Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Low-Carb Epiphany

On August 21, 2011, Sunday morning, I was checking my email and saw a newsletter from Dr. Macrola. I rarely read his newsletters but something got my attention. Something about calories that count or don’t count. I clicked at the newsletter and read an interview with Gary Taubes, author of the books “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why We Get Fat and What to Do about it”.

He basically said is that calories that come from carbohydrates are bad, they make you fat, while calories that come from fat are good, they help you burn your fat.

Now, this is something that always puzzled me. Despite my scientific training, I was always skeptical of the “Calories In, Calories Out” idea that says: If you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. If you eat less calories that you burn, you will lose weight. It is all about calorie balance. If you want to lose weight, you need to eat less and exercise more, to tip this balance. If you cut your calories by 500 a day, you will lose a pound a week. If you switch from a can of regular pop (100 calories) to diet pop, you will lose 11 lbs in a year, assuming that everything else stays the same.

I always found this last statement ridiculous. “Assuming that everything else stays the same,” but how can it stay the same? For one thing, drinking diet pop makes me hungry so I eat my 100 calories (and much more) from something else. Our bodies are not machines! They are much more complicated than that. Clearly, the body tries to preserve its weight. If that was not the case, as Gary Taubes says, if you ate just 30 calories more a day (that’s only a bite) then in 10 years you would gain 31 pounds, but clearly this is not happening.

Tim Noakes, in his book “Lore of Running” (3rd edition, not 4th, for some reason this part has been removed) discusses exactly this topic and mentions actual cases of people eating 5000 calories a day and not gaining weight and people eating 1000 calories and gaining weight. I have been through some periods in my life where I was eating more than 4000 calories a day and I was not gaining weight, so something more complicating is happening and a calorie balance is not obvious. I was thinking that maybe my body was not extracting all the caloric content of the foods I ate.

What was new to me was the idea that calories from carbs will make you fat. Up to this point, I thought that food is food, and, even though I did not buy the caloric balance theory of gaining weight, I did not have any explanation for why some people gain weight and others do not, even if they are eating and exercising in a similar way.

So here was my epiphany: I am struggling with my weight because I am eating too many carbs!!!

My whole life flashed before my eyes. How in Greece I was eating loads of fat and was slim. How in the USA, replacing fat for sugar I gained weight. How in Arizona I lost 5 lbs despite eating lots of fat. How I crave fat after very long runs. How I have tried to cut fat to lose weight and ended up going crazy. How I carbo load before every race and almost every day.

I thought about what I was eating, and I was definitely eating too many carbs! In general, I am not a big pasta or bread eater. But I ate bread, cereal, cookies (lots of sweet foods), pizza, potatoes, and fruits. LOTS of FRUITS! On an average day I would eat 3 bananas, two apples, an orange and maybe other fruits. My wife goes grocery shopping on Saturday and by Wednesday we are out of fruit and she is not eating any. Many times she said to me “how much fruit are you eating?” not believing in her eyes that all the fruit was gone! I ate fruits as a snack between meals, as a desert after a meal, when I was thirsty, or when I had nothing better to do. Go to the kitchen, grab an apple. That’s the story of my life. Everyone says that fruit is good, so no problem. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” so I would eat 3 apples for extra insurance. Even Weight Watchers dropped the points for fruits so people can eat fruit without any guilt or worries “We know that it is not eating fruit that brought you here.” Yeah, sure….

I read reviews in Amazon, ordered Taubes’ book “Why We Get Fat and What to Do about it”, and, while waiting for the book to arrive, I went low-carb cold turkey.

I stopped eating the following: Sugar (in all forms and in all foods that contain sugar, except for an occasional fruit), bread, pasta, rice, potatoes. I would eat: Eggs, meat/fish, lots of vegetables/salad with olive oil, nuts, dairy (lots of cheese, some yogurt). I did this without reading or counting anything. My estimate is that I cut my carbs from 300-600 grams a day to under 50g.   So for breakfast I would eat eggs (no bread) with some cheese and green vegetables. For lunch a large salad with meat or fish, and same for dinner. For snacks I would eat nuts or cheese.

A number of interesting things happened the first two weeks:

1. My appetite was gone. I would eat breakfast at 8 am and then I would have to force myself to eat lunch, because I was not hungry! Now, that’s unheard of. Usually, I would be hungry two hours after breakfast, but this was not happening now.

2. In two weeks I lost 10 lbs. I went from 171 lbs to 161 lbs. Of course, I had no illusions. This rapid weight loss is due to water loss (see discussion in next blog). But it was water that I did not need, so I was happy to get rid of it. And I lost two inches size in the waist.

3. I had more energy, did not need a nap midday any more, and was very happy and cheerful. I would sleep soundly through the night.

There were also a couple of weird transitional effects: I had a bit of indigestion, as if the fat was hard to digest. For a while I had too much energy/hyperactivity, moving around, talking a lot. I felt as if I was intoxicated. I would not stop talking, forgetting names or words not coming to my mouth, my mind was racing, I was happy. I believe that these effects can happen when the body enters a stage of ketosis. This happens when, in the absence of carbohydrates, the body converts fat to glucose (sugar.) As a result, ketones are produced and these can have the effects described here. This stage is not dangerous but it feels weird. In any case, I was out of it as soon as I increased my carbs a bit by eating more fruit.

All this time, I had one worry: How about running? It seems that 11 out of 10 runners believe that carbs are necessary to run. A low-carb diet seems to be incompatible with running, according to 99% of the information in the internet and the running literature. In the next blog I will describe how this low-carb nutrition affected my running the first two weeks.

1 comment:

ThreeDay said...

Welcome to low carb world and way of eating (WOE).

I greatly respect your desire to show that you can be a good athletic runner on a basic low carb living style.

I would especially like to find someone interested in development of foods and recipes for low carb backpacking. I am 70 years of age, and backpack. I am prediabetic and am worried that the carbohydrate energy staples (rice, potatoes, pasta ) so handy for backpacking energy aren't that good for me while backpacking. I'll be taking a glucose meter with me on my next backpacking or bicycle camping adventures to get more data on what is happening under those circumstances.

(I also am living pretty consistently with the book "The Low-Starch Diabetes Solution" by Rob Thompson MD. Except for the backpacking and bike trips, that is.)