Sunday, February 22, 2015

Low Carb High Fat Nutrition #2 - Biology Not Physics (Cognitive Consonance)

So I’ve now been fueling myself for more than 4 months on a diet that includes not more than around 5% carbohydrate. This is because I consume no grains or starch, and no sugar or anything refined or processed. What my diet does contain is pretty much everything else: meat, fish, eggs, milk, cream, butter, cheese, vegetables, fruit, nuts; in short all the real nutrition and none of the fluff. The nutritional density of my food is much higher than it used to be.

Though weight loss was not my objective, in that space of time I have gone from a fairly lean 76kg down to a very lean 72kg. In fact I now need to remind myself to eat so I don’t lose muscle mass. I don’t get hungry like I used to, and I don’t ever have those drops in energy levels where a body, used to running primarily on sugar, runs out.

I can safely say that my body has now been running in the desired state of ketosis for most of that time. In the absence of sugar (or the reaction of insulin) in my bloodstream, my body has become hyper efficient at metabolizing fat for energy. I have occasional lapses where I might drink a bit more wine than recommended, but on a daily basis I have reverted to the ancestral metabolic pattern that developed over the 2 million years of our evolution, and it feels great!

Now that I’ve shared with you my discoveries of carb-free living as it applies to the needs of an athlete (the previous post of part 1 of my on-going experiment), I’d like to share some of the crucial information on the latest science of diet and nutrition that I am uncovering on my journey. 

I see this as an urgent matter firstly because it flies in the face of everything we've been told - the Conventional Wisdom. Thus it addresses the health of many people very dear to me who, like so many of us, have been struggling unsuccessfully to keep their weight down all their adult lives (at least) thanks to being fed a confusing array of misinformation on what to eat for the last 50 years. Most of these people have been stigmatized by the conventional take on obesity which blames fat accumulation on a weakness of character - not being able to curb their excessive appetites or do more exercise.

It also, of course, addresses the massive incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and all the other related Diseases of Civilization which are creating the most unhealthy global population in history.

Thanks initially to the research done by the amazing Gary Taubes for his book Good Calories Bad Calories - probably the most important book written in the last 50 years - I have recently had access to information that exposes exactly what a farce “public health” institutions are responsible for, and why we should never accept what “experts” tell us, no matter how many big scientific-sounding maxims they thrust at us. If you want a conspiracy theory, this is the jackpot, and nothing comes close to causing the misery and damage that this has. I don’t ask you to believe me, I ask you to investigate.

What follows here is a quick summary of the evidence. I do not include references or annotations - those are the domain of the above-mentioned book which is meticulous in it's scientific accuracy. I seek only to present the argument in such a way that it merits your further study.


Does it make sense that over the 2 million years of our development as a species we might not have developed a diet suited precisely to our metabolic needs? At what point did we get confused? Could it have been that 10,000 years ago the, demographically inspired, move to agriculture, with the shift to grain as a staple nutritional base, might have been a bad move?

The supermarkets are packed to the ceiling with food products claiming to be “low fat”, “low in cholesterol”, “high in fibre” and various other catch-phrases that we’ve all come to associate with good health. It is logical to assume that these ubiquitous products make up a large part of the diet of those who do their shopping there. So why does nobody look very healthy or fit? Why is obesity and diabetes constantly on the rise globally? I don’t think it flies in the face of logic to suggest that they might have got it wrong.


We’ve come to accept weight gain as a natural, though unwanted, fact of life. Like we’re hard-wired to not be able to adequately metabolize fat, and constantly have to ignore our misleading, malfunctioning appetites in order to not be larger than we need to be. When faced with the obvious failure of their theory, public health institutions are quick to blame the character weaknesses of the victims: our sofa-ridden laziness and inability to control our urges to stuff ourselves. Like for goodness sake eat less and go run a marathon!

This brings us to one of the most damaging concepts of diet and nutrition: the idea that we should exert more than we consume in order to stay slim. It’s even hard-wired into many exercise machines and sport-counter-gadgets. You count the calories you burn and that means as long as you eat less calories than that, you’re ok, right?


We’re not machines. We’re organisms. Though we have an immensely sophisticated energy system that stores fuel (fat: triglycerides) in out-of-the-way places all over our body (mostly in our adipose tissue, just under the skin), that system relies on good quality food being consumed, digested, and then shunted around and assisted by hormones and other metabolic processes until it first becomes the molecule that our fat cells can store, and then the one that we burn most effectively for fuel. If we consume the wrong thing, no matter how many or how few calories it contains, the system is screwed.

A Question:

Can anyone think of a real person in history before say 1900 that was known to be fat? Other than those that might be famous precisely for that reason? No. And why not? Maybe it’s because weight management started to become a problem only since the introduction of easy and cheap ways of refining grains and sugar. Bit of a giveaway you would think, right?

Even then, the problem was offset because it was immediately fairly obvious, especially to those in the medical profession, that this easy, empty fuel was bound to cause a metabolic nightmare, and that the increasing instances of obesity and diabetes were a direct result of these foods. The famous Banting diet that recommended the eradication of carbohydrate, and reliance on mainly animal fats was widely recommended by physicians to combat weight gain towards the end of the 19th century in Europe.

In the early part of the 20th century, a massive amount of valuable research was done in the field of diet and nutrition, mostly in Europe and led by German scientists - the world of science was largely centered at this point in Germany and the Lingua Franca of science German. Unfortunately, the first and second world wars got in the way, cutting short the funding for these projects that were never restarted. The post-war research projects on diet that did receive funding were mostly a result of the concern in the USA on the perceived epidemic of obesity and heart-disease. Anti-German sentiment contributed to the fact that all of the European research was completely overlooked. The new tests were quickly linked to the newly fashionable demon of cholesterol because.... they had an easy test that could measure it!

Whether you want to believe in a corporate conspiracy or not, the extremely dubious science that led to the “food pyramid”, which the American Heart Association and other health authorities fully endorsed from the 1970s onwards, was undoubtedly the result of pet hypotheses of blinkered epidemiologists being snapped up in the absence of more forcefully presented theories. That we are now bequeathed with an ingrained love of carbohydrate, along with a fear of cholesterol and saturated fat, is a legacy of misinformation that will take many generations to shake off.

  1. The inability to burn stored fat is a malfunction caused by poor nutrition. There’s nothing wrong with the design of the human body. Our inability to metabolize fat is a direct result of the prevalence of more easily metabolized fuel - sugar - in the blood, which is a direct result of the dependence on carbohydrate as a basis of diet.
  2. We eat because we grow. We don’t grow because we eat. A child doesn’t grow more because he/she eats more. The urge to eat is a healthy mechanism that comes from a body that is demanding nutrition to fuel it’s growing bones, tissues and organs, or to fuel our energy expenditure. It only goes wrong if we damage the mechanism by eating food that shortcuts the natural process.
  3. For 2 million years of our evolution as a species we survived as hunter-gatherers, meaning our diets were mostly wild meat, vegetables and fruit.
  4. 10,000 years ago, the move to settled communities living on agricultural produce, and our introduction to eating grain, brought with it a massive deterioration in health, stature (height), and longevity. The subsequent history has been a saga of recurring outbreaks of famine and plague, partly due to problems caused by density of population, but definitely supported by the "filler" nature of our food. The reason that obesity did not become a problem much earlier is definitely due to the limitations of resources, and also because the grain was still largely unrefined.
  5. Though different communities have adapted to different locations with differing diets based on availability of resources, the fact remains that it’s always a relatively recent introduction, and that the hunter-gatherer diet is at our biological core, and the one to which all recent adaptations have been made.
  6. Of the 3 macronutrients - protein, fat and carbohydrate - only carbohydrate is non-essential to sustaining human life.
  7. The fact that the body was designed to store mainly fat, not carbohydrate, is a bit of a give-away.
  8. Cancer cells need blood sugar to grow.
  9. The introduction of a Western diet (sugar and refined grain) to isolated communities that had continued to live on their traditional diets was always accompanied within 10 years by the introduction of the Diseases of Civlisation (obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, appendicitis etc).
  10. The assumption that cholesterol is a key factor in heart disease is a fallacy, and a result of gross oversimplification by health authorities in love with their “fuzzy” science. The real culprits are the lipoproteins that carry cholesterol and triglycerides around the bloodstream, and the most harmful ones, identified as contributing to heart disease, are caused by dietary sugar, not fat.
  11. A spoonful of sugar gives such a high-density dose of glucose and fructose to the body that nothing in a traditional diet even comes close. The glucose puts a massive strain on the pancreas which has to produce the hormone insulin to combat the huge spikes in blood sugar which accompany the consumption of sugar. The fructose goes straight to the liver and triggers the production of the aforementioned harmful lipoproteins. You would need to eat 12 apples to get the same sugar dose as a single teaspoon of refined sugar.
  12.  The oils typically recommended for consumption (like soya, sunflower seed, grapeseed etc) are omega 6 oils. Our bodies are not optimized to process these long-chain triglycerides in such quantities and we need a greater ratio of short-chain triglycerides, like butter (animal fat) or omega 3 fats (coconut oil, palm kernel oil), in the diet before we can metabolize small quantities of omega 6 efficiently. The fat closest to the fat in our adipose tissue, and that which our body burns most efficiently is......animal fat. Doh!
  13. The bottom line: Would we have evolved this amazing body over 2 million years eating a diet that wasn’t suited to us? Would some goofball in a white suit come up with an effective revision of that diet 2 million years later?

What is happening to the average person's body is that the quality food we eat is not getting through to the places that need it. Because of our reliance on carbohydrate, the body has a constant and excessive supply of blood sugar, which is the easiest for it to process, and which it will always choose first. To deal with the blood sugar, our pancreas produces insulin which moves it to places that will store it - the liver and muscles will store a small amount of it as glycogen for energy, the rest is stored as fuel for later, and becomes fat in our adipose tissue. As long as there is sugar in our blood, our body will not be able to access the fat stores and break them down to triglycerides which it can use for energy. Insulin, which is created in response to blood sugar, will also block the metabolization of fat, and additionally will create a physical demand for more sugar - why we get hungry.

So you can see that there is the potential - depending on the health of your pancreas and your insulin response - to create a situation where the body constantly stores fat, but never gets to use it. In many individuals this over-reliance on the insulin response creates an insensitivity to insulin over time, with the body having to produce ever more to combat the blood sugar, and the net result is that the individual is only storing fuel, and literally starving while they grow ever bigger. This is known as the Metabolic Syndrome, and is basically a pre-diabetic condition.

For more information, once again I refer you to the website Real Meal Revolution, the brain child of sports science guru Tim Noakes and his team. Here you will begin to find explanations and arguments for a diet designed to put your body in the state optimum to metabolize fat efficiently. You will also find a list of what constitutes good food and what to avoid, as well as links to the book once it becomes available internationally. If you feel compelled to further understand the science of diet, I recommend the books Good Calories, Bad Calories, and Why We Get Fat, by the aforementioned amazing Gary Taubes.

For me the journey continues. I need no more proof that the diet works. My 56-year-old body is in way better condition than I can remember it being before. My energy levels are constant and excellent, my immune system is in great shape, I have the lowest body fat percentage that I’ve had for my entire adult life, and I feel great.

What I’m still experimenting, and reading up on, is how it relates to sport. How to best fuel the body before, during, and after training and competition to maximize performance and training effect. How to get our digestive systems in on the act when the food that’s best for us is not so easily consumed. The next post will deal with these issues. Watch this space!

In the meantime, if anyone has any questions or additional information relating to the stuff I talk about here, please include it in the comments below so that others can benefit from the further insights.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Low Carb High Fat Nutrition #1 - The One-Eyed Man is King

I don't think it's that I'm particularly perceptive with positive trends in the world around me, it usually takes a while for my sensors to pick up the winds of change. I think I'm just lucky to be surrounded by some intelligent, inquisitive people. By now though, I've uncovered so much muck on the deceptions in the fields of health and sport that some might get the impression I'm constantly digging around for conspiracies. The reality is that I'm becoming more and more aware that we shouldn't expect that anyone is looking out for our well-being; we have to take that responsibility on board ourselves and READ!

Though I've long been aware of the extremely limited value of carbohydrates in a healthy diet, about 3 months ago I decided to test out the theory as championed by an increasing number of highly respected thinkers in my field of interest - endurance sports, and see what living on a low-carb, high-fat diet was all about. After this little time I already know I've found something significant.

In the process I have been made aware that if we follow popular opinion and public health recommendations we are really never likely to understand anything about nutrition for the rest of our lives, and we'll be fighting unnecessarily against health problems caused purely by the improper fueling of our bodies. I mean this is so WRONG!

For this first article though, I will concentrate on my primary agenda when investigating the science of nutrition, which was to become a more effective athlete. The wider issues I will deal with later.


In the traditional understanding of our energy systems, we have 2 sources of fuel that we can use for movement, and which we can store in our bodies: fat and glucose. The fat is stored in our adipose tissue to an (almost) unlimited degree, and a small amount of glucose is stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver. At lower intensities of activity it is generally assumed that our bodies will run on the fat-burning energy system, metabolizing fatty acids out of our adipose tissue and into the blood stream to the working cells, and that as the intensity increases, more of the glycogen in the muscles is needed.

Well that's the "conventional wisdom". In reality our bodies will use blood sugar (glucose) in preference over anything else. Easy fuel. In the modern super-refined world, most of us have little chance of ever metabolizing most of the fat we're constantly storing as we're perpetually switching between surges of sugar and insulin, the hormone which regulates our blood sugar and which massively inhibits fat metabolism: our body's ability to use it's stored fat. It's an either-or situation. As long as your blood carries sugar your fat remains in storage.

Fat is extremely dense in energy and so even a lean person has enough stores for several marathons, whereas even a trained athlete with maximized glycogen storage capabilities can only keep going at a top sustainable pace for a maximum of around 2 hours. Though we can top-up the glycogen in our muscles on the go with sugar (glucose) - the idea behind sports drinks and gels - we can’t fully replenish the stores until we stop and recover, so we will have to compromise on the pace if we want to keep going.

Endurance athletes learn to manage both pace and glycogen replacement in order to maximize performance. We become obsessed with loading our bodies with carbs before events to maximize glycogen stores. This has always seemed a kind of sad testament to the efficacy of the human body, this incredible machine that we’ve inherited, so I was always a bit suspicious that this wasn’t somehow embracing the whole picture adequately.

What if you could train your body to metabolize fat more efficiently so that you would rely much less on that tiny store of glycogen? I had often heard this concept discussed but it never really seemed to tie in with the “conventional wisdom”. Recently I’d heard of some athletes who are doing this with considerable success. The final straw was when I heard that Tim Noakes, author of The Lore of Running, and one of the most respected and meticulously well-researched sports scientists on the planet, had started championing a high-fat, low-carb diet. This is a man who had devoted an entire chapter in his aforementioned meisterwerk to the value of carbohydrates. I looked into his current activities and found he was part of a group of scientists and dietitians represented on the website Real Meal Revolution where they have created a diet plan they call the Banting Diet. I read the mission statements, watched the videos, listened to the arguments and quickly realised that these guys were onto something that had changed their lives.


If you vastly reduce the amount of carbohydrates you consume - the Banting recommendation is no more than 5% of daily consumption - your body adapts to run in a state of Ketosis. In the absence of sugar, and consequently insulin, your fat metabolism is at it’s most efficient, and those functions that are used to running on sugar (the brain most importantly) will run on ketones which are produced in the liver. This state is apparently the natural state our hunter-gatherer bodies functioned in for the past 2 million years, until we invented agriculture and started eating grain, so it’s not like we need a lot of training! In the absence of carbohydrates of course, you will need to consume more of your daily calorific needs from protein and fat, and it’s here that the science starts to get really interesting.

My scientific reference point is Gary Taubes’ amazing book Good Calories Bad Calories. Taubes is a scientific investigative journalist who has spent 5 years amassing an incredible body of knowledge for this book, collected from research done in every field of science relating to diet and disease. Most of this research in the separate fields has been done with a jaw-dropping apparent disregard for each other’s work, and consequently little valuable cross-referencing.

In this book Taubes exposes some shocking evidence of bogus science that has led to the stunning levels of misinformation of public health institutions, that have consequently increased the incidence of diabetes and most of the other Diseases of Civlisation to epidemic proportions. I will devote plenty more writing about this aspect of his research in future posts, but for now I want to concentrate on the relevance to athletic performance, which is how I came to it.

The fundamental message of the book is that it is carbohydrate, and our body’s production of insulin that is at the root of all of these diseases, and at a most basic level, has severely compromised our ability to metabolize fat for fuel. The other side of the misinformation dilemma is that the widely-accepted fear of cholesterol, and consequently saturated fat, is the result not only of bogus research, but of a massive over-simplification of the understanding of the role of cholesterol in our bodies, and how this relates to heart-disease. The fats that are good for us are precisely the ones that have been demonized for most of the past 50 years. Suffice to say that I now eat a lot of bacon, eggs and butter, but without the bread. I will elaborate later.


This is very much a work in progress. The plan was to cut out all grain and sugar from the diet and see if I could train my body to run, at every intensity level, on fat. My diet wouldn't really include much more protein than it did, but it would be far higher in good fats (saturated, short-chain fatty acids, and monounstaturates), and contain no more than 5% carbohydrate, none of which comes from grain or anything refined. After 3 months I can say with emphatic assurance that it works.

The missing link is still what, and how much I need to consume immediately before, during and after exercise in order to keep functioning optimally. The available information is patchy and often contradictory. There is plenty of literature about high-fat low-carb nutrition, but relatively little real testing done on how it relates to athletic performance, and what adaptations are needed.. Carbs are just easy because they digest so fast, but fat, and especially protein, doesn't. So this will be a major study on my part of how my body responds.

The first week is tough. My first few rides or runs were pretty pathetic, but even if you discount the reduction in athletic performance, the cravings for fast and easy fuel take a few days to die down. Obviously I kept everything at an easy pace, and relatively short duration, and fueled myself during workouts on water only.

After a couple of weeks I started to be able to push the pace or duration a little. About a month in I could actually do some quite hard but short sessions, but what I was more pleased with was that I could go for much longer at a moderate-to-high pace. Sub threshold. By this time, most carbohydrate looked like cardboard to me - just not proper food.

After a little more than a month on the diet I did a ride of 600km in 4 days, and though I allowed myself a reasonable amount of carbs during the rides themselves, I didn’t feel I needed as much as before, didn't use any carbs in recovery, and didn’t seem to have any limit to my stamina. I also didn’t feel I lacked speed or strength.

Over the past few weeks I have pushed the envelope in various ways. I have done 3 back-to-back days of hard effort consuming only water, where the last day was actually the best; I have done plenty of rides of up to 4-5 hours with a short stop for tea and boiled eggs; and I have done rides of up to 7 hours where I took just a minimum amount of carbohydrate when I felt I needed it.

By this time a few other changes are noticeable.

  1. I have lost a significant amount of weight. I am 182cm, and now weigh around 72kg, whereas even racing Ironman 10+ years ago I could never get below 75-76kg
  2. Though I am thinner than I’ve been for most of my adult life, I don’t look gaunt or feel malnourished in any way.
  3. I don’t get hungry like I used to. I now recognize those feelings as a craving. In fact I have to make a point of eating so that I don’t lose muscle mass.
  4. My skin and hair are definitely looking more healthy. In fact my hair colour has got noticeably darker.
  5. I have more energy than ever before. I wake up energized, and even after a long tough day will still have the energy to go for an evening run.
  6. Interestingly I had previously thought that I had, over the years, developed a mild lactose intolerance, but since being carb-free I have no reaction at all and can freely indulge again. Also my tolerance for toxins like strong coffee has become much greater since starting the diet.

The point is, that I feel better than I have ever felt. I can keep cycling for hours without any diminishing of strength. I get very hungry at times, but it is never accompanied by that feeling of running out of fuel. Just hunger.

There’s still a long way to go in this study process. I still have to answer many questions on muscle recovery, glycogen use and replacement, what’s best to eat during training/races etc. I still feel I’m nowhere near my new-found potential. I haven’t even got into the full swing of training again yet, but I will continue to make notes and talk about it here.

You can also expect some furious tirades on the public health institutions that refuse to review or update their bogus scientific data in articles to come.

And being 5 kilos lighter, I’m much faster up the hills :)

Much more to this space!