Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Part 1: Keto vs. LCHF, and My Experience

Last week we published an Endurance Planet podcast on the potential risks of very low carb (VLC) and ketogenic diets for endurance athletesThis was especially geared toward female endurance athletes, and even non-athletes for that matter.

Keto/VLC is defined as roughly 50 grams of carbs a day or fewer, on most days. Furthermore, it's a very high-fat diet, often 50-70 percent of calories coming from fat! That's a lot of fat. It's also not a low-calorie diet, which should be clear if you know a bit about macros: 1 gram of fat has 9 calories, whereas 1 gram of carb or protein has 4 calories... if you have 50-70 percent of calories from fat, and you're eating enough, that's going to be a lot of calories. That said, it's not always pounding a ton of calories because keto-adapted people can go long periods with less or no food because they're so efficient at burning fat for fuel. Often the keto folk do intermittent fasting. And other times they're taking down "fat bombs." Endurance athletes are finding more interest in this diet lately because you can be a mega fat-burning machine and go forever on very little fueling needs--efficiency like none other.

To read more on what keto even means and its role for athletes, check this out. You'll see, it's extreme diet with extreme considerations. It doesn't just cut you off from cookies and junk, it goes way deeper. As do potential risky side effects if not executed carefully.


Keto Does Not = A Moderate Low-Carb High-Fat Diet

I had some folks email me and thanking me for the podcast, which makes me happy. And in Part 2 I'm going to talk more about why I thought that podcast was needed, along with more that we'll be doing.

But first, I think some people might have mistaken that the potential risks/side effects of keto also apply to a more moderate low-carb high-fat diet. It's important to point out that keto and VLC is not synonymous with a moderate low-carb high-fat diet. The moderate approach is something one would generally take on to promote better fat oxidation (fat adaptation), metabolic efficiency, "cleaner" eating, and overall better health (i.e. avoiding refined carbs, refined sugars and junk). Moderate low-carb diets are much more flexible, "friendly" and doable in most lifestyles, and have many many benefits. And for the record, if you see me hashtag #LCHF, in my world I use this acronym for a moderate low-carb high fat diet, NOT keto or VLC. Maybe it should become MLCHF lol.

Tailored LCHF kick ass diets for health and sports performance, and I truly feel like most people should go this route instead of traditional high-carb fueling. I don't promote high-carb diets for males or females, nor even females needing better hormonal health. I won't say never, though, because I also believe our diet needs are unique to our situations and I can think of a few cases where I can see high-carb diets working really well. For me? High-carb/low-fat makes me batty, erratic, foggy, flat and sluggish, gut in shambles, and I feel like crap. On the flip side, I cannot sustain keto (at this point in my journey). I do well somewhere in between, moderate low-carb, high fat, adequate calories. I've learned through trial and error; scroll down for more of my story.

For females who who need to regain hormonal health, there may be a bit higher need for carbs--but you don't have to go off the deep end--while allowing tons of good fat and calories in general. In regaining hormonal health and a menstrual cycle, I allowed more carbs when my body craved them*, but I did not need to binge on tons of carbs in an unhealthy way--it was more about ensuring adequate and nourishing energy was present in my regular diet (including the fat that had been missing!), that stress remained low, and that body fat/body composition remained in a good spot. It's as simple as that. Ok, I know it's not that simple, but it also doesn't have to be overly complicated if you're dedicated to the cause as I was/am.

*If you are currently a carb-addicted human you will always be craving carbs all the time, so first you must break this addiction--it's a mental exercise. Sugar and carbs are a drug, and you have to break the addiction. There's also usually an emotional and psychological component at play here too. And, no, you are not that special exception, sorry. I know what it's like to crave refined and processed carbs/sugar, and I know what it's like to get off that cycle. So when I say above that my body craved carbs these cravings were genuine--my body was asking for things it needed to rebuild. You have to respect that. Likewise, I also crave fat now--fatty meats, avocados, butter--and always crave the greens and veggies and so on. 

More reading on sugar addiction.

And ya, I'll say it again: I love LCHF and I'm willing to align myself with a diet style at risk of being called out for joining a LCHF cult, or whatever. But I don't mind because I really truly believe this carb- and sugar-addicted world in which we live is making us obese, the root of so many diseases, killing us, and hurting athletes' performances and health. (It's not the dietary fat that's to blame). Managing carbs and sugar so that it doesn't spiral out of control and lead to bad outcomes just makes sense--and it doesn't doom you to a life without carbs either.

Should You Cut Back the Carbs, Add the Fat?

How do you know if you should give this moderate LCHF stuff a try? If you can't go more than 2-3 hours without food in general, if your energy is constantly fluctuating (when you're empty you're a jerk/b*tch), and if you can't do a workout without fuel--even a 60-minute session--this is bad. I'd suggest weaning of the carb and sugar dependence and introducing more healthy fats into your routine. End that vicious cycle, end the carb and sugar addiction/dependence, and you will go far as athlete and human. The carbs, while enjoyable, can wreak havoc in you.

"Thanks to generations of people over-consuming sugar and other refined carbohydrates, many people suffer from a condition known as carbohydrate intolerance, or (CI). This is perhaps the most well-hidden epidemic of our time... CI then progresses to a functional disorder producing symptoms that negatively affect quality of life, such as fatigue. Gradually, this process generates serious illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease." --Dr. Phil Maffetone

That said, if you find you are having trouble getting off the carbs and shit is going haywire in the process, a few things:

1) First I would make sure your carbs haven't dipped below 100g/day--i.e. don't start with extremes like keto. Even though I personally hate counting and calculating calories and macros, sometimes it is needed, and even I've done it to check in.

2) Ensure you're getting enough calories and fat. Too low calorie is a common mistake when making diet switches and eliminating things--if you eliminate foods, you gotta replace the calories with something else nourishing. It could be as simple as adding more cooking fat (oils) to your meals; an extra handful or raw nuts, some avocado, or sipping on bone broth daily. Or google "fat bomb recipes" and take a stab. Again, food logging can help.

3) If it's still a problem and say you're 100-200ish grams of carbs a day and still struggling for whatever reason then I would look at the bigger picture: Are there other underlying problems that need solving first? Are you severely addicted to sugar/carbs and it needs time to break the addiction? Are you "fit but unhealthy" i.e. maybe overtrained and burnout. Is your lifestyle so high-strung and stressful that you can't survive without carbs? Or could it be another issue ranging from adrenal fatigue to gut disorders, and so on. Not that you need to be LCHF forever, or else, but a healthy person should be able to handle a moderate LCHF diet without it crashing their world.

We as humans simply don't need to be carbed up to survive and quite frankly it's really healthy to develop "fat-burning" with LCHF-ness whether you're an athlete or not. Like Maffetone's Two-Week Test, a test to see how you handle moderate LCHF (not keto) can be telling. It's good to be able to slip into LCHF with ease, and slip out if you feel like it. This concept is also closely related to what my friend Peter Defty is doing with OFM.


How I'm Dialing It In

As much as I now love LCHF, at first it was my enemy. LCHF did not work for me until I stepped back and fixed my health first--it was too much stress at the time. I also made the mistake of starting out too low carb, and too restrictive too often. In fact I remember blaming LCHF saying, "It ruined me."

But really, LCHF in itself was not the only problem. I was.

First off, I was likely doing something closer to keto and possibly too low-cal while 70.3 & Ironman training, so that did me no good. Yup, I made the mistake of mixing up keto and LCHF and it was mainly because I didn't carefully monitor what I was doing. Meanwhile, I was too deep into being "fit but unhealthy" at the time, overtrained, gut wrecked, and in need of lifestyle changes. I needed to get my training and stress under control. I needed rest. I needed nourishment of all kinds.

I still actually did achieve and maintain a level of fat-adaptation though. The fat-adaptedness was clear in my training, a few races, and even a metabolic efficiency test. But that didn't even matter at the time because my hormonal status and overall health needed mending if I wanted that fat-adaptation thing to do me any real good.

On my road to regaining health and recovering, I was able to still keep a healthy lowered carb/high fat/Paleo-ish approach as a general theme, and did so because I know at the end of the day this is a healthy way to live and thrive (and also knowing that high-carb diet hadn't done me any good either). But I also did not define how I ate by a specific diet and became open to anything that would charge my body back up. So I tweaked my approach to carbs, allowing more but not going off the deep end. I also got comfortable with eating a lot more dietary fat that had been missing for so long, and overall dug into more calories too--which really wasn't scary for me if you can believe it. It wasn't scary because when I put my mind to something--in this case the goal of regaining health--nothing can stop me. Overall, this combo/approach was when I found my sweet spot. It wasn't just carbs for female health.

But it's so important to underscore that I had bigger fish to fry than just a diet protocol. I had to create an environment--mind and body--that allowed for hormonal balance, a regular menstrual cycle, among other things. This made me reevaluate my training, racing and how I executed my days. Diligently making the necessary lifestyle changes was the ticket to start moving up the ladder toward optimization.

When it synced up finally--a healthy thriving body, good mindset, my macro's working for me not against me--man did that feel awesome!

And that's also when I could start playing around with LCHF how it's supposed to be--slip into lower carb times for fat-burning endurance sport purposes, and then cycle in the higher carb times for refueling, female health, and whatnot. Again, not to the extremes of keto but rather building a diet that would promote health, performance, and relief from gut woes--another benefit of LCHF.


Intuitive LCHF

My ticket to maintaining health and LCHF these days entails intuitive eating and living (so MAF!). I know "intuitive" is hard to define, but for me being intuitive means some days that are quite frankly very low carb/high fat, and that feels fine and I'm not depriving myself whatsoever. Then there are other days where I eat as many carbs as I want because my body says so: including but not limited to sourdough bread, sweet potatoes, gluten-free crackers/stuff, honey, oatmeal, rice, kabocha squash, healthy cereals, bars when on the go, even quality sweet treats (yes, I like to bake things like banana bread, healthy-ish cookies; yes, I love chocolate). And then days that are somewhere in between. It fluctuates with the training/adventures I'm doing, life demands and also my female cycle.

I've learned to really deeply listen to what my body's asking for, and answer its wishes. As such I don't find myself mindlessly snacking or chowing down at all hours of the day. Ya, maybe sometimes I eat beyond satiation when I cook a good meal, but that's because I also love food. And if you're good at balance and/or 80-20 you can be flexible.

But there's a catch:

Intuition only works when you don't overrule it with your brain by doing something other than what your body is asking for. 

...That said, there have been times when I've overruled my intuition--because I still get stubborn--and that's when I get in trouble. This usually happens when I let my old tendencies get the best of me--overly stressful kinda stuff--and there are times when I get this crazy idea that I can go even lower carb and keep it going even with more training added on... As such, my body may look great and I may even feel revved up (sympathetic state overload), but it's not healthy for me. I think that's what happened this last time--I was doing things that didn't align with what my body needed to thrive. So I stepped in and fixed it--fast. I'm totally back on track. Dodged a bullet. Learned more lessons. I think now I have even a better feeling of when my body is teetering on the fine line of wanting to "shut down" and go haywire vs. when it's wanting to thrive. It is literally is a feeling, and when I am thriving I just feel strong and sturdy like I can take on the world; when I'm about to shut down I feel weak, fragile, and emotional.


Ok let me tie this up.

I'd try not to lump keto and LCHF into one. They're not synonymous. There are many reasons why I'd recommend avoiding and/or being very cautious with keto (like the podcast covers) but LCHF tweaked to your needs can be a secret weapon. If you're trying and having trouble getting off the high-carb life there's a reason. Get to the bottom of it. We need to be in control of what we're eating instead of it controlling us. Climb that ladder of optimization.


  1. Welcome back to the DARK SIDE!

  2. Reminded me of a very good John Kiefer presentation on women athletes and sensible fuelling / LCFH stuff

  3. Reminded me of a very good John Kiefer presentation on women athletes and sensible fuelling / LCFH stuff

  4. This is interesting....I guess everyone really is different. I'm a female who eats a vey high-carb low-fat vegan diet...the exact opposite of you. I've done so for years. Yet, I can go hours and hours without eating and I can easily do intense 2-hour sessions being completely fasted. I don't need much fuel on long runs. My body fat is always below 15% and even lower when I'm in training mode. Never had any GI issues and healthy carbs make me feel amazing! But I find this HFLC stuff fascinating because it shows that people thrive in varied ways