CrossFit On a Low Carb Paleo Diet: Mat Lalonde Reporting
He everybody! Here is an interesting piece from Mat Lalonde. if y’all do not know, Mat and Bobbi are the new East Coast CrossFit Nutrition Certification Crew. They kick ass! I’m working on the back-end of the site (actually, Craig is!) to make it easy for Mat and Bobbi to add content and comment on things. We will have much more action on the site, Bobbi will have some great insights on how and when to use the Zone. It will be good!
Here is Mat’s Low Carb experiment:
CrossFit on a Low-Carb Paleo Diet
Every now and then, an excellent piece of scientific research comes along and forces many of us to reevaluate our positions or question what we thought we knew. This happened to me last May when a paper entitled “Antioxidants Prevent Health-Promoting Effects of Physical Exercise in Humans” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The following conclusion can be found in the abstract of the paper:
“Consistent with the concept of mitohormesis, exercise-induced oxidative stress ameliorates insulin resistance and causes an adaptive response promoting endogenous antioxidant defense capacity. Supplementation with antioxidants may preclude these health-promoting effects of exercise in humans”.
Essentially, the antioxidants are quenching the reactive oxygen species (ROS), which prevents oxidative damage and blunts the expression of ROS-sensitive transcriptional regulators of insulin sensitivity. This means that ingesting large quantities of antioxidants prevents you from improving your insulin sensitivity, which is a major benefit of exercise (another study on ROS and insulin sensitivity was published during the writing of this blog post).
I was somewhat taken aback to find out that a daily intake of 1.0 gram of vitamin C and 400 IU of vitamin E could negate the insulin sensitivity gained through exercise. I wasn’t taking any vitamin supplements at the time because of research indicating that multivitamins are essentially useless, maybe even harmful. Nevertheless, this whole thing really got me thinking about insulin sensitivity and brought back memories of this interesting post I had read on Arthur De Vany’s blog. The research discussed in the post demonstrates that insulin sensitivity is not improved when a PWO meal of carbohydrate is employed to replenish glycogen stores. Hmmm…that sounds a lot like the vitamin C/E paper doesn’t it? Some more research on the subject of post-workout carbs led me to this excellent post by Mark Sisson, which was followed by this equally interesting post. At this point, a lot research seemed to indicate that PWO carbohydrates were not necessary, maybe even detrimental, and that a PWO meal of protein, although desirable, was also not absolutely required. Within 24 hours, Glycogen stores should be sufficiently replenished for another workout thanks to gluconeogenesis (new creation of glucose) from dietary protein and lactate as long as the levels of dietary protein (for muscle repair and glucose synthesis) and fat (for fuel) are adequate. However, gluconeogenesis takes place in the liver and only a fraction of the glucose makes its way to the muscles. This means it would probably be wise to consume some carbohydrate from vegetables to help replenish muscle glycogen. Vegetables are preferable given that they don’t contain the toxin fructose and they come packed with vitamins, antioxidants and a variety of phytochemicals.
After having read all this research, I was now determined more than ever to try CrossFit on a low-carb Paleo diet. Most people would tell you this is a bad idea. After all, it is well known that free fatty acids and glucose (from liver and muscle glycogen) feed your working muscles while you train. As it turns out, glucose is especially needed during high intensity exercise because it requires less oxygen to burn than free fatty acids. The increase in glucose as fuel makes sense because, let’s face it, we need all the oxygen we can get during “Fran”. So was I worried about CrossFitting on a low-carb paleo diet? Not really. Most CF WODs are short, and not all of them are heavily dependant on glycogen. Gluconeogenesis and carbohydrate from veggies should be sufficient to hold up my glycogen stores to a reasonable level once my body adapted to my new diet. Additionally, a potential increase in intramuscular triglycerides could help me through intense bouts of exercise in the event that my glycogen stores get too low.
The decision was made. I was going to follow the CrossFit main site WODs without any pre- or post-workout meal while on a diet that provided just a little over 50 grams of useable carbohydrate per day (mainly from vegetables). The research on fat adaptation mentioned in one of Robb’s posts told me this wasn’t going to be easy. I figured it would take at least two months to get used to my new diet since enzymes involved in gluconeogenesis and fat burning would have to be upregulated while enzymes for burning sugar would be downregulated. I wasn’t sure this was going to work but I knew the worst thing that would happen was that I wouldn’t set any new PRs for a while. I was pretty sure nothing bad would happen given that the explorers V. Stefansson and K. Andersen survived on a diet of meat and animal fat for one year and came out healthier for it.
Most of the protein I consumed during this experiment came from my Chestnut Farms CSA, which provides 20 pounds of meat from grass-fed or pastured animals every month. The shares include a variety of cuts of pork, lamb, beef, and chicken. I also buy the occasional goat meat and make sure to get the super nutritious organ meats (beef liver and heart) that Chestnut Farms sells on site. Given that the protein side of things was taken care of, I hit stores in my area to purchase a variety of high fat foods. I ended up with the following list:
- François Pralus 100% dark chocolate from Formaggio Kitchen
- Navitas Naturals raw cacao nibs from the Vitamin Shoppe
- Chopped chicken liver pâté, and lamb sausage from Savenor’s
- Shredded unsweetened coconut from Whole Foods
- Light coconut milk from Trader Joe’s
- Coconut oil (for cooking), from Whole Foods
- Nuts, with the exception of cashews (they are pretty starchy). Trader Joe’s sells packages of Fancy Raw Mixed Nuts that contain some cashews. I made an exception there because that mix is darn yummy and not too carby.
- Mayonnaise (homemade because commercial stuff is crap)
- Guacamole (from TJ’s)
I started the experiment on August 1st. I ate when I was hungry and drank when I was thirsty. I did not pay attention to portion sizes and I probably ate more then a diet such as ‘The Zone’ would have prescribed. The only supplements I consumed during the experiment are vitamin D3 (1000 IU/day) and Nordic Naturals omega-3 purified fish oil (3 tablespoons/day).
You can see what a week’s worth of eating looks like below. I occasionally eat some homemade sauerkraut for the probiotic boost but I didn’t have a batch ready during the week I’m using as an example. I do cook regularly, but I don’t plan meals. I end up with some rather interesting combinations of foods as a result.
Weekends are the only days where I have a little bit of down time. I try to maximize the amount of free time by eating one less meal. I eat a large breakfast that will last me for the entire day. I don’t weigh and measure (WAM) my food because I spend my days weighing chemicals and measuring their properties. WAMing food would turn something I enjoy, eating, into a chore. I realize that WAMing could have made this experiment a lot more legit but I wasn’t aiming for peer-reviewed research here folks.
9:00 am breakfast: Sliced deli turkey from Formaggio Kitchen, handful of cacao nibs, fish oil, and vitamin D3.
12:00pm lunch: lamb shoulder chop over a bed of mixed greens, red bell pepper, and guacamole.
3:00 pm WOD
7:00 pm dinner: Salmon Patties (TJ’s), broccoli and cauliflower, mixed nuts.
9:00 am breakfast: sliced deli turkey, chopped chicken liver pâté, fish oil, and vitamin D3.
12:00 am lunch: Wild boar loin with cacao and chili powder rub, celery with homemade mayonnaise.
3:00 pm WOD
7:00 pm dinner: Chicken leg and wing, handful of goji berries, light coconut milk.
9:00 am breakfast: sliced deli turkey, piece of François Pralus chocolate, fish oil, and vitamin D3.
12:00 pm lunch: beef brisket over mixed greens, cucumber, and walnuts
3:00 pm WOD
6:00 pm dinner: shrimp with coconut milk, and a yellow bell pepper
9:00 am breakfast: sliced deli turkey, unsweetened shredded coconut, fish oil, and vitamin D3
12:00 am lunch: chicken breast with cauliflower and broccoli, guacamole
3:00 pm Rest: foam rolling, stretching, PNF, trigger point (I’d rather do triple ‘Fran’ but this stuff helps)
6:30 pm dinner: catfish with a hint of dill and lemon juice, celery, and macadamia nuts
9:00 am breakfast: sliced deli turkey, chopped chicken liver pâté, fish oil, and vitamin D3
12:00 am lunch: beef patties topped with guacamole and a slice of bacon, mixed greens
3:00 pm WOD
6:30 pm dinner: langostinos, baked okra, almonds
8:00 am breakfast: 3 eggs with about 1 pound of lamb sausage, fish oil, and vitamin D3
8:00 pm dinner: one fish patty with a yellow bell pepper and a cucumber.
8:00 am breakfast: 3 eggs, 1 pound of varied sausages from Formaggio Kitchen (they have a bunch on display and I just ask for one of each), fish oil, and vitamin D3.
8:00 pm dinner: Cinghiale (wild boar salami from Formaggio Kitchen) and celery dipped in chopped chicken liver pâté.
I felt a little sluggish for the first two weeks and CrossFit metcons really kicked my butt. It seemed like I had to work twice as hard only to come up a few seconds, sometimes a few minutes, short of a PR. However, my energy levels returned between the second and third week of low-car paleo eating. At this point I felt no energy slump in the afternoon (a problem I had previously) and I was having much less of a problem matching my PRs on CF metcons. Most important were the noticeable increases in strength and loss of body fat around the abdomen. Aside from the low-carb dealio and the exercise, it is very likely that the fish oil supplementation and the medium chain triglycerides from the coconut products were responsible for improving insulin sensitivity, which led to a loss of body fat and an increase in muscle mass. Six weeks into the experiment, I started setting new PRs on weighted metcons that had bested me many times before. My strength gains were phenomenal. At the time if the Eastern Canadian Qualifiers on May 2nd and 3rd of 2009, I weighed 168.5 pounds and had a 405 lbs back squat, a 430 lbs deadlift, a 185 lbs press, and a 300 lbs front squat. After 8 weeks of eating a low-carb paleo diet and following the main site WODs, I weighed 175 pounds and looked leaner (I could see all my abs). Most important was the fact that I now had a back squat of 415 lbs, a deadlift of 465 lbs, a shoulder press of 200 lbs, and a front squat of 330 lbs. (Note From Robb here: Mat suffered a moderate-severe flexion injury of the lumbar spine which he rehabbed during this time. There was a period of months in which 135lbs on the BS was quite uncomfortable for him, so these improvements need to be viewed not only through the lens of absolute improvements, but also the fact he recovered from an injury) My strength was increasing by doing only CrossFit WODs on what was essentially a borderline ketogenic diet! I should note that I did not suffer from Steatorrhea at any point during the experiment.
So where to go from here? I’m going to keep this up because I know I’ll be healthier in the long run by consuming fewer carbohydrates. Does this mean that post workout carbohydrates are bad? Absolutely not! In a situation like the CrossFit games, with multiple workouts throughout the day, PWO carbs are essential. Replenishing glycogen stores takes approximately a day on a low carb diet whereas wolfing down some mashed sweet potatoes will get the job done in a few hours. In addition, the fact that fat slows down gastric emptying probably means you don’t want to be eating a whole lot of it during competition. Easily digestible protein and carbohydrates are still the way to go in a games setting. However, I think my experiment highlights the fact that PWO carbs are a powerful tool that should be used sparingly under the right conditions. Avoiding a carb load after a workout will allow you to hold on to the insulin sensitivity you gained from exercising. This is a huge boon, especially for clients who are trying to improve their body composition. Whether you are a CrossFit, weightlifting, endurance, or any other type of athlete, I don’t see why a high carb diet should be considered “necessary” to fuel your endeavors.