I used to do bodybuilding, posing on stage in the equivalent of my mom’s very small underwear. I ate copious amounts of food. I used to suck down protein shakes all day and eat tuna fish out of the can. Those were my two primary meals, and that was how I got introduced to the 70 percent-plus protein-based, very lowfat, very low-carb diet. I did put on a lot of muscle but didn’t understand the risks.
All this got me interested in studying nutrition. I earned a master’s degree at the University of Idaho in biochemistry, biomechanics and exercise physiology. But my real interest was making my biceps bigger. Then as if that were not unhealthy enough, I got into the Iron Man triathlon, which I did for a decade. Iron Man is one of those sports of attrition; as in baseball, if you don’t fuel right, you get tired out and go to the dugout and grab some sunflower seeds. In these sports, you need to figure out the fueling required for intense exercise or you won’t last long.
Before going to high-protein, I swallowed hook, line and sinker what I read in Runner’s World and what a lot of my coaches were telling me. The dogma is carb depletion followed by a 55-70 percent carbohydrate-based diet including carb loading a week or two before the race.
Carb depletion and loading is a process that bodybuilders use to build the appearance of muscle. The reason they first deplete carbs is to lose the water beneath the skin and consequently lose every glycogen molecule in the muscle cells, because the glycogen process requires water. This makes the muscles more definite and hard looking. After you deplete your carbs, your muscles will look flat and then it is time to load. This means you have to eat carbs to replenish your glycogen stores in your muscles and make them fuller and tighter, but now with less water under the skin.
So, for example, if you have a race on a Saturday, the previous week you first totally restrict carbohydrates for a couple of days and then you go carbaholic for about six days, gradually getting up to 90 percent carb intake before the race.
This process does actually work, but there are side effects, including gut problems, hormonal depletion and many other issues.
After bodybuilding I got into running. Over time I began to use more of the ancestral nutrition principles and, contrary to predictions, I did not get slower. I actually got faster, better and healthier. Now, I do obstacle course racing professionally, which basically means I do races where at the end I jump over a fire that’s made to look a lot larger in pictures than it actually is. It’s actually a very tiny fire but it looks cool with all the smoke and flames.
Like the triathlon, these races are grueling. I did one recently that was seventy-two hours long and one that was a thirty-two-mile race. The sport is an interesting mix of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. You burn a high amount of fat to maintain your aerobic status for a certain period of time but then that’s mixed with some really high glycolytic efforts where you’re delving into an intense amount of carbohydrate utilization. You can’t just do high-fat ketosis, you need both carbs and fats.
Imagine the meal at the Iron Man pre-race banquet. It is a cattle feed of Gatorade, pasta and huge white bread rolls and everything else that endurance athletes are taught to eat. You arrive and get four Gatorade bottles and mounds and mounds of pasta. That’s the way that I fueled my body for years, and that is how the majority of Iron Man marathoners eat.
Bikers do it differently. They use electrical tape to attach a bunch of gels to their top tube or have others ways of carrying gels when riding. These gels are based on fructose and maltodextrin (see sidebar p.16). The ingredient list looks awful, but there is kind of a science behind these blends and they work. Gatorade Sports Science Institute is one of the leading researchers on how athletes oxidize fuels during exercise. They have found that a blend of fructose and maltodextrin will oxidize at a higher rate than an isolated sugar. These gels are engineered for high performance.
Initially, when I was using gels I would use four per hour or about forty over the course of the day—that’s forty packets of sugar and caffeine—along with some extra energy bars and Coca-Cola! That’s what goes on in the endurance sporting world.
After a race I would have to take Valium to go to sleep at night. After all that sugar and caffeine I suffered from gut rot—basically leaky gut—and inflammation. I would need to take a couple of pills to get me to turn off. These gels work temporarily like a drug while in the race but afterwards it’s horrible. A lot of people think you just collapse in bed asleep after doing an event like this, but not if you follow the conventional fueling advice. You’re like a rat on cocaine.
I also did a lot of whey protein isolate mixed with carbohydrates—again, that’s the general recommendation. There is a carb-to-protein ratio recommended for athletes to hit that magical twenty-minute post-workout window. It’s a three-to-one or four-to-one carbohydrate-to-protein ratio within about twenty minutes after workout. Lots of whey protein isolate mixed with some form of sugar after a workout is considered the gold standard in sports nutrition and I did that for a long time.
And remember that this is for every run, and not just post-workout fueling. There’s during-workout fueling at a certain rate per hour and even a pre-workout fueling—because, so the argument goes, in the race you will have to be able to digest those gels so you might as well teach your body to do it on every single run. In my garage I had a whole plastic crate full of fueling belts that would hold tons of gels and flasks. I would go out for runs and training sessions and have all this stuff on board just in case—because you’ve got to keep dumping fuel into the body.
And then there are the staple “recovery” foods that athletes are taught to eat. One is nut butters. Nut butters are huge in the athletic population, and no one seems to know about rancid vegetable oils. The go-to post-workout fueling for me was half a jar of Jiffy peanut butter to get enough calories.
Then there is bread, and along with that the big bakery cases at the quintessential coffee shop stop on the long cycling rides. This is all quite prevalent in the athletic culture.
Along with the coffee shop stops, there is trail mix. I would eat lots of trail mix. I used to stop at a gas station or convenience store on my bike rides and grab as many bags of trail mix as I could throw into my jersey pocket. These are loaded with sweeteners and vegetable oils.
Chocolate milk is actually being marketed now as the perfect recovery drink because of the three-to-one or four-to-one carbohydrate-to-protein ratio! My triathlon team used to train at Giant Stadium in New York at the same training center as one of the richest National Football League teams. What did they have for “healthy” foods at their training table? Gatorade, Gatorade post-workout bars, Gatorade pre-workout gels, Gatorade during-workout gels, and also lots of chocolate milk since it is considered the most natural recovery beverage.
And then there are energy bars—there are lots of issues with these. Ensure is also popular. Some of the best Iron Man triathletes consume Ensure during the race and training sessions. They drink three to five bottles a day of “doctor-recommended” Ensure, along with Red Bull. These are the two main items these athletes drink out of cans. And these athletes are fast—never mind the joint pain and connective tissue degradation that are bound to follow. Iron Man champion Chris McCormack once told me that drinking copious amounts of Red Bull and Ensure were his training secret.
The science of this fueling philosophy is based on the assumption that the human body is able to oxidize only a small amount of fat—storage fat, adipose fats, ketones, medium-chain triglycerides, fats from other sources—as energy during exercise, so most of the energy needs to be provided by carbs. A couple of years ago I participated in a study at the University of Connecticut which looked at a group of athletes who followed a high-fat diet for twelve months, including myself, and compared us with a group of athletes who followed the conventional diet that I have just described. For the study, I ate a diet with 80-90 percent of calories as fat.
In addition to assessing performance, the researchers looked at the microbiome, cholesterol levels and markers for inflammation. Most importantly they measured fat and carbohydrate oxidation rates; they looked at the rate of glycogen depletion and the amount of glycogen left over as stored carbohydrate available after the workout. Storage glycogen is what allows you to lift heavier weights, or gives you a surge during cycling or enables you to jump over the fire at the end of the Spartan race.
The results were really interesting, especially with regards to fat oxidation. The prevailing view is that the human body can oxidize a maximum of 1.0 gram of fat per minute. What they found in the group of fat-adapted athletes, however, was an average fat oxidation rate of 1.7 grams of fat per minute while still maintaining the body’s muscle glycogen levels. In other words, the higher-fat ancestral diet allows the body to oxidize fats to such an extent that you can thumb your nose at a lot of these recommendations of gels, sports bars and energy drinks. But it takes some time to reach that state of fat adaptation. Many of the studies that looked at fats versus carbs for athletes only looked at athletes who had followed a high-fat diet for a short time—three days to a couple of weeks.
The main point is that a lot of the studies used to market sports gels are actually based on the flawed hypothesis that the human body is only able to oxidize one gram of fat per minute, and therefore we must keep carbohydrates coming down the hatch. The human body only stores about 1500-2000 calories as glycogen, and if it were true that it can only burn one gram of fat per minute, then it has to rely on carbohydrates.
Be aware though that an extreme fat diet can cause hormone problems. Over time, I have been able to achieve a high level of performance with few fluctuations in blood sugar by eating a diet that is 50-70 percent fat. With a level of fat higher than that, my T3 levels dropped really low because I didn’t have enough glucose for T4-to-T3 conversion. I started to get some joint degradation and frequent injuries, probably because I didn’t have a lot of the glycol proteins for the proteoglycans an athlete needs for repair and recovery.
Worse, my testosterone levels went down. There have been two periods in my life when I’ve lost my libido and my testosterone levels dropped. Ironically, one time was when I was a bodybuilder and looked like what some consider the ultimate sex object. But it also dropped really low when I was following a very high-fat diet with few carbs, because you need a certain amount of carbohydrates for adequate metabolism and adequate activity of the testosterone-producing leydig cells and the testes.
HEALTH VERSUS PERFORMANCE
Fructose and maltodextrin, Ensure energy drinks and Red Bull can make you go fast, but there are other approaches that can help you go just as fast while also maintaining your health. Unfortunately, the information isn’t known in the sports world, largely because of the enormous influence wielded by the corporations. Furthermore, athletes are not looking at the long-term consequences of their diet; they are only asking, “Does this make me go fast?”
In the long run, you can expect to see joint pain, inflammation and diabetes. Also, bodybuilders age early. If you have been to a health and fitness show where there are bodybuilders and fitness people, they look awesome from fifty feet away, but not when you get closer. Typically their faces are wrinkled, inflamed and red. The skin on their arms looks like the skin of an elderly person. This is caused by connective tissue degradation.
In the short run you see things like small intestine bacterial overgrowth, candida, yeast and fungus. I see a lot of gut issues in these athletes, even in young athletes. Fructose is a readily fermentable carbohydrate—it ferments very quickly. Maltodextrin, on the other hand, is a long-chain carbohydrate; it takes a little while to get broken down. It needs and attracts a lot of water into the gut; the result is the diarrhea, gas and bloating that you athletes sometimes get two to three hours into a marathon or bike ride. The mix of complex long-chain carbohydrates with a simple carbohydrate like fructose is a recipe for an awkward and uncomfortable disaster.
I’ve walked around the lab at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. What were they looking at? They were watching a bunch of athletes running on treadmills. The researchers stand at the back of the treadmill and wait to catch them when they fall off. They’re not asking about their digestive health. All they want to know is, “How fast did you run?”
Copious amounts of caffeine is also problematic. The typical gel product contains 80-120 mg of caffeine per serving and athletes are taking three or four of these per hour. Caffeine can help shut down pain during exercise. Lots of caffeine actually works, but the downside is adrenal fatigue. Large amounts of caffeine is a constant attack on the adrenals. However, I discovered that one of the fastest ways to strip excess fat off the body is to exercise fasting and aerobically with caffeine in the system. The weight just melts away. Fortunately, you don’t need much caffeine to make that happen.
So what should athletes eat during workouts and races? Heavy and non-portable foods won’t do. We can’t shove aluminum-wrapped sweet potatoes into our pockets for a run or a bike ride; we can’t take a giant chunk of grilled liver that’s been drenched in eggs and flour on a run with us. Also, when you are exercising heavily, you just can’t digest complex foods like ribeye steaks or huge salads. Instead, you blend, you juice, you take liquids, you mash your carbs. You’ll need easy-to-digest proteins such as raw milk, colostrum, eggs, and even fish. Easy-to-digest fats include coconut butter, coconut oil, coconut milk and medium-chain triglycerides.
Should athletes consume liquids or solids while training? Research has shown that for non-jarring sports—cycling, weight-lifting or swimming—solid food is fine before a workout. But for jarring or bouncing sports like running, liquids and smoothies are better.
Real Food Portables by Biju Thomas and Allen Lin has good ideas for portable food that’s not too heavy. There are recipes for things like savory rice cakes sprinkled with bacon and eggs and wrapped like sushi rice. These are used on the Tour de France and similar races.
Where do I get my carbs? My wife makes traditional sourdough bread using non-GMO red wheat berries. A 30-40 percent carbohydrate intake with a higher amount of carbohydrate intake in the evening works well for me, and for me it is usually sourdough bread. I also like a sweet potato mash.
Another source of carbs for me is red wine. I often consume a glass of red wine before—not with—my evening meal. The wine helps replenish liver glycogen because muscles actually lack the enzyme necessary to take fructose and store it as glycogen. Things like alcohol and fruit are best eaten when your liver is in a slightly glycogen-depleted state post-workout.
Usually every morning I start with a giant smoothie. I take copious amounts of plant matter, normally coconut oil and seeds and nuts and blend until smooth.
Lunch is often a big salad with sardines or some form of fat, eggs, seeds or nuts, dressed with olive oil, coconut oil or avocado oil. I also eat a lot of shirataki noodles, which are made with Japanese yam.
For recovery, I consume anti-inflammatory juices made with carrot, turmeric, ginger and lemon, sometimes with added olive oil, a spoonful of amino acids and sea salt.
Coconut milk parfait is a great food for athletes. I’ll mix full-fat coconut milk with chocolate flavoring, sometimes I add spirulina or chlorella and some chia seeds. Usually my pre-workout meal is whatever coconut parfait is in the freezer. It’s full of medium-chain triglycerides and a little bit of protein from nuts or seeds.
Avocados are another good workout food. In many cases I’ll chop an avocado in half, sprinkle it with olive oil and sea salt, and eat it with a spoon. This works well for a lot of athletes. You can also mix avocado with vanilla, cinnamon and a little coconut milk. After heavy training, this offers a chocolate-pudding feel without all the metabolic damage from sugar.
As for the energy gels that athletes use during races, there are a lot of good alternatives that are not based on fructose and maltodextrin. They are usually based on coconut butter or raw nut butter. However, you need liquid with these because they make your mouth really dry.
You can make your own gels from honey, almond butter, banana and lemon juice. The problem with these homemade gels is how to consume them without making a huge mess. You can put it into a ziplock bag but it’s hard to squeeze the ziplock bag into your mouth. So I usually stick with the more natural gels that can be purchased.
The key is to eat real food, most of which you have prepared yourself. For both performance and overall health, athletes need real fat, real carbohydrates real protein—all from real food.
“DOCTOR-RECOMMENDED” ENSURE INGREDIENTS
Water, Corn Maltodextrin, Sugar, Milk Protein Concentrate, Blend of Vegetable Oils (Canola, Corn), Soy Protein Isolate, Nonfat Milk. Less than 0.5% of: Magnesium Phosphate, Potassium Citrate, Natural & Artificial Flavor, Cellulose Gel, Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Calcium Phosphate, Choline Chloride, Ascorbic Acid, Sodium Citrate, Cellulose Gum, Potassium Chloride, Monoglycerides, Soy Lecithin, Carrageenan, Potassium Hydroxide, Liquid Sucralose, Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Sulfate, Acesulfame Potassium, dl-Alpha-Tocopheryl Acetate, Niacinamide, Manganese Sulfate, Calcium Pantothenate, Copper Sulfate, Thiamine Chloride Hydrochloride, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Vitamin A Palmitate, Riboflavin, Chromium Chloride, Folic Acid, Biotin, Sodium Molybdate, Potassium Iodide, Sodium Selenate, Phylloquinone, Vitamin D3, and Vitamin B12.
GU ENERGY GEL LABEL
“Get carbs in your system instantly with GU Energy Gel. Patented carbohydrate blend gives your body the essential
requirements it needs for long-lasting energy. Just open it, squeeze it and swallow. Goes down easy and goes to work
fast, so you don’t have to slow down.
• Contains maltodextrin, the best complex carbohydrate for delivering energy to working muscles
• High-quality, patented carbohydrate blend: 80% complex/20% simple
• Fructose builds energy level back up, maltodextrin is sent straight to the muscles, and both help maintain glucose levels over time
• Vital electrolytes keep blood chemistry in line and hydration levels stable
• Calcium promotes muscle performance
• Citrates (potassium citrate, sodium citrate and citric acid) help speed the conversion of carbs into energy molecules
and reduce performance-sapping acid build-up in muscles
• Branched chain amino acids (leucine, valine and isoleucine) act as another fuel source, aid in recovery and improve mental performance
• Histidine, an essential amino acid, acts alongside the citrates as a buffer to neutralize lactic acid build-up in muscles
• Antioxidant vitamins C and E defend muscles from assault by free radicals
• Anti-inflammatory chamomile and stomach-calming ginger
• Caffeine helps metabolize fat and provides an extra energy kick (select flavors)”
WATER AND ELECTROLYTES DURING TRAINING?
The theory behind drinks like Gatorade is that athletes need lots of electrolytes during training. Dr. Timothy Nokes, author of the book Water Logged, disagrees. He describes studies of military personnel doing gruelling forty-eight-hour marches. They found that plasma electrolyte levels in the absence of electrolyte intake stay just as high in these people as in those taking in copious amounts of salt capsules, salt sticks, Gatorade and other sources of electrolytes. Apparently the body stores large amounts of electrolytes, and it’s actually not necessary to consume a large amount of salts and electrolyte beverages during a workout to avoid cramping. Cramping is actually more often caused by things like soft tissue adhesions, by increases in sympathetic nervous system drive, or by long-term magnesium deficiencies. If you’re eating a healthy diet high in minerals, you will be getting decent amounts of magnesium and other electrolytes. I read Water Logged a couple of months before competing in my fifth Iron Man Hawaii triathlon and decided I would test his hypothesis. Before the race I used lots of sea salt, coconut water and food sources of magnesium. For the actual race, I didn’t take electrolyte capsules at all—no salt sticks, no salt capsules—and that’s considered to be suicide in a race like that. But it was fine. I didn’t cramp or have any issues whatsoever. I beleive Nokes is on to something when he insists that we need fewer electrolytes during exertion than we’ve been led to believe.
DAIRY FOODS: I have two Nigerian dwarf goats and I get raw camel milk shipped to my house. I’m a huge fan of raw milk and if an athlete has trouble with cow’s milk (as I do), I suggest goat or camel milk. I also take colostrum capsules. Studies show that colostrum can reduce gut permeability in the heat in exercising athletes. It’s also good for insulin-like growth factor and growth hormone production. So rather than drinking conventional chocolate milk or injecting growth hormone, you can use raw milk and some type of colostrum.
BUTTER OR GHEE: I prefer ghee because of a slight dairy sensitivity. Whichever you use, it is a very important
SOAKED SEEDS AND NUTS: In my pantry you’ll find mason jars full of nuts that have been soaked. Brazil nuts are a favorite for their zinc and the ability to help with hormone production. Sometimes I’ll dehydrate them in the food dehydrator. Another favorite is chia seeds. For big races now I make a chia seed slurry with sea salt, lemon juice and stevia or honey.
BERRIES: I don”t eat a lot of fruit, but when I do, I prefer lower-glycemic index and anti-oxidant rich fruits such as berries.
COCONUT: My primary fats for exercise are coconut oil or coconut-based fuels, rich in medium-chain triglycerides.
PEMMICAN: My kids go to school with pemmican in their lunch boxes. It’s another big staple in my diet, which I have found to be especially good for the long aerobic endurance efforts.nutrient-dense fat.
BONE BROTH is definitely a staple for joint health and daily electrolyte intake. I started using bone broth rather than water the last couple years in the Iron Man triathlon. It actually digests really well; it seems to stay really stable in both cold and hot conditions and it’s almost a perfect natural form of Gatorade.
ORGAN MEATS: I eat organ meats at least once a week. I’ve found that most of the thyroid and hormonal issues that can happen with excessive training just disappear once you start including a lot more of the snout-to-tail, the whole animal. If I’m in a really intensive training cycle and trying to avoid lots of those proteins that can be more difficult to digest I’ll take liver capsules. For the recovery aspects, one of my favorite snacks is bone marrow on sourdough toast. When my wife makes chicken broth in the crock pot, I eat all the bones. I literally chew all the knuckles off, I eat the entire vertebral column, everything.
SEA SALT: I consume a lot of sea salt. I used to go to bed at night after long days of training hearing my heart pounding in my ears, often that’s an early sign of adrenal fatigue and mineral deficiency or low aldosterone production in athletes. I started using copious amounts of sea salt and all that went away almost immediately. I found that if you keep your electrolyte stores topped off then in many cases you don’t need salt tabs or electrolytes when performing.
EGGS are the perfectly packaged protein, a really digestible alternative to whey protein isolate or casein or a lot of these proteins that are recommended to athletes. Eggs actually digest a lot better for me than steak or sausage on the night before a big workout or race.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2016.