factors. But a diet based on good fats and low carbs has been shown to take fasting glucose, HDL, triglyceride levels and so on in the right direction.

Here’s where my results landed – from one year ago (before) to “today” (my yearly fall health screening).

Did you ever think you could reduce your triglycerides and reduce your blood glucose by eating more fat?

Triglycerides HDL Fasting Glucose
2015 56 69 99
2016 48 95 92

How is this possible? Again – I’ll leave the fine details to the experts, but here’s how I understand it:

Going to a high-fat low-carb diet prioritizes your fat burning metabolism and in the process, this “heals” your insulin resistance. Blood sugar then corrects itself – as you change from insulin resistant to insulin sensitive – because your body can burn carbs without a problem. HDL goes up because you’re eating the good fats. Triglycerides were once high because your body didn’t know how to burn fat. But now you’ve taught it how to use fat for energy, so the trigs drop as well.

There you have it. Teaching your body to access fat stores = correcting a number of metabolic risk factors.

By the best indicator of heart health I know of (the Triglycerides / HDL ratio) I think I’m doing just fine now:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2664115/

http://www.drsinatra.com/the-most-important-cholesterol-ratio-to-watch/

On top of this I sleep more soundly and am more rested … many days I wake up before my alarm ready to go.  I have NEVER had that happen before!

I no longer have constant hunger

Another way I like to say this is that I eat when I’m hungry and don’t worry about my weight creeping up like I have before. In prior years I would have had to maintain almost a constant state of mild hunger all the time to keep my weight / body composition under control; I don’t need to stay hungry anymore and it’s great!

Observing my hunger patterns now has been very interesting.  On the old way, I was just hungry all the time – no matter my activity level.  Now, I notice signals that align with my training.  Lots of training in a week with hard efforts, I will have more meals a day than if I’ve dropped off the volume.  On very low weeks I’m not hungry until lunch.

It’s also been great to ditch the habit of 6 meals a day and the need to eat regularly at 7am / 10am / noon etc or risk a headache.  Happy that is gone!

 

My “need to feed” on bike rides has dropped by about 75%

This is another amazing change. Instead of starting rides with pockets stuffed with energy bars, I ride with far less. In fact, for anything 2 hours or less, unless it’s a very intense ride (needing some glucose fueling) I generally don’t need to consume anything at all on the bike (which is a huge change from before, where I had to constantly eat to keep from bonking).

This year I have participated in rides upwards of 70+ miles for many hours and only had to consume a fraction of what I’ve needed before. I had plenty of energy and with no bonking in sight.

I am very confident I am much more bonk-resistant, maybe even bonk-proof as some people claim for really long and intense rides.

The reasoning behind this can be found in the “FASTER” study, described in the link below. In short, a fat-adapted athlete can push their aerobic threshold higher, reducing their need for glucose fueling:

http://www.vespapower.com/the-emerging-science-on-fat-adaptation/

Speaking of Vespa, here are my go-to supplements as a keto-adapted athlete:

  • Vespa – a catalyst to keep the fat metabolism charged up during a long event
  • Keto OS – a ketone supplement which provides hours’ worth of an energy boost (“spike” this with targeted glucose fueling and it is rocket boost time!)
    • Keto OS v3.0 is also a super way to get your electrolytes as a keto athlete (especially magnesium)

For many hours on the bike with hard efforts I’ll have Keto OS in one bottle or two (especially if it’s hot), one or two easily digestible energy gels (I like what Huma makes), a Vespa pack and a low GI food bar from Clif or similar just in case.

If it’s only a couple hours at aerobic efforts I bring a whole lot less.

I also drink a lot more water than before and make sure I get lots of salt/potassium too:

http://www.vespapower.com/ofm/hydration/

 

I recover much faster from exercise and have reduced inflammation

As this is covered in-depth in the Phinney/Volek book I pointed to in my last post, here are the bullet points:

  • Glucose driven metabolism = higher oxidative stress vs. fat burning
  • Less oxidative stress on a fat driven metabolism = quicker recovery.
  • Additionally, a fat driven metabolism = higher aerobic capacity = less lactate load & no leg burn!

http://www.vespapower.com/ofm/fat-adapted-metabolic-state/

 

My endurance performance while bicycling is “improved” at almost half the training level

What is amazing to me, on top of the corrected health issues, the improved well-being and recovery from exercise, is how my bicycling endurance performance has transformed. True, when I first started this journey my speed took a big drop and I struggled through the first couple big rides of the year. However this was anticipated based on the research.

http://www.vespapower.com/ofm/fat-adapted-metabolic-state/

After a few months in, I experienced the transformation – my speed came back, but curiously, with less training than prior years. I found myself able to hold hard efforts longer, pulling groups and “sprinting for the city limits sign.” Towards the end of the riding season, I dabbled with the faster groups, just able to hold on vs. being dropped early in the past.

I not only saw a difference in the “90 minute sprint” of Tuesday night group rides, but also on longer Saturday morning metric centuries when I hammered hard just to see if I would break. I set a higher threshold heart rate and never bonked.

I’d say things are different now, yes?


Disclaimer: 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.

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